Thunder-Spurs Game 4: Let’s get serious

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Seriously, this is the most serious of seriousness. This is the business. This game is monstrous. All those games before that were big? No, this one is big. BIG. Like, those commercials big.

Thunder-Spurs Game 4 is going to have dramatic ramifications either way. If the Spurs win, the Thunder’s Game 3 win is meaningless and the series is over. The Thunder could force them back to Oklahoma City for Game 6, maybe even drag it back to the Alamo for Game 7. But if the Spurs go up 3-1, that’s all she wrote. NBA players know the reality. They’ll say they’re not paying attention those things but that’s a lie. They watch NBC Sports Net just like you do. They know the stats about a team going down 3-1. The spirit is crushed if the Spurs prevail in OKC.

Likewise, a Thunder win? Forget those two dominant Spurs wins, forget the streak and the aura of invincibility the Spurs carried with them. Two straight losses and it’s a three-game series, with the Thunder with all the momentum. On a shortened schedule, steal Game 5 in San Antonio where they played decent enough, and the Spurs will be on their heels going back to the Thunder dome. Tying this series up isn’t about getting the Spurs off their back, it’s about wiping the slate clean. Everything changes if they win Game 4.

So how is it done for both sides? Five things to watch in Thunder-Spurs 4.

1. The Ol’ Switcheroo: The Thunder switched extensively in Game 3 instead of trying to recover with their man and it worked wonders. Kendrick Perkins guarded Tony Parker effectively. Thabo Sefolosha defended everyone effectively. It was a switching festivus and the Thunder were partying. To counter this, the Spurs have some options. For starters, Tony Parker can drag the screen to the wing as far as possible, putting the larger player in a tough position to get to the baseline. He can be quicker with the pass, quicker with the drive, and more aggressive. Likewise, running the 3-4 pick and roll with Ginobili and Duncan could do damage. The Thunder aren’t equipped to guard Duncan in space and you have to think he’ll bounce back after a poor shooting performance. How this elements is handled by both sides is a fascinating chess match within a “Risk” game going on.

2. Harden Attack: James Harden got his game together in Game 3. It’s a pivotal matchup with Manu Ginobili and whoever wins the battle wins the game, so far. Harden was more aggressive and not as tentative in Game 3, and he understands better how to get the angle on the Spurs’ defense. I’d expect a lot more of Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard on Harden. They can survive the points from the Big 2, not the Big 3. Speaking of…

3. Inevitable Barrage: Durant or Westbrook are going to shake loose. They’ve gotten points, but neither has had a truly brilliant, efficient game yet. Game 4 provides that opportunity. It’s not that the Spurs can’t defend them well. It’s that those two specifically are stars because of their ability to confound defenses with scoring despite good defense. The Wonder Twins have to activate and have a performance worthy of their brand value for the Thunder to even the series.

4. How Diaw, Brown Cow? Boris Diaw played excellent defense against Blake Griffin. Boris Diaw played excellent defense against Serge Ibaka, for a while. But Game 3 provided some exploitation of the things that made Diaw a bad contract in Charlotte. He couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, he was throwing passes into steal lanes, he was off his element and was outrun. The Spurs may turn to DeJuan Blair in Game 4, after he played well at the end of Game 3 and may be a better matchup. The passing is really crucial. If Diaw isn’t creating perimeter rotations out of the post, his value on the floor becomes limited. How the Spurs react will be interesting given Popovich’s trust in veterans.

5. The Best Offense: Is a good defense for OKC. In Games 1 and 2, Scott Brooks tried to score with the red-hot Spurs. In Game 3, he deployed defensive lineups and got the desired result. Yes, Thabo Sefolosha won’t score that many again, but with Danny Green struggling, he doesn’t really need to. The Thunder’s offense has been very consistent in this series, and compared to last year. The Thunder are going to get points. It’s whether they can slow down the awesome power of the Spurs that will determine who wins the west. You could honestly say a bowl of salad on Sunday could alter players’ careers in this game. The Spurs know they have to stop OKC’s transition attack. The Thunder have to prevent open looks, something no one has been able to do in a long, long while.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did.

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.