Morning Shootaround

Feb. 1 Shootaround -- Spurs have some work to do on defense

NBA.com Staff

Spurs see where they can improve | Wade wants more from Bulls’ role players | Batum’s close bond with Portland | Durant, Warriors protect the paint

No. 1: Spurs have some defensive work to do — Twice this season, the San Antonio Spurs have had a two-game losing streak. After the first such skid (in November), the Spurs went on a nine-game win streak. Last night, the Spurs ended the two-game slide they had been on with a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Where the Spurs go from here in the win column remains to be seen, but as Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com points out, San Antonio is a little concerned about its inability to close games:

Interestingly, before Sunday’s loss to the Mavericks, the Spurs had won 117 consecutive home outings when leading at the half by 10 points or more, and they haven’t lost consecutive home games under those conditions since March 2003. Despite the 14-point victory, San Antonio appeared to come dangerously close to losing Tuesday at the AT&T Center.

San Antonio built a quick, 14-point lead on its way to a 31-point opening quarter, and by the 6:35 mark of the second, the advantage had swelled to 18. Oklahoma City rested Russell Westbrook for the first 3:23 of the second quarter, but the Spurs failed to capitalize, scoring only three points during that span.

Luckily for the Spurs, the Thunder offense basically disappeared with Westbrook off the floor. Oklahoma City produced only two free throw attempts with Westbrook on the bench and shot 0-of-6 from long range, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Indeed, the Thunder were plus-8 with Westbrook on the court, minus-22 with him off it.

“It’s a combination of things. Tonight, we allowed them to get to the free throw line,” Danny Green said. “We got there sometimes. The offense wasn’t flowing like normal. We didn’t get many great looks. We missed some free throws. When you’re not scoring and the other team is scoring and getting to the free throw line, it changes the whole flow of the game, the whole momentum. I can’t put a finger on one particular thing each game. Hopefully, we’ll figure it out soon and get the ball rolling by All-Star break.”

San Antonio certainly needs to.

The team hosts the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, then the Denver Nuggets on Saturday before embarking on its annual rodeo trip, which features eight consecutive outings on the road, where victories don’t come easy.

“I’m not sure [why the Spurs struggle to close games],” said Kawhi Leonard, who has posted the three highest-scoring games of his career this month. “Maybe effort or just mental errors, but we have to just keep pushing and make sure that doesn’t happen next game.”

Not to worry: coach Gregg Popovich will do plenty of pushing in practice and in the film room in the coming days.

“They usually score about 106. So, we did a good job, albeit giving them 33 in the third quarter,” Popovich said. “We’ve had a tough time with those third quarters lately. But I thought overall, we played competitively for more of the 48 than we have recently. Fourth quarter, we played good D; first half and fourth quarter. But it’s still a 48-minute game. We’ve got to figure that out.”

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No. 2: Wade calling for more consistency from teammates — The Chicago Bulls begin a six-game, Western Conference road trip tonight with a trip to play to Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 ET, ESPN) and this journey could very well make or break the Bulls’ playoff hopes. After last week’s off-court commentaries lobbed by Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo at each other and their teammates, Chicago is trying to put that in the past and finish strong before the All-Star break. To Wade, though, the Bulls’ other players must deliver for the team to have a chance at that feat, writes K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Dwyane Wade can’t get fined for these comments.

And he delivered them in upbeat fashion as the Bulls embark on their second six-game trip of the season after a 29-assist performance to win their getaway game Sunday, their most assists since Dec. 19.

But Wade’s message was similar the night he and Jimmy Butler carpet-bombed the locker room with their claims that their teammates don’t care or work hard enough: He and Butler need help.

“Everyone talks about assists when the ball goes in. No one talks about the pass you make when the ball doesn’t go in. Passes have been there,” Wade said Tuesday after practice at the Advocate Center. “We would love that game right there more often than not. But it’s not going to be that way every night.

“If we can continue to build to that game where you see certain teams like San Antonio and Golden State, the majority of the nights they have high-assist games because they know their game and guys know where their shots are coming. … That will keep all of us fresher as we go down the stretch.”

But both Wade and Hoiberg cited the teamwork inherent in the 29-assist victory over the 76ers and two spirited practices on Tuesday as steps forward.

“I never think it’s a bad thing when you have these opportunities to be together as a team when you’re on the road as long as we’re going to be,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we responded really well the first long West Coast trip. We played hard. We played together. That’s what it’s going to take.”

It’s going to take more than that given that the Bulls face Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, James Harden in Houston, DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and company at Golden State and an improving Suns team in Pheonix and Tom Thibodeau’s young stars in Minnesota.

“It gets no tougher than that when you talk about headliners,” Wade said. “These are good Western Conference teams. I’m sure we won’t be favored in many of them. So from that standpoint, it’s easy for us. We have no pressure on us.

“Our goal is to continue to grow as a team as we go into this All-Star break. In the last 10 games, we’re 5-5. We’re not awful and we’re not great. … I like this team in tough matchups. We just have to play basketball and have fun.”

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No. 3: Batum always feels close bond to Portland — Two summers ago, the Portland Trail Blazers underwent a roster rebuild in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge departing in free agency. One of the key moves they made then was trading Nicolas Batum to the Charlotte Hornets for several young prospects and some salary cap space. Batum re-signed with Charlotte last summer and is locked in there long term, but as Joe Freeman of The Oregonian writes, a part of Batum will always be bonded with the Rose City:

It’s been a year and a half since Batum stopped calling Portland his home, but old habits, as they say, die hard. The one-time Trail Blazers player has found a home in Charlotte, where he signed a 5-year, $120 million contract extension last summer, and he’s established himself as a franchise cornerstone on a team that values his versatility, playmaking and veteran leadership.

But Batum spent some of the most formative years of his adult life in Portland, so, in a sense, there’s a part of him that never really left.

“I spent seven years in this city,” Batum said Tuesday at the Moda Center, where the Blazers hosted the Hornets. “When I came here, I was technically nothing. I was 19. Didn’t speak much English. I was just a young guy. When I left, I was a man. This is always going to be a special place for me. Always. Forever.”

Batum is averaging 14.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game this season, logging career-highs in scoring and assists, while falling a fraction short in rebounds. Evan Turner has quietly been playing his best basketball of the season for the Blazers after a rocky transition, and his playmaking and defense seem to be meshing much better with the starting lineup than with the bench. But there have been countless times this season when it sure looked like the Blazers could have used Batum.

He laughed at the thought Tuesday night.

“They have Evan Turner,” he said. “That’s what he’s doing now. That’s why they brought him here. They don’t need me … they traded me. I didn’t leave through free agency, I got kicked out. So that means they don’t need me.”

For what it’s worth, Batum said he likes Turner’s ability and thinks he deserves a little time to adjust.

“He’s one of the best playmakers in this league,” Batum said. “I really appreciate his game. He showed that in Boston the last two years. He just needs time. This is a new team for him.”

“I loved my time here,” he said. “But now Charlotte is my home. I fit in great over there. They give me an opportunity and a big role and I’m very happy.”

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No. 4: Durant setting shot-blocking tone for Warriors — A quick look at the team blocked shot leaders shows that the Golden State Warriors are No. 1 in that department with 6.4 bpg. That’s not a huge surprise given that the Warriors ranked second in bpg the last two seasons. What is surprising is that All-Star and MVP contender Kevin Durant is leading the team with 1.7 bpg, the best mark in his career, and his 82 total blocks has him well within striking range of his career-best mark (105). Carl Steward of The Mercury News has more on Durant’s rim-protecting prowess this season:

If Durant can deliver three blocks in Wednesday night’s matchup against the Charlotte Hornets at Oracle Arena, he will have matched last year’s total of 85 in just 49 games. Currently averaging a career-best 1.7 blocks per game, he’s on pace for 140 for the season, which would obliterate his personal best. He’s already had 10 games with three or more blocks and 15 games with at least two.

Durant looks like he’s enjoying it the more he does it.

“It’s definitely fun,” he said Tuesday. “Ever since I was a kid when you think about defense, you think about getting steals and blocking shots before you know how to play real defense because you get your hand on the basketball. But to know now the momentum and energy it brings to the team when you block a shot or get a steal, I kind of feed off of that. It’s making me want to get down there (under the basket) a little bit more.”

Rim protection was supposed to be a potential problem for the Warriors with the departure of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, but it simply hasn’t eventuated. Durant, who is 10th in the NBA in blocks, and Draymond Green, who is 17th, have led the Warriors to the top of the charts in blocked shots at 6.38 per game. They have 18 more blocks than the next best team, New Orleans.

Long before Durant agreed to join the Warriors in the Hamptons, coach Steve Kerr understood the veteran forward’s capabilities as a shot blocker and defender.

“We saw it in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “He was amazing for seven games, so we knew what he could bring.”

Defensively, Durant has worked tirelessly with assistant coach Ron Adams trying to work on his shortcomings and better understand the Warriors’ elaborate system of switching. Adams, to be sure, is never shy about pointing up a deficiency or a missed assignment.

“Just about every play that he sees, he comes and talks to me about it,” Durant said of Adams. “He tells me when I need to be better. He tells me when my energy needs to be a little higher than what it is. It’s good to be coached up. Sometimes I may push back a little bit and sometimes I just need to shut up and listen and go do it.”

How would Durant critique his defensive season so far?

“I feel like I’m having a solid defensive year,” he said. “I could be a lot better. I feel like I can put together a nice streak of games together on the defensive end. I’m not the greatest defender in the league. I know that, but I’ve grown a lot.

“I definitely knew coming in here I was going to play a lot of small-ball 4 and have to guard a lot of bigger guys and use my length to protect the rim, get deflections and cause some disturbance with my length. I just try to keep that in mind as I play, and use that to my advantage.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Cleveland Cavaliers may be interested in trading for Deron Williams, but the Dallas Mavericks aren’t interested in making him available … After last night’s game, Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng spoke out about his refugee experience … The Washington Wizards’ defense has been nothing short of amazing during their recent turnaround … According to a report, the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns may be discussing a trade centered around DeMarcus Cousins … Speaking of the Kings, an injury to Garrett Temple last night may prove costly to their depth … Great read on the man behind many of the Philadelphia 76ers’ big trades, Sachin Gupta … Danilo Gallinari has stepped up his game for the Denver Nuggets of late … Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert loves playing alongside teammate and countryman Boris Diaw … Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd has quite a juggling act to perform each night with his frontcourt …

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