NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Surprise, surprise, pace still matters

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The Suns aren’t quite the Suns, as they traded in their rocket boots for some decent, reliable New Balance kicks (Matt Bonner approved, coincidentally). That simply means that they run rather than fly, and while their pace isn’t the torrid, unmatchable sprint it used to be, Phoenix still likes to push the pace (97.6 possessions per game, 4th in the league).

The Spurs do not. San Antonio is 20th in the league in pace (94.1 possessions), and while some Spurs (Tony Parker, George Hill, and Manu Ginobili, for example) certainly aren’t allergic to the open court, there’s no question that Pop’s gang would prefer to keep this series a half-court affair. It won’t be, because the Suns will deliberately look to push the tempo whenever possible to keep the Spurs on the ropes.

That could spell trouble for San Antonio. Tom Haberstroh (of HoopData fame), writing for ESPN.com, found while the Spurs didn’t struggle overall against fast-paced teams in the regular season, they did struggle against fast-paced playoff teams. Haberstroh explains why (Insider):

As it has for the past decade, the Spurs’ defense begins and ends with 12-time All-Defensive Team member Tim Duncan.
But he’s an older big man, so Duncan’s defensive impact is lightest in
track meets, games in which guards dictate the pace. He’s forced to lag
behind, which makes him ineffective. Almost all of his defensive
contributions occur in the half-court set, where he controls the paint,
thereby providing a fulcrum for his teammates to stifle the perimeter.
But in the transition game, the Spurs’ biggest defensive weapon is
effectively neutralized as he plods across the half-court line.

Check Haberstroh’s piece in its entirety for the data on exactly how much of an advantage this is for Phoenix, as well as additional explanatory analysis.

San Antonio’s transition defense has always been a strength, but even the most stifling transition D wouldn’t be as potent as the Spurs’ half-court set-up. Duncan isn’t as quick as he used to be, but he’s still a high quality help defender and terrific on the ball as well. He’s not best-defending-big-man-in-the-league good anymore, thanks both to his own slight decline and Dwight Howard’s meteoric rise, but to say he’s a defensive asset would be a terrible understatement.

The Suns may not be looking to push the pace to blistering levels, but the speed of the game (or more specifically, the speed of the Suns’ offense) is going to play a pivotal role in the Spurs’ ability to defend in this series. No duh. What’s surprising is just how much trouble Duncan and the Spurs have had in defending quality uptempo teams. Phoenix certainly qualifies.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.

John Wall goes coast-to-coast, behind-the-back for lefty dunk (VIDEO)

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There’s not going to be many plays better than this in the entire playoffs.

There wasn’t a lot for Wizards’ fans to cheer in Game 3, the Hawks took control early and routed Washington, making it a 2-1 series. But there was this, John Wall going coast-to-coast with the ball, going around-the-back and throwing it down left handed.

Wall is just so fast end to end.

Warriors take 3-0 series lead over Blazers with 119-113 win

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 34 points, Klay Thompson added 24 and the short-handed Golden State Warriors overcame a slow start to take a 3-0 lead in their playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers with a 119-113 victory on Saturday night.

The Blazers led by as many as 17 points in the first half, but couldn’t hold off the Warriors, who can clinch the series with a win Monday night in Game 4 at the Moda Center.

Golden State was without Kevin Durant, who was sitting for a second straight game cause of a left calf strain, and coach Steve Kerr stayed back at the team hotel because of illness.

The Warriors took a 108-100 lead after Andre Iguodala‘s dunk with 4:05 to go.

Noah Vonleh‘s dunk got Portland within four at 110-106 with 1:29 left, but Curry answered with a 3-pointer that all but sealed it, sending fans streaming for the exits.

CJ McCollum led the Blazers with 32 points, while Damian Lillard added 31.