Offensive minded Aces, Storm relying on defense in WNBA semifinal

Seattle Storm v Las Vegas Aces - Game One
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SEATTLE — A series featuring some of the best offensive stars in the WNBA has so far been defined by … defense?

Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson have played like the two best players in the league as Seattle and Las Vegas split the first two games of their WNBA playoffs semifinal series. But the games have come down to which team had the better defensive effort.

The Storm were better in their 76-73 win in Game 1 by figuring out a way to keep Wilson from dominating. The Aces were better in Game 2, pulling out a 78-73 victory using a smaller lineup and limiting Stewart’s supporting cast.

All of which has laid the groundwork for Sunday’s pivotal Game 3 with the best-of-five series shifting back to Seattle.

“We’re going to continue to do whatever we need to do schematically to limit their potent offense,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said. “But to hold this team under 80, I don’t know if that’s been done twice in a row this year. We will take that and continue to build on that.”

To answer Quinn’s question: Only once in the regular season were the Aces held under 80 points in consecutive games. Las Vegas scored 79 in a win over Los Angeles and followed up a few days later by scoring 78 in a loss to Seattle.

Even with that one game where Seattle kept Las Vegas in check, defense was not expected to define the series. Las Vegas won three of the four matchups in the regular season, and in every game the winning team scored at least 85 points. That included the regular-season finale, a 109-100 victory for the Aces.

It’s usually the case that defense intensifies in the playoffs, but it’s notable that neither of the teams has topped 80 points through the first two games.

“It’s about each possession what is your smartest move, what is going to put you in the best position defensively,” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said.

The Aces averaged 90.4 points during the regular season and 98 points in a first-round win over Phoenix. Seattle shot 44% from the field in the regular season, but shot 41.3% in Game 1 and 40.6% in Game 2.

One of the keys for Las Vegas was the defensive effort by Gray in Game 2, when she was asked to play against post players defensively as the Aces went with a smaller lineup.

“That stretch that we went small, put Chelsea Gray on the post, her activity really changed the momentum of the game,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “That’s one of the things we want to be defensively is active and disruptive. Physical. Aggressive. I thought she really set the tone for us.”

Wilson and Stewart have in some ways offset each other. Stewart had 24 points in Game 1 and 32 points in Game 2. Wilson was limited to just eight points and 12 rebounds in Game 1, but responded with 33 points and 13 rebounds in the next game.

Part of the reason Wilson’s efforts in Game 2 resulted in a win was the Aces’ ability to keep Jewell Loyd from being a factor on offense. Loyd had 26 in Game 1; she had eight in Game 2.

Seattle is hoping to get a boost ahead of Game 3 with the possibility that Gabby Williams will return after sitting out the first two games because of a concussion. Williams was a second-team All-WNBA defensive team selection this season.

“We did that without Gabby, and that’s what I’m most impressed with … so we’re encouraged,” Quinn said.

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

Pregame of Philadelphia 76ers vs Miami Heat
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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.


Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets
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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.


Vintage Kobe: Redeem Team recalls him running over Pau Gasol

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If the goal of a trailer is to get you to want to see the movie, then well done Netflix. I’m in.

Netflix released a trailer for its upcoming Redeem Team documentary on the 2008 Olympics, featuring some vintage Kobe Bryant. Just as a quick refresher, in 2008 the USA’s toughest opponent would be a deep Spanish team led by peak Pau Gasol but also with Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, José Calderón, Rudy Fernández, Juan Carlos Navarro and more. This was a legitimately dangerous team and one the USA would face first in group play.

Kobe wanted to set a tone — and did by running through his friend Gasol. (Warning: There is NSFW language in the video clip below.)

“‘First play of the game I’m running through Pau Gasol.’ And we was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘First play of the game, I know what they’re gonna run.’ And he knew Pau was gonna be the last screen and he said ‘I’m running through him,'” Dwayne Wade said

Spoiler alert: The USA thrashed Spain in group stage play. However, come the Gold Medal game it was a lot tougher for the Americans to beat the Spaniards, with Kobe having to have a big fourth quarter and — what often goes unremembered — a master class from Chris Paul in game management to control the tempo and flow.

I’m all in for the documentary, which drops on Oct. 7 on Netflix.

Spurs’ Keldon Johnson to miss start of training camp with shoulder injury

San Antonio Spurs v Denver Nuggets
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Keldon Johnson is poised to have a monster season on a rebuilding Spurs team.

Except he’s going to miss the start of training camp and the team’s preseason games. And could be out longer.

Johnson suffered a “right shoulder posterior dislocation during Spurs open gym” the team announced Saturday. Posterior dislocations are rare (less than 5% of all dislocations) and are usually from a fall on an extended arm. Recovering from the injury depends on many factors but can extend out for months. However, the Spurs said Johnson is expected to be available for the start of the regular season less than a month from now.

Johnson averaged 17 points and 6.1 rebounds a game last season, and is an elite perimeter shooter off the catch-and-shoot (39.8% from 3 overall), who also can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. He was the team’s second-leading scorer last season (to Dejounte Murray, who is now in Atlanta).

The Spurs will be cautious with bringing Johnson back. Even in what could be Gregg Popovich’s last season as coach the Spurs are looking more to be part of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes than push for a playoff spot. Johnson is a quality player who helps San Antonio win games, which both is why they want him back healthy and why they are not going to rush him.