NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio vs. Memphis

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SEASON RECORDS
Spurs: 61-21 (No. 1 seed)
Grizzlies: 46-36 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Tied: 2-2, with each team winning both games on their home court. Tony Parker missed one of the Spurs losses, Tim Duncan the other.

KEY INJURIES
Spurs: Manu Ginobili, the two guard from Argentina that is key to the Spurs chances injured his elbow two minutes into the final game of the season and did not return, an MRI Thursday will let us know the severity and time missed.
Grizzlies: Tony Allen, he missed the last two games of the regular season with a sore and swollen knee, but he will go for the playoffs; Rudy Gay, the best perimeter player on the Grizzlies, will miss the entire playoffs with shoulder surgery; Xavier Henry, the rookie backup two guard, has had knee problems and is out for the playoffs; Jason Williams, the backup point guard, is out for the season with back problems.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Spurs: Off. 109.4 (2nd in NBA); 102.8 (11th in NBA)
Grizzlies: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); 102.5 (8th in NBA)

THREE KEY SPURS

Manu Ginobili: He would be on this list if he was 100 percent healthy, but after injuring his elbow in the last game of the regular season he is at the top of the list. The Spurs have modified their offensive attack this season to not focus as much around Tim Duncan in the post and rather have Ginobili and Tony Parker more the decision makers out on the perimeter. There are few guys who can penetrate like Ginobili, and when he does he’s a crafty, willing passer who sets up teammates as much as he takes his own shot. They need him and his health matters.

Tim Duncan: Okay, he’s not the focus of the offense anymore, but he is still central to what they do on defense (and he’s still scoring 13.4 points per game on 50 percent shooting, it’s not like he dropped off the face of the earth). In this series his defense will be key — he will get a lot of time on Zach Randolph and while he’s not going to stop him Duncan has to slow him. Part of that is making Randolph work on the defensive end (or if he chooses not to work, to exploit the mismatch). Look for Duncan to get a lot of touches.

DeJuan Blair: He is the physical enforcer down low for the Spurs, and he’s going to get called on to do a lot of the dirty work by Greg Popovich. The Grizzlies score more points in the paint than any team in the league (51 a game) and the Spurs have to make them work for those points, to not be efficient. Blair and his physical style will be a lot of that.

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES

Zach Randolph: Is there a better low-post scorer in the NBA? If so, not many. The Spurs have size but with Duncan and Antonio McDyess up front they are not young. Randolph had 23 points on 14 shots in the last meeting with the Spurs (with Duncan out) and they are going to need games like that from him again to have a chance.

Tony Allen: He is going to draw the defensive matchup on Manu Ginobili — we’re assuming Ginobili will play in the series at this point — and in that way will be key. The Spurs now focus their attack from their guards and Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. If he can disrupt Manu, it will put more pressure on Parker and George Hill off the bench. Allen and his teammates need to take away the three ball that has become central to the Spurs attack.

Mike Conley: He has had his best season as a pro, really earning the deal he was given last summer by the Grizzlies. But now he really needs to earn that paycheck. He needs to slow Tony Parker. What’s more, on offense he needs to feed the Grizzlies big men and not turn the ball over — points are not going to be that easy to come by this series and turnovers that lead to easy transition points for the Spurs would make them hard to catch.

OUTLOOK

Inside/outside. Which team can do a better job of taking away the other’s strength? Memphis wants to pound the ball down low — with Randolph they have one of the best low-post scorers in the league, his counterpart Marc Gasol provides another 11.7 points per game (and he has a midrange game you have to respect as well). The Spurs will counter with Tim Duncan, who is no longer the best defensive big man in the league, but he’s not bad, and the physical play of DeJuan Blair and McDyess. Tiago Splitter, who played much better at the end of the season, also will get key minutes.

On the flip side, the Spurs make a league-best 39.7 percent of the threes they take (about 21 a game) and the Grizzlies are not good at defending the three (opponents hit 36.9 percent, 24th best in the league). The Spurs generate a lot of their offense off the pick-and-roll with the ball in the hands of Ginobili and Parker, either with them driving or then kicking out for spot-up looks (almost 25 percent of the Spurs offense is spot-up looks, often those discussed threes). Tony Allen and Shane Battier need to be keys to defending those plays. Memphis has not been great this season at defending the pick-and-roll or closing out on spot-up shooters this season but they have to if they want to advance.

The real key to this series could be depth — San Antonio gets a lot out of George Hill, Gary Neal and Bair off the bench. Can O.J. Mayo match them?

PREDICTION

Memphis is about as tough a 1 vs. 8 matchup as we can recall. They have real strengths inside and are going to be a physical team that will leave bumps and bruises on whoever they face. The Spurs big men are going to have to work hard all series to both defend and secure rebounds.

But in the end, what the Spurs like to do on offense the Grizzlies don’t defend well, and without Rudy Gay the Grizzlies lack the scoring on the wings they really need to compete.

Spurs in 6.

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty:

Owner: Hawks will ‘make every effort imaginable’ to re-sign Paul Millsap

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Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox called re-signing Paul Millsap this summer the team’s “priority.”

Hawks owner Tony Ressler went a step further.

Ressler, via Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“We love Paul Millsap,” Ressler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “We are trying to re-sign him. We want him to stay here. We think he is a really special player and a special person that we want on our team and in our locker room and we are going to make every effort imaginable to keep him.”

There’s certainly one effort I can imagine: Offer Millsap a max contract, which projects to be worth $205 million over five years.

That’s not necessarily a wise investment. As excellent and underrated as Millsap is now, he’s 32. He’ll be hard-pressed to maintain anywhere near this level of production over the next five years. And what’s the upside for Atlanta enduring such risk, especially late in his contract? A chance at a playoff-series victory each of the next couple years? The trade-off would make more sense for a team that can accomplish something more meaningful now.

The Hawks seem conflicted about their direction. In the last year, they’ve traded Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver but also signed Dwight Howard. Atlanta’s starting lineup is split by a glaring age divider – Millsap (32) and Howard (31) on one side, Tim Hardaway Jr. (25), Dennis Schroder (23) and Taurean Prince (23) on the other.

Do the Hawks want to rebuild or win now? It almost depends when you ask, and by the offseason, there might be a different answer. But the owner so strongly endorsing re-signing Millsap speaks volumes. Everyone in the organization, including president/coach Mike Budenholzer, answers to Ressler.

Of course, Millsap will hold the cards as an unrestricted free agent. He might prefer to leave Atlanta for a team closer to title contention or any other reason.

But the Hawks can make offer that would be darned hard to refuse.