Brad Stevens trying to escape loooong run of college coaches failing in NBA

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In 1987, the New York Knicks hired a hotshot college coach who had just led Providence to the Final Four. The new coach was smart, energetic and extremely promising.

In his first year, he led the Knicks to a 38-44 finish. Although that record wasn’t great, it sure beat the 24, 23 and 24 games New York won the three prior seasons .

In year two, he took the Knicks even higher. They went 52-30, their best record in 16 years.

But, despite his success, the coach wasn’t totally happy in the pros, and he left for the University of Kentucky. NBA commissioner David Stern even chided him after he left, implying the coach couldn’t handle the challenges of the Association.

“He’s leaving the stress of the pros and all the traveling for what really is an easier job,” Stern said. “In the end, who wouldn’t do that?’”

That coach was Rick Pitino – perhaps the most famous example of a college coach failing to successfully jump to the NBA, but also arguably the most recent example of a coach who did it well.

Since Pitino left the Knicks with a 90-74 record, 13 NCAA Division I coaches have been hired to become NBA head coaches. Just two of them have had a winning record with the NBA team that plucked them from the college ranks.

New Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whom Boston hired from Butler, will do his best not to follow in those footsteps. Here’s the history he’s trying to escape:

Mike Dunlap

Hired by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012 from St. John’s

Record: 21-61

Dunlap is a unique case, because he was a St. John’s assistant when the Bobcats hired him.

But the reasons he failed in his lone season were hardly unique for a former college coach. Associated Press:

Dunlap struggled at times with game management, transitioning from the college game to the NBA and handling professional athletes, often benching veteran players for weeks at a time after they’d irritated him in some way.

Reggie Theus

Hired by the Sacramento Kings in 2007 from New Mexico State

Record: 44-62

Strangely enough, Theus credited Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian, both whom will appear later on this list, for helping to get him the job. Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof sounded pretty excited on his own to get Theus despite his small-time accomplishments after his playing career ended. “He’s very well thought of and revered in Las Cruces,” Maloof said.

Ultimately, Theus clashed with the Maloofs – who exercised the type of oversight not often seen by college coaches – and was fired early in his second season.

“I was dead man walking before I even took the job,” Theus said. “I wish I had known that.”

Mike Montgomery

Hired by the Golden State Warriors in 2004 from Stanford

Record: 68-96

Montgomery was very mindful of the difference between the college and pro games when he was hired. Associated Press:

Coaching in the NBA has always been something Montgomery has considered as the next logical step. For several years now he has been talking to other coaches about the differences.

“Obviously there will be somewhat of a transition going from college to the NBA, but I’m prepared to meet those new demands and am confident in my abilities,” Montgomery said.

Perhaps, Montgomery overly compensated for those differences, though. Michael Deuser of Sporting News:

At Stanford, Montgomery built his program on tough defense and an offense based on tightly controlled half-court sets. Many of Monty’s point guards chafed under his direction, complaining that their creativity was squelched by a coach who called plays every time down the court. With Davis, Montgomery has behaved differently. He has given Davis free rein over the Warriors offense, allowing his All-Star to pass and shoot at his discretion. Somewhere along the line, Montgomery decided that the only way the Warriors could win was by letting Davis do his thing. In doing so, he has abandoned the discipline that made him a successful coach at the college level, and he has lost the respect of his players and control over his team in the process.

Mike Dunleavy Jr., in particular, has been vocal about the changes to the Warriors offense under Davis, telling reporters, “We can’t just go throw the ball out there and play street ball, and that’s what we rely on. You can’t just let your All-Stars, your best players, go one on one. As good as those guys are, the other guys are good, too. I’ve been trying to explain this to everybody since the first game of the season.”

Montgomery lasted just two seasons in the NBA before getting fired and retreating back to the Pac 10, where he took a job with Cal.

Lon Kruger

Hired by the Atlanta Hawks in 2000 from Illinois

Record: 69-122

The Hawks hired Kruger because they thought he could bring college sensibilities to the pro game. Unfortunately, they didn’t actually let him steer the ship like he could have in college. Michael Baldwin of The Oklahoman:

Kruger discovered one major difference between coaching in college and the NBA: He didn’t have the final say on personnel.

“It’s different, there’s no question about that,” Kruger said. “I was a little naive going into that situation. It was very much a learning experience, a very good experience other than the losing. The losing got old.”

Kruger had a couple losing seasons and was on his way to his third when Atlanta fired him.

Leonard Hamilton

Hired by the Washington Wizards in 2000 from Miami

Record: 19-63

Hamilton’s only pro season went so poorly, an assistant coach had to cover the standard postgame press conference following Washington’s final game, because Hamilton met with Michael Jordan immediately after the game about to end the coach’s tenure.

At least Hamilton looks back on the experience as a positive. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel:

Career mistake, right?

“It was a decision that I made that I don’t regret,” Hamilton said.”It was a great experience for me. Sometimes, change is necessary and can be a good thing. It opened up my eyes to a lot of things.”

Actually it opened up his bank account to a lot of money.

This is when I realized why my “career mistake” question was so silly.

Hamilton may have only coached one season in the NBA, but he collected the entirety of the 5-year, $10 million contract he signed with the Wizards.

The FSU coach smiled when he saw the light go on in my head and he knew that I’d finally figured out why going to the NBA was actually a great career move. It gave him financial security for the rest of his life and he was still able to come back and get a good college job at Florida State.

“Now,” Hamilton said, “you’ve got the picture.”

Tim Floyd

Hired by the Chicago Bulls in 1998 from Iowa State

Record: 49-190

Floyd: The coach so bad he made Michael Jordan retire. College coaches must gain respect from NBA players, and Floyd had a particularly difficult time doing that. Associated Press:

Jordan has made no secret of his unwillingness to play for the 44-year-old Floyd, who has no NBA coaching experience and compiled a 243-130 career record with five NCAA tournament appearances. He has been at Iowa State for four years and his team went 12-18 last season – his only losing season in 12 as a college coach.

In his most recent public comments, Jordan reiterated that he won’t play for any coach but Jackson, who left at the end of the season after the team won its sixth championship.

Jordan said he wouldn’t announce a decision on his future with the Bulls until after the NBA’s lockout ends.

He has ridiculed Floyd by calling him “Pink” – as in the rock group Pink Floyd. Dennis Rodman also has called the possible hiring of Floyd “a joke.”

Floyd tried to control how injured Bulls dressed on the bench (this was before the league-wide dress code), and he clashed with Ron Artest and Charles Oakley.

“Every day has been hell,” Floyd said during his fourth season. “It hasn’t been fun.”

He resigned on Christmas Eve of that year.

Rick Pitino

Hired by the Boston Celtics in 1997 from Kentucky

Record: 102-146

This is the coach whom Stevens will be constantly compared to, because Pitino also coached in Boston.

After leaving the Knicks for Kentucky, Pitino made his triumphant return to the NBA with great fanfare, a 10-year, $50 million contract and the best chance to land the No. 1 pick and choose Tim Duncan in the upcoming  NBA Draft.

But lottery luck wasn’t in Boston’s favor, and Pitino said he would have never accepted the Celtics’ opening if he knew they wouldn’t get Duncan. NBA jobs are tough when you can’t pick your own players like in college.

Pitino’s style also didn’t really fit in the NBA. Mike Wise of The New York Times:

Pitino’s recipe for success at every level — constant pressing and trapping on defense and end-to-end transition on offense — often collided with the nouveau defensive-minded N.B.A. While more and more coaches stressed taking away options and cutting off areas of the court — using reams of videotape to show their players how to better defend their opponents — the Celtics kept running and pressing.

Pitino lasted longer with the Celtics than he did the Knicks, but now at Louisville, Pitino isn’t getting a third NBA opportunity anytime soon.

John Calipari

Hired by the New Jersey Nets in 1996 from Massachusetts

Record: 72-112

Calipari was a familiar trope: the overbearing college coach who tried to remain overbearing in the NBA. Chris Broussard of ESPN:

From day one, Calipari’s talk of “changing the culture” rubbed members of the organization the wrong way. Sure, he was right (after all, the Nets had won just 30 games in each of the previous two seasons), but the holdovers, who had essentially run the place like a mom-and-pop operation, took offense at the way the savvy young hotshot pooh-poohed their way of doing things. He was also demanding to the point of absurdity, driving secretaries and underlings crazy.

“He would ask you to do something that can’t be done in three days and he’d want it done in three hours,” said one former member of the organization who was there for Calipari’s final season. “You’d tell him it can’t be done, and he was like, ‘Yeah, it [bleeping] can.'”

And, accustomed to being the kingpin on a college campus, Calipari would stick his head where it didn’t belong. He’d offer advice to those on the business side of the franchise, telling them a better way to do things. Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich can do that. But a 30-something pretty boy from the Atlantic 10?

His enemies within the organization began piling up.

Maybe Calipari could have overcome those issues if he had just drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996. Ian O’Connor of ESPN:

“John wanted to take Kobe Bryant in the [1996] draft,” John Nash, Calipari’s general manager at the time, said Thursday by phone. “And he got faked out.”

“Everybody knows I was talked out of that,” Calipari said of his desire to select Bryant

And Calipari had him. He had Kobe Bryant out of Lower Merion High School as much as he had John Wall last season and as much as he’ll have Michael Gilchrist next season.

Calipari worked out Bryant three times at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and three times came away mesmerized. “If you watched the workouts,” Calipari said, “you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he’s ridiculous.”

Or both. Nobody knew it at the time, but Bryant and his agent and sneaker benefactor were about to fool Calipari in a staggering way.

The night before the draft, Calipari and Nash had dinner with Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J. Kobe’s mother and father were thrilled that their son would be playing within commuting distance of their suburban Philly home.

Only Bryant wasn’t about to wait years for his liberation. He called Calipari after the coach’s lunch with Taub, and Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, called Nash. Prospect and agent declared they wanted no part of Jersey; Tellem even threatened that his client would play in Italy if the Nets ignored their wishes.

Nash met with a panicked Calipari and tried to calm the coach. The GM made some phone calls and figured out that the Lakers’ Jerry West had reached an agreement with Charlotte, holding the 13th pick, to trade Vlade Divac for Bryant; West was confident that Kobe would make it to No. 13 if the Nets passed at No. 8.

Sneaker maven Sonny Vaccaro would later admit he worked with his good friend, Tellem, to maneuver Bryant to a franchise that would maximize his marketing charms. But Nash thought the Nets should hold firm and call Bryant’s bluff.

“Kobe wasn’t going to play in Italy, and he had nowhere else to go,” Nash said. “But I firmly believe a call from [agent] David Falk, who was representing Kerry Kittles, made the difference.”

Nash said Falk leaned hard on Calipari to take his client. As coach and executive VP of basketball operations, Calipari had final say. About 90 minutes before the draft, he told his owners he would select Kittles at No. 8.

Nash lobbied his coach one last time. From his time running the Sixers, Nash had extensive connections in the Philly area, and he was hearing and seeing the same things West was hearing and seeing — Bryant might be a once-in-a-generation player.

“John, you’ve got a five-year deal,” Nash told Calipari. “If you miss on this kid, you’ll get a couple of more chances.”

Calipari wouldn’t take the risk of having his first draft blow up on him in his own building. He took Kittles

NBA players – with their armies of agents, advisers, “sneaker mavens,” etc. – come with different challenges than college players, but Calipari couldn’t understand that web at the time.

P.J. Carlesimo

Hired by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1994 from Seton Hall

Record: 137-109

Carlesimo is one of just two coaches on this list who had a winning record in an NBA job he took directly from coaching a college team, but he was still fired after just three seasons because he couldn’t get the Trail Blazers out of the first round of the playoffs.

At one point during his tenure, Carlesimo benched Rod Strickland for missing a flight, seemingly a reasonable punishment. But that just made their relationship worse, and Strickland demanded a trade. Typically, college players don’t (can’t) push back to discipline with that level of furor.

Immediately after firing Carlesimo, Trail Blazers president Bob Whitsitt said he wanted a coach with NBA experience.

Butch Beard

Hired by the New Jersey Nets in 1994 from Howard

Record: 60-104

Beard had been an NBA assistant for a while when he left the league to coach Howard, and he’d always had a reputation for being outspoken. But it’s doubtful his time at the relatively small-time school taught Beard how to defer in a players’ league. The Associated Press when the Nets fired Beard:

The outspoken Beard almost guaranteed his dismissal two weekends ago, criticizing his bosses and calling his team a bunch of “second-line players” who might never get better.

Jerry Tarkanian

Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1992 from UNLV

Record: 9-11

Oh, boy. This one ended nearly as quickly as it began, because Tarkanian just could not make the transition. Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of The New York Times:

A professional coaching career that began with the jitters and included bouts with chest pains, team dissension and unaccustomed underachievement came to an abrupt end yesterday afternoon when Jerry Tarkanian was dismissed as coach of the San Antonio Spurs hours before the team’s 21st game of the season, against Dallas at home.

The 62-year-old Tarkanian, hailed for his coaching achievements as Tark the Shark during 19 tumultous seasons at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, had seemed to be a fish out of water almost from the moment he joined the Spurs this year after his rancorous departure from the college ranks.

Tarkanian acknowledged preseason jitters at the prospect of making the often treacherous transition from college to the pros and had every reason to be concerned.

There were injuries to Willie Anderson and Terry Cummings, plus the defection of Rod Strickland to Portland, which left the Spurs without a first-rate point guard. Tarkanian was forced to resort to a makeshift lineup that included the use of rookie forward Lloyd Daniels in the backcourt.

By the end of November, the pressure on Tarkanian was so intense that he was hospitalized briefly while suffering from chest pains, and by early this month some of his players, in particular Dale Ellis, were in open rebellion, complaining publicly about Tarkanian’s tactics.

Tarkanian may have actually brought about his own dismissal with a letter he sent to [Spurs owner Red] McCombs on Monday urging the acquisition of a point guard and arguing that the team could simply not win without one. “All I wanted was a point guard,” he said.

What fantastic last words. “All I wanted was a point guard.” If only he could have recruited one.

Paul Westhead

Hired by the Denver Nuggets in 1990 from Loyola Marymount

Record: 44-120

Westhead successfully brought his high-scoring offense from Loyola to the Nuggets. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize his team would  also need to play defense to win in the NBA.

In Westhead’s first season, the Nuggets scored a league-best 119.9 points per game. But they still lost three quarters of their games, because they allowed a league-worst 130.8 points per game. That is incredible.

Larry Brown Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1988 from Kansas Record: 153-131

If Brown were a college coach when the Spurs hired him, it was in name only. He was a true professional coach. Before leading Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title, Brown had already won more games in the NBA and ABA than everyone else on this list combined entering their college-to-NBA job.

Stevens isn’t really like Brown in that sense. The new Celtics coach has absolutely no NBA experience.

Really, Stevens isn’t exactly like any coach on this list. He deserves a chance to blaze his own trail, an opportunity to rise or fall on his own merits.

But there are several lessons in these examples Stevens should heed so he won’t follow his NCAA-to-NBA predecessors lengthy track record of failing.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and Thunder’s Billy Donovan win Coach of Year from peers

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Thunder coach Billy Donovan
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The Bucks (high) and Thunder (low) entered the season on near-opposite ends of the pressure spectrum. Despite their radically different situations, both teams have experienced success this season for a common reason:

They were well-coached.

National Basketball Coaches Association release:

Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan are the 2020 recipients of the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced today.

The Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award recognizes the dedication, commitment and hard work of NBA Head Coaches and is presented annually to a Head Coach who helps guide his players to a higher level of performance on the court and shows outstanding service and dedication to the community off the court. It honors the spirit of Michael H. Goldberg, the esteemed long-time Executive Director of the NBCA, who set the standard for loyalty, integrity, love of the game, passionate representation and tireless promotion of NBA coaching. It is unique in that it is the only award voted upon by the winners’ peers, the Head Coaches of all 30 NBA teams. This year’s voting was based on games played from the start of the 2019-20 regular season through games played on March 11.

The depth of coaching excellence in the NBA is reflected in this year’s voting as 8 Head Coaches received votes. In addition to Budenholzer and Donovan, the following Coaches also received votes: Taylor Jenkins, Nate McMillan, Nick Nurse, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens and Frank Vogel.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was third in the race — and just one vote away from creating a three-way tie, sources said.

This is not the main Coach of the Year. That’s voted on by media and will be announced later. This in a new award created by coaches a few years ago.

Nurse remains favorite for the NBA’s recognized Coach of the Year. (He was our unanimous choice.) It’s surprising he didn’t win this award. But it’s also easy to see how fellow coaches would be reluctant to honor an up-and-comer who supplanted Dwane Casey, a coach beloved by his peers and who won this award while getting fired by the Raptors in 2018.

That shouldn’t take away from Budenholzer and Donovan, though. Both had strong seasons.

After turning the Bucks into an elite team last season – winning this award and the NBA’s official Coach of the Year – Budenholzer has Milwaukee looking even stronger this season. The Bucks’ defense is historically dominant, and their role players fit so well around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Donovan got dealt a tricky hand – an all-time great point guard in Chris Paul who’s past his peak but still in his prime and a point guard of the future in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Donovan made it work while squeezing in another point guard in Dennis Schroder. Donovan’s versatility remains an asset for Oklahoma City.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.