Warriors, Spurs series filled with familiar story lines

AP
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Leave it to Gregg Popovich to play mind games ahead of the Western Conference finals.

So, what will he do to prepare his defense to stop the high-flying Warriors?

“Pray,” Popovich quipped Saturday before the Spurs departed Texas for the Bay Area.

Stephen Curry could only chuckle at that one.

“Gamesmanship,” Golden State’s Curry said, “I love it.”

Popovich doesn’t have his old coaching pals Mike Brown or Steve Kerr fooled. Brown spent part of last season working unofficially alongside Popovich and is now coaching Golden State in place of the ailing Kerr, who attended practice Saturday for the first time in more than three weeks as he recovers from his latest procedure to repair a spinal fluid leak that left him dealing with debilitating symptoms.

“That’s Pop,” Brown said with a laugh. “He’s doing a lot more than praying right now. He knows what he wants to do against us.”

As dominant as the Warriors have been sweeping through the first two rounds of the playoffs, praying might not hurt either.

Kevin Durant doesn’t care who is on the court for San Antonio, he knows that Popovich will have his group ready complete with a few surprises in the playbook.

Tony Parker is out the rest of the way with a leg injury. Kawhi Leonard is not at 100 percent because of a tender ankle. Tim Duncan is long ago retired.

“They’re a machine,” Durant said. “They just keep going at you, no matter who’s on the court. They run their system. Similar to us, I feel like, where a guy goes down, somebody steps in.”

San Antonio thoroughly dismantled James Harden and Houston 114-75 in Game 6 on Thursday night behind LaMarcus Aldridge‘s 34 points and 12 rebounds to close out the series as All-Star Leonard sat out nursing an injured left ankle he hurt in a Game 5 overtime win.

Golden State has barely been tested so far this postseason, going 8-0 against Portland and Utah.

Sure, it was nearly seven months ago when the Spurs came to town and thoroughly spoiled Durant’s much-hyped debut – a 129-100 whipping in the season opener – with the Warriors after his scrutinized departure from Oklahoma City.

“That seems like years ago to be honest,” KD said. “Both teams have gotten so much better.”

The Spurs are back in the Western Conference finals for the first time since winning the 2014 title.

Here are a few of the ample story lines to watch when these familiar teams begin their best-of-seven series Sunday afternoon at Oracle Arena:

KAWHI’S TOUGHNESS

Leonard had just a few days to get healthy.

Popovich said he went through a full practice Saturday.

“He’s a soldier, man. He’s a fighter,” Durant said. “If he’s out there, he’s not going to make any excuses.”

POP’S DISCIPLE

Out of work last season, Brown spent much of his time attending Spurs meetings, practices and games in an informal capacity with good friend, Popovich . Kerr hired Brown as an assistant last summer.

Brown, last a Spurs assistant in 2003 who has said he hopes to do something to repay Popovich someday for the opportunity, certainly learned some X’s and O’s but it went far beyond that to observing how Popovich has adapted to players now and continued to be a top-notch communicator.

“Mike who? I don’t know a Mike Brown,” Popovich joked. “Mikey’s done a great job. Steve was really smart in hiring him. He didn’t hire him for this reason, Steve didn’t want this to happen, but they know each other well. Mike knows the program well. Steve is right there with him, in his ear. They’re doing things the way they’ve done it for a while now under Steve’s leadership.”

FAMILIAR DAVIDS

David Lee will face his old Warriors team, while David West faces the Spurs, his former team.

A swap of Davids, indeed. West has been helping the Warriors get ready for his old team.

While he still keeps in touch with Curry and others, Lee is downplaying any potential nostalgia from his time with Golden State.

“I try to keep things as simple as possible,” he said. “It’s a building and an environment, a lot of people out there that I’m very familiar with and keep in touch with many of the guys on their team still. With that being said, they’re competitors, I’m a competitor, guys on my team here, the Spurs, are competitors.”

MORE REST

The Warriors again are well-rested and healthy for the next round of their championship chase.

Durant, for one, feels great after dealing with a left knee injury that cost him 19 games late in the regular season then a nagging left calf during the Portland series.

San Antonio will have to try to keep pace from the tip.

“We didn’t have much time to practice. It was a long series, an exhausting series and now we play at noon, but we’re here,” Manu Ginobili said. “We’ve got to prepare as fast as we can.”

Associated Press Writer Raul Dominguez contributed from San Antonio.

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Watch Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard score first buckets in returns

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It’s only preseason. But if you’ve sat out an entire season with an ACL injury,  just getting on the court feels like a milestone.

And getting your first bucket back feels memorable.

That happened for the Nuggets Jamal Murray and the Clippers Kawhi Leonard on Monday night.

For Murray, the bucket came on a corner 3 in transition.

Murray also showed flashes he’s getting his handle and wiggle back, something that made him a great fit with Nikola Jokic.

Leonard wasted no time, scoring the Clippers’ first bucket by lulling his defender to sleep and then shooting the pull-up 3.

I feel we’re going to see a lot more of that this season.

The NBA is just better with these two back on the court.

 

Cavaliers Evan Mobley out 1-2 weeks with sprained ankle

2022-23 Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day
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The Cleveland Cavaliers might have the best frontcourt in the East this season with All-Star Jarrett Allen and the emerging star Evan Mobley, but it may be a few weeks before we see them together.

Mobley is out 1-2 weeks with a sprained right ankle, the Cavaliers announced a couple of days before their preseason opener. Mobley stepped on a teammate’s foot and rolled his ankle during practice, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

Mobley, who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game in his first campaign, but his more significant impact was on the defensive end. Mobley earned All-Defensive Team consideration as a rookie — an incredibly rare feat — and with Allen formed an impressive backstop for teams trying to drive the paint.

Reports out of Cavaliers training camp rave about the improvements made in Mobley’s offensive game, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see that for ourselves now. Mobley, with a more consistent face-up game and jumper, has the potential to develop into a top 15, maybe even top-10 player in the league. The Cavaliers are banking on the young core of Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and the just acquired Donovan Mitchell to be able to take the team far in the next few years, with Mobley’s improvement key to just how far they can go.

It sounds like Mobley will be good to go for the start of the season.

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

Karl-Anthony Towns Offseaon Workout
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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that, there were not a lot of details other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about whatever illness he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time, and it is his call to talk about.

Towns has been sidelined before by illness, including COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.