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.

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.

Lonzo Ball, other top draft picks expected to skip NBA Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine invites started going out Saturday — about 60-70 players are expected to be invited to a gym in Chicago for a couple of days of measurements, interviews, and tests, with a little basketball thrown in. The idea is for teams to get an up-close look (and accurate measurements) with guys they are going to invest time and, in some cases, millions of dollars in over the next several years.

However, the guys at the top of the draft are not going to be in Chicago, as Shams Charania and Bobby Marks of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports noted.

This is the same as with the NFL combine, the top picks see only bad things that can happen by taking part, there’s no upside but their stock could fall, so they stay away.

That’s not about to change. Also, a lot of international players skip the combine. That opens up some slots for more fringe guys, players who may or may not get drafted in the second round, to come in and impress. (Check out Jonathan Givony’s Twitter timeline to get a sense of who got invited and who didn’t.)

Teams looking at drafting the top handful, the elite guys, have already had scouts watch every college and many high school games, not to mention seeing their AAU teams and catching them at things like the Nike Summit or Adidas Nations events. They’ve talked to the guy’s former coaches and others around him, they have a good sense of who he is and is not.

Well, as much as one can in any draft. It’s still a crap shoot. A player can have all the skills, all the physical gifts, be a good person, but what happens once they face real adversity? Or, have to deal with money and temptations? What would you have been like at age 20 with millions of dollars and all the hedonistic temptations of the NBA lifestyle thrown at you? Or, how do does a team know which young players with some very raw skills have the drive and passion for maximizing those talents? Predicting how a 19- or 20-year-old will mature is not an easy task.

Dwyane Wade says he wants to see plan for Bulls before deciding on player option

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I can think of $23.8 million reasons Dwyane Wade will be back with the Chicago Bulls next season. Sure, he’s made more than $175 million on the court and more in endorsements during his Hall of Fame career. Still, that’s a lot of money to walk away from and he has the player option. It’s Wade’s call.

When asked on Saturday, a day after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics (a game in which Wade was 1-of-10 shooting and -27), whether he planned to return to Chicago or test the free agent market again this summer, Wade only said that he wanted to get a sense of what the Bulls were going to do this summer before he decided. Here are some Tweets from the Wade interview from Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

Wade wants a clear plan and direction from Bulls management? That’s a long line. Like the line at an Apple Store the day the new iPhone comes out length. Wade is way at the back of it.

If the Bulls rebuild, they will trade Butler, if not they will run it back with Wade, Butler, and likely Rondo. Obviously, if they do keep this core together a lot of pieces around them need to change and start to fit some kind of cohesive system.

Wade also defended coach Fred Hoiberg in the wake of “fire Hoiberg” chants from Bulls fans at the end of the game.

This is the one wish Wade will get, after firing Tom Thibodeau and hand-picking Hoiberg out of the college ranks, no way GarPax is going to fire him this summer and admit its mistake.

Everything else with Wade is up in the air.