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.

J.R. Smith replacing Dwyane Wade as Cavaliers’ starting shooting guard

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The Cavaliers are 2-1, but their starting lineups have been outscored by 19 points in 32 minutes. Dwyane Wade has been so bad as the starting shooting guard, his struggles have overshadowed J.R. Smith‘s miserable play as the backup.

But at least Wade volunteered a solution to this predictable problem.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Dwyane Wade is headed for the Cavaliers’ bench at his own request and J.R. Smith is returning to the starting lineup.

Wade, 35, a 12-time All-Star who struggled in his first three games with Cleveland, asked coach Tyronn Lue to make the change, Lue said. But this wasn’t exactly Wade’s idea, either.

Lue told him when he signed with the Cavs Sept. 27 that the second unit may be the best fit for him.

“I just decided, earlier than later, just to get to the unit where I’d be more comfortable in and can probably better with this team in that lineup,” Wade said. “Why wait? Three games in, why wait? Wanted to get in there with those guys.”

Cleveland’s starting lineup needs more shooting and defense around LeBron James – especially with Derrick Rose starting over an injured Isaiah Thomas (though Rose is out a couple games with his own ankle injury). Smith provides that.

Bench-heavy units need more playmaking. Wade provides that.

This was a tricky situation given Wade’s status as a future Hall of Famer and friendship with LeBron. Whether Wade simply suggested the change or Lue is trying to give Wade public credit after coaxing it behind the scenes, the result is the same.

The Cavs can now use their most logical rotation, and they should be better for it.

Suns GM Ryan McDonough: Eric Bledsoe hair-salon claim about tweet was unbelievable

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Eric Bledsoe reportedly requested a trade from the Suns before the season then tweeted yesterday:

Clear message?

Apparently not.

After sending home Bledsoe today, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough explained his rationale:

The hair salon! What a wonderful excuse.

Is it true? I’m not going to call Bledsoe a liar. It might be.

It’s also probably true that Bledsoe isn’t long for Phoenix.

Report: Suns send Eric Bledsoe home, expect to trade him

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In a shocking twist, the Suns firing Earl Watson did not end the dysfunction in Phoenix.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Bledsoe:

That is a first-rate tweet by Bledsoe. It’s great that he’s having fun with the wild situation, because the rest of us sure are amused peering in.

This was always going to be a long season in Phoenix, but things got out of hand in a hurry. The 0-3 Suns have been outscored by 92 – the worst three-game start in NBA history by 16 points. Now, comes the fallout.

At 27, Bledsoe was getting to be a little too old for a rebuild centered on Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren. The Suns could have dealt Bledsoe in the offseason. Now, they’re negotiating from a position of weakness.

Bledsoe is a good starting point guard when healthy. He’s earning a reasonable $14.5 million this season and due $15 million in the final year of his contract next season. There should be suitors, and Phoenix can gain long-term assets while stepping up its tank.

But this sure seems like a crisis-control move more than anything else.

Willy Hernangomez ‘mad’ about falling from Knicks rotation

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Knicks president Steve Mills started his second tenure talking about rebuilding and listed Willy Hernangomez as a core piece.

But Hernangomez, coming off an All-Rookie first-team season, barely played in New York’s season-opening loss to the Thunder– drawing scrutiny.

Then, he didn’t play at all in a loss to the Pistons – eliciting a strong reaction from Hernangomez himself.

Hernangomez, via Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

“The same. I’m still mad,” Hernangomez said. “I cannot help the team win if I’m sitting on the bench. Two games in a row. It’s tough. I have to wait my moment. I cannot say nothing more.”

The Knicks are moving in different directions. Management is talking about building for the future. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who was hired by previous president Phil Jackson, is trying to win now.

There’s a fine line between developing Hernangomez through playing time and making him earn his minutes. Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn might be better right now.

But being marginally better this season won’t get the Knicks anywhere meaningful except lower in the lottery. On the other hand, even on rebuilding teams, winning is most important to a coach’s job security. Earl Watson implemented the Suns’ tanking scheme, and look where that got him.

Hornacek is backed into a corner, and now one of the team’s most important young players is publicly expressing his displeasure. It’s the latest troubling sign in a locker room already suspicious of Hornacek.