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.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.