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NBA Sunday: Spurs Are The Usual Suspects

On pace to win 70 games, it seems the only guarantees in life are death, taxes and the Spurs contending, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton



Over the course of the past 20 years, the San Antonio Spurs have proven to be the NBA’s model franchise, and it’s not even close. And as they do battle with history while in the mega-shadow cast by the Golden State Warriors, entering play on March 6 with a 53-9 record, it’s happening again.

We are ignoring the Spurs and discounting their ability to walk away with all of the marbles, once again.

Whether it’s Michael Jordan’s quest for a three-peat somehow outshining Tim Duncan’s historically good rookie season or the 1999 NBA Finals occurring both after a lockout shortened season and in the absence of Patrick Ewing, it seems that there has always been something better and more interesting to discuss and observe than the boring old San Antonio Spurs.

That’s okay, though. Gregg Popovich would have it no other way.

* * * * * *

With 38 consecutive wins at the SBC Center in San Antonio, the Spurs have quietly solidified themselves as one of the most dominant home teams in NBA history. As the Warriors have captured our imaginations and trod along toward 73 wins, the Spurs are quietly just two games behind the pace set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, as well.

Amazingly, we are witnessing a season wherein two teams will have an opportunity to win 70 games, but as usual, nobody cares about or talks about the Spurs. They will continue to play the role of the overlooked underdog while lurking in the shadows and awaiting their opportunity to snatch the Larry O’Brien trophy out from underneath everyone’s noses.

In our basketball culture today, where fans are generally more educated about the game and—thanks to advanced statistics—have metrics and measurements for things that were never discussed as recently as 10 years ago, you still don’t hear much about these guys.

Want to know what the epitome of the culture of the Spurs is? Look no further than Tim Duncan.

As Kobe Bryant puts the finishing touches on his NBA career and receives affection and celebration everywhere he goes, we easily regard him as one of the all-time great NBA players and someone whom the game will miss dearly. For an entire season, we will have known that Bryant was on his way out. For goodness sake, the All-Star game was dedicated to him.

In typical Spurs fashion, though, we will simply wake up one August morning to a report saying that Tim Duncan has decided to retire, and poof, like that, he will be gone.

Meanwhile, one would be hard pressed to argue that Bryant has had a better career than Duncan, and it KawhiInside1would be nearly impossible to argue the fact that Duncan’s decline into his twilight has been both more productive and more successful.

Yet, that’s how we treat the Spurs.

In Kawhi Leonard, the torchbearer for this franchise, we have seen the slow progression of a quiet, unassuming, humble “worker bee” who keeps his mouth shut, shows up early to the gym and listens to his coaches.

Is Leonard the best all-around player in the NBA today? Upon first glance, merely reading that question might seem ridiculous, but if you’ve observed Leonard as closely as I have over the years and spoken with him, tracked his progression and picked his brain, you would understand that he has no discernible weakness.

And if you stopped watching Stephen Curry replays long enough, you would realize or remember that it is Leonard—the reigning Defensive Player of the Year—who is often charged with guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. The Spurs just so happen to be on a historical winning pace and just so happen to be led by Leonard’s 20.8 points per game.

In just his fifth year, the 24-year-old honestly has no equal in the league and should finish in the Top 5 of the Most Valuable Player vote.

But alas, Leonard plays for the Spurs, so that’s not very likely to happen.

* * * * * *

Steve Kerr is one of the brilliant basketball minds around, and anyone that knows him would second that.

Want to know what keeps Kerr up at night?

The San Antonio Spurs.

Want to know what Kerr’s biggest fear is?

Winning 73 or 74 games and then being ousted after Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. At this point, the thought of that seems almost incomprehensible—and make no mistake about it, the Warriors are going to be magnificently tough to beat—but if there is one team that can do it, it’s the Spurs.

Few seem to think so, though, which again, should not strike you as a major surprise.

Amazingly, the Spurs and Warriors will do battle three more times before the end of the season: March 19, April 7 and April 10. The first and last of those contests will be held in San Antonio, but the final two occur in the final week of the regular season, so players from either side will probably be under minutes restrictions.

Besides, not wanting to tip his hand before their inevitable playoff meeting, few expect Popovich to deploy any of the strategic maneuvers he and his staff have been cooking up for the Warriors, which likely includes a big lineup that will probably cause concern for the Warriors.

With LaMarcus Aldridge and even David West having entered the fold in San Antonio, the Spurs have quietly assembled a team and rotation full of big men who have tremendous back-to-basket games while simultaneously possessing magnificent floor-reading and passing ability. With the Spurs and their motion based offense, the fact that the Warriors like to play small presents a very interesting matchup situation. In all likelihood, we will see a lineup featuring Duncan, Aldridge and Boris Diaw in the front court with Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard in the backcourt. Leonard’s ability to hit the three and Parker’s ability to dive to the basket and play off of the ball would fit seamlessly with the back-to-basket and floor-reading ability of the three front court players. The Spurs, necessarily, would have to operate out of a half-court set and slow the Warriors down. Deploying such a lineup would also require the Spurs to take care of the basketball, because any turnover is likely to result in a quick score on the other end.

Still, the pros here are that Popovich would put Kerr in a situation where he would either have to depend on Draymond Green to successfully defend Duncan or Aldridge in one-on-one situations in the low post or play two of Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Marresse Speights or Anderson Varejao at the same time. And although Green is a magnificent post-defender, especially considering his stature, the task of being successful against Aldridge and/or Duncan over the course of seven games is daunting.

There’s a long way to go before the Spurs are able to deploy their full force on the Warriors. And in the tough Western Conference—especially with the Los Angeles Clippers playing with a magnificent chip on their shoulders—nothing is guaranteed.

In the end, though, the acquisition of Aldridge fits in with the Spurs perfectly. He has many of the same offensive gifts and talents as Duncan and has fully bought into the ball-moving and floor-spacing requisites of the San Antonio offense.

Certainly, with Aldridge added to the fold and Duncan being pitch-counted to the tune of playing a career-low 25 minutes per game, the Spurs are just as formidable as their 53-9 record would suggest. And if and when they get an opportunity to take on the Warriors in the playoffs, maybe at that point the world will begin paying attention.

* * * * * *

With their playoff spot having recently been clinched, for the Spurs, the pending trip to the postseason will be their 19th in a row.

The last time they failed to make the playoffs, President Bill Clinton had just won a second term in the White House, Michael Jordan just turned in a valiant effort in what became known as “the Flu Game” and Anthony Davis was a four-year-old toddler whose destiny was still unknown.

Ironically, despite being the NBA’s model franchise, the Spurs always seem to fly under the radar.

That’s okay, though, they’ll just continue to show up when it counts—just like they have done for the past 19 years.


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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.

Ben Nadeau



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.

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Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.

Shane Rhodes



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.

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.

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NBA Daily: Houston Has It All

Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.

Lang Greene



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.

Floor Generalship

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.

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