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Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio 50-16 (1 seed)
Oklahoma City 47-19 (2 seed)

SEASON SERIES
San Antonio took the season series 2-1, however Manu Ginobili missed all of them (which might worry Thunder fans), the games were in March and earlier, bottom line these teams are different now.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)


San Antonio: offense 108.5 (1st in NBA); defense 100.6 (11th)
Oklahoma City: offense 107.1 (2nd); defense 100 (9th)

THREE KEY SPURS:

Tony Parker: He outdueled Chris Paul, so as his reward he gets Russell Westbrook. In one key regular season meeting between these teams Gregg Popovich asked Parker to attack Westbrook on offense, to wear him down and make him work at both ends, he did taking 29 shots and scoring 42 points. It worked. Expect a lot of that this series. On the other end, Parker is going to have to defend the pick-and-roll as well as he did last series (although don’t be shocked if Popovich has Parker cover Thabo Sefolosha and puts Danny Green on Westbrook for long stretches).

Tim Duncan: He has been fantastic in these playoffs, but the “old man” is about to be put to the test with the long and athletic Serge Ibaka shadowing him. Duncan and Parker (and Manu Ginobili) will keep the ball moving until the Spurs get open shots, but they have to produce themselves as well. Duncan has to get points inside against a big front line of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

Kawhi Leonard: He is the guy who is assigned the impossible task of guarding Kevin Durant. Nobody is stopping as good a pure scorer as there is the game, but if he can make Durant really work for his points — keep him shooting contested long jumpers — and not be efficient, it will put pressure on the Thunder to keep up with all the points the Spurs offense will score.

THREE KEY THUNDER:

Russell Westbrook: To me, Westbrook is the key to this series. San Antonio did a great job containing Chris Paul by zoning him off when he came off the pick and moved to the wing, but that’s not how Westbrook attacks off the pick-and-roll — Westbrook prefers to come off near the top of the key and dive straight down the lane to the basket. It’s harder for the Spurs to defend and if Westbrook can get into the paint he can get the Thunder the points they will need to hang in this series and win it.

On the other end of the floor, he has to make Parker work for his shots, get the ball out of his hands and contain him on the pick-and-roll. Nothing is stopping the Spurs offense, but the Thunder need to find a way to slow it.

Kevin Durant: This is obvious, but in a series where the Thunder need to put up points they will need big, efficient nights from him. That means not all pull up jumpers, he needs to get to the rim as well. Last meeting between these teams he was 8-19 shooting, he needs to be better this time around.

James Harden: Harden is the Sixth man of the Year, but the Spurs are deeper and get fantastic bench production. Harden needs to find a way to match it or come close. Also, he’s going to be the ball handler at the end of close games – and there will be close games — and his ability to make plays for others will be key.

OUTLOOK

This will get painted as a “pass the torch” series with the rising Thunder trying to take the mantle as the next great team in the West. In reality, the Thunder are going to have to rip that torch out of the Spurs hands, San Antonio isn’t done with it.

These are the two best offenses in the association and this whole series really boils down to this — which team can get more consistent stops?

It’s going to be hard for the Thunder, despite their length and athleticism. In their regular season meetings the Spurs just carved the Thunder defense up — and San Antonio is playing better now. The Spurs offense uses pressure and fantastic ball movement to get the shots they want — at the rim, the corner three, or specific jumpers like Duncan’s 15-foot bank. The Spurs are 8-0 in these playoffs and having’t lost since you were doing taxes because they get their shots on their terms. San Antonio will wait for the eager and active Thunder defense to overreact to something then in two quick passes get a good look or a matchup they want. They did it in the regular season matchups between these teams.

Another key for San Antonio and its ball movement is good look jump shots — the Spurs will take a lot of spot-up jumpers but are getting a very good 1.18 points per possession off it so far in the playoffs (via MySynergySports). Those looks are often corner threes — Oklahoma City has to rotate fast and challenge those corner threes. The Thunder have to contest everything, something they have done well in the playoffs (top field goal percentage against on spot ups in the postseason).

Spurs biggest challenge will be defending the pick-and-roll — they have done it well in the playoffs but this will be a different look and speed. Chris Paul tried to attack them from the wing, but Westbrook will attack from the top of the key, trying to turn and run down the lane and get his own points. They have to stop him out high, make him shoot jumpers, because if he gets into the lane the Spurs lack the big-man shot blocker too stop him.

This series is fascinating because of the matchup chess that will go on. In the playoffs Popovich has liked to play Parker, Danny Green and Ginobili together — will Scott Brooks counter by going big and forcing Green to try and cover Durant? Will Parker get time defending Thabo Sefolosha so the more athletic Green can go on Westbrook? Will the Thunder ignore Serge Ibaka on the pick-and-pop, and can he make them pay for it?

This series is so close. But if it becomes a chess match, you have to like Popovich against Brooks.

PREDICTION

Spurs in 7.

This could go either way and the only outcome that would surprise me is a team winning in less than six games. That said, in the end there will be too many Parker rainbow floaters over Ibaka’s arm, too many Matt Bonner corner threes, too many Boris Diaw or DeJuan Blair baseline cuts to catch a pocket pass and lay it in. Basically, too much Spurs offense. The Thunder will be close but when it comes to who can get enough stops to win, I like the Spurs. Barely, but the Spurs.

Brandon Ingram with the steal, slam (VIDEO)

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Very little has gone right for the Lakers of late. They have dropped five in a row. Around Los Angeles, the talk has gone from “this team could make the playoffs” after a 10-10 start to “they need to tank and try to keep the pick” after going 5-21 since. (The Lakers pick this draft is top-three protected, if it’s outside that it goes to the Sixers. The Lakers currently have the fourth worst record in the NBA.)

The Lakers young players look… young. D'Angelo Russell admitted he just started trying to follow a game-day routine, then said Tuesday night he didn’t focus and deserved to be benched down the stretch. Brandon Ingram shows flashes, he’s smart and sees the game, but he’s still physically pushed around.

But those flashes, like the steal and dunk above are fun.

Lakers fans, welcome to the process. This is what rebuilding is like. It’s a roller coaster, you just hope the trajectory generally remains up.

Rumor: Is Cleveland done making moves?

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  Kyle Korver #26 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots over Arron Afflalo #40 of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has made it clear he wants the Cavaliers to add a veteran point guard to the mix. Cavs GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers to the roster.

The Cavaliers made a savvy move picking up Kyle Korver recently, he brings shooting and some high IQ play to the table. But was that it? Does Cleveland have another trade to pull off?

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst is about as connected as they come with the Cavaliers organization and he said on ESPN Cleveland radio not to bet on seeing another move.

Windhorst is right, in terms of players the Cavaliers don’t have much to move — James Jones? Kay Felder — and they don’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021. The buyout market may be something to watch, but a solid playmaker or point guard may be hard to come by.

The only question about the Cavaliers roster is this: How does it match up with Golden State? Barring a major catastrophe, the Cavaliers are coming out of the East, but can they beat the Warriors four out of seven? The MLK Day blowout was not an indicator one way or the other, the Cavs mailed that game in, but there certainly are questions about the potential Finals matchup. One more playmaker would help the Cavs, I just don’t know where he comes from.

Report: Pelicans explored Dwight Howard trade before Hawks pulled him off table

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 07:  Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks at American Airlines Center on January 7, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Who are the Pelicans? They look like a movie where the writer, director, and studio suits all had very different versions of the film in mind, and the result is a jumbled mess. Think “Suicide Squad.”

There are a lot of questions about the roster and style of this team, but at the heart of all of it is this: Do they play Anthony Davis at the four or the five? They are better with him at the five but keep spending money on bigs to push him to the four.

They considered doing it again in the past month, reports Zach Lowe at ESPN (in an article that brilliantly lays out the quandary in New Orleans).

But they haven’t committed to staying small, and sticking Davis at center. They worry about the physical toll it would take, and fretted after Davis picked up two quick fouls jostling with Dwight Howard two weeks ago. In the days that followed, Atlanta and New Orleans had exploratory talks about possible Howard trades before the Hawks pulled everyone off the market, according to several league sources. It is unclear how interested New Orleans was, and there was not unanimous support within the team for acquiring Howard.

Dwight Howard? He’s played better this season and finally is staying within himself in Atlanta, but why would the Pelicans want him and that contract next to Davis? To be fair, these kinds of conversations happen a lot in the NBA and most don’t go anywhere. Still, this one is perplexing. It’s the opposite of the style they had success with this season. It’s back to the confused push-and-pull within that franchise.

Maybe this goes to having Saints people oversee the basketball side and thinking, like the NFL, you can rebuild on the fly quickly with smart fifth round picks and a couple free agents. The NBA doesn’t work that way (and there aren’t fifth round picks, although the second round serves that purpose). The Pelicans should have tanked in recent years. If the Pelicans brought in Alvin Gentry to run a more Warriors-style offense, then give him the players to do it. Davis is a foundational piece and will be a stud in any system, maybe Holiday can work in that free-flowing, fast-decision style with shooting everywhere, and after that… I don’t know.

Bottom line, if the Pelicans brought in Alvin Gentry to run a more Warriors-style offense, then give him the players to do it. Davis is a foundational piece and will be a stud in any system, maybe Holiday can work in that free-flowing, fast-decision style with shooting everywhere, and after that… I don’t know.

But the indecision and hodgepodge of a roster in New Orleans leaves it in the same place as always, and that is squandering one of the game’s best players.

Video Breakdown: What is Hammer action? An explainer

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Hammer action — sometimes referred to as a Hammer play or a Hammer set — was made ubiquitous in the modern NBA by the San Antonio Spurs. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds to identify, and it’s got two main principles.

First, the Hammer part of any set is a back screen to setup a cut by a wing player around the arc to the corner (or sometimes on a flare to the wing).

Second, the Hammer always happens away from the ball side of a play. It’s a weak side action, and typically anything happening with the ball on the strong side at the beginning of the play is purposeful distraction.

You can learn all about the Hammer by watching this week’s NBA Glossary video above, or by reading the text version down below.

The Diagram

Here we have a set where the ball is on the right side of the floor, with one post high and one low. The Hammer action happens on the weak side of the court between the shooting guard and the center:

The small forward is going to start the pick and roll with the power forward going to the right side. Meanwhile, the center is going to set the back screen on the left left side of the floor. This is our Hammer action, and the shooting guard will run off that screen to the corner.

Once the play starts and the small forward gets to the baseline, he passes it out to the guard, who shoots the corner three.

Let’s take a look at it in action and how the Spurs mix it into different looking plays.

Here they have the ball at the arc on the right side of the floor. Kawhi Leonard is coming through the paint to receive a pass off the screen.

Meanwhile, Patty Mills is the player that’s going to run off a hammer screen here on the left elbow.

The ball is passed, and with Kawhi dribbling toward the arc, the trap is set, and the Hammer action commences.

The defender turns his head, and Mills runs toward the baseline unimpeded to take the jumper.

In this example, we have the pick and roll to the right side. The hammer action is going to happen between the guard and the post on the weak side.

As the pick and roll is run, the Hammer screen is set.

Notice San Antonio has cleverly positioned Tony Parker at the top of the arc, and when LaMarcus Aldridge pops out, it’s up to Parker’s defender to stunt over to help.

This makes Danny Green’s defender slide over to help cover Parker, basically leaving Green unguarded in the corner.

Aldridge sees this, and passes the ball to Parker for the quick rotation over to Green.

That’s the basics of the Hammer play. It’s nothing super complicated, but it shows you how spacing and exploitation of defensive tendencies can be programmed into an NBA offense.