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NBA AM: The Game 1 Awards

Most NBA teams played one playoff game, but here are the postseason’s top performers in the first weekend.

Joel Brigham

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Short of perhaps Game 1 of the NBA Finals (and every NBA Finals game thereafter), there might not be any time over the course of a season where fans are more jacked up than they are for Game 1 of the first round. With 16 teams still in the mix and nothing but optimism for fans of all of them, social media is ablaze on the first weekend of postseason games, and with good cause.

The first eight games played this past weekend included three that were decided by just 4 points of fewer, and two of those were decided by last-second shots. All of this says nothing of the two massive upsets in the Eastern Conference and the battle of potential MVPs out West. That first batch of games was fun for just about everybody (well, almost everybody), which brings us to the concept for the following one-day awards.

Over the weekend, Moke Hamilton wrote an opinion piece stating that postseason awards should be doled out with the playoffs taken into consideration. While that won’t happen any time soon, these are the Game 1 postseason awards, featuring the MVP, the top head coach, the best defensive player, the most improved player compared to the regular season, and the top rookie from the opening weekend of the playoffs.

It’s just one game, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to debate. Here they are, the top dogs from the opening weekend of the postseason:

Most Improved Player – Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls – After the Taj Gibson trade, Portis saw a predictable uptick in minutes for Chicago, but his 19 points and nine rebounds in Game 1 was easily one of the better games of his season. While he’s certainly proven capable of hauling in double-digit rebounds in his expanded role, he only has scored more than 19 points twice all season. His three 3-pointers tied a season high, too, and it’s worth noting that he didn’t miss a shot after halftime. Along with Jimmy Butler, he was a huge reason for Chicago’s big Game 1 upset, and while Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg does not plan to thrust him into the starting lineup for Game 2, it seems clear he’s earned himself a big role in future games, especially if he can keep this up.

Rookie of the Game 1 – Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks – Rookies don’t often get opportunities to make a difference in the postseason, mostly because the best of them typically play for the league’s worst teams. This year is especially barren of young talent considering how weak the rookie crop was anyway. In fact, only three rookies played more than 22 minutes in Game 1: Wayne Selden, Taurean Prince and actual Rookie of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon played more minutes than any of them, though, and his 16 points helped fuel the Bucks to a surprising Game 1 victory over the heavily-favored Toronto Raptors. He led all rookies in minutes, points, rebounds and assists in Game 1, which makes this a particularly easy call to make. Quite easily, he was the best rookie in the playoffs this past weekend, and only Prince came anywhere close to matching him.

Defensive Player of the Game 1 – Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors – After the Warriors wiped out the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr asked media what player in the league could do what Green has just done in Game 1, blocking away five shots and swiping away three steals, to go along with his other standard traditional numbers. It wasn’t just the numbers, though, as much as it was the way he acquired those statistics. The Noah Vonleh block was ridiculous and came at a pivotal time in the third quarter, with the Warriors up only by a single point. The lead was a little bigger in the fourth quarter when he completely embarrassed Damian Lillard at the rim, but his presence at the rim in that instance was no less impressive. The guy is active, aggressive, and capable of defending pretty much anybody on the floor at any time.

He may finally, mercifully get the regular season Defensive Player of the Year this season, but even if he doesn’t he sure as hell earned it in Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s everything we miss about basketball in the 1980s, and his aggression and drive are only going to help keep the playoffs interesting for the next couple of months.

Coach of the Game 1 – Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz – Synder could win this award just by virtue of winning Game 1 on the road after losing his best defensive player on the first play of the game. Having Rudy Gobert is (practically) essential for dealing with elite bigs like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and to lose an All-Defensive First Teamer and likely All-NBA center within 15 seconds of the tipoff and still keeping his team’s head in the game en route to a win is deeply, sincerely commendable.

Snyder doesn’t win this award simply for engineering an unexpected upset, though. By that criteria Hoiberg would be in this conversation, too, but he’s not.

The difference is in how Snyder handled the end of the game. It was brilliant to abstain from calling a timeout after the Clippers scored to tie the game with right around five seconds left in regulation. A lot of coaches would have called timeout in that situation to draw up a play and try to concoct the highest-percentage shot possible. Instead, Snyder refrained from calling that timeout, leaving L.A.’s offensively-gifted-yet-defensively-challenged lineup on the court to defend that Joe Johnson game winner. Those guys couldn’t handle Iso Joe, clearly, which is why he earned that last shot so effortlessly, and Snyder deserves a lot of the credit there for his headiness in managing the game’s final moments so artfully.

Most Valuable Player – James Harden, Houston Rockets – If the Boston Celtics had won, Isaiah Thomas would have won this award. To come out and drop in 33 points, dish out six assists and grab five rebounds after going through what he had gone through in the 36 hours leading up to the game was amazing by any measure. C.J. McCollum’s 41-point outing against the Warriors also may have been the most impressive offensive showing of any Game 1, but again, he and the Blazers fell apart in the fourth quarter.

That leaves Harden, who easily took Round 1 of the MVP title bout between himself and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.

Things started off pretty slowly for Harden in that game, actually, as he clanged (or even airballed) a lot of his early shot attempts, but by the time the game was over and Houston had asserted themselves in a 31-point victory over the Thunder, Harden had found his groove. Offensively, he looked so measured and composed while defenders flipped and flopped all over the court thanks to his start-stops, hops and drop-backs. It was a ballet out there, and Harden was the star of the show in an incredibly easy win. If the real awards were chosen after the postseason, as Moke Hamilton would prefer, it would have been a gigantic tick in the “Harden” column.

***

Of course, there is a whole lot of basketball left to play, and with so many legendary postseason athletes left off this list, it’s fairly certain that there will be shakeups, except perhaps when it comes to Rookie of the Year.

Whatever happens, it’s been an incredibly entertaining playoffs so far, and it’s only going to get better from here.

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NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans

Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.

Joel Brigham

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By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.

In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.

Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.

“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”

That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.

“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”

He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.

“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”

Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.

“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”

Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.

“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”

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The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns

Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.

Moke Hamilton

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Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.

On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.

Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.

Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.

“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.

“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.

So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.

What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.

Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.

Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.

With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.

Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.

On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.

The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.

So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.

After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.

Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.

Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.

Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.

“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.

“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.

“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”

* * * * * *

When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.

It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.

So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.

As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.

Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.

If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.

That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.

And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.

Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.

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Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve

While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.

Dennis Chambers

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In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.

The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.

Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.

For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”

Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.

Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.

Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.

In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.

“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.

“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”

From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.

Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.

“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”

With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.

After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.

“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”

Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.

Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.

“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”

Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.

The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.

So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.

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