Gregg Popovich’s main adjustment: Hope his guys just shoot better

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LOS ANGELES — Gregg Popovich made adjustments to how his Spurs defended and attacked the Clippers between Games 1 and 2 of what is now a tied series 1-1 heading to San Antonio for Game 3 Friday.

For example, he tweaked how they defended that double high pick-and-roll the Clippers have gone heavily to (and still are having success with despite the adjustments). On offense, you see the Spurs using a lot of what they did against Miami in the Finals last year (because the Clippers’ defense is similar), coming off the high pick then passing back to the middle of the floor.

But his main adjustment — hope his guys just shot better.

Seriously. For all the talk of an Xs and Os chess match, Popovich said before Game 2 that the real key was just that the Spurs do what they do best better than in Game 1.

“It always gets overplayed, when you lose you need to make an adjustment or two, and if you win you just go with the flow,” Popovich said. “You have to do what you do well. For instance, we can change pick-and-roll defense and do something different on Blake (Griffin), but I’m not sure that’s going to make us shoot better. We would like to shoot better tonight, we’d like to actually get back in transition D like it mattered. So if you do that it’s got nothing to do with Os and Xs and strategy things that you do. You’ve got to get back on defense or you’re in trouble. You’ve got to make shots or you’re in trouble. You can’t turn it over or you’re in trouble. Don’t do those things and the adjustments don’t mean a whole lot. We’ll make adjustments, so you guys think I’m doing something, but I’m hoping we do that stuff better.”

They did.

The Spurs shot 36.6 percent in Game 1, 46.2 percent in Game 2. Their eFG% (which accounts for the bump from made threes) jumped from 41.9 percent to 50.5 percent. The Spurs adjustments and ball movement got them seven more uncontested looks in Game 2 (40 to 33) and they hit a higher percentage of them (45 percent to 39.4 percent). The Spurs also did a much better job of getting back in transition and taking away some of the Clippers’ easy buckets.

This isn’t just a sound bite for Popovich. Doing what they do better was a core part of his message to the team. Look at what Patty Mills said after the Spurs Game 2 win.

“That was a game of grit, and grind and competitiveness,” Mills said. “We showed competitiveness at the toughest times, which is good. We lacked that in the first game so we knew that before any Xs and Os in this game we needed to show we could come out and compete for 48 minutes — and even more tonight.”

Doc Rivers and Popovich will both make adjustments heading into Game 3, and those tweaks will have an impact on the outcome.

But so will the answer to this simple question: Which team can do what it does best, better?

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.

Scoring, three-pointers taken both way up inside NBA restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time there was a slate of five or more NBA games on the same day, with every team scoring at least 110 points, was more than 32 years ago.

That is, until the opening of the league’s so-called bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic – where it already has happened twice.

Scoring numbers are soaring inside the NBA’s bubble, where the restarted season is happening at Walt Disney World. Entering Sunday’s games, 17 of the 22 teams inside the bubble were exceeding what had been their scoring averages before the season was suspended on March 11 because of COVID-19.

Games on average have seen nine points more than what had been the norm this season. The number of 3-pointers in each contest – which had been on a record clip when the season got suspended – is up as well. And Indiana’s T.J. Warren, not even a top-50 scorer when the pandemic hit, is leading the bubble in points per game so far, averaging 34.4 and nearly doubling what was his season average.

“T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now,” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo said.

He’s not alone. The bubble is working for just about everybody, or so it seems.

There was a six-game NBA schedule on Feb. 21, 1988, and all the teams playing that night scored at least 110 points. That hadn’t happened, on a day of five or more games, again in the NBA until July 31 – the second day of bubble games. It happened again Saturday.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says there might be multiple reasons why the numbers are up, but foremost on the list is that the NBA has created an environment where players are comfortable.

“We came from a situation at home where players could only do individual workouts, you know, with a coach with a mask on and rubber gloves,” Carlisle said. “When you walked in the practice facility, you had to clean your shoes. You had to fill out a form, you had to take your temperature, you had do a lot of things and that was before serial testing began. So a lot has gone into this.”

It’s paying off.

Maybe this should have been expected, even after teams went 4 1/2 months without playing a real game during the suspension. Hostile fans aren’t screaming at and distracting shooters in the bubble. Nobody is weary from a long flight the night before. And the conditions inside the three different game arenas at Disney – from the lighting to the temperature – are relatively close to identical.

“Obviously, even though we are playing on different courts, they all kind of feel like the same arena,” Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez said. “It’s not like we’re going from Milwaukee to Philly, Miami, back to Milwaukee or anything like that. It’s pretty consistent in that regard.”

Only five teams – New Orleans, Toronto, Washington, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers – entered Sunday with a lower average in the bubble than they had before coming to Disney.

“It’s a very weird dynamic,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time. It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in.”

Put simply, it is taking a ton of points to win. Entering the bubble, San Antonio had been 58-5 under coach Gregg Popovich when scoring 125 points or more; the Spurs are 0-2 at Disney when scoring that many. And entering Sunday, there had been 54 games completed in the bubble – with the winning team scoring at least 100 points in all 54 of them.

“I think shooting travels,” New Orleans’ J.J. Redick said. “If you can make shots, you can make shots. … I’ve shot in high school gyms. I’ve shot in civic centers. I’ve shot in arenas. I’ve shot in basements of Catholic administrative buildings. If you can make shots, you can make shots.”

Carlisle has another theory or explanation that can’t be argued: Wherever they are, bubble or no bubble, pandemic or no pandemic, NBA players in this era can score from practically anywhere.

“To me, it’s just the level of aggression of the players,” Carlisle said. “And the fact that, you know, the skill sets of NBA players are increasing exponentially by the month. I mean, it’s just getting harder and harder to guard these guys. There’s a high level of enthusiasm. The closeness of the games has been crazy to watch. It’s just been a very special time here – even though it’s been quite unusual.”

Hall of Famer Paul Westphal diagnosed with brain cancer

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Paul Westphal, the Hall of Fame guard who played at the peak of his career with the Phoenix Suns (and earlier won a championship with the Boston Celtics) has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Longtime sportswriter Mike Lupica made the announcement.

Glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive and difficult form of cancer to treat.

Westphal was born and raised in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles and went on to play his college ball at USC. He was the No. 10 pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1972 NBA Draft and went on to play three seasons with the Celtics, winning a title with them in 1974.

After that he went on to Phoenix, where he was an All-Star player and was named to the All-NBA team four times. Westphal also played for the Knicks and Sonics during his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last September.

After playing he became a coach, spending at least part of seven seasons as the Suns head coach, plus he coached the Kings for three seasons.

One of the best-liked people in NBA circles, there are a lot of people in Westphal’s corner today and going forward.