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.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

It also came with a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night. Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing Game 4 with food poisoning. This time he made the Clippers sick, with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson late in the game that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a strong passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing looks.

Utah pushed the lead to 11 in the fourth after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the questions will begin.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley get weak double techs for trash talking (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley had no love lost during Tuesday night. The Houston Rockets closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-99, but that didn’t stop Brodie and Beverley from getting one of the weakest double technical foul calls we’ve seen during these playoffs.

The two squared off midway through the fourth quarter, with both players seemingly OK and a bit incredulous after getting techs for what amounted to trash talk.

I’ll let you be the judge for yourself whether it was worth of a tech.

Via Twitter:

The double technical foul is definitely one of the dumbest calls in the NBA.

Houston goes on to face the winner of the series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills lead Spurs by Grizzlies for 3-2 series lead

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 28 points and the San Antonio Spurs rebounded from two discouraging road losses to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 116-103 on Tuesday night and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.

San Antonio shot 14 for 28 on 3-point attempts, two off its postseason record, including 5-for-7 shooting by Patty Mills.

Mills finished with 20 points and Tony Parker added 16.

Mike Conley had 26 points and Marc Gasol added 17 for the Grizzlies, who have lost nine straight postseason games in San Antonio.

With each team winning on its homecourt, Game 6 is Thursday night in Memphis.

The Spurs went on an 11-0 run shortly after switching Leonard onto Conley defensively, holding the Grizzlies scoreless for 2:46 midway through the first quarter.

But it was the few times either team had success defensively.

San Antonio shot 53 percent from the field and Memphis shot 52 percent in a surprisingly explosive game between teams renowned for their defense.

Conley had seven points during a 17-3 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to pull Memphis within 87-83 with 9 minutes remaining.

The teams exchanged baskets over a 3-minute span before consecutive 3-pointers by Mills helped break the game open for San Antonio.

After failing to score in the first four games, Manu Ginobili had six points in 33 seconds in the first quarter and finished with 10 points.

James Ennis III had 11 points and Andrew Harrison added nine, as both took advantage of Leonard leaving them to help defensively during the second and third quarters.

TIP-INS

Grizzlies: Conley and Gasol are the only Memphis players to score in double figures in all four games. . Zach Randolph had nine points and six rebounds Tuesday after averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds in the previous three games. Randolph was held to six points and three rebounds in Game 1. . Tony Allen remained out with an injury to his right leg after being kicked in the calf during Memphis’ regular-season finale against Dallas. . Ennis was 4 for 9 from the field in scoring 11 points after averaging 7.0 points in the previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio’s franchise record for 3-pointers made is 16 against Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 25 straight playoff games, the longest streak in franchise history since Tim Duncan had 26 from 2011-2013. . The Spurs have lost three straight only once this season, dropping their final three games of the regular season after clinching the second seed. They have lost two straight on four occasions, including back-to-back losses in Memphis in this series. . Dewayne Dedmon returned after missing Game 4 due to an illness. . Ginobili’s eight points in the opening quarter are the most he scored in any quarter of a playoff game since scoring nine in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Watch Houston’s Eric Gordon yam it down over Thunder forward Jerami Grant (VIDEO)

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Eric Gordon is a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Houston Rockets for one reason: he can shoot the lights out.

But that didn’t stop Gordon from surprising a few folks during Tuesday night’s closeout Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Gordon scored just eight points in Houston’s 105-99 win, but two of those points came on a thunderous dunk over Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant.

Via Twitter:

Wasn’t expecting him to get up like that.

Houston will go on to play the winner of the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies series.