NBA Playoffs: Four guys who could make the West wild

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russell westbrook.jpgWith ABC and TNT covering the playoffs you can count on a couple things. One is more Closer/V promos than you can stomach. Second is more star hype — Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Wade — than you can stomach. Basically, you might want to keep the Pepcid AC on hand.

You and I both know that it’s usually the unheralded guy who wins the series. It’s Robert Horry with the big shots. We’re taking a look at a few guys in the West who can change the course of their first round series (and maybe beyond).

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder): If you are going to knock off the defending NBA champions you are going to have to attack where they are most vulnerable, and that means at point guard. The Lakers Derek Fisher cannot defend quick point guards any better than an orange traffic cone, and his help off the bench in Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are not really that much help. Westbrook can be that point guard. Look at it this way: In the three Laker wins this season over the Thunder Westbrook shot 38.8 percent (9-21, 5-16, 5-12) but in the Thunder’s blowout win he was   10-13. That’s not a coincidence.

For the Thunder to win this series Westbrook is going to not only have to get into the paint but also finish at the rim. Andrew Bynum is going to be there, protecting the rim with his albatross wing span, Plus Pau Gasol (and even Lamar Odom) will be there and probably making better rotations defensively than they did at the end of the regular season. Westbrook has the reputation of being able to get by anybody but taking terrible shots in the lane if he can’t get all the way to the rim — he needs to be smarter about that, hit open spot up shooters with a pass and not miss the opportunities he creates.

Kevin Durant is going to get his because he is Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is the one who could change this series.

Marcus Camby (Portland Trail Blazers): At some point during this series, Marcus Camby is going to end up in an Amare Stoudemire poster. If you try to defend the rim against Phoenix that is going to happen now and again. Hazard of the job.

But Camby is going to be the guy matched up on STAT, and if the Blazers (without Brandon Roy) are to have any chance Camby is going to have to win that battle. He is going to have to be the man on the pick and roll that slows Nash and Amare. Camby is one of the few players in the Association with the skills to pull this off — he can show out on Nash and still recover well, he is long and plays smart. Nobody stops the Suns, but Camby could make them less efficient. That’s a start, then all the Blazers need to do is find some scoring.

J.R. Smith (Denver Nuggets): When J.R. Smith comes in off the bench, he will change the game. Sometimes it’s with electrifying dunks and plays that ignite the crowd and his team. Sometimes it is with a series of missed threes that suck the life out of the Nuggets offense. But he does change the game.

When he is on, he is as unstoppable as anyone in the league. He can hit the three (or from a few feet back of the arc) with a hand in his face, but if you run out on him he will put it on the floor and drive well past you. When he is playing like this, he makes no bad decisions because there are no bad options. The problem is, even on his off days, he plays with that same mindset.

Utah and Denver are going to have a tight series. Smith can swing games with his play and may well decide this series. But which way he swings it remains to be seen.

Rodrigue Beaubois (Dallas Mavericks): Some guys are just fun to watch play. They are smooth and make the impossible seem effortless. They wow the crowd and have even opposing fans buzzing. That is Beaubois, and that is what he did the other night in a start against the Los Angeles Clippers. For a while, he stole the show (really saved the show, there wasn’t much of one without him).

The question is, will he get the minutes to do that in the playoffs? With a veteran team heading into the playoffs, will Rick Carlisle give Beaubois the burn?

As our own Rob Mahoney pointed out to me, last year the Mavericks knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs in part because JJ Barea was seemingly unstoppable. Beaubois is a better version of Barea — faster, better shooter, more athletic. Beaubois can score. He will be very hard for the Spurs to stop and can be a real spark for Dallas.

If he gets on the court.

Report: Isaiah Thomas scheduled to fly from Chicago to Washington after Celtics-Bulls Game 6

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Isaiah Thomas has played – and played well – in all five games of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls, which Boston leads 3-2.

But he has done so while travelling more than his teammates, flying home to Washington to be with his family after Game 2, following his sister’s death in a car crash. He’ll again make the extra trip after Game 6 tonight.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

After the Celtics and Bulls play Game 6 at the United Center on Friday night, Thomas is scheduled to fly to Tacoma to attend his sister’s funeral at noon on Saturday. If the Celtics win Game 6, this series will be over. But if Chicago wins, Game 7 will be played in Boston at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Teams up 3-2 with a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 have won Game 6 just over half the time. The Celtics have been inspired to play for Thomas, who is admittedly emotionally exhausted, and I suspect this will only intensify his teammates’ desire to win for him.

I can’t imagine how Thomas has handled such a heavy burden, but it’d be nice if he had a little relief rather than the pressure to return to Boston by early Sunday afternoon.

Bruno Caboclo leads Raptors 905 to NBA D-League title

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MISSISSAUGA, Ontario (AP) Bruno Coboclo led Raptors 905 to the NBA Development League title Thursday night, scoring 31 points and adding 11 rebounds in a 122-96 victory over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Raptors 905 won the best-of-three series 2-1, taking the last two at home after dropping the opener at Rio Grande.

Caboclo was 13 for 19 from the field, going 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Fred VanVleet added 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and 14 rebounds, and Pascal Siakim had 17 points. Troy Williams led the Vipers with 23 points.

Raptors 905 is affiliated with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and Rio Grande with the Houston Rockets.

Gregg Popovich: “Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now”

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The Spurs are on to the second round of the playoffs, and the reason is Kawhi Leonard. Through six games he averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting overall and 48.3 percent from three. Plus he was taking on Mike Conley — the toughest Grizzly to defend — for stretches of the game. Leonard has a PER of 36.4 through the first round of the playoffs, which is flat-out ridiculous.

That comes on the heels of a season where Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate who will draw a lot of votes.

“We have a knack for hanging in ’cause things happen, and obviously Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “He’s the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it’s impressive.”

“His conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added about Leonard. “I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble.”

If Leonard isn’t the best player in the game — LeBron James can stake a claim, among others — he’s damn close. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can do whatever a team needs to win — get buckets driving the lane, hit threes, grab a board, or lock down an opponent on a key play. That kind of versatility is rare.

It just feels like an MVP trophy and some more rings are in Leonard’s future, although probably not this season. On either count.

Spurs advance: San Antonio beats Grizzlies 103-96 in Game 6

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs wanted no part of playing a seventh game against the Grizzlies, not with the Houston Rockets looming in the next round.

Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points, and the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by beating Memphis 103-96 on Thursday night to take the series 4-2.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich congratulated Memphis on a great year, especially rookie coach David Fizdale.

“I’m seriously thrilled that we were able to get through that first round,” Popovich said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that now we have to go play Houston.”

The Spurs now have beaten Memphis four of the five playoff series between these teams, and this was San Antonio’s second straight win over the Grizzlies in the first round. But this was the first time all season that the visiting team won.

“It’s huge for us,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Memphis, you have to give them a lot of credit. They played unbelievable. They’re a great team, and they made it hard on us and so we didn’t want to come back for Game 7. We treated this game as if it was Game 7. We wanted those days off before playing Houston because it’s going to be a fast-paced game against them.”

Parker added 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 12 rebounds. San Antonio outrebounded Memphis 46-28, with 16 of those offensive boards. That led to 17 second-chance points.

Fizdale said rebounds, points in the paint and who pressured the best impacted each game in the series.

“I kept stressing that to our guys,” Fizdale said. “To their credit, (the Spurs) won it more games than we did. But it definitely wasn’t from a lack of competition on our part. I can sleep at night knowing my guys battled and competed their tails off.”

The Spurs’ semifinal with Houston will start Monday night in San Antonio.

Mike Conley scored 26 points, leading the five Memphis starters in double digits. Marc Gasol added 18.

The Grizzlies fell to 3-10 in elimination games, losing six straight.

This was a taut game with 16 ties and nine lead changes, especially with four ties in the fourth quarter.

The Spurs took control after the Grizzlies went up 88-81 on three free throws from Conley with 6:29 left. Then Leonard scored eight straight for San Antonio, starting a 22-8 run to finish the game.

“The guys were amazing in the fourth quarter,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “Huge plays. Great defense too. So, happy to go back home with a win and win the series.”

Even with Conley and Gasol a combined 2 of 10 in the first quarter, the Grizzlies trailed only 24-22 after Conley knocked down a 3 at the end of the quarter for his first bucket of the game. Conley hit another 3 for the final shot in the second quarter, putting Memphis up 50-45. The team that led at halftime won each of the first five games.

Parker hit his first six shots before finally missing his seventh with 29 seconds left in the first half.

The Grizzlies took their biggest lead at 57-47 on a 3-pointer by James Ennis III. That gave Memphis as many made 3s (9 of 17) as the Spurs had attempted (3 of 9) at that point. Randolph’s layup with 7:19 left matched that 10-point lead at 63-53.

Then the Spurs went on a 13-3 run over a 4-minute span to erase that lead on Aldridge’s three-point play at 67-66. Aldridge finished with nine points in helping the Spurs lead 75-74 at the end of the quarter.

TIP-INS

Spurs: They improved to 36-15 with a chance to clinch a series under Popovich, who took over in the 1996-97 season. … Ginobili converted a four-point play with 1:31 left in the third, putting the Spurs up 73-69. … The Spurs wound up tying the Grizzlies’ reserves with 16 points thanks to Mills.

Grizzlies: The Grizzlies set a franchise record hitting eight 3-pointers in the first half, topping the previous mark of seven in the second half May 1, 2005, against Phoenix. … Conley has 20 or more points in five straight playoff games, the longest such streak in franchise history.

HE SAID IT

Popovich: “I’m thrilled we were able to win because if we played 10 times, we each would probably win five.”

FREE THROW WATCH

Fizdale earned a $30,000 fine from the NBA for his “Take that for data” rant about the free throw discrepancy in Game 2. Well, Leonard was 9 of 10 at the free throw line through three quarters compared to the Grizzlies’ 7 of 8. The Spurs were 18 of 20 through three quarters. The Spurs finished 22 of 25 compared to 20 of 24 for Memphis.