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

12 Comments

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.

Paul George’s 37 in home debut lead Clippers past Hawks 150-101 (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Paul George scored 37 points in his Clippers home debut, Lou Williams added 25, and Los Angeles led all the way in routing the Atlanta Hawks 150-101 on Saturday night.

The anticipated first game with George and Kawhi Leonard in the lineup together didn’t happen when Leonard sat out with a left knee contusion.

But the Clippers didn’t need both of their new superstars on a night when George tied his career high with six 3-pointers and made all 11 of his free throws in the team’s biggest blowout of the young season.

George was clearly having fun in the fourth when he stole the ball, dribbled down and tossed it off the glass, setting up Montrezl Harrell for a two-handed dunk that ignited the crowd and pushed the Clippers’ lead to 36 points.

George sat down for good with 9:58 remaining in the game, having done all his damage playing 20 minutes.

Two nights after scoring 33 in his debut at New Orleans, George had it going from the start. He scored 15 of the Clippers’ first 22 points in a six-minute span. They led by 17 and shot 59 percent in the opening quarter.

George is the first player in franchise history to score 30-plus points in his first two games with the team.

The Hawks scored 11 straight points to close within four early in the second quarter, the closest they would come the rest of the game. The Clippers answered with an 18-6 run, fueled by George’s nine points, to go back up by 17 again.

George had 25 points at halftime when the Clippers led 74-62, shooting 52% and making all 16 of their free throws.

Leonard also sat out on Thursday when George made his Clippers debut in a loss to the Pelicans.

George missed the season’s first 11 games while completing rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.

“I would love them to play every game and be out there,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “We knew early on this would be a tough go.”

Trae Young had 20 points for the Hawks, who dropped their second in a row. They trailed by 52 points in the fourth.

The Clippers dominated in nearly every category, with their bench outscoring the Hawks’ reserves 81-35. Los Angeles made 17 3-pointers and hit 33 of 35 free throws.

 

Gregg Popovich gets ejected, Tim Duncan takes over coaching, Spurs still fall to Trail Blazers

Leave a comment

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Tim Duncan was back in charge in San Antonio and the Spurs were flourishing under his leadership again.

Duncan was directing players on defensive assignments, encouraging them and providing needed leadership. But in the end, he couldn’t provide the same late-game heroics from the bench that he long did on the court.

CJ McCollum scored 32 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Spurs 121-116 on Saturday night to spoil Duncan’s first shot at coaching following Gregg Popovich’s ejection.

Duncan took over just 13 games into his first season as an assistant coach. Popovich was ejected after walking onto the court to berate official Jason Goldenberg over a non-call. Popovich calmly walked off the court following his first ejection of the season (you can see it in the video above).

On Twitter, this led to a debate as people tried to figure out who took over as coach. Assistant Coach Becky Hammon ran one time out, but it was Duncan — the assistant coach assigned to scout Portland on the staff — who was the main man. Duncan, Hammon and Will Hardy coached by committee, but it was Duncan calling the plays and screaming out instruction.

“It was cool,” Spurs guard Bryn Forbes said. “It didn’t really feel like a huge difference. I think he did a good job. He took control. He helped lead us to a big lead.”

Popovich was asked if he considered having Becky Hammon take over to make history as the first woman to lead an NBA team.

“I’m not here to make history,” Popovich said.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 30 points and 13 rebounds but the Spurs lost their fifth straight and fell to 5-8.

Damian Lillard added 22 points and Hassan Whiteside had 21 points for Portland (5-8), which rallied from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to snap a four-game skid in San Antonio.

“We’ve blown leads before, so we kind of know what to expect,” McCollum said. “Once you do it, you’ve got to stay grounded, focus on the little stuff.”

Before the game, Popovich said coaching could only go so far and it was up to each player to take responsibility for his own mistakes and performance during this losing streak. Popovich put that responsibility squarely on the Spurs when he was ejected early in the third quarter.

McCollum had 23 of his points in the first half.

Bryn Forbes added 17 points and DeRozan and Rudy Gay added 16 apiece.

 

Jamal Crawford finds it “baffling” no team has called to sign him yet

Getty Images
5 Comments

Iman Shumpert got his call from the Brooklyn Nets.

Carmelo Anthony got his call from the Portland Trail Blazers.

Jamal Crawford is still waiting for his call, and he’s confused why it hasn’t yet come. From Shaun Powell of NBA.com.

“I know I can play,” Crawford told NBA.com, “and I would think my reputation is still solid. It’s baffling to me…

“Physically, I feel better than I did last season,” he said. “I’m able to get my body together. My skill set is sharp. I feel that I’m good. My mindset is be patient and hopefully something good comes about it. I’ll be ready for the opportunity.”

Like Anthony, Crawford needs the right role, but he can help teams.

He’s not young at age 39 but, in the right situation, he could help a team get buckets off the bench. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year has slowed in recent years, and his defense is a bigger concern to front offices, but the man still averaged 7.9 points per game last season off the bench and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last season (including a 51-point game against Dallas). 

Some team is going to give Crawford a chance. Probably. Until then, he is staying ready, waiting for the phone to ring.

 

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks over not one but two Pacers (VIDEO)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Once Giannis Antetokounmpo gets rolling downhill, good luck.

The Pacers found that out the hard way with not one but two players getting dunked on by the Greek Freak. On the same dunk.

Damn. That’s not fair.

It’s also not the only highlight play for Antetokounmpo on the night.

Milwaukee was up double digits on the Pacers early in the fourth quarter, and of course, Antetokounmpo was leading the way.