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.

Did you know Myles Garrett, No. 1 pick in NFL draft, has brother who played in NBA?

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The Cleveland Browns are trying something new: Making smart decisions. That included drafting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Garrett has NBA ties. His half brother, Sean Williams, was the No. 17 pick by the New Jersey Nets in 2007. Williams played just four years in the NBA, also spending time with the Mavericks and Celtics. He serves as a cautionary tale for Garrett.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated in a 2015 profile of Garrett:

Then there’s Sean Williams, Myles’s older brother by almost 10 years, a pro athlete who accompanied him on an official visit to College Station and served as a role model and mentor. More important, he offered a cautionary tale. “Myles looks up to Sean and loves Sean but knows the things Sean went through and how my mom hated watching her son self-destruct,” says Brea. “Myles never wanted to let my mom down. Honestly, the best thing Sean could have done for Myles was to f— up.”

Myles remembers approaching a Chevrolet Avalanche with smoke pluming from its windows. He was around 12, and as he pleaded with the man inside to stop smoking weed, tears streaked his face. Sean, then a 6’10”, 235-pound shot-blocking power forward for the Nets, had heard his little brother make this request many times before but never heeded him. “Definitely not,” Williams, 28, says when asked if he maximized his potential. “I let bad decisions get in the way, [let] smoking so much get in the way.”

As he got older, Myles played a lot of basketball with Sean, and despite the gaps in age and size, they went at it hard. Along with the stellar genes, Audrey gave her children an edge: “There was no allowing the kids to win in our house, be it Uno or tic-tac-toe. They could have been bums, but they would have been competitive bums.”

Myles idolized Sean. After the Nets picked Sean, Myles spent vacations in New Jersey with him, celebrating when he finally won in video games and when he first dunked on his big brother by grabbing onto him with one arm and tomahawking the ball with the other. In 2011-12, when Sean was playing for the Mavericks, the brothers often squared off at the team facility. One day Sean’s agent, Bernie Lee, got a call from Dallas GM Donnie Nelson. “You have to tell Sean to stop bringing his friend in to play one-on-one,” Nelson told Lee. “We’re scared they are going to hurt each other.” Nelson didn’t know who the friend was but guessed he was Sean’s bodyguard. Myles had just turned 16.

Check out the rest of Thamel’s story for a fuller basketball-colored introduction to Garrett.

Report: Isaiah Thomas scheduled to fly from Chicago to Washington after Celtics-Bulls Game 6

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Isaiah Thomas has played – and played well – in all five games of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls, which Boston leads 3-2.

But he has done so while travelling more than his teammates, flying home to Washington to be with his family after Game 2, following his sister’s death in a car crash. He’ll again make the extra trip after Game 6 tonight.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

After the Celtics and Bulls play Game 6 at the United Center on Friday night, Thomas is scheduled to fly to Tacoma to attend his sister’s funeral at noon on Saturday. If the Celtics win Game 6, this series will be over. But if Chicago wins, Game 7 will be played in Boston at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Teams up 3-2 with a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 have won Game 6 just over half the time. The Celtics have been inspired to play for Thomas, who is admittedly emotionally exhausted, and I suspect this will only intensify his teammates’ desire to win for him.

I can’t imagine how Thomas has handled such a heavy burden, but it’d be nice if he had a little relief rather than the pressure to return to Boston by early Sunday afternoon.

Bruno Caboclo leads Raptors 905 to NBA D-League title

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MISSISSAUGA, Ontario (AP) Bruno Coboclo led Raptors 905 to the NBA Development League title Thursday night, scoring 31 points and adding 11 rebounds in a 122-96 victory over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Raptors 905 won the best-of-three series 2-1, taking the last two at home after dropping the opener at Rio Grande.

Caboclo was 13 for 19 from the field, going 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Fred VanVleet added 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and 14 rebounds, and Pascal Siakim had 17 points. Troy Williams led the Vipers with 23 points.

Raptors 905 is affiliated with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and Rio Grande with the Houston Rockets.

Gregg Popovich: “Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now”

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The Spurs are on to the second round of the playoffs, and the reason is Kawhi Leonard. Through six games he averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting overall and 48.3 percent from three. Plus he was taking on Mike Conley — the toughest Grizzly to defend — for stretches of the game. Leonard has a PER of 36.4 through the first round of the playoffs, which is flat-out ridiculous.

That comes on the heels of a season where Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate who will draw a lot of votes.

“We have a knack for hanging in ’cause things happen, and obviously Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “He’s the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it’s impressive.”

“His conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added about Leonard. “I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble.”

If Leonard isn’t the best player in the game — LeBron James can stake a claim, among others — he’s damn close. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can do whatever a team needs to win — get buckets driving the lane, hit threes, grab a board, or lock down an opponent on a key play. That kind of versatility is rare.

It just feels like an MVP trophy and some more rings are in Leonard’s future, although probably not this season. On either count.