Popovich says Spurs play in Finals best they can do, just wants to return to that level

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LOS ANGELES — For Gregg Popovich, the goal is clear.

“We’ll never play better than we did the last three games against Miami (in the NBA Finals) Won’t happen,” Popovich said Monday night before his team beat the Clippers. “We can’t play any better than that at both ends of the floor. If we got to that level I would be thrilled.”

Clear. But it’s not that simple.

From the start of training camp Popovich talked about the long road to get back to that level of play that won San Antonio an NBA title. Sure, the Spurs brought back the entire team who played that beautiful, selfless brand of basketball, but you don’t just walk back in the gym and pick up where you left off. Basketball doesn’t work that way. This is not a video game.

“It’s hard because players change even though you have your same team. That’s what I found,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers when asked about repeating as champs, which he tried to do with the Celtics after 2008. “I did a lot of research going into (2008-09 season), talked to a lot of NFL coaches, baseball… I thought Michael Jordan told me the most, the best. He said ‘You’re going to be shocked how different your same players are. It’s going to take half the year to get them back into their roles and all that.’ Because they have high character guys in San Antonio it’s probably easier, but it’s still hard.”

Human nature after a great success is to relax, to rest on your laurels and savor the spoils of winning. Popovich knew from the start that was the challenge for this season — the year before a hard Finals loss lit a fire under the team. That fire is not there this season. Not yet, anyway.

“I don’t let (guys coming back without hunger) worry me because I know it’s true,” Popovich said. “Some guys might even be enjoying the championship today. And I think that’s totally reasonable and totally logical because they are human beings. To try to fight that is a waste of time, it will take care of itself as we move along.”

It hasn’t taken care of itself yet.

The Spurs entered Monday night with a bottom five offense in the league, one that saw a lot more of guys trying to beat opponents off the dribble and in isolation than with the crisp passing that carved up Miami (and everyone else) last playoffs. In addition the Spurs are battling injuries — Kawhi Leonard missed time with an eye infection that isn’t yet totally healed (although the Clippers might beg to differ) and Tiago Splitter being out with a calf injury really weakens their interior defense (Blake Griffin scored at the rim all night Monday night without much challenge). They simply have not looked like themselves.

Asked about any of this, Popovich almost fell into coach-speak and talked process. Don’t skip steps.

And the Spurs players to a man echoed that.

“Our goal is to get back to how we were playing in that Miami series,” said Matt Bonner, who started for the Spurs Monday night in Los Angeles with Splitter out. “We know what we’re capable of, and tonight was another day to work toward achieving that goal… It’s a long process. It’s a process of training camp and preseason and 82 regular season games and practices in between that, it’s journey and we’re at the very beginning of it.”

But the Spurs took some steps forward Monday night.

Popovich looked past his team’s 5-of-22 shooting in the first quarter, the 2-of-19 shooting from three for the game, the 9-of-36 shooting (25 percent) on uncontested looks to see a team that did the right things to get those looks in the first place. Popovich called the win over the Clippers clearly the best game the Spurs had played so far this young season.

“We didn’t turn it over…” Popovich said. “We took care of the ball better, our pick-and-roll defense was really good, and although we didn’t make shots in the first half the ball moved really well. We were just more consistent tonight than we have been.”

Then in the final 5:30 of a close game where San Antonio was down 7, they started to look like the Spurs.

Leonard got put on Chris Paul and made his life difficult, including stripping him clean on a key possession late. Players moving off the ball and some crisp passing got Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw good looks within eight feet that they both knocked down on key possessions. The Spurs forced turnovers with smart play. The Spurs found the best level of execution we had seen from them all season, which was more than the Clippers could match. San Antonio went on a 12-0 run then held on for a quality win on the road.

To a man the Spurs saw it as a step. One that was still filled with all kinds of sloppy, un-Spurs like play. Still, it was a step.

“It was the best win (they had this season),” Tim Duncan said. “I don’t know if it’s the best game we played so far. It was a grind. Tony (Parker) didn’t play well. I didn’t play well. Kawhi really carried us for a while there.”

It was a step, one they couldn’t skip.

They also know they are at mile three of the marathon right now and there are a lot of steps ahead of them.

San Antonio Spurs retire Tony Parker’s number

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Tim Duncan went up first. Then Manu Ginobili.

Monday night it was Tony Parker’s turn — all of the Spurs’ big three have now had their jerseys retired.

This is obviously well deserved.

The No. 28 pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, Parker went on to win four NBA titles, was named Finals MVP with one of those, plus was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. He was part of core that turned the Spurs into a dynasty.

Everyone was on hand for the ceremony, with coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan, and Ginobili all speaking before Parker, and all of them talking about their bond.

It was an emotional and touching night.

The next stop for Duncan, Parker and Ginobili? The Hall of Fame.

 

Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox out at least 3-4 weeks with ankle sprain

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The Sacramento Kings — everyone’s League Pass favorites — have been snake bitten this season. First it was Marvin Bagley III, who broke his right thumb in the season opener.

Now point guard De'Aaron Fox will be out at least 3-4 weeks (that’s when he’ll be re-evaluated) after suffering a grade three ankle sprain in practice Monday. From the official Sacramento press release:

An MRI conducted this afternoon on Kings guard De’Aaron Fox confirmed that he sustained a left ankle sprain at the end of practice on Monday. He will be re-evaluated in 3-4 weeks and his status will be updated as appropriate.

After a breakout season a year ago, this season Fox had come back to earth a little in new coach Luke Walton’s system — his turnovers were up and his efficiency had slipped, a 52.8 true shooting percentage that is close to the league average, for example — but he was still putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game. He has been the focal point of the Kings’ offense.

This is a blow to the Kings and their development. Sacramento had won 3-of-4 and seemed to be finding more of a groove.

Sacramento does have depth at the point guard spot, however. It signed Cory Joseph over the summer to a three-year, $37 million contract, plus it picked up a team option on Yogi Ferrell. They have some depth at the spot.

However, those players do not have Fox’s explosiveness. The Kings just will not be the same until he returns.

Greece coach Rick Pitino plans to enter 2020 Olympic qualifying without Giannis Antetokounmpo

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) Greece coach Rick Pitino is planning on trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics without Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Pitino officially took over as coach of the Greek national basketball team on Monday. He said he would leave a roster place open for Antetokounmpo in qualifying games but is not sure if he will be able to rely on his best player.

Greece will try to reach the Tokyo Olympics by winning a qualifying tournament. But the dates could clash with the NBA schedule, probably ruling out Antetokounmpo.

“It is a possibility he will not be playing with us in the qualifying round if he goes far (in the playoffs). I understood that coming into this situation, and that’s why it’s such a high mountain to climb,” Pitino said. “But Giannis is something, it’s a bridge we have to cross later on. But we are going to leave a roster spot even if he has to take my place.”

Pitino said he hoped to meet Antetokounmpo and his brother, Milwaukee teammate Thanasis Antetokounmpo, in March when the Bucks travel to Miami.

The 67-year-old Pitino is a veteran of the college game and the NBA, coaching the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks as well as Kentucky and Louisville. He has returned to Greece after coaching Athens club Panathinaikos last season and remains popular.

Pitino said he also felt that attachment.

“(Coaching Greece) is the crown jewel for me as a basketball coach,” Pitino said. “This is one of the greatest honors I’ve had as a coach. I consider this so special because it’s a mountain that is so worth climbing.

“And for the next eight months. I’m not American. I’m not Italian. I’m Greek. And that’s the way I’m going to carry myself. You won’t see anybody who will bleed every possession like I will bleed to try and win a game.”

LeBron James rips AAU workload: ‘AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid’

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Last week, during the pointless debate about Kawhi Leonard missing a game for load management, the most salient point came from former Suns coach Earl Watson.

He echoed a must-read story (from Baxter Holmes at ESPN) that reverberated around the NBA this summer (but for many fans got lost in the shuffle of player movement): How NBA team medical staffs — as well as just doctors working on young athletes — were noticing the extreme wear and tear on the body of AAU basketball players. The volume of games, often without enough training and conditioning to properly strengthen their young bodies or let them recover, sets young players up for injuries later in their playing career. NBA teams and doctors, with their load management techniques, are trying to make up for damage that started long before.

LeBron James, with two sons playing AAU ball right now, is in full agreement.

LeBron ripped the volume of games played in the youth basketball culture, speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f***,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through…

“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- – -ing out of control. That’s just too much… So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.

“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”

It is an issue. A big issue. The NBA can talk about reducing the number of games — they are, and they should, the season is too long, but cutting the number of games becomes a complex financial issue — but it goes beyond just the NBA level.

There needs to be fundamental changes in youth basketball in the NBA, down to the AAU level. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about this.

“So, where historically it’s been an area, particularly AAU basketball, that the league has stayed out of, I think these most recent revelations (from the NCAA scandal) are just a reminder that we’re part of this larger basketball community. I think ultimately, whether we like it or not, need to be more directly involved with elite youth basketball,” Silver said a couple of years ago. Since then, the league has taken steps in that direction.

However, like shortening the NBA season, there are a lot of competing interests in a complicated situation. A lot of people are making money the way things are now and don’t want them to change.

For the health of players, it needs to.