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The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

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We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using NBA.com stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

• Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

Warriors make most dominant playoff run ever to NBA Finals

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Moses Malone famously predicted the 76ers team would go “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” in the 1983 playoffs, sweeping all three rounds in four games. Philadelphia didn’t quite do it – sweeping the Knicks, beating the Bucks in five then sweeping the Lakers for the title.

Thirty-four years later, an NBA team went “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” for the first time.

Golden State swept the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs in four-game series. But with an extra playoff round, the Warriors’ 12-0 run merely gets them to the Finals.

It’s the ninth undefeated run to the Finals, third since the league adopted four playoff rounds in 1984 and first since the first round became best-of-seven. The Lakers went 11-0 in the playoffs en route to the Finals in 2001 and 1989.

By winning an extra game and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game, Golden State now claims the most dominant postseason run to the NBA Finals ever.

Here are the top paths to the Finals, with Finals results, by playoff…

Record (point difference per game in parentheses):

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Point difference per game (record in parentheses):

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This doesn’t guarantee Golden State a championship. The Cavaliers (10-1, +11.9) are on track for an elite run to the Finals themselves, and they have LeBron James.

But the Warriors put ridiculous expectations on themselves by signing Kevin Durant to join a 73-win team featuring Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. I’m unsure a Golden State title this year will be properly appreciated, but so far, the Warriors are doing all they can to clear a bar set unreasonably high.

Gregg Popovich: Spurs started Manu Ginobili ‘out of respect’

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The Spurs started Manu Ginobili in their Game 4 loss to the Warriors last night.

For strategic reasons or because they wanted to honor him in what could be his final game before retirement?

The was certainly a case for the former. Ginobili had played well in the series, and Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker were out injured. Ginobili played 32 minutes, much more manageable when starting. Plus, Zaza Pachulia was also out injured, so Golden State started small, and Ginobili could have helped San Antonio match up.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich:

We started him tonight out of respect. That was the whole reason for starting him.

Before the game, you think it may or may not be the last game he ever plays in. And I did not want to miss the opportunity to honor him in front of our home fans for his selflessness over the years. I mean, this is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for – I ca ‘t even remember now – the last decade or something, because it would make us a better team overall. So, obviously, he’s a big reason for our success. And he deserved to have that night of respect so that he really feels that we appreciate everything he’s done over the years.

If he decides he’s going to play again, that’s up to him. But I won’t try to convince him one way or the other. I don’t think he needs that.

Perhaps, Popovich was just giving Ginobili a just-in-case sendoff. Ginobili has said he’ll take a few weeks to decide on retirement.

But Popovich could have inside information and, if starting Ginobili was about honoring him rather than an adjustment to beat the Warriors, maybe the coach just tipped Ginobili’s hand.

Interesting video: Every LeBron James paint bucket in the 2017 playoffs

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Yes, the video is a little long, more than eight minutes. Have you watched LeBron James these playoffs?

LeBron has been the best player in the postseason and one of the reasons — along with his hitting threes and great passing — has been how often he got into the paint and scored buckets. He has taken advantages of mismatches (and there may be only one defender in the league who is not a mismatch) and attacked the rim, getting into the paint and finishing impressively.

JM Poulard, who has written for a number of good NBA blogs over the years, compiled this video and it’s interesting to watch. Both in terms of how LeBron is getting his buckets inside, and to just marvel at the greatest player of his generation.

Warriors’ co-owner Joe Lacob hopes team sees Cavaliers in Finals due to “unfinished business”

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It’s easy for him to say, Warriors’ co-owner Joe Lacob doesn’t have to set foot on the court in the next round and see LeBron James on the other side.

However, I bet a lot of Warriors’ players feel the same way.

Lacob spoke to some reporters after the Warriors swept their way into the playoffs. He suggested the Warriors would prefer a rubber match, a trilogy with the Cavaliers. Here are the comments, via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

Honestly, I don’t really care who we play (shoots a sly grin). Ok, maybe a slight preference for Cleveland. Only because I feel we have some unfinished business from last season…

“I think (this team is better than last year’s). Honestly. I think we’re better. It’s hard not to be better when you have a guy as good as Kevin Durant on your team. We were awful good last year. The one difference is Steph was hurt, as we all know. How much we can debate. But he was not what you see out there now. Then of course we had some other issues in the Finals. With Kevin, this is a very, very good team. The opposition is going to be good in the Finals. So not taking anything for granted.”

These Warriors create new challenges for how the Cavaliers attacked them last postseason, particularly offensively because of Durant’s ability to score one-on-one. But we’ll get into a lot of that over the next eight days until the Finals begin.

Just don’t doubt the Warriors would like a little revenge.

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