Spurs, Celtics slouching towards playoffs; count them out at your own peril

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Back at the All-Star break, a Celtics vs. Spurs finals seemed like a good bet. Sure, it made the guys who count the profits at ABC/Disney nervous — you know they want Lakers/Heat, and they really don’t want the Spurs — but the Celtics and Spurs were playing the best basketball by far. That matchup promised execution and smart basketball.

Today, not so much.

The Spurs have lost four in a row and have Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili banged up. Then Gregg Popovich sat Tony Parker because he might get injured at some point. They’re old and it’s showing say the doubters.

The Celtics are 5-5 in their last 10, still don’t have Shaquille O’Neal back while Kendrick Perkins is banging bodies next to Kevin Durant. Ray Allen can’t even get his hands on the rock. Celtics fans are giving lip service to last season — when Boston limped into the playoffs then turned it on — but they don’t believe it. You can hear it in their voices.

Spurs and Celtics fans are right to be worried.

But not about the recent slumps.

Those will pass. Those are the things that come with veteran teams and smart veteran coaches getting guys healthy, resting teams for the playoffs. Come the playoffs, those slumps and what has caused them will disappear faster than Chris Brown’s career.

The things to worry about are bigger issues, ones there before the slumps.

For the Spurs, right now it’s all about being healthy. Which is what it’s been about for the past few years but they just never were in the playoffs, Parker or Ginobili were not right and the supporting cast was not there. This season everything is in place. The current injuries are not that serious — Parker will be back Thursday against Boston, and both Duncan and Gimobili might be. The fact they are close shows concerns these may linger into the postseason are overstated.

The Spurs just need to hold off the Lakers and Bulls for the best record overall — they have a three-game cushion in the loss column over both with just two weeks left. Popovich knows what he is doing. The Spurs will play their stars just enough to keep that lead. Aside that it’s about rest – fresh and healthy legs that allow big postseason minutes.

What should worry Spurs fans is simply the Lakers. They are healthy, they are defending, they are running the offense (for a change) and they look like defending champions. Can a healthy Spurs team beat the Lakers? That’s the question that should keep Popovich up at night.

In Boston, the concerns with this slump run deeper.

What is costing Boston games now was a strength earlier — end of game execution, as our man A. Sherrod Blakely notes at CSN Boston (in an article enumerating Boston worries). But come the playoffs, do you really think Paul Pierce is not going to drain the step-back jumper, that Ray Allen will not hit the three, that Kevin Garnett will not outwork everybody for the key rebound? Exactly.

Rajon Rondo still does not seem right, still seems to be battling a finger issue. But he can get some rest once the seedings are more set — Delonte West should help lift the pressure off him — and once the playoffs come he’ll be fine.

What should worry Celtics fans is Shaquille O’Neal: Will he be healthy enough, in good enough condition to really anchor the paint in the playoffs? He did it early in the season, but on a team with issues of age everywhere Shaq has the biggest question mark after his name. In the best of times his conditioning was an issue, in the best of times he got exposed on the pick-and-roll in the playoffs. What will Dwyane and LeBron, or Rose and Noah do to him? Shaq isn’t simply backing up Perkins now (as we thought when he was brought in last summer); he is the man in the middle. That should worry Celtics fans. It should worry Danny Ainge.

But the slumps Boston and San Antonio are going through now, those are not worth worrying about. These are veteran teams that understand what it takes to be ready for the playoffs. They will leave it all on the floor when it matters.

The real question is will that be enough?

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

AP Photo/Phil Long
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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.