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.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.