LeBron cramps up while Spurs withstand heat, Heat; Spurs take Game 1

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SAN ANTONIO — Going into the NBA Finals depth was one of San Antonio’s key advantages, it could win them a game in this series.

This is not exactly how anyone expected it to happen, but the Spurs depth won them Game 1.

With the air conditioning out and the temperatures in the AT&T Center climbing into the 90s (and it was a humid 90s, this was bikram basketball) LeBron James cramped up and barely played the final 7:31 of the game.

With that the Spurs went on a 26-9 run to close the game and took Game 1 110-95. The Spurs now lead the best-of-7 series 1-0.

LeBron cramped up so badly he went back to the locker room with a couple minutes left.

“It was an unusual environment, we’re used to having the hotter building this time of year…” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game, sticking with the idea that both teams had to play in it. “I think it felt like a punch to the gut when you see your leader limping back to the bench.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever played in anything like this since I left the islands,” said Tim Duncan, a native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Spurs are used to trusting their role players, giving them big minutes and expecting them to make plays under pressure. Gregg Popovich rotated those guys in and the Spurs were fresher for it.  The Heat are the LeBron and Dwyane Wade show, and without LeBron the Spurs’ defense flattened out the Heat offense and shut them down late.

“We were like ‘let’s keep pushing the pace,’ they were starting to look tired and LeBron was asking out,” Tony Parker said after the game, adding this felt like a European gym to him (“we don’t have air conditioning [for games]”).

San Antonio’s offense got the shots it wanted all night long with fantastic ball movement — the Spurs shot 58.8 percent overall and hit 13-of-25 from three (late in the game the wilting Heat players could not close out on shooters leaving open shots, plus the Spurs ran them into the ground in transition). 

The Spurs got 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting from Tim Duncan, 19 points from Tony Parker and 16 from Manu Ginobili. Danny Green was 3-of-3 from deep in the third and had 11 points in the fourth quarter to help lead the charge back.

San Antonio would have dominated the game if Miami’s defense had not forced turnovers — the Spurs had 22 in the game, 8 in the third quarter, which fueled some easy buckets for Miami and had them leading after three quarters.

Before Miami literally wilted in the heat.

“They made shots, we made a few mistakes and they capitalized on them,” Dwyane Wade said of the Spurs fourth quarter run. He refused to blame that on LeBron being out.

In the first half the Spurs got seemingly everything they wanted — an up tempo game and 15 points out of Tim Duncan rolling to the rim — and that got them a 54-49 lead at the break. San Antonio’s passing was crisp and it led to 50% shooting overall for the Spurs — plus they were 7-of-14 from three.

Miami got 25 points from LeBron but just 2 in the fourth quarter. Chris Bosh had 18 on 7-of-11 shooting and Dwyane Wade had 19 points on 18 shots. Ray Allen added 16.

Report: NBA cancels vote for in-season tournament, play-in tournament

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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The NBA had some big ideas about revamping its schedule – in-season tournament, play-in tournament and reseeded semifinals.

It seemed strange that the least radical of these proposals – replacing the conference finals with reseeded semifinals – gained no traction. Who disapproved of that yet supported an in-season tournament and play-in tournament?

Apparently not enough teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This vote won’t happen, because the proposal would lose. The official vote is merely a formality. The NBA knows too many governors would vote no, so not even holding the vote saves the league some embarrassment.

I don’t see how further study will help the in-season tournament. It’s just a bad idea. People won’t care about it. That’s why there have been so many suggestions for generating interest. It’s a losing battle.

A play-in tournament could work. There are several viable permeations. I buy that time to build consensus for that could be helpful.

These changes don’t have to take effect in 2021-22. The 75th-anniversary season just provided an opportunity for spin. If the NBA implemented the new schedule that season and it backfired, the league could drop it and claim it was a one-time alteration.

That window isn’t quite shut, but read the writing on the wall: Too few owners want these changes.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

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Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

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Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.