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.

Lowry scores 24 points as Raptors beat Spurs 86-83

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TORONTO (AP) — Kyle Lowry scored nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, DeMar DeRozan added 21 and the Toronto Raptors beat San Antonio 86-83 on Friday night to snap a four-game losing streak against the Spurs.

Jonas Valanciunas had 15 points and 11 rebounds as the Raptors improved to 17-3 at home, the second-best home record in the NBA behind San Antonio’s mark of 19-2.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 14 rebounds, Pau Gasol scored 15 points and Patty Mills had 13 as San Antonio lost for the fourth time in six road games. The Spurs are 11-15 away from home.

It had been more than two years since Toronto last beat San Antonio. The Raptors won 97-94 at home on Dec. 9, 2015.

San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili missed his second straight game because of a sore right thigh. Ginobili returned to Texas after the Spurs won at Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Spurs trailed 70-69 after a 3-pointer by Bryn Forbes at 6:52 of the fourth, but DeRozan and Lowry connected on back-to-back possessions, giving Toronto a 74-69 lead with 5:11 remaining.

After a jump shot by Mills, Toronto reeled off a 6-0 run including baskets by Lowry, Valanciunas and DeRozan to lead 80-71 with 2:40 left.

Another 3-pointer by Forbes made it 86-83 with six seconds left. DeRozan was fouled but missed both free throws, giving San Antonio a chance to tie, but the Spurs couldn’t get a shot off in time.

After making seven of 23 shots in the first quarter, the Raptors hit 11 of 20 attempts in the second, including a buzzer-beating jumper from DeRozan that gave Toronto a 44-37 lead at halftime.

Toronto led 55-41 on DeRozan’s three-point play at 7:33 of the third but Aldridge did all the scoring in an 8-0 Spurs run that cut the gap to 63-60 heading to the fourth.

 

Memphis pays tribute to Zach Randolph as he returns to FedEx Forum

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Zach Randolph found his career around in Memphis.

He had fantastic on-the-court years in Portland, then bounced to New York and Los Angeles, but it was in Memphis that he became a beloved figure in the community who embraced it, plus on the court played a big role in the best years in the Grizzlies franchise.

He took the bigger check in Sacramento last summer, and when he returned to FedEx Forum in a Kings uniform Friday he was greeted with nothing but love.

🙌🏽 The @memgrizz pay tribute to @macbo50! #ThisIsWhyWePlay

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Randolph has earned this. Hope he savored it.

 

 

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins: All-Star nods bode well for Pelicans pairing

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure they’ve proved they can co-exist to spectacular and prolific effect.

Both big men have been named All-Star starters, giving them hope they’ll be paired together beyond this season, which is Cousins’ last under contract.

“First time I’ve ever been in an All-Star game with a teammate,” the 6-foot-11 Cousins noted after practice on Friday, one day after All-Star starters were announced. “This is big for the entire city, the organization and just our team moving forward. It kind of shows what this combo has the potential to have.”

The 6-10 Davis, who was the Pelicans’ lone All-Star last season, sounded equally pleased by the results a decision by New Orleans to counter the trend of guard-heavy “small ball” by pairing dynamic big men who can dominate inside, handle the ball and shoot with range.

“The biggest question was, was it going to work? I think we just proved that it is and it can work,” Davis said. “We feel like we complement each other.”

The 24-year old Davis is averaging 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Cousins, 27, has averaged 25.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 blocks. Their exploits have filled highlight reels, sometimes on plays involving one setting up the other – above the rim or otherwise.

“I’m mostly happy for DeMarcus,” Davis said. “To be a starter, that’s huge – huge for him. He’s having a hell of a season. It’s well deserved.”

The comparable production from both Davis and Cousins shows that “both of those guys are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Both of those guys are willing to leave a little bit of their game off the floor so the other guy can be good.”

There’s just one problem.

New Orleans hasn’t won enough to be firmly on a path toward postseason play.

At 23-21, the Pelicans entered Friday night’s action tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for seventh in the eight-team Western Conference playoff picture.

The Pelicans’ past two results were a microcosm of their season. On Tuesday night, New Orleans beat Eastern Conference-leading Boston. The following night, they lost at Atlanta, which entered the game with the worst record in the NBA.

“We’ve had flashes throughout the year,” Cousins said. “We’re still trying to find that consistency. There’s still a lot of things we need to work.”

Cousins acknowledged the Pelicans have yet to master “being the team we want to be at all times … no matter if we’re playing Golden State or the Atlanta Hawks.”

The Pelicans have yet to string more than three consecutive victories together this season and had developed a habit of losing to teams with losing records well before their Atlanta collapse. New Orleans has dropped home dates with Orlando, Sacramento, Dallas and New York. They’ve lost twice at Memphis.

If that trend continues, it could sour Cousins on the prospect of re-signing with New Orleans.

“I wasn’t really concerned about accolades. I’ve gotten accolades. I’ve done everything except win,” said Cousins, who spent his first seven seasons in Sacramento before his trade to the Pelicans following the 2017 All-Star game in New Orleans. “With the whole (trade) going down, what I thought I had a chance to do was win, and that’s why I was OK with it.”

Still, Cousins sounded confident he won’t be dealt to another club when asked if he liked the league’s decision to move up the trade deadline to Feb. 8 this season, before the All-Star break.

“I don’t really care because I don’t think I’m getting traded,” Cousins said. “Hopefully I’ve never got to deal with it again.”

If the Pelicans aren’t able to make a major addition with a trade, they could get a boost from the expected return of small forward Solomon Hill from an offseason hamstring tear. Valued by the club for his defense, Hill, a former starter, is scheduled to return for the final month or so off the regular season.

In any event, the Pelicans have 38 games to make their push, starting at home Saturday night against Memphis.

 

Thunder’s Paul George finding his role, doing a little bit of everything for new team

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder coach Billy Donovan can’t pinpoint the best thing about Paul George.

Oklahoma City’s versatile forward averages just over 20 points per game, leads the league in steals and is third in 3-point goals while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think that’s what makes him the player he is,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of players in the league that are great offensive players, but they’re not great defensive players. I think arguably, it would be hard to make a case either way of what end of the floor he’s better on, offense or defense, because he’s that special.”

George believes he’s having an All-Star season in first year with Oklahoma City after being traded from the Indiana Pacers. There have been challenges as he has tried to fit in with superstars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and it’s still unclear where he will play next season because of his upcoming free agency.

Still, he has remained focused enough to be a top-notch performer. As he has found his way, the Thunder have rallied from an 8-12 start and have gone 17-8 since heading into Saturday’s game at Cleveland.

“He can score it, attack the rim and he defends,” Lakers rookie guard Kyle Kuzma said. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to be a pretty damn good player.”

George was first team All-Defense in 2014 and second-team in 2013 and 2016, and he was a defensive stopper for Team USA when it won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says without hesitation that he wants to be Defensive Player of the Year this season and feels he should have won the award in the past.

“I think I have the makeup, I think I have the intangibles,” George told The Associated Press. “I’m physically capable of doing the things necessary. I thought 2013-14 I thought I was hands down the best perimeter defender on the league and I thought I was overlooked.”

George is averaging a career-best 2.2 steals per game. Having another top-notch perimeter defender in Andre Roberson to share some of the responsibility allows him to gamble more than in the past. He also credits carrying less of the offensive load.

“It gives me more energy, not having to create or generate offense every possession,” George said. “I can conserve energy that way. It allows me to really ramp up the defense on the other end, which is another reason why I’ve been able to accumulate so many steals. I have the energy, the endurance to keep flying around and keep being productive.”

An example of his all-around play this season was a five-steal performance against the Sacramento Kings. He made just 7 of 17 shots but was a critical factor in Oklahoma City’s win.

He hasn’t always emphasized defense, but he was forced to as a rookie for the Pacers during the 2010-11 season. Frank Vogel took over as coach at midseason and saw enough grit and improvement on that end to insert him into the starting lineup in March. He came of age during the playoff series that season against the Chicago Bulls when he faced league MVP Derrick Rose. George gave up some points, but he battled and helped the Pacers hold Rose to 37 percent shooting in the series.

“My mindset was I knew I was outmatched from a standpoint of staying in front of him,” George said. “That’s what really got me going in trying to think things through, trying to see what I can do that can disrupt the MVP. I tried to use my length. I tried to make it as hard as possible. I knew he was going to get his 20s, get his 30s, but how can I make it as hard as possible, and how can I wear this guy down? You’re not going to be able to shut down a guy like that at that stage.”

From that point, George embraced the role of defensive stopper while evolving into an all-around offensive player. He was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2013 and made the first of his four All-Star appearances. Last season, he averaged a career-best 23.7 points for the Pacers. Now, he can still create when needed and he has learned to be more of a catch-and-shoot scorer.

“He’s a beast out there,” Kings guard Buddy Hield said. “He’s great. He can score the ball from three, the mid-range and the post. He’s tough to guard so you have to pick your poison with him, and it’s hard to do.”