Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs

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SEASON RECORDS

L.A. Clippers: 40-26 (5 seed)
San Antonio 50-16 (1 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Spurs took it 2-1. The Clippers won the most recent game but Tony Parker did not play for San Antonio.

KEY INJURIES

Clippers: Blake Griffin will play but says he is about “75-80 percent” with a sprained left knee. Chris Paul is fighting through what is being called a hip flexor, which could be an aggravation of a groin injury, however he looked just fine in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Memphis to me. Don’t forget Caron Butler has a broken left hand.

Spurs: No major injuries and they have been resting since roughly Mardi Gras.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)


San Antonio: offense 108.5 (1st); defense 100.6 (10th)
L.A. Clippers: offense 108.5 (4th); defense 105.7 (18th)

THREE KEY SPURS:

Tony Parker: The matchup of this series is Parker against Chris Paul, two of the best point guards in the game going head-to-head. In the two meetings against each other this season, Parker outplayed Paul, if he does in this series it’s over quickly. The Spurs are an offensive power (best in the NBA this year) because they get their shots at the rim or on good look threes more than any other team out there — Parker is the guy who needs to create that. The Spurs should score. The other test for Parker and the Spurs is pick-and-roll defense, because pretty much every page of Vinny Del Negro’s playbook is a variation of the P&R.

DeJuan Blair: Here’s the thing (pointed out by Zach Lowe at SI), the Spurs tend to put Blair on Blake Griffin and hide Duncan on DeAndre Jordan or whoever is playing center for the Clippers. Griffin is the one brutal matchup problem for the Spurs but he is not 100 percent. If Blair and Matt Bonner can keep Griffin in check (or in foul trouble by working him on the offensive end) the Spurs chances go way up.

Manu Ginobili: Expect him to be raining down corner threes on the Clippers all series long — Los Angeles doesn’t defend it well and the Spurs live by it. He’s also just a matchup problem because the Clippers don’t have a bench guy who can match him, plus Ginobili can do pretty much everything well so he just takes what you give him. Also, under/over of two Euro-step moves a game.

THREE KEY CLIPPERS:

Chris Paul: He is the beating heart Clippers right now, he is what makes them go. If he is not at 100 percent it will be difficult for Los Angeles. The Spurs big men are not great at defending the pick-and-roll and CP3 is going to have to make them pay for that, both by getting himself good looks and finding Jordan or Griffin for the alley-oop when Duncan slides over to help. Paul took over in close games against Memphis and he’s going to have to do that in this series — and do it against Tony Parker. Plus he needs to defend Parker well.

Blake Griffin: San Antonio doesn’t really have anyone who can stop him on the block. I know a bunch of Spurs fans just said “but all he can do is dunk,” this is you’re mostly wrong. Griffin has good footwork and can spin and drive for dunks, he’ll face up and go around you, he has a running hook in the lane and if you double him is a surprisingly good passer out of it. He’s better than you think. (Besides, the dunk is the most efficient shot in basketball, if you tell me all a guy can do is dunk but he’s athletic enough to get to the rim and do it five or more times every game, any coach will take that. Including Popovich.) Griffin is banged up but he has to exploit the defense for the Clippers to hang in these games.

DeAndre Jordan: If there is one thing that bothers the Spurs, it’s an active, athletics big man scoring points. DeAndre Jordan can be that guy — he was just nothing like that in the first round when he was often benched in the fourth quarter in favor of Reggie Evans. Jordan is going to have Duncan on him and needs to make the Spurs pay when Duncan leaves him to slide into the paint and protect against the slashing Paul. Also, the Spurs get a lot of their points at the rim and Jordan needs to defend this.

OUTLOOK

Consider this the anti Sixers/Celtics series — both of these teams can score and both struggle to consistently stop what the other team does well. Here are a couple specific areas to watch.

• The Spurs and the corner three. The Spurs live by this shot, it is at the heart of what they want to do on offense, while the Clippers were the third worst team in the league at defending the arc this year (teams shot 36.5 percent against them). In their three meetings this season, the Spurs shot 48 percent from the corner specifically, up from their season average of 41 percent. If Bonner and Ginobili get to rain down threes from there with impunity, the Clippers are in trouble.

• The Spurs going to the rim. This is the other thing the Spurs do well, both through Tony Parker penetration and just good ball movement — they get shots at the rim. The Clippers, with the athletic Griffin and Jordan, do a good job forcing teams out of the paint and do not give up a lot of easy buckets. If the Spurs still get the looks they want the Clippers are in trouble.

• Battle of the benches. The Spurs are not three old guys and a bunch of stiffs any more — Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson give them guys who can contribute in the system. The Spurs keep doing what they do no matter who ins on the floor, they are Terminator relentless. The Clippers bring shooters like Mo Williams and Nick Young, they bring the beard of Reggie Evans, but they don’t bring the same consistency. Someone from the Clippers bench needs to catch fire and steal them a game.

• Chris Paul on the pick-and-roll. Yes, I know that is the entire Vinny Del Negro playbook, but it also is the best way to attack the Spurs — expose their bigs lack of athleticism with the play. The Clippers should get looks this way, they should be the faster, more athletic team. Tony Parker is the problem here, but if the Clippers are going to be a threat in this series this is how it happens, because CP3 is the MVP.

• Gregg Popovich vs. Vinny Del Negro. Vinny deserves credit for getting the Clippers out of the first round for only the second time since they moved to the West coast. He’s got them playing better defense. He’s still no Popovich. If it’s close at the end of games the Spurs have the advantage.

PREDICTION

Spurs in 5.

I want to believe in Los Angeles, but this is a tough matchup and the two guys who can change things are banged up (Paul and Griffin). Unlike against Memphis, the Clippers will not win the fourth quarter execution game. The Clippers are a team still learning to win together — Chris Paul has never been out of the second round; Blake Griffin, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan are getting their first taste of the playoffs. It’s not that the Clippers are just happy to be here, but they are still learning and when their weaknesses are exposed they do not have the counters yet to fall back on. This is what happens in the playoffs, teams and players learn the hard way what they need to improve to take the steps forward. The Clippers are still learning.

The Spurs know who they are and what they have to do. Someday the guard will change between these teams, but that time is not yet.

Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis lead way, Bulls blow out Kyrie-less Celtics 108-85

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CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are starting to draw attention for their play together instead of their fight with each other.

Mirotic scored 24 points, Portis added a career-high 23 and the Chicago Bulls blew out Boston 108-85 on Monday night with Celtics star Kyrie Irving sidelined because of a bruised left quadriceps.

Owners of the NBA’s worst record, the Bulls (6-20) built an 18-point lead in the second quarter against the Eastern Conference leaders. And when Boston cut it to 12 in the fourth, the Bulls simply pulled away for their third straight win.

Leading the way were two players who made headlines for all the wrong reasons before the season started.

Their fight at practice left Mirotic with facial fractures, causing him to miss the first 23 games. Portis served an eight-game suspension.

But the two have played well together the past two games.

“We need to give the credit to (coach Fred Hoiberg),” Mirotic said. “Fred is the one who is making us play. He’s the guy who is calling the plays for us and putting us in the right spots to play.”

As for the fight?

“Man, that situation’s over,” Portis said. “Everybody’s talking about that. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just trying to win games.”

Mirotic made his first start of the season with leading scorer Lauri Markkanen sidelined because of back spasms and shot 9 of 14 with eight rebounds. Through three games, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 16.3 points.

Portis shot 10 of 15 and nailed all three 3-pointers.

Al Horford scored 15 for Boston (23-6). Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier added 13 points apiece in the Celtics’ most lopsided loss of the season.

“Sometimes you get your butt kicked. It was simple as that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Chicago dictated the whole game. They played harder than we did. They played with more presence than we did. They played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. You’re not going to win many games when you play like that.”

 

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.