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.

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.