Western Conference Finals preview: Grizzlies vs. Spurs

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SEASON RECORDS

Memphis: 56-26, fifth seed in the West

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

PLAYOFF RECORDS

Memphis: Beat the Clippers 4-2 in the first round. Beat the Thunder 4-1 in the second round.

San Antonio: Beat the Lakers 4-0 in the first round. Beat the Warriors 4-2 in the second round.

SEASON SERIES

The teams split the four games with two wins apiece, although both are very different now. In the first three matchups the Grizzlies started Rudy Gay, and in the final meeting, the Spurs started Stephen Jackson and played him 35 minutes. Neither players are with their respective teams anymore, with Gay being traded in late January and Jackson being waived in mid-April.

KEY INJURIES

None.

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

Memphis: Offense 104.4 (5th in the postseason), Defense 99.9 (6th in the postseason)

San Antonio: Offense 107.0 (2nd in the postseason), Defense 96.2 (3rd in the postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Point guard matchup: It’s not an understatement to say that the team that gets the better of its point guard matchup is likely to win the series. That’s because both Tony Parker and Mike Conley are extremely vital to what each team does offensively. While Parker often takes on the role of a primary scorer in the current iteration of the Spurs, his dribble penetration and overall performance is what makes his team’s offense go. Parker is averaging 22.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 6.3 assists in the postseason.

As important as Parker is, Conley is even more critical in setting up his team’s offense. That’s because Memphis doesn’t have the range of guys who can create their own looks that the Spurs do, and the Grizzlies’ offense has been known to stall for extended stretches even during their impressive postseason run. Conley’s improved play over the second half of the season has carried into the playoffs, and he’ll need to continue to perform at a very high level for his team to succeed.

Battle of the bigs: From a matchup perspective, Memphis would appear to to have the upper hand here — not only in terms the total amount of skill shared between Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph versus that of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but also in terms of sheer bulk. Memphis has the physical size to punish teams both in the paint and on the glass, so it will be crucial for the Spurs’ big men to be in strong position defensively early in possessions to keep Randolph from establishing deep post position. Gasol spends more time at the high post than on the low block, where he’s an excellent facilitator of the Grizzlies offense.

Scoring: Offense will be at a premium in this series. Not only do we have two of the more defensively-focused teams going at it, but each has excellent individual defenders as well as players who have strong basketball IQs and can fit seamlessly into their respective team’s defensive scheme.

The balance of the Spurs and their ability to get contributions from multiple players on this end of the floor should be the difference in this series. Parker’s ability to consistently knock down mid-range jumpers will be huge for San Antonio, as will his effectiveness in getting into the lane to create for drive-and-kick opportunities for his teammates. The Grizzlies have largely gotten by in these playoffs by scoring just enough. If the Memphis defense has more trouble slowing the Spurs offensive attack than it had versus its opponents in the first two rounds, that might not be good enough this time.

OUTLOOK

While the Grizzlies have accomplished a lot in the first two rounds of the playoffs and were impressive at times on the way to the Conference Finals, let’s look at the reality of that last series against the Thunder. OKC was playing without Russell Westbrook, and was thrown into complete disarray in trying to replace what he brings to the table for them offensively. And still, all of those games were extremely close, and could have gone either way in the final minutes.

Expect the Spurs to be much more cohesive as a unit in playing their brand of system basketball than the Thunder were, and expect Memphis to have more difficulty in slowing San Antonio offensively because of it. In a series where both teams can defend, San Antonio should have a much easier time slowing the Grizzlies than the other way around, and it might result in this matchup not being as close as many foresee.

PREDICTION

Spurs in 6.

Report: Rival executives still expect Paul George to leave Thunder for Lakers

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Paul George has been pretty open about his plans.

He told plenty of people – including the Pacers – he planned to leave for the Lakers in the summer of 2018. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George spoke of the lure of playing for his hometown team.

Of course, George also left the door open to re-signing with Oklahoma City. He proclaimed he’d be dumb to leave if the Thunder reached the conference finals or upset the Warriors.

So far, Oklahoma City (12-14) doesn’t even look like a playoff lock, let alone a team capable of knocking off Golden State or reaching the conference finals. So, cue the inevitable speculation.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Rival execs still expect Paul to head for the Lakers in free agency

Do these executives have inside information into George’s thinking, or are they just speculating based on already-available information? Some executives are incentivized to drum up the Lakers threat, because they want to trade for George themselves now. If these executives insist George will leave for Los Angeles regardless, they might pry him from Oklahoma City for less.

There’s also a theory George is hyping his desire to sign with the Lakers so a team would have to trade less for him. That got him to the Thunder for what looked like a meager return (but hasn’t been). It might get him to a more favorable situation before the trade deadline without hampering his next team long-term. Of course, this theory isn’t mutually exclusive with George actually signing in Los Angeles. It could just get him better options to choose from this summer.

Surely, the Thunder are trying to parse all this noise. If their season doesn’t turn around, they should explore flipping George rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer. But they should also be wary that he’ll bolt for Los Angeles at first opportunity just because rival executives predict it.

LeBron James feels for Lonzo Ball: “The kid hasn’t said anything”

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Lonzo Ball is actually quiet and clearly isn’t comfortable talking about himself. That may not be the perception because of the swirling vortex of Kardashianesq publicity around him — drummed up by his father, whose Big Baller Brand is making money with pop-up shops and a reality series on Facebook, if not preparing his boys for a life in basketball — but Lonzo seems able to tune that out and focus on the game.

LeBron James likes that about the rookie.

Ball has called LeBron the best player in the game and the guy he looks up to, and the day before the Lakers and Cavaliers meet LeBron told Dave McMenamin of ESPN he sees some parallels between himself and Ball in terms of being drafted as a franchise savior.

“The kid hasn’t said anything,” James told ESPN when asked about the hype surrounding Ball. “It’s been everybody else. So, I love his humility. He goes out, every time someone asks him a question, he says, ‘This is not about me, man. I just want to win. I don’t care about what I did.’ I seen he had a triple-double one game and they lost. He was like, ‘I don’t care. We lost.’

“So, can I draw any parallel to my experience? I mean, of course. I guess when you’re drafted to a franchise, they want you to kind of be the savior. And it takes a while. I mean, listen, man, this guy is 20-something games into his pro career. S— doesn’t happen [that fast]. Here it goes again, it goes back to my instant oatmeal [quote]: Everybody wants it right away. Can he play ball? Absolutely. The kid can play ball. Do guys want to play with him? Absolutely, because it’s a guy who is not about him. It’s about the success of the team. And he gives the ball up, and he passes the ball, and there’s energy behind the ball.”

Ball is keeping his head down and working on his game as much as circumstances allow. He’s developing good chemistry with the potential core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and others. However, obviously, the basketball side is still a work in progress. Ball has shown flashes this season (as he did against the Knicks), his energy and pushing of the pace have been good for the team, but Ball still struggles with his shot, his decision making is inconsistent, and his defense needs work (but is better than predicted).  He’s improving, but it’s a process.

Basically, Ball is a rookie.

And like all rookies, how much work he puts in and how he develops, if he can get the out of his talent, will determine the course of his career. Not his dad, not the hype, not the shoes, it comes down to his game — and that remains a work in progress. Right now I’m not sure he makes the NBA All-Rookie team at the end of the season, but that doesn’t mean much because it’s about where he is in three years. Is he a future All-Star? Maybe. Is he going to be a good, not great, NBA point guard? Maybe. Could he be playing in Europe (with his brothers?) in five years? It doesn’t seem likely but it’s not off the table. There’s a lot of potential in his game, and it’s up to Luke Walton and the Lakers to bring it out.

But you have to like the way Lonzo has handled himself. LeBron recognizes that.

LaVar Ball is just lucky that the level-headed and focused Lonzo was his oldest child.

 

Thunder’s Paul George expects boos in return to Indiana tonight

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George knows the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse well enough to expect a rude reception when he returns for the first time.

George spent seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers, and the four-time All-Star helped them reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice. After last season, George’s camp made it clear Indiana didn’t figure into his long-term plans, so the disappointed Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis rather than risk getting nothing in return for him.

Indiana fans value loyalty – the player they hold in the highest regard, Reggie Miller, stayed with the Pacers for 18 years. They had their hearts broken back in 2005-06 when Ron Artest demanded a trade, the first step in the dismantling of a nucleus the Pacers expected to compete for NBA titles for years to come.

George, also a one-time centerpiece to Indiana’s title hopes, is gone, too. He figures boos will rain down as a result.

“I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” he said. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to embrace that. I’m going to thrive on that. It’s going to give me the energy to play better.”

Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony will be in a similar situation when the Thunder visit the New York Knicks on Saturday. Anthony was sent to Oklahoma City in the offseason after he waived a no-trade clause.

“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said. “We’re in this together. We understand the situation. I’m pretty sure he’s going to embrace that situation, and we’re going to help him embrace that situation, and as a team, we’re going to help him embrace that situation.”

George’s transition has been a bit bumpy. He is playing outstanding defense, yet still getting comfortable on offense alongside Anthony and Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 20.6 points on 42 percent shooting overall and 41 percent shooting from 3-point range and leads the league with 2.4 steals per game. The team has struggled to a 12-14 record.

“We’re not enjoying these losses but we’re enjoying the grind,” George said. “We’re enjoying the battles, we’re enjoying the targets on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together.”

The trade seems to be just what Oladipo needed. After Monday’s games, he ranked 10th in the league with 24.5 points per game, and the Pacers were No. 5 in the Eastern Conference with a 16-11 record.

“I think he’s just in attack mode,” George said. “He’s aggressive. He’s confident. You can tell he’s worked extremely hard over this past summer, and Indy has given him the keys. You’ve got a young team around, a fresh locker room. It’s a lot of positive energy over there. They are playing well. They are playing good basketball.”

Oladipo downplayed Wednesday’s game in his typical low-key manner. He said he still is friends with his former Thunder teammates and the game simply is about handling business.

“I look forward to every game, every game I play,” he said. “This is just another game, just another game that we’ve got to win. Obviously, you guys and the fans want to blow it up, which is fine. But we have to go out and play Pacers basketball.”

Anthony preferred to stir the pot. He believes the expected hostile environment in Indianapolis will provide an opportunity to build team unity.

“We’ve got to be ready for that because it’s us against the whole (state of) Indiana,” Anthony said. “Not just the Pacers, but the whole Indiana. I think Paul is ready for it. As a professional, as a competitor, it’s kind of bittersweet because you spent so much time and you want a different reaction from the people you put a lot of work in for, you fought for and you competed for. But then again, you want to go in there and have a good game. You want to win.”

 

Marc Gasol said he would accept trade, but are Grizzlies ready to do that?

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“We have no intention to trade Marc. We never seriously considered that at all. We never placed any calls to any teams in that regard. So that’s not happening. It’s not just Marc that this whole equation is about. It’s also Mike Conley, when he comes back. We’ve got two guys among the elite in the league at their respective positions that are still very much in their window with an awful lot of tread left on their tires.”

That was Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, just after he fired coach David Fizdale is what the GM called an attempt to save the season. Since then the Grizzlies are 1-7, they are second to last in the Western Conference and five games out of the final playoff slot in the West, ground they are not going to make up.

The “grit ‘n grind” era is over in Memphis, and this is now a team searching for an identity and wins. They have banked heavily on an older core of guys with injury histories (Gasol, Conley, Chandler Parsons), and hoped a few younger players — JaMychal Green, Dillon Brooks, James Ennis — could pick them up. It hasn’t panned out.

Is it time to revisit the idea of a Gasol trade? Gasol himself told Zach Lowe of ESPN he’d be open to it if it was what was best for the franchise. However, he grew up in Memphis (while his older brother Pau Gasol played there) and is very loyal to the city and organization. Gasol is not asking to be traded.

“I have a responsibility to this city,” Gasol says. “I’m not gonna quit, no matter what.” What if Memphis fell 30 games under .500? Gasol shakes his head. “I would want to see how we got there — what the process is,” Gasol says. “But as long as [owner] Robert [Pera] wants me here, my teammates want me here, they think I’m part of the solution — and not part of the problem — that’s all I need.” (Gasol still denies he asked for Fizdale to be fired, though the tension between them was real, sources say.)

If the team came to him with a trade, Gasol would accept it. “If they think it is best, I would do anything for this franchise,” Gasol says.

You have to admire that loyalty, in a business where neither players nor organizations often show it (fans do, which is why they feel burned by the likes of Paul George or Kevin Durant).

That said, from the outside, it looks like the Grizzlies have reached a point where it would be better for both parties to move on.

There is one other complicating factor in here: The Grizzlies ownership situation. To make a complicated business transaction simple, two of Memphis’ minority owners — Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus — have exercised their option to make an offer for primary owner Robert Pera’s 30 percent and controlling interest of the team. Either Pera buys out the other two, or he gets bought out, and whichever side stays runs the team.

This matters because trading Gasol and starting a rebuild is an ownership decision, not simply a call made by the GM. This is going to impact the team and revenue in a way that the owner will have the final say (the owner of a team technically has the final say on everything, how involved those owners are varies team to team, but even a more absentee owner such as Pera would have to okay starting a rebuild like this).

We’ll see, but my guess is Memphis makes its moves over the summer. This season they are going to say all the right things about winning, and probably can string together enough wins to hurt their draft position without making the playoffs.