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: Warriors coach Steve Kerr not expected back to coach in first round vs. Blazers

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed games last year due to a back injury that gave him chronic pain. Kerr also missed Saturday’s Game 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers due to an unspecified illness, and reports out of Oakland are that Kerr will not return to coach the rest of the first round series.

What Kerr is battling is still unknown, apparently even to the Warriors. According to a report from the Mercury News, Kerr is having trouble walking and has been in excruciating pain.

Via MercuryNews.com:

Vague descriptions like “illness” and “not feeling well,” are usually a sign something is wrong. In this case, according to sources, it is.

At the worst of this current illness, Kerr was in excruciating pain, according to the sources, and he could barely walk. It was scary because it wasn’t a feeling he’s had before.

The worst part, the Warriors don’t yet know what is going. They had to say “illness” because there are no answers yet.

Kerr hasn’t felt well all series, according to people around him, and recently it become unbearable. It is unknown if these issues are even related to his past well-known health problems.

No matter your loyalty, I think we’re all hoping for Kerr to get an answer and feel better soon. If you’ve ever dealt with chronic pain it can be something that not only debilitates your body but grates at your emotional state, too.

Meanwhile, Kerr’s absence is a huge question for the Warriors moving forward. Last season it was Luke Walton who helmed the squad so well it earned him the head coaching position for the Los Angeles Lakers. But this injury comes late in the game for Golden State, and while they may be able to cut through the first rounds of the playoffs without Kerr, there’s no doubt they would rather have him on the bench for later rounds.

In Kerr’s absence, assistant coach Mike Brown took the helm for the Warriors against Portland in Game 3. The Blazers blew a huge lead they held most of the game as Golden State took a 3-0 series lead, 119-113.

NBA fines Chicago’s Rajon Rondo $25,000 for attempting to trip Jae Crowder (VIDEO)

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Rajon Rondo‘s end-of-season performance may have helped him earn a little extra coin this offseason. He’s certainly going to need it given that the NBA has fined the Chicago Bulls PG $25,000 after he attempted to trip Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder.

The league released the decision in a statement on Sunday morning.

The incident occured with 31 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 3, a game the Celtics won, 104-87. Rondo was on the bench, and as possession changed Crowder took a wide sweeping angle along the sideline, right in front of Rondo.

Rondo casually stuck his leg out as Crowder passed by, but didn’t seem to make any contact.

Chicago leads the series, 2-1.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.