NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: With blood in the water, Phoenix will go for the quick kill

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Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have become a basketball establishment in their eight seasons together. They’ve captured three titles, made it to the postseason in each of those eight seasons, and lost in the first round of the playoffs only once.

They also have never, in the time that the three have been teammates in San Antonio, been swept. Not in any playoff series in any round. Phoenix will have an opportunity to be their auspicious first in Game 4 tonight, as the Spurs will look to defend their home court against an onslaught of Suns brooms.

With the outcome of the series no longer in doubt, the only question remaining is ‘when?’ or really, ‘how long?’ How long can Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker prolong the inevitable? How long can San Antonio keep false hope alive?  

The Spurs do have a few things on their side. For one, the sweep is such a difficult feat in a seven-game series, and when the opposition includes Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, it seems rather impossible. Duncan may not be balling at best-player-in-the-game levels these days, but he’s still a tremendously skilled two-way player that’s capable of extending the Spurs’ playoff lives into next week. Pop isn’t just one of the greatest to ever run a post-game presser, but also one of the greatest to sit at the head of the bench.

Plus that home court advantage thing? It matters. Especially in the playoffs, and though the AT&T Center crowd may be a bit deflated after the Spurs’ Game 3 letdown, there’s something to be said for friendly cheers and an ocean of silver, black, and white. Even in spite of a potentially limited Tony Parker, the Spurs should be expected to win tonight.

Then again, the same could have been said before Game 3. Or in the first half of Game 3 when San Antonio was up by 18 points. Or even when the Spurs and Suns were in a virtual deadlock to start the fourth quarter, and SanAn as the squad with the veteran savvy, the championship experience, and the future hall-of-famers.    

The only thing anyone can say with certainty is that San Antonio will not win this series. They don’t even have a chance. Not with Phoenix finding consistent answers to each of the Spurs’ adjustments, getting contributions from top to bottom, and coming up with every big play. I never thought I’d be writing a “Can the Spurs even win one game against the Suns?” post, as if San Antonio was playing the part of an outmatched Atlanta team facing off against big league Orlando, yet here I am and here the Spurs are.

This series was expected to not only be extremely entertaining — which it has been — but very competitive. The games themselves have been battles, but how can anyone look at a 3-0 advantage and see anything but an anticlimax? It’s fun to see Goran Dragic go nuts, or Channing Frye step up, or Jared Dudley get some long overdue respect, but even those noteworthy performances don’t give this series the life that it could have had.

This could all be over tonight, and while the Suns have been a true pleasure to watch, it’s a shame that we’ll never really know just how great this series could have been.   

Playoff Preview: Four things to watch in Portland vs. Golden State series

at ORACLE Arena on April 3, 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.
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Portland has wildly exceeded expectations this season, making the playoffs as the five seed and getting past a banged-up Clippers team to the second round. But the NBA does not do Cinderellas well, this will be the end of the road. Here are the four questions we’re asking heading into this series.

1) When will Stephen Curry return? If Portland has a chance in this series, they need to do a lot of damage before the past-and-future MVP returns from his sprained knee. The question is when will that be? Curry is out for Game 1 and has yet to do any on court work, but Steve Kerr would not rule him out for Game 2 on Tuesday, although that may be gamesmanship as much as anything. But after Game 2 the teams are off for four days until the Saturday, May 7, and that may be enough time for him to return. Whenever he does come back, the dynamics change and the Warriors become a much more dangerous, much better team — one Portland can’t handle. The Blazers need to get all the wins early in this series they can.

Which isn’t very easy, Curry or no.

2) How will the Warriors defend Damian Lillard? When Lillard has gone up against his hometown team — he’s from Oakland — he averaged 36.5 points per game this season. Expect Klay Thompson to draw the assignment to cover him at the start of games, but also expect the Warriors to steal a page from the Clippers’ strategy and trap Lillard and C.J. McCollum each time they come off a pick. The idea is to force the ball out of the hands of the two best playmakers and make Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless or anyone else beat you. Aminu and Harkless will find the Warriors defense works on a string better than the Clippers and their shots will get contested.

However, most of the time, the Warriors will switch the pick-and-roll, which they usually do (especially when they go small) and Lillard will find Draymond Green in his face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has to find ways to get Lillard playing downhill off those picks to have a chance.

3) Can the Trail Blazers hit their threes? In Portland’s win over Golden State in the regular season (just after the All-Star break), they put up 137 points and made it rain threes — the Trail Blazers need to do that again. However, the Warriors were one of the better teams in the league at defending the arc this season, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from deep (second best in the league) and allowing the second fewest corner threes (although they are more willing to allow threes above the arc). Portland does not have a good enough defense to stop Golden State consistently even without Curry, they will just have to outscore the Warriors, and to do that it has to rain threes again.

4) How will Portland defend Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Both of these key Warriors cogs had strong regular seasons against Portland — Green averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while Thompson averaged 29.3 points shooting 59.4 percent from three. Obviously, that was with Curry on the floor drawing defenders, but Portland is not exactly known for their lock-down defense. Without Curry, expect Aminu to get a lot of time on Thompson, but that alone is not going to slow him. Also, expect the Warriors to post up Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or anyone else that Lillard and McCollum guard — the hardest part about defending Golden State is there is no place to hide weak defenders. The Warriors will expose the Portland defense.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. And that assumes Curry is out until Game 5, if he is back earlier than that the series likely ends in 5.

Report: Heat complained to ‘highest levels of the league office’ about favorable calls for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) is congratulated by Jeremy Lin (7) after making a basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The Hornets won 127-122 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
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The Heat and Hornets are clearly tiring of each other, six games of testiness culminating with Game 7 today.

One particular battle line being drawn is over Jeremy Lin (6.3) and Kemba Walker (5.5), who lead players in this series in free-throw attempts per game.

Marc Stein:

ESPN sources say that one of the factors that ramped up the tension between the teams stems from Miami complaints to the highest levels of the league office after Game 4 about what the Heat deemed to be favorable officiating for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker.

Lin and Walker relentlessly driven to the basket. That’s why they’ve attempted so many free throws. If Miami wants to keep them off the line, trap them harder on the perimeter.

That said, this is part of playoff gamesmanship. If the Heat plant a seed with referees – through the league office or otherwise – that Lin and Walker are drawing too many fouls, maybe that affects a call today. With the margins so narrow, every little bit helps.

Watch LaMarcus Aldridge drop 38 on Thunder

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Oklahoma City has more than a few adjustments to make after a brutal defensive effort in Game 1 of their series against San Antonio, but at the top of the list is sticking with LaMarcus Aldridge on defense.

He was killing them from the midrange, and more than half of his looks were uncontested — the Thunder know he can knock down that shot, right?

It was a fantastic performance from Aldridge; we’ll see if he faces tougher defense in Game 2.

NBA: Trail Blazers scored after uncalled illegal screen by Trail Blazers in final minutes

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Should we be preparing for Game 7 of the Trail Blazers-Clippers series today?

If the officials had called the final minutes of the last game correctly, maybe.

Portland won Game 6 to take the series 4-2, but a missed call a key missed call helped clinch.

With 1:45 left, Mason Plumlee got away with offensively fouling Jamal Crawford, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Plumlee (POR) sets the screen on Crawford (LAC) without giving him room to avoid the contact.

A correct call would’ve meant a Trail Blazers turnover. Instead, Damian Lillard ended the possession with two made free throws.

Portland’s advantage when the Clippers began intentionally fouling: two.

Would the Clippers have won if the refs called Plumlee’s offensive foul? Impossible to say. The final 1:45 could’ve played out much differently.

But this missed call, the only error in the Last Two Minute Report, certainly boosted the Trail Blazers’ odds.