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MIAMI (AP) — Gregg Popovich is in a great mood, seeming to enjoy every aspect of the conversation. There was talk about wine, his favorite beverage and probably his favorite topic.

There was talk about players who came through the San Antonio system. There was talk about past NBA Finals matchups and some coaches he admires.

Then the chat turned to the Spurs. And the effusive answers from the venerable San Antonio coach were no more.

“We’re doing what we’ve always done, I guess,” Popovich shrugged.

True, but that’s what makes the Spurs worth talking about. Off to the NBA’s best start at 4-0 – and matching the best start in franchise history, one they could top at Orlando on Friday – the Spurs are generally ignoring this era’s preferred method of go-go-go, pace-and-space, shoot-the-3 basketball and relying instead on post-ups and defense.

It’s working, even as the Spurs wait for Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker – their best player and their point guard – to make their season debuts.

“It’s remarkable what they do and how they reinvent themselves every year,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The faces change, but their standards and excellence remain the same. So now they’re doing it retro, doing it totally old-school, the way everybody said you can’t do it.

“They’re doing it by building a top-caliber defense, not playing with incredible pace, not playing with the 3-point line right now … and they’re still beating everybody.”

San Antonio’s latest victim: Spoelstra and the Heat, winning 117-100 in Miami on Wednesday night. The Spurs were plus-12 in rebounds, plus-14 in bench scoring, shot 10 for 17 from 3-point range while holding Miami to a 9-for-26 night from beyond the arc. In a 9-minute span of the second half, the Spurs used a 32-13 run that decided everything.

Popovich dismissed the Spurs’ effort as mediocre, especially on defense. But all Miami could do afterward was tip its cap.

“They just know how to play,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “They have that consistency. They have that system that is really good. You can see every cut, every pass, it’s crisp. Sooner or later, you’re going to get hit by a screen and they’ll take advantage of that.”

Even without Leonard and Parker, it’s all working.

LaMarcus Aldridge, who often didn’t seem to fit with the Spurs during his first two seasons, is averaging 26 points and is off to the best four-game start of his career. Rudy Gay, a Spurs newcomer and a backup for the first time since he was a rookie, is averaging 14.8 points on 58 percent shooting. The Spurs are allowing an average of 93 points per game – 12 teams entering Thursday have given up more than that in every game they’ve played this season.

It seems like a very basic style.

And it’s proven to be very effective.

“That’s what I know,” Popovich said. “That’s what I’m teaching. It suits our team and our personnel, so why not?”

Popovich treats the nuances of the Spurs’ system as if they are state secrets. The basic principles are easy and obvious, though. He tells a player simply to play to his strength. Case in point: Dejounte Murray, who’s filling Parker’s role while the veteran recovers from a leg injury, is the only guard in the NBA right now with more than 100 minutes as a starter and less than three 3-point attempts.

Murray has taken two, and missed both. He’s not a shooter yet.

“His focus right now is defense and rebounding,” Popovich said. “Eventually he will learn about pick-and-rolls and when his shot gets better, he will be real dangerous.”

This is what makes the Spurs dangerous: No one is asked to venture out of their comfort zone, and Popovich figures out the rest.

“You’ve got to adapt to your personnel,” Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili said. “If you have LaMarcus Aldridge, you’re going to post up more than other teams. Defensively, we’re trying to be who we always be and always were. I’m pretty sure that’s what other teams like to try to be. No secret there. We just try to be the same old defensive team and adapt to whoever we have offensively.”

The Spurs have won 60 percent of their games in each of the last 20 seasons – a streak eight years longer than any other team in NBA history, and four years longer than any other team ever in the four major North American sports leagues. Popovich is going to pass Phil Jackson, George Karl and possibly Pat Riley on the NBA’s all-time wins list this season.

Golden State is the NBA’s best team and LeBron James its best player, but San Antonio is still the league’s standard.

“You just have to credit Pop, their program and the players that they like in their program and their adaptability to be able to sustain their excellence,” Spoelstra said.

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CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals rookie first-round pick John Ross pictured his season going differently than it has so far.

Ross spent most of the summer recovering from labrum surgery that limited him to short appearances in the final two preseason games. Shortly into the fourth preseason game against the Colts, he tweaked his knee. That same knee has bothered him all season, putting Ross on the injury report during the Bengals’ tumultuous start.

“I just think I was pushing it,” Ross said. “That’s probably a lot on my end not communicating. I just wanted to get out there to try to prove myself. It’s a young mentality. Now I’m in a better state of mind and definitely treating it better as far as what I should be doing as opposed to what I think they want.”
John Ross said he probably pushed too hard after initially hurting his knee in the Bengals’ final preseason game. Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports
Ross has played only five offensive snaps, all of which came in Week 2. That’s fewer than any other first-round pick this year, with the exception of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who hasn’t been needed with Alex Smith entrenched at the starting position.

There’s a possibility Ross finally could get back on the field soon. He practiced on Monday after spending weeks doing work on the rehab field. But Bengals coach Marvin Lewis warned last week that Ross was going to need time after being out for so long.

“Whenever John Ross comes out there, looks like everybody else and I watch him practice, we’ll have an idea. We’ll see whether or not he deserves to dress,” Lewis said during his bye week press conference.

“He’s not been out with the football team enough. He needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. That’s important. That’s probably as important as getting back healthy where he can begin to practice football again. He needs that. We have to get back to that point first.”

It would not be a surprise to see the Bengals take the cautious route with Ross after the choppy start to his NFL career. Ross said he was doing a lot during Monday’s practice, but has not progressed to 11-on-11 drills yet. The Bengals did not release a Monday practice report, but Ross likely would have been listed as limited if they had.

“I’ve always kind of felt pretty good, but I think it’s smart to not rush back into things, especially being in the NFL,” Ross said. “It’s a long season. In college you rush back, it’s a shorter season. I’ve always kind of been feeling pretty good, but definitely wanted to make sure I was in a better position to where I can get out there and do more than what my leg was letting me do.”

Ross implied that it would be all or nothing if he did suit up, meaning that it seems unlikely he would come in for just a play or two on Sunday.
“That’s one thing we all talked about. They don’t want to do that to anyone. They don’t want to have guys come in for these certain things or anything,” Ross said. “It was more ‘learn everything and once you do, you’ll get more reps.’ And that’s obvious for any guy.”

With Tyler Boyd nursing a knee injury, the Bengals could be down to five receivers against the Steelers on Sunday if Ross isn’t able to go. That would mean that rookie Josh Malone likely would be active for the first time. Malone has been a healthy scratch all season in favor of Cody Core and Alex Erickson.

“If they give me the green light, I’m not going to say no, I’m just waiting on what they have to say,” Ross said.

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The two highest scoring teams through the opening few days of the NHL season met on Monday, and Auston Matthews played the hero.

Matthews scored the overtime winner, breaking down the right side of the ice on a two-on-one rush and firing a perfect wrist shot over the shoulder of back-up goalie Anton Forsberg to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

In what has been a chaotic, fun, high scoring opening week of the NHL season, these two teams had each scored 15 goals through two games entering Monday’s contest. Chicago was able to grab a two-goal lead in the third period, before the Maple Leafs began their comeback.
It seemed like only a matter of time before the dam broke for the Maple Leafs.

They dominated when it came to puck possession, per, and fired 43 shots against Forsberg, including 36 through the final two periods and into overtime. With that roster, equipped with that much top-end and youthful talent, it wasn’t long after the Blackhawks increased their lead that the Maple Leafs came roaring back on goals 2:42 apart from Connor Brown and James van Riemsdyk.

With the first overall selection of Matthews and his incredible arrival at the beginning of last season, the Maple Leafs have seen their rebuild accelerate. They made the playoffs and offered a significant challenge to the Washington Capitals. They still have a young roster that will be challenged at points throughout this season, especially when (or if) those younger players go through any prolonged slumps.

The expectations around this group have certainly increased in the last year. They’re off to a 3-0 start, and have been piling up the goals. They didn’t put a large number on the board Monday, but they still illustrated how dangerous and dynamic they can be, with Matthews putting the finishing touches on that versus the Blackhawks.

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 61-21, advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where Kawhi Leonard rolled an ankle (thank you Zaza Pachulia) and they got swept by the Warriors.

I know what you did last summer: They kept the status quo going. The Spurs re-signed Patty Mills (probably overpaying, but they had to with Tony Parker injured to start the season). Pau Gasol opted out and re-signed, again for maybe more than the market would have given him. The Spurs brought back Manu Ginobili. They signed Rudy Gay, who is coming off an Achilles injury. The losses were solid bench players Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons.


1) Is Kawhi Leonard healthy, and can he stay that way? We saw in the playoffs last season what happens to this team when Leonard goes down, and it’s not pretty. Leonard is a top five NBA player who is both the focal point of the Spurs offense and the best perimeter defender in the NBA (that’s not just my opinion, the NBA GMs voted him that). The Spurs ask a lot of Leonard and he answered last season with an MVP-level performance.

That’s why it raised a few eyebrows that Leonard is sitting out the preseason to rest his right quadriceps tendinopathy (an inflammation of the tendon just above the kneecap in the thigh), especially after Gregg Popovich said it was something he battled last season. Is Leonard going to miss time at the start of this season because of it? Will it require him getting more rest days during the season?

We know what the Spurs are going to do — defend well, move the ball, not beat themselves. San Antonio is going to have a hard time getting near that 61 win total of a year ago in a loaded West, but without the full Kawhi Leonard treatment they could slide a little further down the board. Nobody is betting on the Spurs to collapse, but did the Rockets and Thunder pass them by?

2) Is playing big the antidote to a league going small? It seems like the entire NBA is going smaller, trying to emulate the Warriors and their death lineup. Cleveland will be starting Kevin Love at the five this season. Houston will play fast and small.

“Golden State is an anomaly, with the group of players they have,” Popovich said last preseason. “And they’re a monster. Definitely the toughest team in the league to guard. But the rest of us poor fools, 29 of us, are kind of a hybrid. Everybody tries to be flexible. Not team is going to be all big or all small. Every game, teams play small for a while, they play big for a while. That’s the way it is. That’s the truth.”

The Spurs zigged when the league zagged — they are a big team that starts Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge up front and have real size in their defenders such as Leonard or Danny Green. This is not an accident. The Spurs have some versatility, but they want a lineup that can give small lineups trouble and push them around a little. It worked last regular season, and we didn’t get a real chance to see how it would have worked against the Warriors in the playoffs. But as those big men age and get a little slower, will going big still work as well.

3) Can the Spurs bench again be the NBA’s best? Or, to put that another way, what guy we don’t recall them drafting is going to come out of nowhere and impress us this season?

Once again last season the Spurs bench was the best in the NBA, outscoring teams by 8.9 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season. That is a key reason they win 55+ games every season — their bench comes in and executes at a high level, extending leads.

This season that bench will be a little thinner without Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons, two guys who brought real athleticism off the bench. Still they have the legend that is Manu Ginoboili, Rudy Gay (who is playing in the preseason but may be slowed for a bit coming off an Achilles injury), plus guys like Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, and now Joffrey Lauvergne. For the Spurs to keep on winning like we expect, Popovich needs to work his magic and turn these guys into one of the league’s most formidable benches. Again.