Portland more than snake bit, Spurs defense fuels offense and 2-0 series lead

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The Trail Blazers were snake bit from the start — almost literally. When the Trail Blazers got to the AT&T Center there was a rattlesnake in Thomas Robinson’s locker, causing some grown men to freak out.

It didn’t get a whole lot better when the game tipped off.

Oh, the Trail Blazers hung close for a quarter, but the Spurs scored 41 points in the second quarter — they did it pushing the ball in transition, they did it moving the ball to the open man, they did it knocking down threes.

It was a 19-point game at the half, and when the Spurs took their foot off the gas in the fourth and the Blazers cut the lead to 8, the Spurs responded with an 11-2 run and put it away quickly.

San Antonio went on to win comfortably 114-97. Seven Spurs were in double figures as it was a vintage Spurs team win.

The Spurs are now up 2-0 and in complete control of the series. Portland should make things more interesting heading back to Rip City for Game 3 Saturday night, but it’s nearly impossible to picture them winning 4-of-5 from the Spurs, which is the task before them now.

For the Spurs, it starts on the defensive end — and it’s really starting with Tiago Splitter. As he did with Dirk Nowitzki the series before, Splitter is making life difficult for LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers All-Star power forward finished with 16 points on 6-of-23 shooting, and you can thank Splitter for that.

Being able to single-cover Aldridge lets the Spurs defenders stay home on three-point shooters — the Blazers have gotten fewer good looks from beyond they arc then they want.

That defense from the Spurs leads to a lot of good looks for the Spurs in transition — by design they like to get Tony Parker the ball off a miss and let him push the ball up the court, break down the defense before it gets set and get a good look. That worked well. The Spurs had 17 fast break points in the first half, by the Blazers’ count the Spurs had 32 points in transition plus offensive rebounds — and that’s just the first half.

San Antonio went on an 18-2 run early in the second quarter and the game was basically over from there. The Spurs up were 70-51 at half, having shot 58 percent overall plus knocking down 7-of-10 from three.

For the game Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs with 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting (4-of-4 from three), but this was a team win not an individual one. A balanced win. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili each had 16 points (and both seemed to live in the paint again), Marco Belinelli had 13, Boris Diaw 12, Tim Duncan and Splitter each had 10.

The Blazers were led by Nicolas Batum, who had 21 points. Damian Lillard had 19 points but needed 20 shots to get it, plus he was just 1-of-6 from three. The Spurs are chasing him off the line.

Giver the Blazers credit, they would not just roll over. They made a fourth quarter run, they got some stops and with Splitter resting and Diaw on LaMarcus Aldridge. Quickly the lead was 9, then 8. Then…

Then the Spurs flipped the switch again, went on an 11-2 run and ended it.

The series shifts back to Portland and the fans there are going to be loud. Expect the Blazers to make shots. Expect there to be no snakes anywhere near the locker room.

Also expect that may well not be enough.

Luka Doncic had more points, rebounds and assists than Warriors in first quarter

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Luka Doncic keeps doing amazing things.

But he really outdid himself in opening quarter of the Mavericks win over the Warriors last night. The box score after the first quarter:

  • Points: Doncic 22, Warriors 16
  • Rebounds: Doncic 5, Warriors 4
  • Assists: Doncic 5, Warriors 4

Outscoring Golden State? OK. Getting more assists? OK. Doing both? That’s just incredible. Doncic was in total control offensively.

The 6-foot-7 wing out-rebounding the Warriors is especially astounding. Though I suppose if 6-foot Allen Iverson out-rebounded an entire team for a quarter, it’s not that crazy Doncic did, too.

To be fair, this achievement deserves a little context. Warriors who played in the first quarter:

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s sloppy first game shows promise

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s first game together is both sloppy and shows moments of real promise. This was what the Clippers had been waiting for since July, what they had paid a steep price to make a reality and change the course of a franchise.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared an NBA court for the first time and it was…

Sloppy.

A bit awkward, like a blind first date. Credit Boston’s active defense for some of that — it’s not a fluke Boston has the seventh-best defense in the league this season and forced 23 turnovers on the night — but through the muck there were moments of real promise. Like the first play of the game, when the Celtics trapped Leonard off an Ivica Zubac pick, Leonard fed Zubac, who quickly found Leonard for a three.

Moments later, when the Celtics trapped Leonard, and he found George for three.

For much of the game, things were not as smooth with those two on the court together — as should be expected. George missed the first 11 games of the season following double shoulder surgery this offseason. Once he returned, Leonard was out three games with a bruised knee. The pair had literally one practice together, and in the full-contact scrimmage to end that day they were on opposing sides.

This marriage going to take time. The Clippers didn’t even explore a Leonard/George pick-and-roll in this game, but you know that’s coming. As Doc Rivers put it postgame:

“We were kind of trying not to get in each other’s way at times, you could feel that…

“We need a lot of work, you can see that… part of that was we were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”

With the game on the line in overtime against one of the NBA’s better and hotter teams in Boston, two things that make the Clippers so dangerous were evident.

One is the defense — George and Leonard each made big defensive plays late, including Leonard blocking Marcus Smart’s attempt at a game-winner.

All game long the Clippers length and defense gave Boston — which came into the game with the league’s fourth-best offense — trouble.

Second is Leonard and George have a good team around them — Patrick Beverley was the best Clipper on the floor Wednesday night and the team gave him the game ball afterward. He was intense on defense (as always), had 14 points and 16 boards, and with the Celtics making the choice to trap and double on offense guys were open, and it was Beverley who made Boston pay with the overtime dagger to seal a 107-104 win.

The Clippers, for all their star power, look a lot like Beverley. This is a scrappy, hard-working team with guys who play their roles and bring intensity. Even their stars are that way — George and Leonard are not anointed No. 1 picks where everyone saw their stardom coming, they are lunch pail guys who had talent but came out of smaller colleges and had to work hard to get where they are. Nothing was handed to them, they had to grind it out.

This is why pairing Leonard and George was always going to take a little time to make work. They were always going to have to figure it out.

But when they do…. you can already see why the rest of the league should be worried.

2) Another night, another ridiculous Luka Doncic triple-double. This feels like a nightly thing, and I’m fast running out of ways to praise Luka Doncic, his play, and to remind everyone that he’s just 20 years old and in his second NBA season.

Age doesn’t matter, he’s been so good he’s injected himself into the way-too-early MVP conversation. His latest feat Friday night was a 35-point, 11 assists, 10 rebound triple-double against the hapless Warriors — this time he did it in just 25 minutes on the court.

Doncic scored more points in the first quarter than the Warriors (22-16) and also had more rebounds and assists than the Warriors team. The last guy to do that to any NBA team was Allen Iverson.

Doncic is now averaging a triple-double over his last 10 games: 31.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10.5 assists in that stretch. Here’s the list of other NBA players to average a 30+ point triple-double for 10 games or more: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson. That’s it.

Doncic is special, has willed the Mavericks to a 9-5 record, and has them looking like a playoff team in the West. Lifting up your team to the next level is what MVPs do, and so far in Dallas it’s what Doncic has done.

3) Do you believe in miracles… YES! Ben Simmons hits his first NBA three. That headline may overstate the excitement around Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons on Wednesday. But not by that much. Sixers fans — and coach Brett Brown — has had to wait three seasons, 193 games, and 18 attempts from three clank off the rim, if they hit anything at all. (Those numbers include his playoff stats.) It finally happened:

Ben Simmons has made his first NBA three.

We’ve all seen the videos of Simmons knocking down threes in an empty gym, but that’s the NBA equivalent of dunking on an 8-foot rim at the local elementary school. Not the same thing.

This was Simmons’ first attempt at a three all season — that’s the real concern. To create floor spacing Philly wants and needs, Simmons needs to be much more willing to uncork this shot — he’s got to take a bunch and make enough of them before teams respect him from deep.

This is at least a start. And it feels like a miracle.

There’s a mural in L.A. of Alex Caruso dunking over Harden, Leonard, Doncic

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It’s hard to overstate how popular Alex Caruso is in Los Angeles. Seriously. This isn’t just cult status popular, when he enters the game off the bench Staples Center explodes in cheers like LeBron James just fed Anthony Davis for an alley-oop.

Now Caruso has his own mural in Los Angeles.

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This is legit, it’s on the side of SportieLA, a clothing/apparel store on Melrose Ave. in the trendy heart of Los Angeles. Artist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has done murals in the past for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other Los Angeles sports icons such as Vin Scully.

This one plays off a huge Caruso dunk from earlier this month when Dallas’ Maxi Kleber was the victim.

It’s good to be Alex Caruso in Los Angeles right now.

Kawhi Leonard just destroyed Boston’s Daniel Theis on dunk

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Daniel Theis‘ play as a rim protector is one of the reasons Boston has a top-10 defense this season. He has anchored the Celtics’ defense in the paint.

Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, and if he wants to go to the rim nobody is stopping him. Theis found out the hard way.

After the game, Leonard was asked about the dunk and he responded in about the most Kawhi way possible.

This was the first game Leonard and Paul George played together and they combined for 42 points, and they both made key play down the stretch of a 107-104 overtime win.