Five Takeaways from NBA Monday: Kerr uses lessons from Popovich to help Warriors dismantle Spurs

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It was as wild a night in the NBA — so busy that Jeff Green‘s three for Memphis to force overtime (they eventually won in the extra frame) doesn’t even make the cut. And I thought this was going to be an all Warriors-Spurs recap of the night, but we will, at least, start there and follow with four other things you should know from an NBA Monday.

1) Steve Kerr used lesson he learned from playing for Gregg Popovich to help Golden State throttle Spurs by 30. All game Monday night it seemed amazing how many back-door cuts — and nifty passes to those cutters — the Warriors were able to get on the Spurs. Golden State’s ball movement was otherworldly, and Draymond Green, in particular, seemed to keep finding cutters going to the rim for good looks. It’s one of many reasons the Warriors ran the Spurs out of the building Monday, winning by 30.

Fear of those Warriors cuts threw the Spurs defense off and led to THE highlight of the night when Stephen Curry shaked and baked the best defender in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard and turned him into a Vine highlight flying around the Web.

After the game, Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr credited playing for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for all those cuts. Via Ethan Sherwood Straus of ESPN:

“If anybody overplays you, our guys are taught, just cut, cut back door, the next guy will fill the spot. Keep the ball moving. That was something that really was a point of emphasis when I played in San Antonio for Pop. That’s what they do.”

There was more to this win than that. The Warriors pressure defense led to 15 steals and 25 Spurs turnovers (nearly one in four Spurs possessions was a turnover), which allowed Golden State to get out and run, where it is most dangerous. Matchups between these two teams — including in the playoffs — will come down to who controls the tempo and style of play, and Monday night at 106 possessions for the game it was all Warriors. Plus, Curry dropped 37 and whichever defender the Spurs threw at him struggled. There was more, such as Green’s defense on LaMarcus Aldridge, holding the Spurs’ star to five points on 2-of-9 shooting (plus Aldridge was exploited on defense, getting switched onto Curry at times). Everything went the Warriors’ way.

This game does not dictate what would happen in a seven-game series between these teams four months from now, or even what will happen the three other times they meet this regular season. But right now, today, the Warriors are asking questions the Spurs have to figure out how to answer. Right now the Warriors have established themselves as the clear best team in the NBA.

2) DeMarcus Cousins scores franchise-record 56, still not enough as Troy Daniels‘ three lifts Hornets over Kings in double OT. This was the most thrilling game of the night. Charlotte simply had no answer for the physicality of Sacramento’s big man Cousins. He is enough of a threat as a jump shooter that defenders have to respect it, so he put the ball on the floor and drove the basket against Charlotte — Cousins scored 56 points, tying Oscar Robertson for the franchise record for most points in a game.

Well, there was one thing the Hornets could do — keep pace by scoring a lot. Which they did. They were led by Daniels, who filled it up off the bench with 28 points, including the eventual game-winner in double overtime.

On that play, Daniels popped out up high and got separation from Darren Collison thanks to a moving, illegal screen from Frank Kaminsky that was not called. That space was all Daniels needed, he turned and shot from 27 feet out and hit nothing but the bottom of the net. The Hornets were up 129-128, and that proved to be the ballgame.

3) Anthony Davis suffers concussion and by the hand… er, elbow of teammate. The good news for the Pelicans is that they are off until Thursday, so there is time for Davis to go through the NBA’s concussion protocol and still play in their next game. But this was nasty. Both Davis and Tyreke Evans were going for a rebound, trying to keep it away from James Harden, when Evans inadvertently elbowed Davis in the head.

Davis went to the ground, then went to the locker room not to return, the Pelicans announcing he had suffered a concussion. Harden and Trevor Ariza sparked an 18-0 Rockets run to start the second half with Davis out, and from there the Rockets held on for a 112-111 win. Harden finished with 35 points.

4) Tyronn Lue gets his first win as Cavaliers’ head coach. Cleveland gave Tyronn Lue the game ball for his first win as an NBA coach — and unlike his predecessor Lue accepted it gracefully. (David Blatt had used the moment to remind his players he had won more than 700 games in Europe.) That said, it wasn’t pretty. Lue has pushed the Cavaliers to play faster, and they did (99 possessions Monday, four more than their season average) but with that came guys clearly not being comfortable at times and being sporadic with their aggression. However, the bench got it and made a late third-quarter run that was enough to lift Cleveland past Minnesota 114-107. LeBron James had 21 points to lead the Cavaliers, but Kyrie Irving (17 points) had the highlight of the night.

5) Blake Griffin breaks hand, likely out weeks (at least). It’s another setback for a Clippers’ team trying to establish itself as elite. Blake Griffin has missed the Clippers last 15 games with a partial quadricep tear, but as Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times told us in a PBT Podcast, he was expected to return Tuesday night when the Clippers visited the Pacers.

Nope, he’s going to be out for a few weeks (at least) with a broken right hand. Yes, that is his shooting hand, so this could be a while.

How did that happen? An “undisclosed team-related incident,” ESPN reported. We know he didn’t punch Josh Smith — the Clippers had already traded him. I’m not going to speculate as to what happened, but clearly he was not “in the zone.” Details will leak out soon enough. But you can go ahead and start speculating amongst your friends.

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).

Five teams ready — or desperate — to break through into the playoffs

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Making the playoffs in the NBA has always seemed a low bar — more than half the teams in the league get in — but it may never be harder than this season. Right now, the league is stacked with quality teams. There may be only a handful of Warriors or Bucks level teams on a contending tier, but both conferences enter the season 11 or 12 deep with teams that have the talent to make the playoffs. Strong teams are going to be in the play-in this year, and a couple will miss the postseason altogether.

Here are five teams ready and expecting to make the leap into the playoffs next season — or desperate to do so.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland probably should have made the playoffs last season — the Cavaliers finished as the No. 8 seed in the East but dropped a couple of play-in games and were on vacation when the playoffs actually started.

Then this summer they traded for Donovan Mitchell.

The biggest trade that actually happened this offseason gives the Cavaliers four potential All-Stars: Three who made the game last season in Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus second-year star Evan Mobley, who could be the best of them all within a couple of years. Cleveland has questions about who plays the three and if they have enough defense to threaten the teams at the top, but the Cavaliers don’t have to answer all those questions this season.

This season, they are good enough to make the playoffs. It would be a major disappointment if they did not.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s boring to put the Lakers on here. Sure, they missed the playoffs last season but they won the title in 2020, and have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — this is not a team coming out of nowhere and surprising anyone. That said, this team has playoff talent and expectations.

Along those lines, new coach Darvin Ham said Monday before the team’s first preseason game that fulfilling that goal is all about Anthony Davis.

“None of this works if he’s not available and he’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Ham said. “He’s a big piece. The biggest piece of our success.”

There are plenty of Russell Westbrook questions — how long will he buy into Ham’s system? Will they trade him? — as well as how much better the defense will be this season (it can’t be worse… can it?). In a deep West the Lakers could be a play-in team, but they should come out of that and make the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings

When you miss the playoffs 16 seasons in a row, there needs to be a culture change in an organization. New coach Mike Brown gets that.

“This is gonna be a process for us, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Brown said before the Kings’ first preseason game Monday. “There’s some things that need to change.”

Those changes may not happen overnight but they can’t take long, not when the goal is to make the playoffs in a deep conference. Potential Kings head coaches interviewed this summer reportedly were told the organization expects a Timberwolves-like turnaround.

“We want to be in the playoffs,” said Brown, the guy who got the job. “We’re not saying this is a rebuild. We’re playing for [the playoffs] and we feel confident we can get there.”

The Kings have their most talented roster in years led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, with De'Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and solid role players such as Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and the potential of youngsters Keegan Murray and Davion Mitchell.

Is all that good enough to be a playoff team in the West? The offense should score, but with Sabonis and Fox getting heavy minutes will they get enough stops? The Kings are desperately betting on yes.

Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld Jr. needs to put an offering of rum on the altar to Jobu, a prayer to keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy.

When on the court, Porzingis is an All-Star level big man who competes on both ends, and if you pair him with just re-signed Bradley Beal you’ve got a good two-man core. The Wizards have upgraded the rotation around that duo with Will Barton and Monte Morris joining Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Delon Wright. This roster has decent talent, especially if the stars stay healthy.

That’s a pretty good team. Maybe playoff good, but they will need some help from other good teams above them — the Wizards need to stay healthy and hope some other teams stumble. Make that bet if you want to, Ted Leonsis did.

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a different conference, but Portland finds itself in the same place as Washington: A good team that may not be good enough.

It’s great to see Damian Lillard back on the court, hopefully he gets his burst back and can return to All-NBA Dame Time (one of the most watchable, entertaining players in the league). Jerami Grant was brought as a two-way wing, and Anfernee Simons was re-signed to be another ball handler and scorer. Around them are, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow and others. Plus whatever talented but raw rookie Shaeden Sharpe can contribute.

Portland is a good team in a conference deep with good teams. Are they good enough? If Lillard is his vintage self and everyone stays healthy… maybe.