The Starting Five: Spurs enduring rough ride on rodeo circuit

Monday's loss at Utah was the third in three games for Tim Duncan in the Spurs since returning from the All-Star break.

Rick Bowmer/AP

Even when they’re going through interludes of strategic resting, we’ve learned never to sleep on the San Antonio Spurs.

But the defending champions have been nodding off lately, having lost three consecutive games since the All-Star break — and the resumption of their annual Rodeo Road Trip.

San Antonio is 2-4 during this season’s rodeo-induced gauntlet after having won six of nine games in last season’s extended journey away from home.

The most recent fall for the seventh-seeded Spurs happened Monday night in Utah . . . with all of their main guys suited up.

"Playing like we did today, we are not a playoff team," veteran guard Manu Ginbobili said.

And this from Tim Duncan: "We talked about getting to where we’re playing more of 48 minutes than our opponents. I think we’ve gone the opposite direction."

Portland is where they’re going next, followed by seemingly safer visits to Sacramento and Phoenix. But losing to the spunky, young Jazz reminds us that rising above the seventh seed — and avoiding the Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1 — won’t be easy.

DeAndre Jordan’s 40.6 percent free-throw shooting ensures he’ll continue to get plenty of opportunities at the stripe.

Having attempted 26 or more free throws twice in his last four games, Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan has paved the way (with bricks) toward the resumption of an old debate.

Now converting at a chilly rate of 40.6 percent, Jordan’s inability to hack it at the free-throw line has inspired opposing coaches to foul him on purpose.

In the two games specified, he made 22 of 54 from behind the stripe (a stunning rise to 40.7 percent), but the Clippers still managed to win both games.

Led by coach-turned-analyst Jeff Van Gundy, some league observers — in the name of making these Clippers games watchable — believe a rule should be implemented to outlaw these intentional grabs.

Other NBA followers aren’t thrilled with the notion of altering rules based on the inadequacy of one player. They strongly suggest Jordan should simply practice more.

But as long as he continues to lift the ball into shooting position, pause and unload each shot while using little more than his wrist to propel the ball up and over the rim (hopefully), the fouling will continue. 

Seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein is showing an improved offensive game in his third season at Kentucky, and NBA scouts have taken notice.

This week’s prospect watch drags us back to Kentucky, where 7-foot acrobat Willie Cauley-Stein checks in as a true rarity.

He’s a junior.

Yeah, in a program that frequently spits out lottery picks a few months after they enroll at UK, WCS now is in his third season with Coach John Calipari.

And thanks to Coach Cal’s not-so-subtle encouragement, the former high school football receiver/defensive back (really!) has become a lottery riser by playing with even more abandon than before.

In an industry that routinely identifies warts with every move occurring beyond one season of college participation, Cauley-Stein is gaining draft momentum by adding still-modest offensive juice to his already-stellar defensive game.

"He’s always had high potential as a defender — not just blocking shots but by how you can use him to switch on ball screens where he’s got the lateral quickness to stay in front of most guards," said an NBA personnel guy. "But he’s getting better with the ball, too, and that just adds to his value.

"It’s odd that being a junior, the way things are now, makes him seem like an old prospect, but it also means he needs to bring more skill to the table because that bounce isn’t going to be there forever. Being 7-feet will, though."

With each passing day, it’s becoming less likely that 39-year-old Ray Allen will make a comeback this season.

According to anonymous-source-based speculation, Ray Allen will not play this season.

Well, unless he does.

While some of us exhaled in regard to Ray’s fence-sitting a long time ago, those required to look for transactions that could tip the balance of power in either conference continue keeping tabs on the 39-year-old 3-point menace.

The latest gossip indicates Allen hasn’t been preparing in a manner suggesting an imminent return. And it’s getting late.

Another bit of post-trade-deadline chatter involves Goran Dragic, whose seeming glee in the aftermath of his acquisition by the Miami Heat didn’t preclude a rumor linking him with the Los Angeles Lakers.

For Dragic, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, there’s nothing that would prevent him from signing on with Kobe Bryant and a cast of whomevers — except, perhaps, Miami’s possession of his Bird Rights, a less-brutal conference and teammates more likely to not mind if he dribbles the ball.

LeBron James was in street clothes when the Warriors beat the Cavaliers 112-94 in January in Oakland.

The visiting team checks in with a winning percentage that’s north of .800, the NBA’s second-most-efficient offense, a top-tier MVP candidate whose shoot, pass and handle skills are insane and a co-star who can score 37 points in one quarter — all while demonstrating sufficient rigor and intelligence on the other end of the court to rank first in the league in defensive efficiency.

What’s the home team to do? Easy: Make sure its best player suits up. He also happens to be the best player in the world and has led his team to a 16-3 record since returning from extended R&R.

That’s what we’ll have Thursday night when the Golden State Warriors meet the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

There’s a fairly decent chance it won’t be the last time this year we see this particular matchup.

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