Gregg Popovich’s first starting-lineup adjustment of the playoffs changes Spurs’ fortunes

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The San Antonio Spurs have a clear starting-lineup philosophy.

Actually, they have two.

In the regular season, they rest and experiment. With top players frequently getting nights off, Gregg Popovich often tests new combinations. In the playoffs, San Antonio goes with what worked best during all that regular-season shuffling.

Entering their pivotal Game 5 matchup with the Thunder on Thursday, the Spurs’ dichotomy in number of starting lineups was strong:

  • Regular season: 30 (second most in the NBA behind only the Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Playoffs: 1

Thursday, Popovich made an expert adjustment – starting Matt Bonner for Tiago Splitter and then Boris Diaw for Bonner to begin the second half – to spark San Antonio’s offense in a 117-89 win.

Bonner and Diaw pulled Serge Ibaka from the paint, limiting Oklahoma City’s top interior defender and neutralizing the other Thunder who depend on Ibaka’s rim protection to gamble themselves. Inside and out, Bonner and Diaw changed the game.

The Spurs’ offensive rating with Bonner on the court (108.0) Thursday was significantly higher than their overall offensive rating in Game 3 (94.1) and Game 4 (97.2). That’s despite Bonner’s impact being limited to him standing on the perimeter and forcing Ibaka to account for him. He missed all four his shots, and other than two fouls, didn’t register in the box score.

Diaw (13 points on seven shots, including making both his 3-point attempts, with six rebounds and three assists) is much more qualified to handle a major role at this point. San Antonio’s offensive rating launched into the stratosphere with him on the court – an astounding 138.5.

Of course, Diaw and Bonner hardly did it alone. Mostly, their spacing freed their teammates to operate as Thunder stretched their defense thin.

The Spurs are a superb passing team, and with Ibaka on the perimeter, they again moved the ball like when he was completely out in Games 1 and 2. Danny Green, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio to 13-of-26 3-point shooting, and Tim Duncan (22 points and 12 rebounds) worked the Thunder inside.

At heart, these Spurs are an offensive team. They’ve now scored more than 110 points eight times this postseason – tying Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less 2005 Phoenix Suns for the most such games since Popovich began coaching.

Popovich has shifted strategies through years – eschewing grinding defensive teams for running offensive teams. Again in Game 5, Popovich showed his priorities.

Bonner and Diaw are defensive downgrades from Splitter, a tradeoff many coaches wouldn’t make this time of year. Though the Thunder slipped after throwing in the towel late, they scored 111.8 points per 100 possessions with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the floor.

Yet, whatever the Spurs gave up defensively, they more than made up for it offensively.

In hindsight, the move is obvious. San Antonio was -14 in the 27 minutes Splitter and Ibaka had shared the court this series. Minutes into Game 5, it became clear how much changing changing Ibaka’s defensive responsibilities had thrown the Thunder out of whack.

But in the regular season, the Spurs played Oklahoma City even in the 30 minutes Duncan and Splitter shared the court. That’s not so bad for a team that dropped all four matchups against Oklahoma City.

I can’t say with total certainty Popovich – who also made other adjustments like having Kawhi Leonard guard Westbrook, dropping Tony Parker onto Reggie Jackson and Green onto Durant – knew precisely what he was doing. He might have just been grasping at straws after dropping 12 of 14 to the Thunder with Ibaka.

Popovich tends to get more than his share of these decisions right, though – and he got this one right. He gets, and deserves, the benefit of the doubt.

Scott Brooks will have a chance to counter in Game 6 Saturday, and perhaps he’ll use more small lineups with Caron Butler or even Jeremy Lamb in place of Kendrick Perkins. The Spurs have relinquished their ability to pound Oklahoma City inside offensively, and they’re exposed to more-skilled offensive opponents picking them apart. Then again, there’s only so much a coach known for lacking a deep playbook can do.

The Thunder gained a huge advantage with Ibaka returning, but San Antonio had the biggest advantage in this series – a 2-0 lead. That allowed the Spurs margin for error, extra time for the NBA’s best coach to adjust.

It took a few games, but Popovich has the Spurs’ offense humming once again and one win from another trip to the NBA Finals.

Future of Paul Allen’s sports holdings, including Blazers, remains unclear

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RENTON, Wash. (AP) Paul Allen’s love was basketball and he delved into professional football out of loyalty to his hometown Seattle.

In the wake of his death, Allen’s ownership of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and NFL’s Seattle Seahawks has come into focus because of questions about how the franchises will move forward in his absence.

No one is providing many details yet about the succession plans for Allen’s franchise holdings in the wake of his death Monday from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His primary franchises were the Blazers and Seahawks, although he also owned a small stake in Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders.

“Paul thoughtfully addressed how the many institutions he founded and supported would continue after he was no longer able to lead them. This isn’t the time to deal in those specifics as we focus on Paul’s family,” according to a statement from Allen’s company, Vulcan Inc. “We will continue to work on furthering Paul’s mission and the projects he entrusted to us. There are no changes imminent for Vulcan, the teams, the research institutes or museums.”

For now, Allen’s teams will continue to be overseen by Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, an arm of the company he created. His sister, Jody Allen, and executive Bert Kolde were the other members of the Seahawks’ board of directors with Allen. Jody Allen may take a more prominent role with the NFL franchise going forward.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s time to be engaging in that conversation. We’re more into the conversation about recognizing what took place and how to respect Paul and his desires and all of that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday. “There’s plenty of time to talk about all that stuff. It’s not even a factor in our minds. I understand the interest but there will be plenty of time.

“Nothing is changing. Paul wouldn’t want us to do anything different than what we’re doing, which is to go for it and to represent it every way we can until you can’t. And we’re going to go for it just in that fashion.”

A similar message was being relayed in Portland, where Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey and Vulcan Sports and Entertainment CEO Chris McGowan spoke about Allen. The Trail Blazers are dealing with the death of Allen just a couple of days before beginning the regular season at home against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

“At this point we’re just dealing with the death and we don’t have any imminent announcements,” McGowan said. “At an appropriate time I’m sure we’ll come and talk with everyone about what potentially could happen but right now we’re just dealing with the grief.”

Olshey said his final phone conversation with Allen was in early October with the owner asking if the Blazers GM was watching that night’s preseason games.

“He wanted to talk basketball,” Olshey said. “One of the things that is really unique about Paul is that everything was bifurcated. … If he wanted to talk hoops, he talked hoops. If he wanted to talk music, he called Mick Jagger. If he wanted to talk football, he called Pete Carroll. Who else gets that?”

AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Celtics show they’re the class of the East in season-opening win vs. 76ers

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Opening night in the NBA arrived on Tuesday, with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers perhaps previewing a future Eastern Conference playoffs matchup.

It did not disappoint.

Play started out relatively even, although the contrasting styles of each team was immediately apparent. The Sixers, a bit rattled by Boston’s defense, struggled from 3-point range. Philly made up for that inequity by quickening their pace, attacking the rim and grabbing 12 points in transition in the first half alone.

What the 76ers were unable to counter was just how well Boston game-planned for their non-shooters. Markelle Fultz was not fully confident in his jumper. Ben Simmons shied away from any open opportunities, and didn’t make a basket farther than nine feet. It’s certainly not a death knell for the Sixers, but it will once again be something to watch this year.

For their part, Philadelphia’s defense did what it was designed to do against the Celtics in the first half. Boston grabbed 16 points from mid-range, and while they shot a healthy percentage, that was certainly not where coach Brad Stevens wanted his offense to operate.

As the third quarter opened, it was the Celtics who began to pull away thanks to help from its bench. Marcus Morris dropped 16 points, much of it in the third and fourth quarters. Terry Rozier added 11 points, along with eight rebounds and an assist.

Boston opened the half with a 30-point third quarter, followed by allowing the 76ers just 21 points in the fourth. The best defense in the league from a year ago, the Celtics put the clamps on a Sixers offense that just didn’t seem to have enough counterpunches ready for Stevens’ plan.

Simmons finished with an impressive stat line of 23 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks. For Boston, Jayson Tatum led the way with 23 points, nine rebounds, and three assists.

The Celtics took home the very first win of the season, 105-87, over Philadelphia.

Meanwhile for Boston, the stories that most have been waiting to read are those of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both returning from injury. The two are Boston’s biggest stars, and have been stuck in the training room as the team around them rallied to become a playoff favorite.

To that end, neither performed particularly well on Tuesday.

Irving and Hayward shot a combined a 6-of-26 from the floor, adding single-digit rebounds. Hayward didn’t record an assist, and the Celtics were instead led by Tatum, Al Horford, and Marcus Morris.

Even with the middling performance of their most prominent stars, the Celtics showed us two things on Tuesday night. First, Boston’s defense is still for real. The team with the best defensive rating last season held the Sixers to just 19 percent shooting from 3-point line, and Stevens’ defensive strategy against the likes of Simmons, Fultz, and Embiid was impressive. Simmons and Embiid personally thrived in the box score, but their teammates weren’t able to benefit off of them thanks to Boston’s rotational prowess.

And while it’s just one game into this young season, the Celtics also showed that there is a clear delineation between them and Philadelphia at this juncture. Many believe the Celtics to be a Finals-ready team, and that the Sixers have more growing to do. Philadelphia clearly has some significant roster weaknesses — particularly around shooting — but the sheer depth in Boston is what separates them from their competition.

We will have to watch what happens with Irving and Hayward, and whether they can get stronger as time goes on. Hayward mentioned that he still feels a little odd jumping off of the leg he injured during the first game of last year. But if he both he and Irving come on as the regular season months roll along, they will certainly be additive to what is the best roster in the East.

Watch Jaylen Brown throw down massive dunk on Joel Embiid (VIDEO)

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Tuesday night was opening night in the NBA for the 2018-19 season. We kicked things off with a massive showdown between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in Massachusetts, and the matchup hand delivered a powerful dunk to jumpstart the year.

The play came as time wound down in the fourth quarter, with Jaylen Brown dribbling on the right wing as the 76ers struggled to recover on defense.

Thanks to a Sixers player down under their basket after a missed shot, Philadelphia was left defending a four-on-five situation. Brown got free run at the rim, with just Joel Embiid standing in his way.

Embiid wasn’t quick enough to block the young Celtics wing, and the result was an incredible power dunk — or perhaps power layup a la Blake Griffin — that excited the crowd at TD Garden.

I’m so glad NBA basketball is back.

Report: Patrick McCaw will skip first Warriors game, championship ring ceremony

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The saga of Patrick McCaw and the Golden State Warriors continues.

The backup guard has oddly decided to make a few choices that will render him a free agent next summer. That also likely means that he will no longer be a member of the Warriors, and his salary could actually go down. It’s left most folks scratching their head about McCaw’s self-valuation heading into 2019.

Our own Kurt Helin tried to make sense of the back and forth between McCaw and Golden State without much luck. That’s because none of this really makes any sense, including what McCaw did on Tuesday.

According to a report from Yahoo, McCaw declinded to be in attendance as Golden State opened the season against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. That also meant that McCaw did not receive his championship ring from last year (at least not at the ceremony).

Via Twitter:

The NBA is a weird place, and I can’t say that this is the oddest thing to happen in the NBA this summer. Remember, Jimmy Butler is still a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But a fringe player on the best team ever assembled demanding more money and perhaps grenading his own career earnings is certainly toward the top of the list in weird sports stories.