Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
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Spurs’ Gregg Popovich: Playoffs would be great, but goal is development

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The San Antonio Spurs will try to extend the longest active playoff streak in North American major sports without LaMarcus Aldridge and with a decent mathematical chance to sneak into the final postseason spot in the Western Conference.

The 22-season run is on the mind of guard Patty Mills, along with coach Gregg Popovich’s view that the Spurs will be more preoccupied with the future than whether they avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since a couple of months before they drafted Tim Duncan in 1997.

“It’s important,” Mills said of trying to extend the streak. “It’s one element of the big picture of the San Antonio Spurs organization and how well the team has done over the course of a couple of decades.

“But, at the same time, you got to look at the big picture, you got to look at the future and where we are at organization-wise in trying to bridge the gap between the success the Spurs have had and where that sees us in the future.”

Aldridge had shoulder surgery in April, about six weeks after the pandemic shut down sports, and the Spurs announced last month he wouldn’t play when the season resumed.

The seven-time All-Star’s absence puts most of the burden on leading scorer DeMar DeRozan if the Spurs are to challenge eighth-place Memphis, which would only happen if they can emerge from the five-team cluster that rounds out the Western Conference in the 22-team restart.

The Spurs can force a play-in series by staying within four games of the Grizzlies, and they’ll likely have a pretty good idea right away of their chances. The first two games are against Memphis and Sacramento, which is a half-game ahead of San Antonio.

“We’re not here for no reason,” DeRozan said. “Definitely develop and compete at the same time. Once you keep that mindset of going out there and winning, anything can happen. Despite whatever the odds, percentages may be, you can’t feed into that.”

With Aldridge out, the focus also shifts to young point guards Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, who have struggled under heightened expectations. Because of the shortened year, the Spurs are already guaranteed their first losing season since going 20-62 in 1996-97 and getting the No. 1 pick that led to Duncan.

“Each team has a goal here,” Popovich said. “Some teams are confident they’re a step away from winning an NBA championship. Other teams just want to be in the playoffs. Some teams are concerned mainly with development. If we play well enough to get into the playoffs, that would be great. But my goal is development right now.”

DEPTH UPDATE

Aldridge is joined on the sidelines by forward Trey Lyles, a starter who averaged 20 minutes per game. Lyles won’t play after undergoing an appendectomy. Center Jakob Poeltl missed the last five games before the shutdown with a right knee sprain but is active for the restart.

WHERE WE WERE

The Spurs had one of their better pre-pandemic wins by beating Dallas the night before the shutdown. The problem was, that came two nights after one of their worst losses, to lowly Cleveland in overtime. It was the second straight game a franchise that always prided itself on defense gave up more than 130 points to an East also-ran.

DEROZAN’S FUTURE

The four-time All-Star will always be known as the centerpiece of the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. The Raptors went on to their first championship in Leonard’s only season there, while the Spurs lost in the first round for the second straight year.

Now the question is what’s next with the $139 million, five-year contract DeRozan signed with Toronto set to expire. The 11th-year player and six-time playoff qualifier will be an unrestricted free agent. DeRozan turns 31 next month.

“With everything that’s going on, it’s hard to even know what tomorrow’s going to bring, honestly,” he said. “So you’ve got to worry about the moment that you’re in.”

PLAYOFF STREAK HISTORY

If the playoff streak ends, the Spurs will fall short of the team they replaced at the top. Detroit made the NHL playoffs 25 straight seasons before its current four-year run without qualifying for the postseason.

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.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.