LaMarcus Aldridge

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Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

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

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
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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.

Spurs: Trey Lyles out rest of season (appendectomy)

Spurs forward Trey Lyles
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The Spurs lost their top big in LaMarcus Aldridge.

Now, they’ll lose Trey Lyles, who often started at power forward next to Aldridge and also played behind Aldridge at center.

Spurs release:

Spurs forward Trey Lyles underwent an appendectomy earlier today in Orlando, Fla.

Lyles will miss the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

San Antonio’s last seeding game is scheduled for Aug. 13 – nearly a month away. Theoretically, Lyles could have tried to return by then.

The NBA dodges a complication with the Spurs ruling him out for the rest of the season.

Lyles left the NBA’s campus for his surgery. (Disney World is in Lake Buena Vista. He underwent surgery in Orlando.) That means he faced exposure in Florida, where coronavirus cases are surging. It would have been tricky bringing him back into the bubble safely while not punishing him for requiring medical attention.

The NBA will probably face this conundrum with someone else later. But the league avoids that situation for now.

San Antonio’s problems are more pressing.

Jakob Poeltl is now the Spurs’ top center, but he fits poorly with DeMar DeRozan because they’re both non-shooters from 3-point range. Rudy Gay should see plenty of time at power forward.

Behind them, options – newly signed Tyler Zeller, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu and Luka Samanic – are uninspiring.

Gregg Popovich truly must muster some magic for San Antonio to extend its record playoff streak.

Coaches, players compare NBA Orlando restart to USA Basketball experience

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Formulating a plan to get a team ready for the restart of the NBA season wasn’t as difficult as one might expect for Indiana coach Nate McMillan.

Turns out, he’s been through something similar to this before.

Spending an extended stretch away from home during the summer, while unprecedented as part of an NBA season, isn’t exactly a foreign concept for those with USA Basketball experience like the Olympics and the World Cup. Plenty of players and coaches at Walt Disney World see parallels between those experiences and this challenge.

“I had that opportunity to work with the Olympic team and preparation was very similar to what we’re going through here,” said McMillan, who was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski on the USA Basketball staff from 2006 through 2012. “Having a training camp, basically, at a hotel and getting ready for a 45- to 60-day season. … We’re going to have three scrimmage games, eight so-called regular season games and then we’re in the playoffs so it’s very similar to preparing to play for the gold medal.”

Players who have been through the World Cup or Olympic grinds agree that there’s a level of familiarity with this sort of schedule and situation.

“It helps tremendously,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who was part of the U.S. gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in 2016. “In Rio it was a lot more strict and tighter because we were living on a boat. That experience was pretty awesome. … But living on a boat, to be in a smaller room and not have as many amenities it really kind of prepared me for this.”

Even players who have been part of USA Basketball’s events for younger players, like Under-18 or Under-19 tournaments internationally, know the drill when it comes to living in a hotel for a few weeks and not having a lot of latitude when it comes to being free to roam. Players at Disney cannot leave the campus because of coronavirus protocols, though the league has made plenty of entertainment options — fishing, golf, boating, table tennis and more — available to them.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said he would follow much of the same policies that the U.S. program used when he was an assistant on those national-team staffs, such as a heavy reliance on medical personnel to determine what days to have a hard practice and what days to take it a bit easier. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said he also refreshed his memory on national-team days when putting together a plan for his team’s stay at Disney.

“It has forced me to dig into the archives of that time with USA Basketball,” said Williams, another former national team assistant under Krzyzewski. “I’ve heard a lot of the players say that it reminds them of AAU, but for me it reminds me so much of my time in Spain at the World Cup. It’s a bit longer than the Olympics … and you have a lot of free time.”

Pacers center Myles Turner was with the U.S. team that competed in China last summer at the World Cup, a group that spent more than seven weeks together between training camp, exhibition games in the U.S. and Australia, and then the tournament itself.

The Pacers have clinched a playoff spot, so they’re assured of spending at least seven weeks at Disney this summer. It’s another long summer for Turner, and he’s not complaining.

“There is a lot of similarity in how it’s set up, but for me personally, I just think that it’s a great time for everybody to kind of stay focused,” Turner said. “There’s no distractions. Everybody’s locked in and focused. So, there’s really not a lot that can go wrong in a basketball sense.”

One difference at Disney is that nobody has family members with them until at least the second round of the playoffs. At an Olympics, it’s typical for family and friends to make the trip — and at last year’s World Cup, a small number of players also made arrangements for family to join them in China.

“This is a little bit different than that, but certainly the timing is similar and the timing for us as far as preparation is probably more like a FIBA-type schedule than it is like a training camp,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re practicing for a couple weeks and then you’re playing a few games and then it really, really counts.”

NOTES: San Antonio assistant Tim Duncan is not with the Spurs at Disney; the team said he has remained home to help LaMarcus Aldridge with his rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery. … Of the 22 teams in the restart, eight opted to take Tuesday off from practice.

Tyler Zeller reportedly signs with Spurs for restart in Orlando

Tyler Zeller Spurs
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With LaMarcus Aldridge out for the rest of this season, San Antonio was looking for a little frontcourt depth heading into the restart in Orlando.

Enter Tyler Zeller.

The journeyman big man, who had not played in the NBA this season and played just six games the season before that, will sign with the Spurs for the restart, according to both Shams Charania of The Athletic and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

For his career, Zeller has averaged 7 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 50.9%. However, he has bounced around the league a lot in recent years — the Spurs are his sixth team since 2017. He brings size but a game that doesn’t fit well in the modern NBA to San Antonio.

The Spurs head to Orlando four games back of Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West. San Antonio will have to beat out Portland, Sacramento, and New Orleans to finish with the nine seed, then beat Memphis in back-to-back play-in games, to earn the eight seed and make the playoffs. The reward for that is LeBron James and the Lakers.