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NBA Saturday: Spurs Ready for Another Run

The San Antonio Spurs are ready to make a deep postseason run, again … The Toronto Raptors clinched the Atlantic Division

Alex Kennedy

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Spurs Ready for Another Run

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the San Antonio Spurs’ recent 19-game winning streak was that Gregg Popovich continued his annual tradition of limiting the minutes of his key players in an effort to save them for the postseason. The Spurs didn’t stray from that philosophy this year, the team just managed to go undefeated February 26 to April 2 while sticking to their plan.

Last month, Tony Parker averaged 27.6 minutes per game. Tim Duncan averaged 28.4 minutes. Manu Ginobili averaged 21.3 minutes. The trio even sat out one game altogether, resting for the Spurs’ contest against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 24.

“Our minutes stayed low,” Duncan said. “Just like Pop likes it.”

The Spurs’ starters have played fewer minutes than any other starting lineup in the NBA this season. After last year’s run to the NBA Finals, Popovich wanted to ensure that his team would be ready for another playoff march that could last into June. Popovich wasn’t going to abandon that plan for a winning streak; he has shown that he really doesn’t care about regular season wins, as evidenced by his distribution of minutes and history of resting key players.

“Records and strings, they don’t mean anything,” Popovich said. “What we care about each game is how well we play. If that’s your goal and focus, usually that will bring more wins than losses considering everything else to be equal. Strings, records and all of that don’t really mean anything very much.

“We’ve kept [the starters’ minutes] down. We’ve always been a team that’s tried to get role players around those guys and tried to play more guys than most other teams play.”

San Antonio currently owns the NBA’s best record at 62-18. On Friday night, the Spurs locked up the top seed in the Western Conference, which makes them even scarier entering the postseason since they’ll have home-court advantage against every opponent.

“It’s a big plus,” Danny Green said. “The biggest thing for us right now is to stay healthy and to build chemistry – winning games in the process helps and getting home-court advantage, that’s just the extra bonus for us.”

The fact that the Spurs were able to win 19 straight games while still limiting their starters is a testament to the team’s depth and ability to run away with games early. Not only does resting his starters keep them ready for the postseason, it gives role players a chance to step up. Players like Danny Green and Gary Neal were ready to perform on the NBA’s biggest stage last June in large part because they had played a significant role during the season, which helped them improve their game and gain confidence. Popovich’s approach to resting players down the stretch varies from year to year, but it’s something that he believes has been crucial to the team’s success over the years.

“It’s worked well for us,” Popovich said. “This year, the bench has been very significant in keeping our heads above water and winning games. … Every season is different. The teams you play factor in as well as the current health of your team, the energy, the tired factor and what you’ve done. Are the games back-to-back? Are they three in four days? All of those sorts of things go into what you do at the end of the season. You just do it day-by-day, assess and do your best.”

Believe it or not, Popovich was actually frustrated during the team’s winning streak because he was robbed of many teaching opportunities. Losses are important for a coach like Popovich because it allows him to show players what went wrong and where the team needs to improve. Popovich’s preferred stretch, he says, is “win a few, lose a few, be sharper and have them in good shape.”

“He’s a teacher and wants to teach,” Duncan said. “He wants the good and the bad.”

“The real joy is watching your team improve,” Popovich said. “You fall in love with the day-to-day stuff – whether it’s practice, shootaround or a film session you have one on one with a player and you watch that individual grow during the year – that’s what teaching and coaching is all about. That’s the part that we all love the most. The games are competitive and that part is fun too, but it’s the teaching that I think everybody enjoys or misses when they stop doing it.”

While Popovich has developed into one of basketball’s best teachers, he hasn’t stopped being a student of the game. Even after winning four championships and 964 games, he is still open to learning new things from other coaches. He recently admitted that he watched the NCAA Tournament so that he could see what the college coaches are doing and try to work some of those things into his own game plan.

“If you were coaching a kids’ team, I’d go watch just to see what you did because I might learn something,” Popovich said. “There’s always something. It’s not just necessarily a play, maybe it’s a way that they substituted or managed or what kind of a wrinkle they might put into their team defense. There’s always something you can find that you might be able to incorporate.”

San Antonio has the fifth-best offense and third-best defense in the league this season, scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions while allowing 99.7 points per 100 possessions. They’re the only NBA team that ranks in the top five in both categories. The Spurs’ offense has evolved over the years and it demands that players make the right play and react to what they see from the defense.

“It’s a motion offense, it’s malleable, it’s ever-changing in the sense that when players are moving and the ball is moving sometimes things happen in the offense that you didn’t plan on,” Popovich said. “The players just do and it becomes part of the offense. Other things coaches may concoct over in an office because you watch enough film where you try to manipulate something and it becomes part of the offense. Basically back in the late 90s, Brett [Brown], [Mike Budenholzer], [Hank] Egan and I, we decided how we wanted to play and what kind of an offense we wanted to use. We decided on a motion offense and put in the basics. Each year, we tweaked it a little bit ourselves, added some things that we saw the players do and so it evolves and continues to evolve. It doesn’t stay exactly the same, but the base is always the same.”

Chemistry is extremely important for the Spurs’ attack, as every player must be on the same page. While other teams change coaches and personnel every few years, San Antonio has been able to keep their same core intact. That’s because everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, is on the same page as well, and understands the importance of continuity.

“It’s a matter of getting an opportunity, sticking with it, having a group around you that can share the vision and having patience to get it done,” Popovich said. “We’ve been fortunate to have great synergy between ownership, management and coaching for quite a while. That creates an environment for players that allow them to be more successful. That’s really what has gone well for us.”

Because of this, the players all get along and the team’s chemistry is unrivaled. When a new player joins the team, as Austin Daye did in February, they quickly learn their place and fall into line.

“This team has a really high basketball IQ and everyone knows that,” Daye said. “Everybody speaks on how this bunch of guys can just make things happen. It is great to play with these guys, some that will be in the Hall of Fame and you know that before they finish their careers. To play with these guys, it is an honor for me and I feel blessed to be in this situation.”

One of the keys to Popovich’s offense is ball movement. Players rotate the ball and find the open man. San Antonio isn’t going to force shots and beat themselves. The Spurs’ ball movement has improved over the course of this season, and it has been one of the team’s strengths recently.

“It is huge,” Ginobili said. “At the beginning of the season, we were winning, but we did not have this type of feeling that everyone was involved. Now, everybody is moving the ball really well and everybody is making shots. When that happens, when those things click, it is fun to play when you are on the court and it is even fun to watch when you are on the bench because everybody is in a good mood.”

“I think we’ve moved the ball really well,” Popovich said. “We shared and moved it very well. We’ve gotten a lot of uncontested shots because of the ball movement. That’s been good.”

“We really love to move the ball together,” Marco Belinelli said. “That’s why we’re winning together.”

The Spurs are always a team to watch entering the postseason, and this season is no different. San Antonio is ready to make another run to the NBA Finals, and this time they may be the ones hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy when all is said and done.

Raptors Clinch Atlantic Division

Last night, the Toronto Raptors clinched the Atlantic Division for just the second time in franchise history. The Brooklyn Nets lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, which sealed the division title for Toronto.

The last time the Raptors won the division was the 2006-07 season. Toronto is now 46-33, which puts them in the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. The team clinched a playoff berth awhile ago, but didn’t win the division until last night. After learning that they won the Atlantic,  the players celebrated the accomplishment, but made it clear that they aren’t satisfied.

“It’s big,” Amir Johnson said, wearing a red T-shirt that recognized the division win. “Especially for me and everybody else in the room who has been here. We’ve been here for five years and we’ve been through our ups and downs and to take the Atlantic is a big deal. It’s a proud moment.”

“We’re still anxious,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We still want more. We’re not satisfied with nothing. We understand we have much more basketball to play and a long road to go and we want to take advantage of it. Not just get there and say we got there, where people doubted us. We definitely feel like we can go in and make some noise.”

Entering the season, the Raptors seemed like a long shot to win the division since the Nets and New York Knicks were being labeled contenders and Toronto was considered a fringe playoff team. It seemed even more unlikely when the Raptors got off to a 7-13 start, traded Rudy Gay, and reportedly considered moving other veterans such as Kyle Lowry and DeRozan to rebuild.

However, the Raptors have been a on a tear since late December, and Lowry and DeRozan have had career-years.

Toronto was able to end their five-season playoff drought this year, and now seem poised to make some noise in the postseason. Winning the Atlantic and securing a top-four seed certainly helps.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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