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.

Report: ‘Several prominent’ Cavaliers express concern about aging, defenseless, redundant roster

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The Cavaliers look like they can’t hang with the Warriors, which is troubling enough for a team with championship aspirations.

But for that realization to come during a miserable 2-8 stretch only puts more stress on the Cavs, who already appeared to be ripping at the seems. LeBron James is performativity howling at his teammates. They’re pointing the finger back at him. Coach Tyronn Lue is talking about personal agendas.

And tensions aren’t easing.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 118-108 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, multiple players acknowledged growing discontent and a strong sense of concern that unlike past seasons, the team does not have the capability to fix its problems and get back on a championship track.

Several prominent players, speaking on condition of anonymity to ESPN, Cleveland.com and The Athletic, expressed doubt that the problems — an aging roster, defensively challenged personnel and a glut of redundant role players — could simply be worked out through patience and a chance to coalesce when fully healthy.

The Cavaliers have one preeminent player: LeBron. It’d be disingenuous to frame this article this way without including him, and I doubt McMenamin is doing that.

These concerns are perfectly valid.

Cleveland is the NBA’s oldest team, weighted by playing time, in a decade. That doesn’t bode well for building up steam toward and in a long playoff run. This is an even more extreme version of the problem LeBron’s last Heat team succumbed to.

Isaiah Thomas is a defensive liability, and Kevin Love – playing a lot of center – isn’t a rim protector. Several other players – LeBron, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jose Calderon, Channing Frye and Derrick Rose – are well past their defensive peaks, which weren’t necessarily high in the first place. The Cavs’ defense ranks 29, ahead of only the Kings.

Wade, Calderon and Rose can’t all serve as lead playmaker while LeBron sits – leaving the other two without clear roles when everyone is healthy. Smith and Korver would both be spot-up 3-point specialists if Smith were hitting shots. Jae Crowder and Jeff Green look similar (a compliment to Green, but a telltale sign of how underwhelming Crowder has been). Frye is a lesser version of Love as a stretch five. Tristan Thompson can’t get going, and Iman Shumpert can’t get healthy.

To be fair, the Cavaliers are 26-17 – hardly bad, but not quite championship-caliber. This portrait of doom and gloom is accurate only when measured against the highest of expectations.

The Cavs can still trade the Nets’ first-round pick to upgrade the roster, though they’re reportedly disinclined to do so. This report sounds like a plea from top players for the team to reconsider. And if owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman don’t, it’ll read as LeBron framing his exit in free agency next summer.

Danny Green tugs down Dennis Schroder’s shorts (video)

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We collectively made a federal case out of J.R. Smith untying shoelaces.

We probably ought to at least question what the heck Danny Green was doing to Dennis Schroder here.

At least Schroder got the last laugh with 26 points, seven assists and five rebounds in the Hawks’ win over the Spurs.

Chris Paul says Clippers should play through Lou Williams, which sounds like a slight of Blake Griffin

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After the Clippers’ win over the Rockets last night, Chris Paul didn’t go after Blake Griffin just through a back entrance into the Clippers’ locker room.

He also seemingly went after Griffin in his post-game interview.

Asked to assess playing against his former team, Paul:

They’ve got Lou Will. Lou Will is the guy. You know what I mean? That’s the go-to guy, the guy that they should play through and stuff like that. He having a great year, and he tough. He tough, man.

Williams is having a great year, especially by the standards of career as a solid sub-star. But Griffin is a bona fide star – a tremendously skilled scorer, ball-handler and passer for a power forward. He’s clearly the Clippers’ go-to player when healthy. It’s great Williams stepped up when Griffin was injured, and Williams can run second units while Griffin is healthy. But Griffin is the go-to player.

I can’t read Paul’s intent. Maybe he genuinely disagrees and believes the Clippers should play through Williams. But – given Paul’s nd Griffin’s history and how heated last night’s game was – it sounds as if Paul is just trying to create friction within his former team and take a dig at Griffin. That’d be petty, but… yeah. Nobody would put that past Paul.

NBA Twitter had fun with Rockets, Clippers, secret tunnels

Associated Press
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This Clippers/Rockets story is so perfectly today’s NBA.

It’s not about the game itself (game-related stories draw far fewer eyeballs/traffic than off the court stuff). It involves drama and confrontation between star players with grudges and a guy who forced a trade. And while the players postured, there was never going to be an actual fight and everybody knew it, still the LAPD was called in.

It’s all perfect fodder for Twitter.

Just a quick recap of events. The Clippers win Monday over the Rockets at Staples Center got chippy — Blake Griffin got into it with Mike D’Antoni after running into him, Griffin and Trevor Ariza were ejected after some words where Austin Rivers was involved. After the game, Paul led a group of Warriors — James Harden, Ariza, Gerald Green — down a secret tunnel behind the locker rooms, went to the back door of the Clippers’ locker room and started to confront the Clippers. Except, nothing really happened but a verbal exchange, security broke it up and the LAPD was called in. That last part just about made Shaq fall out of his chair on Inside the NBA.

All this while Clint Capela knocked on the front door of the Clippers locker room and had it shut in his face.

This story was perfect for NBA Twitter, and it had a field day. Including the big names.

Everyone got in on the act.