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Don’t look now, but the Spurs are good

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With all the talk about the Celtics, the Lakers, the Hornets, and the Heat going on right now, it’s pretty easy not to notice that the 8-1 San Antonio Spurs have the league’s second-best record. The Spurs haven’t had a very tough schedule, of course, and didn’t have a signature win on their record until last weekend’s thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Still, the story of the Spurs’ early success isn’t just about the fact that they’ve been winning games — it’s how they’ve been winning them that’s really interesting. The Spurs have been winning by scoring buckets at a breakneck pace, and they’ve pushed the ball more while relying on the aging Tim Duncan less and less.

Traditionally, San Antonio basketball has been built around three pillars — defense, methodical play, and Tim Duncan. But this season, the Spurs have been running and gunning. The Spurs aren’t a bad defensive team — they’re currently 8th in the league in defensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Duncan — but defense hasn’t been their main strength so far. Instead, it’s been the offense that’s carried the team. The Spurs are 5th in the league in offensive efficiency and 3rd in points per game, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson all off to blistering starts.

Even though none of those three players are getting any younger, the Spurs are still longer, more athletic, and more skilled on the perimeter than most teams are, and they’ve taken advantage of that by pushing the ball more than they ever have before. In 2007-08, the Spurs were 28th in pace factor. In 08-09, they were 27th. Last season, they were 20th. This year, the Spurs are currently playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the league — they play a full 2.6 possessions “faster” per game than the Suns (who rank 14th in pace factor) do, to give you some context.

Even though Duncan is still vital to the Spurs’ success, especially on defense, and the Spurs’ youth movement hasn’t really been blossoming (George Hill, Tiago Splitter, and DeJuan Blair are all off to slow starts), the Spurs’ early success has to be heartening for Spurs fans wondering what life will be like as Duncan gets closer and closer to the twilight years of his career. If the Spurs can keep playing the way they have, they’ll be a dangerous playoff team. If taking the load off Duncan in the regular season allows him to play like the Tim Duncan we’ve all come to know come playoff time, watch out.

Warriors’ defense, Klay Thompson take over fourth quarter, earn Game 2 win

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Only one team in this series can crank up their defense enough to  win them games.

The Warriors’ offense feeds off that stingy defense — with or without Stephen Curry in the lineup, again Tuesday it was without — and the combination can lead to big runs.

Such as a 34-12 fourth quarter. It was historic, as our own Dan Feldman pointed out on twitter.

Golden State trailed by 17 at one point but came on in the fourth with a defensive energy that held Damian Lillard to 0-of-3 shooting and his entire Portland team to 26.5 percent shooting. Those miss shots fueled transition buckets and opportunities — Klay Thompson had 10 of his 27 points on the night in the fourth — and the Warriors roared back for a 110-99 victory.

Golden State now leads the series 2-0 as it heads to Portland, with Game 3 not until Saturday. The biggest question is whether Curry will play in that game, or will the Warriors use their position of strength to get him more rest (as they did in the Houston series up 2-0)?

The best player on the floor in Game 2 was Draymond Green, who finished with 17 points (on 20 shots), 14 rebound and seven assists. But that’s not where the damage he does starts — it’s on defense. His ability to defend the five, then show out high on pick-and-rolls to cut off Lillard or C.J. McCollum and take away their shots from three. With Curry out, Green also spends a lot of time as the guy initiating the Warriors offense. He crashes the boards. He protects the paint, including a key block late on Mason Plumlee. Green did it all.

Portland raced out to a lead using their vintage style — their defense wasn’t that good, but it was good enough (especially with a cold Thompson who kept missing open looks), and their offense was hitting everything. With the Warriors missing shots it was Portland using the opportunity to run — and it was the Warriors defenders doing a poor job of recognizing the shooters and closing them out. So the opposite of Game 1.

Portland was also getting buckets from Al-Farouq Aminu — 10 first quarter points — and that’s always a good sign because he’s the guy (well, him and Maurice Harkless) that the Warriors will live with shooting.

Still, you knew the run was coming. The Warriors went on a 14-2 run to make it close as the second half started to wind down. But then Portland responded with some real poise and an 8-0 run of their own. Portland was getting their buckets and had a 59-51 run at the half. They continued to hold that lead through the third quarter thanks to a red-hot Damian Lillard, who had 16 points in the quarter.

But again, you knew the run was coming — and this time it was fueled by the Warriors defense. Festus Ezeli was a big part of that, his defensive presence in the paint helped turn things around, he was setting big screens to free up Thompson and others, plus he had eight points of his own in the quarter.

When the game got tight Portland missed seven in a row down the stretch, and that sealed the Blazers fate. Meanwhile, the Warriors kept hitting shots, and the Blazers have no great options to change up the defense and alter that dynamic. Even without Curry, the versatility of the Warriors makes them tough to slow, let alone stop. 

Going home, maybe the Trial Blazers can hit some difficult shots and hold off a Warriors charge in the fourth quarter.

Or, maybe Stephen Curry is back, and the Warriors just get better.

Dwyane Wade’s determination outlasts Kyle Lowry’s buzzer beater

Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade controls the ball as Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) defends during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Dwyane Wade was helpless as Kyle Lowry‘s halfcourt heave sailed through the air (though Wade cocked his head back and leaned to the side, as if changing his view could alter the ball’s trajectory).

Wade was helpless as the referees swallowed their whistles despite Cory Joseph crashing into him on an inbound. (Haven’t we had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That led to a Heat turnover that preceded Lowry’s miracle shot.

Wade was helpless as the referees again swallowed their whistles despite DeMarre Carroll tugging his jersey on an overtime inbound. (Haven’t we really had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That also created a turnover and gave the Raptors another chance to tie.

So, Wade took matters into his own hands.

Wade snatched the ball from DeMar DeRozan, went to his knees to recover it and charged for a three-point play with 1.8 seconds left – finally clinching a 102-96 Miami Game 1 win in a second-round series Tuesday.

The game went to overtime on Lowry’s long-distance buzzer beater. When the shot fell, Wade dropped to one knee and buried his face in his hand. But he didn’t stay on the mat for long.

The Heat scored first eight points of regulation, and Wade (24 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks) outscored the Raptors himself in the extra period, 7-6.

This is Toronto’s seventh straight Game 1 loss, including four at home the last three years with largely this group of players. But as the Raptors’ first-round win over the Pacers showed, this series is far from over. Road Game 1 winners have taken the series 53% of the time, hardly an overwhelming clip.

Toronto must better stay in front of Goran Dragic, who led Miami with 26 points. Dragic, who had 25 in Game 7 against the Hornets, had never scored so much in consecutive games with the Heat. They’re thrilled to run their offense through him more often.

The Raptors should also more resolutely attack Hassan Whiteside, who scared them away from the basket. Beyond Jonas Valanciunas (24 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals), the Raptors were 8-for-20 in the paint with Whiteside in the game. It’s not so much the shooting percentage – which isn’t great – but the low number of attempts in 39 minutes. Whiteside is a premier rim protector, but he’s not invincible. That proclivity for the perimeter failed especially with Toronto’s star guard struggling so mightily.

Aside from his halfcourt highlight, Lowry scored four points on 2-of-12 shooting, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. More than anything, the Raptors need him to play better.

Otherwise, the shot of the playoffs will only delay the inevitable.

Kyle Lowry sends Raptors-Heat to overtime with halfcourt buzzer beater (video)

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry makes a pass as Miami Heat's Luol Deng (9) and Goran Dragic (7) defend during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Kyle Lowry was 2-for-11, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers.

Didn’t matter.

He hit the big one to stave off yet another Raptors Game 1 loss.

Video via Kenny Ducey of Sports Illustrated

C.J. McCollum on Warriors: ‘They set a lot of illegal screens’

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, center, reaches for the ball between Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, top, and forward Andre Iguodala during the second half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. The Warriors won 118-106. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts accused Anderson Varejao of being dirty on a particular play.

C.J. McCollum says the Warriors cross the line much more regularly.

via Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

“They set a lot of illegal screens,’’ Blazers guard CJ McCollum said Tuesday at the team’s shootaround at The Olympic Club. “They are moving and stuff. That’s the respect you get when you are champions, you get a lot more respect from the referees. You have to figure out a way to get around those screens and make it difficult.’’

One underappreciated element of the Warriors’ success is their excellent screening. Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are two of the NBA’s best. Even the diminutive Stephen Curry wreaks havoc with his screens, leveraging his shooting ability to befuddle defenders.

Do the Warriors sometimes set illegal screens? Yup. Do they do so more than other teams? Yup. Do they do so more than every other team? Anecdotally, probably, though I’d love to see numbers.

But that’s part of Golden State’s strategy. The Warriors screeners so often straddle the line, they move it. It’s a fine line between a good legal screen and an illegal one, and Golden State dares the refs to blow the whistle.

McCollum can campaign for that to change, and his statements might cause the league to instruct referees to watch Warrior screens more closely. But even if Golden State has to harness its movement and arm extensions on picks, the team is more than capable of setting quality clean screens.