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.

Report: Mike Woodson close to joining Suns coaching staff

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The Phoenix Suns are bolstering their coaching staff. After spending most the 2017-18 season under interim head coach Jay Triano, Phoenix finally settled on Igor Kokoskov as their top man.

Now, it appears they’re adding some veteran talent to the front row.

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Suns are in talks to bring former New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson in as Kokoskov’s right hand man. Meanwhile, ArizonaSports.com is reporting that the decision has already been made to hire Woodson.

Via Twitter:

Woodson, 60, was last on the bench with the Los Angeles Clippers from 2014-2018. He was head coach of the Knicks from 2012-2014, and helmed the Atlanta Hawks from 2004-2010.

This is a smart hire for the Suns, who have needed some legitimacy after firing Earl Watson just three games into the season this year. Phoenix has been in a bit of a freefall since letting Jeff Hornacek go in 2015. Indeed, despite for one outlying 48-win season in 2013-14, Phoenix hasn’t been a very good team in this decade.

With a solidified coaching staff and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, there’s hope yet for the Suns. Now, the question is who they take with that pick. Luka Doncic? Deandre Ayton? The draft continues to intrigue.

Andre Iguodala out for Game 4 Tuesday vs. Rockets

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“When we’re right, when we’re playing how we are supposed to play, Andre’s right in the middle of it. His defense and being smart, making good decisions. Andre is one of the guys who seems to set the tone for that for us.”

That’s Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Andre Iguodala

The Warriors are going to have to be without that tone Tuesday night, Iguodala will miss the game with a knee contusion.

This is a blow to the Warriors, who have started small with Iguodala through the first three games of this series. The Warriors have been 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with Iguodala on the court through the first three games of this series.

Expect Kevon Looney or Nick Young to start, with the rest of the minutes divided up between Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell, and David West.

Whatever Kerr and the Warriors go with, expect James Harden and the Rockets to attack it.

 

WNBA team rehearses ring ceremony at practice of team it beat in Finals

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The NBA does petty very, very, very, very, very, very, very well.

The WNBA is trying to give the NBA a run for its money.

The Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks have met in the last two WNBA Finals, the Lynx winning last year and the Sparks winning the year before. Minnesota hosted Los Angeles in the season opener Sunday, and the Lynx unveiled their banner and presented players with rings.

Before that, while the Sparks were practicing in Minnesota, the Lynx played their video for the event.

Holly Rowe of ESPN:

The Sparks beat the Lynx on Sunday, but I don’t think that’s enough to override Minnesota’s power move.

Kobe Bryant on Kanye West’s comments: “What the hell are you talking about?”

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Kanye West, the President Trump backing hip-hop star, drew a lot of backlash for his comments on TMZ:

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” 

Mentally, maybe in some cases. But more so physically, with guns and whips and attack dogs and a whole lot more weapons that were all on one side. Nobody chooses slavery.

Tuesday, Kobe Bryant surprised a group of about 300 high school students at WE RISE — a 10-day pop-up festival dedicated to sparking a movement for change in the mental health system — in Downtown Los Angeles. One of the students asked him about Kanye’s comments. Kobe is not down.

“I’m sure (I feel) the same way everybody else here in this room feels. What the hell are you talking about? I think that was my reaction as is everybody else’s reaction….

“The thing about our country is that you have the right to say whatever it is that you want to say…that’s the beautiful thing about living in a democracy. I think, for him, he’s one of these entertainers that’s always in a constant state of growth, he’s always challenging … himself, doing a lot of questioning internally himself…so I just take it for what it is and completely disagree.”

If I need to explain to you why Kobe is in the right here, you need to take a basic American history course again.

Good on Kobe for his comments. More importantly, good on Kobe for taking the time to promote mental health awareness.

“It’s easy for us as people to kind of ignore the emotional side of it,  especially when it comes to things that deal with negativity, things that deal with insecurity, things that deal with fear,” Kobe said. “It’s very easy to take the fear and just push it down, try to act like it doesn’t exist. The reason why it starts with imagination is because you first must imagine the life that you want to have. You must first imagine what it is you dream of becoming.”

Kobe did that, and now he’s got an Oscar. Oh, and a few basketball awards, too.