Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan

PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio: 58-24, two seed in the West

L.A. Lakers: 45-37, seven seed in the West

SEASON SERIES

The Spurs took two of the three regular season meetings between the tams, however the Lakers won the most important (and most recent) matchup to date, beating San Antonio this past Sunday to help secure their place in the postseason.

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio: Plenty of players dinged up, including Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who have both missed extensive time recently due to injury. But the Spurs are expected to have their full complement of players available when the series tips off on Sunday.

L.A. Lakers: Kobe Bryant is out for the season with a torn Achilles injury. Steve Nash is out with what the official report calls “hamstring pain and weakness,” but there are issues in his hip and back which are causing the pain. Nash has had epidural injections the past few days, and hopes to be back for this series. It sounds, however, as though the Lakers should be prepared to go it without him, at least in the early games of this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Spurs: offense 105.9 (7th in NBA), defense 99.2 (3rd in NBA)
Lakers: offense 105.6 (8th in NBA), defense 103.5 (18th in NBA)

Differential: Spurs +6.8 (3rd in NBA), Lakers +2.0 (10th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR LOS ANGELES:

Team defense against Parker and Ginobili: The Lakers have been a defensive disaster for the better part of this season. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are among the best at creating havoc with their dribble penetration and ability to score and distribute, so the rotations defensively need to be at an all-time high this season for the Lakers to have a chance in slowing what the Spurs do offensively.

Use Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to your advantage offensively: Few teams have two talented and skilled bigs as the Lakers do with Howard and Gasol, and they need to force the ball into the post offensively to punish the Spurs inside. Tim Duncan is only one defender, and isn’t to be feared as he has in seasons past. If San Antonio doubles, the Lakers need to swing the ball to the open shooters on the perimeter and knock down the open looks, especially from three-point distance.

Steve Nash: The health of Nash is uncertain at this point, and based on available information regarding his injury, it doesn’t look good as far as him contributing at a high level in this series. The Lakers will need him, however, if they are to have any chance of beating the Spurs any more than once or twice.

THREE KEYS FOR SAN ANTONIO:

Health above all else: The Spurs have proven that they have the pieces to compete at the highest level this season. They’ve played a surprisingly low number of games with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard all healthy at the same time, so having their best players at full strength should make the Spurs as tough an out as there is in the early rounds of the playoffs.

Crank up the defense: The Lakers are struggling to find an offensive identity with Kobe Bryant sidelined due to injury, and the Spurs need to keep it that way. L.A. shot just 36.7 percent from the field in an overtime win over the Rockets, and the Spurs should be able to cause many more problems for L.A. defensively than Houston ever could in its wildest dreams.

Tony Parker: Parker had an MVP-type season for the Spurs, and made the offense go at a level very few teams can replicate from the point guard position. If Parker can perform as he has when healthy earlier this season, his dribble penetration should cause a world of pain for a Lakers team that has struggled with its defensive rotations for the entire season.

OUTLOOK

It seems as though the Lakers might be able to hang around for a few games in this series, but honestly, if the Spurs’ key players are healthy and are able to perform anywhere near 100 percent, that’s going to be a tall order. San Antonio has a history of losing playoff series in recent years where it has been favored to win, but this Lakers team doesn’t seem to have the right combination of players playing at a high enough level at the right time to continue that trend.

PREDICTION

Lakers get a win or two, but won’t come close to challenging for the series. Spurs in 6, though if they win in five it wouldn’t be a surprise.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.