Tony Parker’s injury highlights Spurs’ unique depth

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Two years ago, the Charlotte Bobcats – on their way to the worst record in NBA history – waived Boris Diaw. He was out of shape and out of favor. Less than a month from turning 30, he appeared to have a short future in the league.

Saturday, he led the San Antonio Spurs in scoring during a closeout game of the Western Conference Finals.

Diaw scored 26 points – his most since Charlotte and most in a playoff game in eight seasons – in the Spurs’ 112-107 Game 6 overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili return to the Finals – to face the Miami Heat once again – but the Spurs’ big three has gotten this far due to teammates like Diaw, Cory Joseph, Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard (can we call him a role player anymore?).

Parker (ankle injury) left the game at halftime with San Antonio down seven. But Joseph stepped up with a couple big plays, and Mills proved steady enough down the stretch.

I repeat: Cory Joseph and Patty Mills proved instrumental, at the pivotal point guard position no less, in a closeout conference finals game. The only reason that doesn’t sound crazy is because it’s the Spurs.

This was San Antonio’s progressive philosophy paying off. All season, Gregg Popovich trusted his role players, starting them and sticking with them in crunch time. He used 30 starting lineups, and he limited everyone to fewer than 30 minutes per game. No other team promotes depth to that extent.

And quite possibly, no other team would have won like the Spurs did Saturday.

Make no mistake: The Spurs are better with Parker. They’ll almost surely need him in the Finals, forcing the action against Mario Chalmers. But they sure made Parker look expendable in the final 29 minutes against Oklahoma City.

It seems no matter who San Antonio plugs into its system, it works – though, that’s obviously because the the Spurs are selective about who they plug into their system.

They saw more in Diaw than the Charlotte did, and they were proven correct. Matt Bonner once again started, pulling Serge Ibaka from the paint and throwing Oklahoma City’s defense off balance. But the Spurs really took off when Diaw – a better player – took Bonner’s stretch-four spot. Diaw can draw defenders outside, but he can also batter players in the post when the opponent goes small. All the while, he makes impressive passes and keeps the ball moving.

Leonard (17 points, 11 rebounds and four assists) had another energetic and effective game, but he really belongs mentioned with the Spurs’ big three at this point. Heck, he’s better than at least one of them, though he takes a backseat in perception.

Not that the big three has fallen off a cliff (at least as long as they’re healthy).

Ginobili made a huge 3-pointer with 27 seconds left in regulation, and Duncan (19 points and 15 rebounds) scored seven of San Antonio’s overtime points.

Yet, the Spurs only put those two in position to make the big shots thanks to their heralded role players. And those role players were only ready to meet the moment thanks to San Antonio empowering them all season.

Of course, the Spurs were afforded this luxury by the sustained excellence of their big three. San Antonio always knew, whatever its role players did, it could fall back on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

The Spurs want to be deep. They also had a setup conducive to being deep.

But when Popovich smelled blood in Game 6 – the best opportunity either team has had all series to win on the road – he didn’t hesitate. Duncan, Leonard, Green, Ginobili and Diaw each played series-high minutes during regulation alone. Duncan played this much overall (39:01) just three times all season.

The Thunder closed ranks, too – but out of necessity.

It took more than 34 minutes for an Oklahoma City player other than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka or Reggie Jackson to score. Those four finished with 102 of the Thunder’s 107 points.

Oklahoma City got here and wanted to win. San Antonio has been prepping for this level all season.

Teams want to rely on their star players in the postseason. They often can.

But when a Tony Parker goes down, very few teams can overcome that on the road in a tight series.

There has never been a team like these Spurs.

Yet, these Spurs are like so many Spurs teams before them – back in the Finals

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili led them here. Diaw, Joseph, Mills and Leonard are following not too far behind.

LeBron James drops 31, leads Lakers comeback to beat Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rode a big third quarter to a a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

The Lakers bounced back after a loss to Orlando on Wednesday night that snapped their nine-game winning streak. The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which ties a season high, and they have dropped four of five.

Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.

Los Angeles didn’t lead in the first half but used a 32-point third quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth.

Houston used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 with about seven minutes left, but the Lakers scored the next six points to extend it to 110-94 midway through the quarter. That sent many Rockets fans streaming for the exits and caused a large contingent of Lakers fans to start chanting, “Let’s go Lakers.”

The Rockets did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.

The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 69-68, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter. James capped that run by making a basket and then added another one seconds later after JaVale McGee blocked a dunk attempt by Clint Capela. McGee beat his chest and screamed after in Capela’s direction after the play and received a technical foul for taunting.

There were about seven minutes left in the third when Westbrook and Anthony Davis, who missed the game with an injury, both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

The Lakers led by three later in the third when Kuzma scored the first four points of a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 85-75.

Houston had a chance to cut the deficit at the end of the third quarter, but Westbrook missed two free throws to leave the Lakers up 91-82 entering the fourth.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.