The Extra Pass: Behind San Antonio’s hot start and Monday’s recaps

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At least in the standings, the San Antonio Spurs are as good as they’ve ever been.

By walloping the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, San Antonio tied their franchise best for a start to the season. The Spurs are 13-1 now and winners of 11 straight games.

What can you say? I ran out of adjectives to describe the Spurs about, oh, four years ago. They know who they are, and you know who they are.

If it’s possible, though, the Spurs have been almost more…Spurs-ish this season. Here’s a look at the numbers behind their hot start:

1. No Spurs player is averaging over 30 minutes a game right now.

I’m not sure if any team has done that over an entire season, but the Grizzlies came close in 2004, with only Pau Gasol averaging over 30 minutes a game. If you find a team that hasn’t had a single player average over 30 minutes a game, drop it in the comments and I’ll name you the Extra Pass commenter of the week or something equally free.

While you’d expect Parker to get over 30 minutes a game by season’s end, it’s still incredible that a 13-1 team is barely using their best players.

2. San Antonio’s net rating (offensive rating of points per 100 possessions minus defensive rating) is 13.9. The fourth best team in that category is the Houston Rockets. They have a net rating of 6.4.

Maybe we need to bust out some 1984 newspeak for the Spurs. They’re doubleplus good! San Antonio’s point differential is +12.1 on the season, and they’re the only team in double-digits in that category this year.

3. The Spurs lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Tim Duncan is having his worst rebounding year of his career so far.

The Spurs have been rolling with Duncan stuck in neutral. Duncan is shooting an uncharacteristic 38.9 percent, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging career lows in points per game, rebounds per game and free throw attempts per game. He’s been pretty bad, all things told, and it doesn’t matter.

Kawhi Leonard is quietly filling in the cracks for the Spurs. Duncan isn’t cleaning the defensive glass as well, so Leonard is rebounding at a career-high rate. Manu Ginobili’s scoring is down, so Leonard’s is up.

And he’s doing all of that while not saying a word or showing any ounce of emotion. Have you ever seen Kawhi Leonard’s teeth? You have not.

When the time comes for the Spurs to turn a new leaf, Leonard will be perfect as the new face of the franchise. Very clearly, though, that time isn’t upon us yet.

—D.J. Foster

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Celtics 96, Bobcats 86: This was an ugly game with some fairly sizable swings, and the Celtics managed to be the ones still standing when all was said and done. Each team held a lead of double digits at one point in this one, but Boston maintained control throughout the fourth to come away with the victory. Jordan Crawford had the big night for the Celtics, finishing with 21 points on 11 shots in 28 minutes of action. —Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Timberwolves 84: Minnesota continued its struggles on the road, while the Pacers kept on proving that they’re one of the league’s best teams. A strong start got Indiana out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, behind eight early points from Paul George. And then a 14-2 run to open the fourth helped Indiana pull away for its 13th win in 14 tries this season. The Pacers got big games from Paul George and George Hill who contributed 26 points apiece, while the Timberwolves shot just 29-of-89 from the field and 3-of-19 from three-point distance which ultimately doomed their chances. —BP

Pistons 113, Bucks 94: The Bucks are a complete disaster right now, and though injuries have played a part in their recent demise, the overall lack of talent on the roster is becoming painfully evident with each passing game. The Pistons have struggled themselves this season, and improved to just 6-8 with this victory. But they were able to get out to a lead of as many as 34 points against this terrible Milwaukee squad, behind 15 points and 13 assists from Brandon Jennings who was one of seven Detroit players that finished the game in double figures.—BP

Heat 107, Suns 92: Phoenix was playing its fifth straight game without Eric Bledsoe, who continues to be sidelined with a bruised shin injury. We’re not sure his presence would have mattered against the defending champs, considering LeBron James was able to pour in 35 points on just 14 shots and Dwyane Wade was similarly efficient with 21 points and 12 assists on 9-of-13 shooting. The foundation is being laid in Phoenix, however, as the effort put forth by the team along with its propensity to consistently pass up decent shots for better ones will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future.—BP

Rockets 93, Grizzlies 86: James Harden sat this one out with a sore left foot, and Marc Gasol is out for a while after suffering an MCL sprain. That meant a balanced attack from the players that were left, and it took a monster fourth quarter from Houston to come away with the victory. The Rockets outscored the Grizzlies by 15 points in the final period behind a 14-of-20 shooting effort. Omri Casspi had 11 in the fourth and Chandler Parsons had nine on 4-of-4 shooting to help Houston pull away over a Grizzlies team that fell to just 7-7 on the season.—BP

Nuggets 110, Mavericks 96: The Nuggets have swept a home against Dallas and have moved above .500 — they may be finding their groove under Brian Shaw. This was a close game for the first half then in the third quarter Ty Lawson put up 13 of his 19 on the night to pull the Nuggets ahead. Dallas made some runs in the fourth but Nate Robinson answered all of them on his way to 17 points. It was vintage Nate. Monta Ellis had 22 for Dallas and continued his run or strong play.—Kurt Helin

 Spurs 112, Pelicans 93: Imagine how good the Spurs are going to be when Tim Duncan gets going. Not to knock Duncan, his offense is off to a slow start (just 7 points in this one) but his defense seemed to bother Anthony Davis on the night and the New Orleans star to 3-of-8 shooting. The Spurs defense was on fire all night, holding the Pelicans to 38 percent shooting (and that bumped up from around 33 percent with a late little run). The Spurs did it with balance — seven players in double figures.—KH

Jazz 89, Bulls 83 (OT): This was Black Monday for the Bulls — in the morning they officially lose Derrick Rose for the season, at night they lose to the Jazz (who are now 2-14). Chicago is just struggling to create offense with Rose out (not surprisingly), Luol Deng had 24 and is the guy the Bulls went to late, but he is the only guy who can get shots consistently. Give Utah some credit too — Marvin Williams had 17, while rookie Trey Burke showed some real confidence on his way to 14 points (on 17 shots, but cut the kid some slack). —KH

Trail Blazers 102, Knicks 91: Face the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season with the struggling Knicks defense without Tyson Chandler and this was pretty predictable. Portland went on a 22-6 run that started midway through the first quarter to pull away, and the game was never really in doubt after that. Nicolas Batum had 23 points on 12 shots and along with Damian Lillard (23 points also) had his way with the Knicks defense. Carmelo Anthony had 34 points and 15 rebounds but he alone can only carry the Knicks so far.—KH

Kawhi Leonard arrives in Orlando, Nikola Jokic expected soon

Kawhi Leonard Orlando
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The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has arrived in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is not far behind him.

They are two of the biggest name players who were delayed arriving in Orlando, but for them the delays were short.

“Kawhi, he is here, he is going through the protocol,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Saturday, adding the two-time Finals MVP arrived Friday night and is in the midst of the two-day/two-test quarantine all players and staff went through. If things go smoothly, he should be practicing with the team by Monday. Leonard’s arrival was delayed for “personal reasons” (and Leonard doesn’t open up much about his personal life).

Jokic tested positive for the coronavirus back in his native Serbia, which delayed his arrival stateside (where there were more tests and quarantine time). Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Jokic should arrive soon.

That leaves the two Houston stars — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — as the biggest names not yet in Orlando. Both are expected to arrive in the coming days. The Rockets have resumed practice without him.

Doc Rivers challenges Sen. Josh Hawley to acknowledge Black Lives Matter

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Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley used the NBA’s list of social-justice messages players could put on their jerseys as an opportunity to grandstand. He wants more politics in the NBA — just his politics. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski got in trouble for his succinct response to Hawley (Woj reportedly has been suspended).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers had a longer response — and a challenge for Hawley.

“I mean, we have a senator that Tweets at Woj yesterday just because he was talking about what we were going to put on the back of our jersey,” Rivers said from the NBA Orlando restart on a conference call with reporters. “And they always try to turn it into the military or the police. There’s no league that does more for the military than the NBA.

“But how that about that Senator? I’ll make a challenge: We will do things for the troops as long as he acknowledges Black Lives Matter. I think that would be really cool for him to do.

“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message. Colin Kaepernick kneels, it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that, instead of trying to trick us or change or trick your constituents? How about being real?

“I guarantee you, we’ve done more for the military than probably that Senator. And I guarantee you this: We also are going to do things for Black Lives Matter. How about him? Maybe he should join into that.”

Well said, Doc. Well said.

NBA players and coaches will continue to speak out throughout the Orlando restart, and there will be steps toward action. In an election year, expect other politicians to try and use that as a cheap opportunity to grandstand.

Unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 has team execs concerned

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Doctors and scientists studying the coronavirus and COVID-19 are concluding this is not a respiratory disease, but a vascular one. That means the virus does not attach in the lungs and the airway, like the influenza virus; instead, this coronavirus attaches to blood vessels. This means any area of the body where there are smaller blood vessels — the heart, lungs, kidney, brain, and more — is at risk of long-term damage from mini-clots in those vessels (something found in autopsies of some COVID-19 victims).

The heart issues in particular — and everything we don’t know about a virus that is still only about 10 months old — has NBA team executives concerned about the long-term effects on players as they head to Orlando for the restart of the season.

Baxter Holmes of ESPN had fantastic insight on this subject, speaking to team officials for his story.

“There are unknown effects it has on lung capacity, unknown effects it has on cardiac health,” said one general manager of a team entering the NBA bubble, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What if a 24-year-old catches it in Orlando and, in 14 days, he quarantines and is fine, but then he has these everlasting heart problems? [Or he] gets winded so easily, or he becomes a little bit too susceptible to fatigue? … These are all the unknowns.”

The NBA and the NBPA were particularly focused on the heart and cardiac concerns based on studies that found exercise while ill by people who had even a mild form of COVID-19 increased the risk of heart issues. The NBA’s director of sports medicine John DiFiori put it this way (as general advice) in the ESPN story:

“If you don’t feel well, don’t try to push through this. This is not a situation where anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not, should try to push through or minimize symptoms or try to ignore symptoms and try to push through to try to continue to work or continue to play a sport.”

What that means for players is if they test positive in the Orlando bubble they will be put on a two-week quarantine without exercise or much activity. The challenge then becomes that once said player is cleared they will have lost some conditioning and need to work out to get in shape again — they cannot just step back onto an NBA court and play. The bottom line, if a player tests positive they may be out more than only two weeks.

Ultimately, doctors know little about the long-term impacts of the disease on the body because this strain is so young — even the first people in China who had COVID-19 and recovered did so fewer than nine months ago. There are concerns about impacts on the heart and lung — not to mention other areas of the body — and far more questions than answers.

Which is why the NBA and players union want to be cautious. And why team executives are concerned.

Gregg Popovich had reservations, sees bubble as safest place to be

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Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.

Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.

“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.

He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?”‘

The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference – only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.

“I honestly do believe – it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary – I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Gregg Popovich said.

LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.

Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers – the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs – took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “‘never crossed my mind.”

“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families … I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”

And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.

“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”

But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.

“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part … not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”

Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.

And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Gregg Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.

“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”