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Gregg Popovich had reservations, sees bubble as safest place to be

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Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.

Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.

“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.

He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?”‘

The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference – only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.

“I honestly do believe – it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary – I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Gregg Popovich said.

LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.

Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers – the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs – took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “‘never crossed my mind.”

“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families … I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”

And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.

“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”

But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.

“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part … not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”

Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.

And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Gregg Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.

“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.