NBA Playoffs: Close wins are good enough for the Spurs, who are finding new and exciting ways to best the Mavs

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When they entered the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs were not considered a championship contender. Their late season success was chalked up as something of an aberration, and though many picked them to ‘upset’ the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, that’s not exactly the same as declaring the Spurs fit to battle the Lakers, Cavs, and Magic for NBA supremacy.

That time is not yet upon us, but based on how impressively they’ve handled their first round matchup with the Mavs, it could be quite soon.

San Antonio came back from a 15-point first half deficit to take a 3-1 series lead and push Dallas one step closer to the season’s edge. It was hardly easy, and the reason the Spurs may soon be considered contenders for the conference title is not because their wins over the Mavs have been particularly demonstrative. Rather, San Antonio’s three straight wins were in very competitive games, and the Spurs’ ability to close out their opponents remains a crowning achievement.

Dallas had been successful all season in besting their opponents in close games, but that success hasn’t translated well to the playoffs. Instead of Dirk Nowitzki hitting game-winners or Shawn Marion getting crucial stops, it’s been Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili hitting daggers and Antonio McDyess playing clutch defense. A few shots here and there or a few bounces of the ball and this series is quite different, but for the most part the Spurs are making their own luck.

It’s not as if San Antonio is relying simply on their opponents’ failings to determine the outcomes of these games; the Spurs’ defense has reached new heights over the last three contests, and their ability to play Nowitzki aggressively without giving up open shots to the Mavs’ shooters has been crucial.

“They ran at me from the get-go,” Dirk Nowitzki said, “on the block and on the dribble they came after me. When I was isolated on the free throw line, they came at me as well. After the game I had two days ago they weren’t just going to watch me shoot. They were aggressive tonight and got the ball out of my hands.”

That said, the Spurs don’t win Game 4 without a phenomenal night from George Hill, who was able to make up for the offensive shortcomings of San Antonio’s Big Three. Tim Duncan (1-for-9 shooting), Manu Ginobili (4-for-16), and Tony Parker (4-for-9) combined for just 31 points. Hill had 29 (11-of-16 shooting) on his own, and his jumper was almost eerily smooth.

He was hardly alone, though. Even though the stars didn’t come out in San Antonio, Richard Jefferson (15 points), DeJuan Blair (seven points, seven rebounds), and Antonio McDyess (10 points, eight rebounds), had hugely productive nights, with the impact of the latter two in particular hardly captured by their final stat lines. If not for Blair creating possessions on the offensive glass or McDyess’ physical, effective defense on Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs could very well be rallying behind a 2-2 mark and the series headed back to Dallas. Instead, an inscription above each American Airlines Center entryway reading “Abandon hope, all ye who entere here,” will greet Mavs fans in Game 5.

Dallas not only had a chance to win Game 3, but to see their 15-point lead evaporate in Game 5 is flat-out painful. The Spurs honestly are not that much better than the Mavs, but its impossible to refute San Antonio’s ability to execute. This game was incredibly physical, particularly in the second half, and though the Mavericks were rattled by the physical play and their sputtering offense, the Spurs were not. As a result, San Antonio outscored Dallas 29-11 in the third quarter, and the Mavs surrendered a prime opportunity to seize the series’ momentum.

“Because this team has been there so many times and in this position, when it gets so close and tight like that I don’t think we panic,” Antonio McDyess said. “I think this is a team that always stays on one pace and never gets panicky. We always pull it out when we do that.” 

For Dallas, that third quarter should hurt, and it will. San Antonio just has an edge right now in terms of their energy and execution, and while the probability of the Mavs winning three straight games isn’t impossible given the makeup of their three straight losses, it’s an uphill climb that the no. 2 seed never hoped to face.

Gary Payton: “I don’t want to compare” Warriors and 1996 Bulls

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - MARCH 18:  Hall of fame basketball player Gary Payton watches his son Gary Payton II #1 of the Oregon State Beavers take on the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the first half in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 18, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Everyone is tired of the who’s-better debate between the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 72-win 1996 Bulls, but Gary Payton — whose Sonics lost to those Bulls in the Finals — actually has a reasonable take on the matter that most people should be able to agree with.

From an interview with DeAntae Prince of Sports Illustrated:

There have been a lot comparisons between the 72-win Bulls team you played against and this year’s 73-9 Warriors squad. How do you think the Warriors would stack up?

GP: “I don’t compare them and I don’t want to compare them. They’re two different animals. The Bulls did it with a physical type of basketball, we could hand check, we could do a lot of things. It was just a different era. They come back 20 years later and go 73-9. I couldn’t compare them, because if we put Golden State in that era a lot of teams, to me, would give them problems. Because we were more physical, we put our hands on them. A lot of our teams in this era we probably would have fouled out, we probably would have had a lot of problems.”

He may have his personal feelings about which era of basketball was “better,” but his fundamental point is true: they played different styles in different eras. The Warriors wouldn’t do as well in the 1990s, and the Bulls wouldn’t do as well in the 2010s. A hypothetical matchup between the two teams would come down in large part to which era’s rules were in place. We’ll never get a definitive answer, and that’s OK.

Steve Kerr says Andrew Bogut needs to stay out of foul trouble

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors fights for possesion of the ball with Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during game one of the NBA Western Conference Final at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr needs a lot of things to go differently Thursday night if his defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors want to avoid elimination. That starts with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green needing to play much, much better.

But another is for Andrew Bogut to stay on the court — the Warriors defense is 15.9 points per 100 possessions better this series when he is on the court compared to off it. The Warriors are outscoring the Thunder when he plays.

So why not more minutes? Foul trouble, and Kerr wants that to change, as Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News reports.

“He’s fouling,” Kerr said. “He’s got 13 fouls in 56 minutes. He’s almost fouling out of every game in 10-15 minutes. He’s got to be smarter with his fouls. We need him out there — he was plus-7 (Tuesday) night in 11 minutes…

“When he’s out there, we rebound better,” he said. “We’ve got a good passer out of the post. We want to play Bogut more, but he’s got to stay on the floor.”

It’s not that simple for Bogut — the Thunder are aggressively attacking the rim and in the NBA the aggressors usually get the calls. Certainly Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the Thunder front line is more athletic than Bogut.

Doesn’t matter, Bogut must figure out a way to impact shots in the paint, grab boards, and not foul. The Warriors are not winning this series going small, and if they are going to mount any comeback with a big on the court, it’s going to have to start with Bogut.

Jason Terry thinks Dwight Howard could remain with Rockets

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Everyone else thinks Dwight Howard is getting out of Houston this summer.

Jason Terry isn’t convinced.

Dwight Howard has a player option this summer, which he is expected to exercise and become a free agent. For one thing, he’d do it for the pay raise — he wants a max contract, starting at about $30 million. The other reason is he and James Harden have not blended in Houston, and Howard wants a fresh start.

But Jason Terry isn’t convinced yet. Terry was on SiriusXM NBA Radio and told Justin Termine and Eddie Johnson Howard may stay put. Here is the quote, via Hoopshype.

“I wouldn’t rule (a return) out. He has yet to opt out. Again, it’s just going to depend on if you get the right coach in there. At this point in his career, he’s not going to be the focal point offensively. They’ve made that clear. He’s gonna have to, if he remains in Houston, buy into the role fully, commit himself to setting screens, rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots and working on his free throws, obviously.”

In theory, a coach could come in and convince Howard to stay. In theory, I could capture Bigfoot and prove his existence to the world. Those have about the same odds of happening.

Forgetting the whole “Howard wants another max contract” thing, what Terry said about Howard accepting a role is the issue. Howard said he went directly to Rockets GM Daryl Morey and asked for a bigger role — and he was shot down. Howard does not want to accept a lesser role where his primary job is rebounding and defense, just like he never wanted to accept running more pick-and-roll and working less from the post even though he was much better at the former than the latter. Howard wants what Howard wants.

And I’d be shocked if he doesn’t want out of Houston.

Watch LeBron James’ 23 points during Game 5 win over Toronto

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A good rule of thumb: If LeBron James is getting few breakaway dunks, the other team is in trouble.

Enter the Toronto Raptors, who got to watch a dunking clinic by LeBron as he had multiple breakaways during the Cavaliers’ 38-point win on Wednesday night. LeBron played well, and the Cavaliers got a balanced attack from their stars — 25 points from Kevin Love, 23 each from LeBron and Kyrie Irving.

Watch LeBron’s night above. Toronto needs to find a way to keep him from having another game like this Friday.