No. 1: Mike Brown’s journey back -- Most NBA fans know of Mike Brown mostly as the guy whom Cleveland fired twice in a span of four years, presumably to placate LeBron James before and after his Miami Heat sojourn. A few might recall Brown as an assistant coach with Indiana and San Antonio. But the dude filling in these days for ailing Golden State coach Steve Kerr has traveled a more twisting road than that to land in Oakland, as Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News chronicled this weekend:
Brown played basketball through college and went right into coaching after that. He was a video guy at 22, an assistant by 27 and a head coach by 35. “There are a lot of smart people out there,” Brown said. “The only thing I had control over was working harder than the next guy.”
So that’s what his life became: basketball, basketball, basketball and family, not much else. Brown met his eventual wife, Carolyn, at 23. They had their first son, Elijah, when Mike was 25 and their second son, Cameron, when Mike was 27. They all grew up together in the NBA world.
But by May of 2014, his two boys had entered independent stages. Elijah was in his second year of college, having transferred from Butler to New Mexico because Brad Stevens left for the NBA. Cameron was in his last year of high school, soon setting off for Cincinnati. And in January of 2015, Mike and his wife agreed to a divorce.
Forever, he was the dad with the young kids and the cool job that kept him extremely busy. Life was frantic. Now he was the dad with too much free time and a disappearing list of responsibilities. Life became mellow.
“I was basically just trying to find myself away from basketball,” Brown said. “I tried expanding my horizons.”
He exercised more to keep from going stir-crazy. He grabbed some tools and helped keep the local high school football field in playing shape. He tried to dig into a few leadership books. “But I’m not a reader,” Brown said.
Still in a search of a hobby, Brown hopped on his motorcycle. It became his release. Sometimes twice a week, he’d rev it up from his Cleveland home and take the two-hour round trip across the south shore of Lake Erie toward Cedar Point’s famous theme park, blasting Beastie Boys or whatever would calm him as he collected his thoughts on Ohio’s open road.
Year 1 of his sabbatical ended and basketball still hadn’t drawn him back. Teams called, offering assistant jobs, but nothing excited him. The business side of things had scarred him, but Brown maintains he never got bitter. He knows how fortunate he’s been professionally. “I’m pretty good at moving on,” he said.
But both his boys were now off at college, his ex-wife was out of the house and, just down the road, LeBron James had returned and the Cavaliers had bolted back to prominence, overtaking the region. It was time to hit restart and get out of Cleveland.
So for Year 2 of the sabbatical, Brown stationed himself in a small apartment in Albuquerque, just down the road from the University of New Mexico, where his son, after a redshirt transfer season, was preparing to star as the school’s high-scoring wing.
But about two months before the college season started, Gregg Popovich called with an invite: Come to the Spurs’ annual coach’s meeting in Newport Beach. Brown did. And while there, Popovich had an open offer: Any time he wanted to be around the Spurs during the upcoming season, he could. Just call Popovich’s secretary and set it up.
“Extremely important,” Brown said. “I was feeling like I wanted to get back in, but I wasn’t quite there yet. So to be able to do it this way, it was unbelieveable. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation, a better guy, a better organization at the time to be able to do that with.”
It allowed him to sort his priorities exactly how he wanted. When New Mexico was playing, Brown was there to see Elijah — home or road. He went to 31 of their 32 games that season, only missing the game at UNLV because UNLV had just fired its coach and rumors were floating that Brown may be the next guy. “Missed that one on purpose,” he said.
But the college season is shorter and spread out. So any time he had the NBA itch, Brown would meet up with the Spurs for days at a time. He’d stay at Danny Ferry’s vacant house in Alamo Heights, where Brown left a vehicle and clothes. Ferry moved to Atlanta for the Hawks’ GM job years earlier, but never sold his home. Brown slept in his son’s old room.
“Every time I go to sleep, I’m in this Spiderman bed with this Spiderman fathead looking over me,” Brown laughed. “Yeah, life was different.”
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No. 2: Spurs in rare spot as underdogs -- They won 61 games and are led by Gregg Popovich, the coach widely acknowledged as the NBA’s best. And yet the San Antonio Spurs carry no real pressure into the Western Conference finals because they’re not the ones expected to emerge when the series ends. It’s an unusual spot for Popovich and his Spurs, but that doesn’t mean it’s an insurmountable challenge, according to poundingtherock.com, a blog focused on the San Antonio team. (Bonus points for educating some of us in the meaning and existence of “steampunk”):
After easing former MVP Kevin Durant into their system, the Warriors are essentially a streamlined version of last year’s squad; they wreak havoc on the perimeter, punish defenses that overplay with lobs and back-cuts, and intuitively scramble and switch on defense. While Houston was a spreadsheet laid out on a 94 x 50 foot grid, Golden State is a circuit of nodes operating perfectly in sync, no matter who’s holding the controls.
Both represent where the NBA is headed, with offenses built around perfunctory ball movement, a breakneck tempo and a concerted focus on the three ball. They ranked first and second in offensive rating in the regular season, and finished in the top four in both pace and three-pointers made
If those teams are the idealized visions for the league’s positionless future, these Spurs are its alternative timeline — they’re steampunk, a leaden piece of old-world machinery that stays airborne through inventiveness and sheer will. Its parts are both old and new but weirdly interchangeable, its engineer a wily hold-over from a bygone era.
The Spurs aren’t as sleek as Houston, or as brutally overwhelming as Golden State, but there is a foreseeable path for them to win this thing
It’ll take a healthy Kawhi Leonard, who’s had four days off since spraining his ankle in Game 5. Beyond what he can do offensively, he’s the Spurs’ best hope of slowing down Kevin Durant. It’ll take another great series from the supporting cast, from Danny Green all the way to rookie Dejounte Murray. It’ll take more of Game 6 LaMarcus Aldridge, battling with Draymond Green on both ends and finding his rhythm in the pick-and-pop game.
It’ll take winning at least one game at Oracle, where the Warriors have lost only five times this season (although one of them was to SA).
It’ll take Steph Curry missing a shot or two.
In short, the Spurs will have to play their best basketball yet, slogging and grinding games into a style that benefits them and emboldens their opponents into some of their more disreputable habits...
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No. 3: Wizards’ backcourt all grown up – A few years ago, before they were the “Splash Brothers,” Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were a pair of young guards taking baby steps in their first NBA postseason, beating Denver in the first round in 2013 before losing to San Antonio. Well, Washington’s backcourt has taken similar steps, dealing with inexperience and speculation as to whether they even could play nice with each other. But John Wall and Bradley Beal are grown up now, not just as individuals but as a two-headed threat that hopes to survive Game 7 Monday night in Boston. Wizards beat writer Candace Buckner reports:
In May 2014, Ian Mahinmi was a key reserve player for the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, who faced the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Back then, the Wizards were making their first postseason appearance in six seasons. Wall was in his fourth year of carrying the burden as franchise point guard. Beal wasn’t old enough to legally enjoy the goods from the cognac company that sponsored the Wizard Girls. Their youth and inexperience showed as the Pacers wrapped up the series in Game 6, on Washington’s home floor.
In that game, Beal needed 19 cracks at the rim just to get 16 points. Wall missed 9 of 16 shot attempts, including all four from beyond the three-point arc.
Three years later, the Wizards faced another elimination Game 6, and no longer did Wall and Beal have the appearance of wide-eyed fawns frozen by speeding headlights. Mettle replaced immaturity, as the pair traded clutch shots in the fourth quarter Friday night against the Boston Celtics. Then for the finale, the signature shot that will define Wall’s first seven years in the NBA: a gutsy three-pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining in Washington’s 92-91 victory, a shot that Scott Brooks described as one of “the biggest shots I’ve seen, as a player or as a coach.”
On Monday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the pair will be relied upon again to carry the franchise to new heights. It will be the first Game 7 in Wall and Beal’s career — and the team’s first since the 1979 conference finals.
Mahinmi, who has played more Game 7s than anyone on the Wizards roster, expects it to be yet another opportunity to marvel at the development of his teammates who were once opponents.
“Now those guys are not babies anymore. They’re closers,” said Mahinmi, the Wizards’ backup center. “They’re proven closers.”
Before the start of the 2016-17 season, Wall and Beal made headlines about their work relationship, or lack thereof. Wall even admitted how the two “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.” Throughout the fourth quarter on Friday, the improved rapport showed as the backcourt played off one another. Wall delivered a pass to a cutting Beal for a reverse layup that tied the game with 9:05 remaining. Later, as Wall helped create a turnover by Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, Beal drilled that rally-starting three that trimmed the Wizards’ deficit to 87-85
Off the court, their chemistry remains palpable. Their postgame podium interviews have become a deadpan comedy act. Following Game 4, Wall used a feminine pronoun for his jumper, explaining his 0-for-9 start was just a matter of “she’s just not acting right.” Beal, sharing the dais, chimed in: “That’s how it be. Sometimes she just don’t fall through that basket.” Friday night, the pair sensed another moment for chemistry, silently nodding in unison to a reporter’s question for comical effect ...
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No. 4: Cavaliers feel a little cadaverous – Rest is nice. Warehousing is not. The Cleveland Cavaliers have become experts at breaking the NBA postseason into four separate bite-sized, best-of-seven series, with significant gaps between each round to recover, relax and refocus. But they’ve taken it to extremes this time, wrapping up their second-round series against Toronto in four games while waiting two more days for the Celtics and the Wizards to sort things out. By the time the East finals begin, the Cavs will have had nine days between games. It’s an unusually long layoff, as ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin notes:
The break is testing some players' patience as Lue has limited the team's activities to walkthroughs on the court rather than full-fledged 5-on-5, in attempt to save their bodies and prevent injuries.
"I know our team is anxious to play," Lue said. "[Kyle] Korver and LeBron [James], those guys are talking about it. So our guys are just anxious to play and ready to go out there."
Reinforcing Lue's choice to do away with scrimmages during the rest period was an injury that occurred to Cavs center Edy Tavares during an organized pickup game between Cleveland's reserves prior to practice Thursday.
Tavares suffered a fractured right hand, which was confirmed through X-rays and a CT scan Friday and will be out indefinitely. While Tavares did not receive any playing time in the Cavs' 8-0 start to the playoffs and wasn't even on the active roster, his injury creates a hole at the backup center position the Cavs tried to address all season to no avail. Three previous candidates to fill the spot, Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders, were all unsuccessful with Andersen and Bogut suffering season-ending injuries and Sanders unable to get up to speed after nearly two full seasons away from the NBA.
Kyrie Irving said the Tavares injury served as notice to any of the Cavs' rotation players that wanted to get on the court to play before the next round begins.
"I understand how important it is," Irving said. "I was about to come out and play 5-on-5 and the incident (when Tavares hurt his hand) happened three seconds later ... Naw, I'm not for scrimmaging right now until the game."
During last year's run to the championship, when the Cavs also started off 8-0, Lue would scrimmage his players occasionally, but would make them wear kneepads and elbow pads while doing so, something he learned from Stan Van Gundy when he played for him in Orlando.
Without the release of energy that comes from playing, the Cavs have had to become creative with how they pass the time, from group yoga workouts, to conditioning competitions on the VersaClimber machine, to calculated strategy sessions.
"You got to keep them engaged and, you know, show them new things," Lue said. "I've got to trick them at times, but they've been pretty locked in and we've just got to continue to do what we do. It is what it is, and we just got to continue to work on what we need to get better at and then whoever we play we just got to be ready."
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No. 5: Free agents cloud Jazz’s future -- Fans plan, NBA free agents laugh. OK, so that’s not exactly how the old saying goes (Man plans, God laughs) but the reworked version does apply to the uncertainty hanging over what otherwise was a delightful season for the Utah Jazz and their fans. From franchise guy Gordon Hayward to point guard George Hill to other vital roles players on their roster, the Jazz have to make decisions that will affect their short- and long-term futures. And then figure out ways to get even better. Jody Genessy of the Deseret News glimpsed into Utah’s crystal ball:
Hayward, who continues to get better seven seasons into his NBA career, will likely opt out of the final year of his contract and become a highly coveted unrestricted free agent.
George Hill, who was terrific as the team’s point guard when he wasn’t battling thumb and big toe injuries, is also a free agent who’s bound to have a variety of suitors.
And Joe Ingles, who developed into the Jazz’s best 3-and-D guy over the season, will be of interest to teams as a restricted free agent.
The Jazz also have decisions to make on Boris Diaw (team option) and with free-agents-to-be Shelvin Mack and Jeff Withey.
“We have an important offseason in front of us and we intend to be aggressive in building on the success of this year,” Jazz president Steve Starks said. “(There are) a lot of things we want to continue to do.”
Not everybody will be back, of course, but the prevailing sentiment among those who just wrapped up the most successful season in quite some time: Let’s keep this together.
“I really enjoyed playing with the guys here. I think we created a heck of a bond: me, Gordon and Rudy,” Hill said. “We’ve created that type of bond where it’s fun to play with. We’ve got a great coaching staff and the coach believes in us and pushes us every day. …
“Let’s stay together, build on what we’ve done this year,” Hill added. “Hopefully we can do that.”
As it stands, [center Rudy] Gobert is slotted in as the Jazz’s top earner next season. The Stifle Tower will make $21.2 million as his four-year, $100-plus million deal kicks in.
The Jazz have only eight other players who are certain to be under contract with them next season, barring a trade: Derrick Favors ($11.8 million), Alec Burks ($10.6 million), Joe Johnson ($10.5 million), Dante Exum ($5 million), Trey Lyles ($2.4 million), Rodney Hood ($2.4 million), Raul Neto ($1.5 million) and Joel Bolomboy ($1.3 million).
The returning Jazz players’ salaries are just over $67 million combined. Hayward’s salary is projected to begin in the $30 million range, leaving the Jazz about $25 million below the tax level ($121 million) and just under the $101 million salary cap...
If Hayward is retained, it might get tricky for the Jazz to also re-sign Hill and Ingles, depending on the type of contracts that are sent their way from other teams.
In addition, the Jazz will have two first-round draft picks — theirs (No. 24) and Golden State’s (No. 30) from a three-way trade made in 2013. Utah also has a pair of second-round selections (Nos. 42 and 55).
Jazz coach Quin Snyder is taking a positive mindset into this transformative offseason, which also includes a $125 million arena renovation and a massive makeover of the practice facility.
“I think it’s exciting, to be honest with you, with all of the changes, improvements, innovation,” said Snyder when asked if this was going to be a challenging summer.
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Steve Kerr showed up for Golden State’s practice Saturday but that doesn’t change anything about his availability to actually work games in what remains of the Warriors’ playoff run. ... San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili knows his team’s defense will have to take something away from Golden State’s potent offense, but that’s easier said than done. ... Remember the contributions in the past two Finals of former Cavs’ guard Matthew Dellavedova? Well, there’s another Aussie who reached the NBA by way of St. Mary’s – Spurs guard Patty Mills – hoping to make it three in a row for his school’s alumni. ... It’s official: The NBA’s Last Two Minutes report acknowledged that Boston got jobbed in losing a second off the clock for its final shot. But the same report cites two violations by Celtics big man Al Horford that weren’t called. ... New general manager Rob Pelinka believes he’s ready for his close-up as the Lakers begin their overhaul under Magic Johnson. ... Several NBA agents have praise for Pelinka, one of their former peers. And like most stories involving agents, these guys are allowed to comment anonymously. ... Remember the vow by John Calipari, in this New York Post story, on the night of the NBA Draft.