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Five Takeaways from NBA Thursday: Tony Parker, Spurs’ bench spark win over Cavs

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We had the first in a string of games coming up between the NBA’s powerhouses — Cleveland at San Antonio. But if your significant other forced you to watch American Idol, I feel for you. We can help. Here is what you need to know from a Thursday night around the Association.

1) Cavaliers get off to fast start, but relentless San Antonio wears down Cleveland to get win, remain perfect at home. It’s hard not to try to draw conclusions from this game about what would happen if this were the NBA Finals matchup (a real possibility), even though six months from now these both will be different teams. This was more of a benchmark for where they are now — and at the start Cleveland looked great. Their combination of athleticism and free-flowing offense had them race out to a 12-2 lead to start the game. Seconds into the second quarter the Cavaliers led 35-20 after an Iman Shumpert jumper. That was as good as it got for them, the Spurs walked the Cavaliers down, passed them in the fourth and got the win. Here are the three things I would take away from this game and keep in mind for future meetings.

The Cavaliers got away from the ball movement they had in the first quarter (an improved Spurs’ defense had something to do with that). Cleveland had six assists on 13 baskets in the first quarter, and then nine assists on the 25 buckets they had the rest of the game. Combine the lack of ball movement with solid Spurs positioning on defense (and a guy like Kawhi Leonard, who can make LeBron James work for his 22 points), and you got a Cavaliers team that settled for jumpers rather than attack the rim (and draw fouls or get easier shots).

Tony Parker outdueled Kyrie Irving. I’m not sure if that’s sustainable — Irving is getting better each game still in his return from knee surgery — but if Parker can keep things close that’s good news for the Spurs. Remember that the Cavs were the last team to beat the Spurs in San Antonio and Irving went off for 57 in that game — he can swing these games by himself. Thursday night Parker played good defense on him (Irving had 16 points on 17 shots) plus had a team-high 24 points himself. This season San Antonio is asking Parker to do less than he did in the motion offense championship days just a couple of seasons back, and he is responding by looking less tired and coming through with big games when they need him.

David West sparked a Spurs bench that won the game. This is what you hope for from veterans such as West — the Spurs needed a spark off the bench and West had 13 points in 18 minutes. West hit some key fourth quarter buckets, and he led a bench that got the Spurs back in the game and helped them take the lead in the fourth. This is the one takeaway that might worry the Cavaliers looking ahead to a series — the Spurs have had arguably the best bench in the NBA this season and the Cavaliers will have to keep that gap close to win four of seven games. Cleveland couldn’t do that Thursday night.

2) Jimmy Butler drops career-high 53 to lead the Bulls past the Sixers in overtime. If you want to be negative — as some Bulls fans are prone to be — and say it’s concerning that Chicago needed an epic performance and OT to beat the lowly Sixers, go ahead. I would counter with two things. First, it’s a long season, the Sixers have played better of late, teams have flat nights, and you take the wins where you can get them. Second, just enjoy what Jimmy Butler did — the man was incredible. He played the game’s final 37 minutes straight because Fred Hoiberg couldn’t afford to take him out.

3) Mario Chalmers hit a ridiculous game winner to lift Memphis over Detroit. This end of game sequence may not be the most aesthetically beautiful thing you will ever see, but Mario Chalmers has never feared the moment (going back to Kansas), and he drained another big shot in a career full of them.

4) Stephen Curry threw down just his second dunk of the season. This, and a fond farewell to Kobe Bryant from the Oracle Arena crowd, were the only two things worth noting from the Warriors win over the Lakers Thursday night.

5) Rudy Gay game winner lifts Kings past Jazz. They have playoff dreams in Sacramento this season, but if the Kings are going to make the dance for the first time in nine years they need to beat the team they are trying to catch — like eight seed Utah. Gay made that happen with a good-look elbow jumper for the game winner. (The Kings are now just one game back of the Jazz for the final playoff slot in the West.)

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.