Manu Ginobili and the dark cloud of the Spurs on the Western Conference horizon

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If the Spurs are going to win the title this season it will be on the back of Manu Ginobili. That has become abundantly clear over the past six weeks or so. The Spurs are facing what can genuinely be considered their 14th consecutive season of championship contention, which is, in every way possible, completely and totally amazingly bonkers. That’s consistency of a kind that we simply almost never see in the NBA. Not even the Lakers have truly been contenders for that length of time, and they have five titles to their credit. But in the past two years we’ve seen a dramatic shift from the gritty, patient, bore-a-hole-in-y0ur-head-and-suck-out-your-brains-with-a-vacuum-cleaner Spurs to an offensive juggernaut with defensive issues.

In March of last year, the Spurs defensive efficiency skyrocketed to 108.5 up from 101.1 for their season average. It was a trend few were examining until the playoffs came and all of a sudden the Spurs couldn’t stop the Memphis Grizzlies, eventually losing to them in the first round in one of the biggest upsets ever. For most of this season, the trend had been corrected. Unfortunately, over the past month, we see the same trend picking up as what bit them in March of last season.

So that’s not good (I ignored the four game stretch in December for sample size purposes and the two games in April. But let it be known those six games they were good defensively overall.) They were really locking down in February but March rolled around and things changed. Interestingly, both Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, the two deadline and buy-out additions for the Spurs haven’t been the problem, the Spurs’ defensive efficiency is better than average with them on the court. It’s everyone around them that has slid backwards.

Does this mean that the Spurs are terrible at defense? Not at all. In the past ten games, the Spurs have the 9th best defensive efficiency in the 4th quarter. They’re quite capable of good defense and all signs point to their having a superior defensive front than last year. It’s just that they are clearly not a tremendous defensive team. They’re average-to-slightly-above-average, at least in the regular season. I had anticipated them turning it on in the playoffs last year, only to find defense to be the biggest reason they lost in the first round. Can they turn it on this year? Probably to a degree, but they won’t be winning with defense.

They’ll be winning with Ginobili.

Ginobili missed a large portion of the year with various injuries. To say that the Spurs have crept to this record because of Ginobili would be false. It’s been Tony Parker, and the bench’s brilliance, and Popovich’s coaching, and overall execution. But in the playoffs, when the margin between teams is narrowed to a handful of possessions, it will be Ginobili that will make the difference.

Like on plays like this.

As Spurs blog Pounding the Rock has described Ginobili:

The 34-year-old shooting guard (34 being considered as chronologically challenged in the NBA) carefully brings the basketball past half court methodically, seemingly taunting the defense. Ten eyes are scanning his every move. His passing ability alone warrants the defense’s undivided attention. Couple that with his quirky offensive game — a game is crafted with artifice, predicated on unique angles, balanced upon the threat of scoring from every part of the floor, his ambidextrous dribbling and the ability to draw fouls continuously — Manu Ginobili is still incredibly hard to stop despite having logged 652 games at the professional level (not counting his International experience).

Manu has always been as attuned as any player can be to the ebb and flow of a game; ready and able to deliver what his team needed from him at any point. For me, the worst part about watching the ’08 and ’09 playoffs, was having the involuntary thought, “Ok, Manu needs to step up now,” only to realize that he was in street clothes. If we can all agree that his sensitivity to where and how he needs to play is as advanced as it’s always seemed to be, then it’s a really short trip to believing that we’re seeing a metamorphosis in his game that will take him places we can only imagine. And that will take the team where it hasn’t been in five long years — into the Golden Hour, where the end of the day brings beauty, even as night closes in.

via Manu Ginobili’s Game Is Changing Right Before Our Eyes – Pounding The Rock.

Ginobili’s continued excellence lies in his ability to make key plays. Not clutch plays. But well-timed conversions of low-percentage opportunities. Slipping between defenders and hitting the and-one when the lead has swelled to seven. Nabbing the steal when the offensive momentum is with the other team. Canning the open three when the defense loses him for just a second. These are the Ginobili plays that will make the most difference.

The Spurs’ defense is not where it needs to be. But it’s good enough. And when the playoffs come around, if Ginobili is playing at this level, there will be no first-round upset. There will be the Spurs, standing in the Thunder’s way, with every matchup advantage you can imagine.

The Spurs are the dark cloud on the horizon of the Western Conference. Ignore them at your peril.

Serge Ibaka, DeMar DeRozan lead Raptors past Mavericks, 94-86

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DALLAS (AP) — DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka scored 18 points apiece, and the Toronto Raptors clinched a playoff berth after their fifth straight victory, 94-86 over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night.

The Raptors, who came back from 15-point deficits to win each of their last two games, made it a little easier on themselves Saturday. Toronto scored the game’s first seven points and never trailed in dealing the Mavericks’ playoff hopes a damaging blow.

Harrison Barnes scored 23 points for Dallas, which missed 18 of its first 22 3-pointers and finished just 7 of 28 from behind the arc.

Patrick Patterson added 14 points for Toronto, including a perfect 4 for 4 on 3-pointers.

The Mavericks fell four games behind Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.

Toronto led by as many as 16 points in the first half and by 15 early in the fourth quarter before a 10-0 Dallas run made things more interesting.

Dorian Finney-Smith‘s free throws with 7:57 to go brought the Mavs within 79-74, the closest they had been since 7-2 early in the game. But Ibaka made consecutive jumpers to restore a nine-point lead, and Dallas got no closer than six after that.

The Raptors had their biggest lead at 42-26 in the first half. Barnes scored Dallas’ last 11 points of the half to help cut into the lead, but Toronto led 54-44 at the break.

J.J. Barea‘s long 3 at the third-quarter buzzer again brought Dallas within 10 at 74-64.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Coach Dwane Casey said he was hopeful that guard Kyle Lowry would return from wrist surgery before the end of the regular season. “I know he’s doing a lot of conditioning, a lot of work to keep his body in shape,” Casey said. “Just let him rehab, let him do his thing and trust our medical people.” Lowry has missed the last 16 games. . Toronto was also without starting forward DeMarre Carroll due to a sore lower back. P.J. Tucker started in his place.

Mavericks: Seth Curry with 11 points and Yogi Ferrell with 10 were the only other Mavs in double figures. . Nerlens Noel started his second game in a row at center for the Mavericks, who have gone to a big lineup. They’ve moved Dirk Nowitzki to power forward, Barnes to small forward and Curry to point guard.

STREAK IN JEOPARDY

The Mavericks took their 41st loss of the season. Their next loss will end the NBA’s second-longest streak of .500 or better seasons – currently at 16 seasons. Their last sub-.500 season was 1999-00, when they finished 40-42 and Mark Cuban became owner of the team in January 2000.

San Antonio has the longest streak of .500 or better seasons with 20, including this season.

ABOUT THURSDAY NIGHT

Cuban couldn’t resist giving his opinion on Barea’s ejection from the Mavericks’ victory over the Clippers on Thursday night. Barea was called for a flagrant 2 foul for pushing Blake Griffin, a player with a 10-inch height advantage over Barea.

“I just feel bad for Blake,” Cuban said. “It’s hard to come back from a knockout like that. We sent flowers to his family, condolences. I can only guess that he’s going to be drinking through a straw for a long, long time.”

 

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.