PBT Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

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SEASON RECORDS

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

Golden State: 47-35, six seed in the West

PLAYOFF RECORDS

San Antonio: Swept the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0

Golden State: Beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2

SEASON SERIES

The teams split the series, with both teams winning their two home games. In both Spurs’ losses, they were on the second night of a back to back including their second to last game of the season where Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all sat out. In one of the Warriors two losses, Stephen Curry didn’t play with ankle injury.

KEY INJURIES

On the Warriors’ side, David Lee is still hobbled by his torn hip flexor. And while he saw some game action in game 6 versus the Nuggets, even Mark Jackson acknowledged that was more for inspiration than as a real weapon. Lee’s not expected to play a significant role this series.

For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter is sidelined with a bad ankle and may return mid-way through this series. Boris Diaw is also still out after having a cyst removed from his spine, but the original 3-4 week timeline for his return means he could potentially return this round if everything goes as planned.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

San Antonio: Offense 111.0 (1st in the post season), Defense 90.6 (1st in the post season)

Golden State: Offense 107.7 (5th in the post season), Defense 102.4 (9th in the post season)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Can Stephen Curry stay hot?: There’s no denying the damage Curry did against the Nuggets. He created his own shot from behind the arc, took the ball to the rim when defenders tried to take away his jumper, and made plays for teammates when Denver committed extra defenders to slowing him down. The Nuggets, however, didn’t have a great perimeter defender to throw on Curry after deploying Andre Iguodala on Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack.

Will the Spurs make the same mistake by putting Tony Parker on Curry while Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard guard the Warriors’ other perimeter threats? The answer to this question will play a major role in how much space Curry has to operate on the perimeter and the quality of the shots he has available to him. If Green and Leonard spend most of their time chasing Curry, they can do a better job using length to contest his jumpshot an bother his handle when he works in isolation. But if Parker is put on an island or asked to defend through multiple picks, Curry may just start the second round where he ended the first: lighting it up.

Andrew Bogut’s defense: While Curry may be the most important Warrior on offense, Bogut is clearly that player on defense. Against the Nuggets there wasn’t an interior threat to occupy the big Australian and he used that freedom to blow up pick and rolls and contest shots at the rim. Against the Spurs, though, Bogut will have his hands full defending Tim Duncan in the post while also having to provide help defense against a motion heavy attack that moves the ball to the open man expertly.

Bogut will not only need to defend Duncan without fouling, but will need to do so from the post all the way out to 18 feet where Timmy can effectively hit the spot up jumper. Further, he’ll need to wall off Parker and Manu Ginobili when they work in isolation and out of the pick and roll to deter shots at the rim. If Bogut can do all these things for heavy minutes, he could turn the tip the balance of the series. If he can’t, the Spurs’ machine will gain momentum and roll over a Dubs’ defense that simply doesn’t have the man power to defend all over the floor without their defensive ace of a big man.

The Spurs front court players not named Duncan: Against the Lakers, you’d have thought the Spurs’ front court would have been severely tested matching up with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. However, due to the Lakers dearth of guard talent the Spurs simply crowded the paint and made life awful for the Lakers’ big man duo. Taking this same defensive approach this series isn’t possible against a Warriors’ team who has so much perimeter firepower. And while the Warriors don’t have the post up talent the Lakers do, Carl Landry and Bogut aren’t slouches down low. Add in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green as a small ball power forwards, and that’s a nice foursome who can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile the Spurs are thin up front with Splitter and Diaw ailing, leaving only Duncan, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner as regular rotation players at power forward and center. Duncan, of course, is a defensive monster and will be fine with whatever match up he’s tasked with. But can Bonner or Blair deal with Landry in the post? Can they out muscle Festus Ezili on the offensive glass? Can they hedge and recover back to the perimeter when Green and Barnes are hovering around arc looking to shoot open jumpers or slide with them when they attack off the dribble? Maybe the Spurs end up going small in this series, but even that may cause some issues as Stephen Jackson was released before the playoffs and Tracy McGrady is fresh off a first round that only saw him get garbage minutes in the clinching game.

OUTLOOK

The Spurs weren’t tested in the first round and will have had nearly a week off since by the time this series starts on Monday. Meanwhile the Warriors are riding the wave of winning a hard fought series, having sharpened their game and found combinations of players to step up when needed most. That said, while rust might play a factor at the start of game one,  I also expect the Spurs’ extra preparation to show up from the outset of the series.

The Spurs’ offense is a well oiled machine and asking the Warriors to slow it down consistently is asking a bit too much. Look for Parker and Ginobili to have success against perimeter defenders who aren’t known for locking down their opponents. Both Parker and Ginobili have the ability to get into the paint and when they do they will create the types open looks Green, Gary Neal, Leonard, and Bonner thrive on.

Also look for Duncan to continue his strong play from round one against Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Timmy has found the range on his jumper and has proven that when defenders try to close out on him he still has the ability to put the ball on the floor and either finish at the rim or draw fouls when attacking. If he can keep the Warriors’ bigs off balance in the manner he did the Lakers’, he can give his team an offensive diversity that is difficult to match up with.

It’s not like the Warriors are helpless here, though. They have the type of shooting and overall talent to give the Spurs issues, especially if they can get into the open court and play offense before the defense is fully set. If Curry and Jack can push the tempo and create open looks for themselves and Thompson while the Spurs are in scramble mode, they can hit enough shots to keep them in games. Furthermore, Landry offers a unique match up issue for the Spurs especially when he’s flanked by shooters. If he can score in the post against Bonner and Blair when both team’s second units are in the game, the Spurs may have to double team to slow him down and that will only create open looks for Golden State’s outside shooters.

The Warriors’ main issue, however, is that they seem to struggle mightily when playing in San Antonio. They’ve not won in the Spurs’ arena during the Tim Duncan era and that doesn’t bode well for them in a series in which the other team has home court advantage. Of course many of those losses have little to do with the current version of the Dubs, but the fact remains that the you can’t expect the Spurs to beat themselves and simply give away a game through poor decision making or erratic play. No, the Warriors will have to out execute them down the stretch and based off what we saw towards the end of the Nuggets series, I don’t see that happening.

PREDICTION

Maybe the Warriors get hot for a game or two, potentially even stealing a game in San Antonio. But, the Spurs discipline on both sides of the ball will wear the Warriors down over the course of the series. And while Mark Jackson was very good in making adjustments to out-coach George Karl, I don’t see him doing the same to Gregg Popovich. Spurs in 6.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.