San Antonio is team best suited to challenge Miami coronation

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What none of us really want — outside of a few diehards in South Beach — is the NBA playoffs to be a leisurely stroll to a Heat coronation. We want Miami tested, pushed, challenged at the very least. We want them to prove they have earned it (if they can). That starts with Indiana (which will have a better showing in Game 4).

But the team best suited to challenge if not outright beat Miami comes from San Antonio — and is now team now awaiting the Heat in the Finals (if Miami finishes off the Pacers as expected).

That doesn’t mean the Spurs can beat the Heat four times out of seven. But more than any other team in the NBA they have the right tools for the job.

1) Experience. As much as we may root for underdogs like Memphis or even Golden State to make it to the Finals, the bright lights and big stage can overwhelm, or at least give pause, to teams not used to them. And any team coming out of the West has no margin for error like that against the Heat.

But the Spurs are not going to wilt in that setting — their core has three rings, they have been to this dance before. They have the best coach in the business. They have been good on the road. They will push Miami with everything they have.

2) The Spurs system can diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense. Mimi is long, athletic, they pressure the ball and to make you turn the ball over (then they turn that into fast transition points). It’s a kind of pressure you think you are ready for after studying it on film, but it’s something else entirely to face in person. It’s hard to get into your sets.

But teams can diffuse that pressure with good point guard play combined with ball movement and moving off the ball. And that is exactly what the Spurs do.

Parker is not going to become a turnover machine — he and the rest of the Spurs ball handlers can handle pressure. What’s more the Spurs system can exploit a team that overplays passing lanes and tries to force turnovers — backcuts and quick ball movement could lead to open shots if not layups. The ball will move to the open guy quickly, and go ask the Grizzlies if San Antonio can knock down threes. Maybe the most obvious example of team play frustrating the Heat defense like this is the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. This is a different Heat team in a lot of ways, but the same principles can be applied.

3) San Antonio has the size to hurt Miami inside. You need to score inside, you need to punish Miami for playing small if you are going to beat them. Tim Duncan, and to a lesser degree Tiago Splitter, can do this. San Antonio is not a low post team in the same way Indiana is, but they have real size and muscle inside and they can find some clever ways to exploit and take advantage of that.

There are still a lot of reasons Miami will be and should be favorites in the Finals (again, if they beat the Pacers).

For one, the questions about San Antonio have been how they would deal with a very athletic team — except they never had to face one to get to this point in the postseason. Oklahoma City was their matchup problem but the Russell Westbrook injury changed everything. Golden State was the most athletic team San Antonio faced, and they are average by NBA standards. Miami is wildly athletic and could just overwhelm the Spurs.

Second, this is a much better Heat team — one with a real sense of identity — than the one that won it all last year, or the one lost to the Mavs a couple years ago. This is a very good Heat team that can defend, moves the ball on offense, and it’s a team where the stars make smart basketball plays. They may just be better than the Spurs.

Finally, there is LeBron James. Having the best player on the planet in your uniform is a good thing.

But we want to see the Heat pushed. See LeBron tested. Make them really earn a ring if they can. And no team is better positioned to do that than San Antonio.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard directly told Gregg Popovich he wanted to leave Spurs

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Kawhi Leonard and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich met in San Diego yesterday.

How did the discussion go? Reports have been mixed about even the nature of the meeting, let alone a resolution from either side.

But here’s an update with a reportedly direct conclusion.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

From what my sources told me, Kawhi Leonard met with Gregg Popovich face-to-face, looked him dead in his face and told him “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in San Antonio any longer.”

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers, last week. There was some hope Popovich could mend the relationship, but that seems to running thin. There is so much bitterness between both sides.

The next question: What do the Spurs do about it?

Do they keep trying to ease tension with the 26-year-old superstar? Do they trade him? If so, when? Before or during the draft?

No matter what Leonard told Popovich yesterday, San Antonio has big decisions to make and soon. Leonard firmly stating a desire to leave would be clarifying, but it’d hardly make this situation easy to handle.

Brendan Haywood: Former Hornets teammates ‘sick and tired’ of Dwight Howard’s act

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It has become an annual tradition – Dwight Howard getting traded then his former teammates celebrating his exit.

It happened with the Hawks last year. Now, it’s happening with the Hornets, who sent Howard to the Nets.

Brendan Haywood, via Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Now retired, Haywood played with current Hornets Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist his final season. He also knows many other players throughout the league.

Howard went to Charlotte and declared himself team leader – despite the presence of Walker, the franchise player. Howard’s immaturity and ego have rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way for years.

But at least this is progress. Howard’s time with the Magic, Lakers and Rockets devolved into interpersonal strife well before he left those teams.

Rumor: Knicks will take Villanova’s Mikal Bridges at No. 9

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Most mock drafts have the Philadelphia 76ers taking Mikal Bridges at No. 10, keeping the Villanova star in Philly.

But what if he’s not on the board?

Marc Berman of the New York Post reports the Knicks are going to take Bridges at No. 9.

Sources have indicated Bridges still is the favorite to be the Knicks’ selection at nine Thursday — even if Michael Porter Jr. falls. The Knicks are starting to get cold feet on the uber-talented Porter after his latest mishap last week, when he incurred hip spasms before his on-again, off-again, on-again public workout in Chicago….

In the big picture, president Steve Mills and (new GM Scott) Perry need to land a central building block that will contribute next season to show Kristaps Porzingis, a restricted free agent in 2019, there’s a future, and also to entice a 2019 free agent. Point guard Kyrie Irving is squarely on the Knicks’ radar.

While Kentucky freshman forward Kevin Knox opened the Knicks’ eyes with a surprising workout and has gotten consideration late in the process, Bridges is the best bet. Perry said recently adding “a solid rotational player” at nine is as important as shooting for an All-Star.

It’s unlikely Porter is on the board at No. 9. The Cavaliers like him a lot and will take him if he falls to No. 8, the Bulls could grab his one spot earlier, and there are teams farther down the draft board looking to trade up and snag Porter.

Bridges projects to be just what Mills may want — a solid rotational player, and one who can step in soon and contribute.

But the Knicks need talent, and Knox out of Kentucky has the higher ceiling thanks to elite athleticism (he has climbed a lot of teams’ draft boards during workouts). He can play some three or be a small ball four, and if he shows consistency with his jumper, he has the athleticism to be part of a team’s core.

 

Knox may have the higher ceiling, but the Knicks need not to miss, and Bridges is that.

Ayton, Young, Porter and more: PBT’s in-depth draft prospect breakdowns

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In the days before the draft, there’s more smoke clouding the picture around the NBA draft than there is at a Snoop Dogg concert.

What you need to cut through all that is someone who knows these players, has seen them multiple times over the years, spoken to them, knows their game.

That’s where Rob Dauster comes in. The lead writer at NBC’s CollegeBasketballTalk, he has seen these players while they were in high school, spoken to them, followed their college careers — and he broke down their games for us at NBC. It’s what you need to know about the top guys in the draft.

Check these stories out:

DEANDRE AYTON

He has the size. He has the length. He has the athleticism, explosiveness, fluidity, and mobility. He can space the floor and, in theory, both protect the rim and handle his own if forced to guard on the perimeter. In theory, Ayton is the total package and an ideal five for the modern NBA.

Whether or not he will live up to his considerable potential is a different story.

MARVIN BAGLEY III

Offensively, he’s everything that you want from a small-ball five. He can dominate in the paint, he can space the floor and he is aggressive and productive on the glass. He was a walking double-double in college and it’s not hard to project him being the same in the NBA.

The problem is that he is not a five on the defensive end of the floor.

JAREN JACKSON JR.

He will fit seamlessly into the modern NBA given the combination of skills that he has while the other four players projected to go in the top five this year have more question marks….

He’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He shot 39.6 percent from three after shooting 43.8 percent from three on the EYBL circuit in 2016. He averaged 3.0 blocks despite playing just under 22 minutes a night as a freshman. He is as switchable as any big man in this class defensively because of his ability to move his feet. 

MO BAMBA

A 7-foot-0.5 center with a 7-foot-10 wingspan — which will be the longest in the NBA as soon as he steps onto an NBA court — Bamba’s ability as a game-changing defensive presence is at the core of what makes him such an appealing prospect. He finished with freshman season with a block rate of 13.2, averaging 4.9 blocks per 40 minutes and anchoring a Texas defense that finished the year ranked 12th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric…

There are questions about his strength and his toughness and his love for the game. Does he play because he’s addicted to the game, or is it simply because he was blessed with the physical gifts that will makes NBA teams salivate and invest millions and millions of dollars into him in the hopes that he pays dividends as the NBA’s preeminent defensive anchor?

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

He is a tantalizing talent that can do things athletically and as a shooter that 6-foot-11 people are not supposed to be able to do… He was good enough at Hoop Summit and on the all-star circuit that there were people that were projecting him as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft as recently as November.

But all of that changed in the course of the last seven months. It starts with the back injury… And that’s before you get into the questions about his position and his makeup.

Porter has a ceiling as high as anyone in this draft, but when the floor is as low as his is, it makes him a scary — and risky — player to take.

TRAE YOUNG

He became the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he did it as a player that doesn’t like to play defense on a team that couldn’t figure out how to win late in the year.

Is he the second-coming of Steph Curry?

Or is he Jimmer Fredette?