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: Dante Cunningham re-signing with Pelicans

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An intriguing battle emerged late in free agency over Dante Cunningham.

The Pelicans and Timberwolves were desperate at small forward, and Cunningham rare contributor at the position still available. New Orleans even traded a second-rounder and cash to dump Quincy Pondexter and get far enough below the hard cap to take advantage of Cunningham’s Bird Rights.

That’ll pay off.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

It’s not the $3,106,500 Cunningham opted out of, but a $2.3 million salary beats his minimum ($2,106,470), which is all Minnesota could’ve offered.

That’s a great rate on someone who might be the Pelicans’ starting small forward, considering Solomon Hill‘s injury. Even if he plays behind Tony Allen on a team that starts small on the perimeter, Cunningham will reduce the time New Orleans must rely on also-rans.

Cunningham is probably better at power forward, but he can defend either position. He also has become a good enough 3-point shooter to credibly play small forward.

For the Pelicans, he’s a huge upgrade at a bargain price.

Kevin Durant cops to tweets, calls elements of them ‘childish’ and ‘idiotic’

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Kevin Durant – tweeting in the third person, suggesting he forget to switch to a secret Twitter account – said he left the Thunder because he didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan and that Oklahoma City’s surrounding cast around himself and Russell Westbrook was lacking. Durant also appeared to have a second Instagram account he has used to insult critics.

Durant at TechCrunch:

Durant:

I do have other another Instagram account, but that’s just for my friends and family. So, I wouldn’t say I was using that to clap back at anybody.

But I use Twitter to engage with the fans. I think it’s a great way to engage with basketball fans.

But I happened to take it a little too far, and that’s what happens sometimes when I get into these basketball debates. Or what I really love is just to play basketball. I went a little too far.

And I don’t regret clapping back at anybody or talking to my fans on Twitter. I do regret using my former coach’s name and the former organization that I played for. That was childish. That was idiotic. All those type of words. I regret doing that, and I apologize to him for doing that.

But I don’t think I’ll ever stop engaging with my fans. I think they really enjoy it, and I think it’s a good way to connect us all. But I will scale back a little bit right now and just focus on playing basketball. So, I want to move on from that. It was tough to deal with yesterday. I was really upset with myself. But definitely want to move on and keep playing basketball. But I still want to interact with my fans, as well.

Durant can defend himself all he wants on social media. Fans, even those who detest him, do enjoy the interaction.

But an anonymous-looking account defending Durant provides no joy to those fans. They don’t – or at least didn’t – know they were interacting with the famous basketball star. This is something else entirely.

And it sure looks like Durant used his secret Instagram account to clap back at fans. Via SB Nation:

Durant denying that really makes it hard to accept this as him coming clean.

Mostly, Durant just opened himself to numerous follow-up questions:

Did he really dislike the Thunder organization? Did he really dislike playing for Donovan? If yes to either question, why? If no to either question, why say that? How does lying serve the fans he’s claiming he wants to engage?

Dwight Howard changes story, blames Magic front office for bringing up firing Stan Van Gundy

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While sipping from a can of Pepsi, Stan Van Gundy calmly explained to the assembled media that Magic management told him Dwight Howard wanted the coach fired. Then, an unsuspecting Howard walked up and put his arm around Van Gundy. Van Gundy slinked away, leaving Howard to answer questions.

That 2012 press conference was an all-time great NBA moment.

Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

To hear Howard tell it, he has been the victim of more subtle misunderstandings than Larry David. The excruciatingly awkward press conference, when Stan Van Gundy confirmed that Howard was lobbying the Magic front office to fire him, only for an unsuspecting Howard to join Van Gundy and deny what the coach claimed? “That previous summer, the front office asked me about Stan, and I told them I thought he was losing his voice with the team. But they were the ones who said they should start looking for other coaches.”

Howard already admitted in 2014 he told the Magic he thought Van Gundy should have been fired after the 2011 playoffs. Howard even griped that Orlando didn’t listen to him!

I get that Howard is (again) trying to rehabilitate his image, but he has to do a better job of keeping his story straight.

Bulls hire Doug Collins as senior advisor

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Doug Collins burns out. Burns out his players, burns out himself. That was his reputation through 11 seasons coaching the Bulls, Pistons, Wizards and 76ers.

When Collins left Philadelphia in 2013, he declared he was done coaching. There was just too much pressure, he said.

Perhaps, Collins has found a role that better suits him.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

In a surprise announcement, the Chicago Bulls have brought former coach Doug Collins back into the fold, naming him a senior advisor to Executive Vice President John Paxson.

Even among NBA personnel, Collins was a basketball expert in his time. Whether he has kept up in a rapidly evolving league is an open question.

It won’t hurt having his voice in the room. It might hurt if the Bulls lean too heavily on it.

Hopefully, everyone entered this arrangement for the right reasons. Paxson played for Collins in Chicago. Collins’ son – Chris Collins – coaches nearby Northwestern. An overreliance on comfort won’t yield positive results. The Bulls need forward-thinkers, not just familiar faces. Successful executives put in a lot of work and aren’t just hanging around to be close with family.

This hire probably won’t move the needle much, but there’s certainly a chance it could – in either direction.