NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trail Blazers

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs: 62-20

Portland Trail Blazers: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: none

Portland Trail Blazers: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 100.1 (4th in NBA)

Portland Trail Blazers: Offense 108.3 (5th in NBA), Defense 104.7 (16th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How much does experience matter?

The attention increases, the lights brighten and the pressure mounts. Relative to the second round of the NBA playoffs, the first round is practically an extension of the regular season. The difference between the first two rounds, especially if you haven’t experienced it before is, stark.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, this makes sense. Going from 16 to 8 teams is a greater drop by magnitude than going from 30 to 16 teams.

If experiencing this level of the playoffs matters, San Antonio has a huge advantage.

Five Spurs – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner – have each played more games beyond the first round than all the Trail Blazers combined.

Just three Trail Blazers have played in the second round to 13 Spurs.

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2) How much do benches matter?

The Spurs’ reserves combined for 30.5 win shares this season. Give them a little more playing time, and maybe they could have competed for a playoff spot in the East.

The Trail Blazers’ reserves… well, they’re no longer historically bad, like they were last season. Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas have helped, but Portland still ranked last in bench scoring.

In the playoffs, benches matter less. There are no back-to-backs, so teams can more easily depend on their top players rather than their depth.

However, that’s less true in this series than most. Games 1 to 6 feature only one day off between each, and Game 7 would follow just a two-day break.

Still, that sure beats the regular-season pace of games.

If the teams’ benches will matter, it’s based mostly on what’s already happened.

Throughout the season, the Trail Blazers’ starters have carried a much bigger load than the Spurs’. Here are the 120 leaders in total minutes this season, including the playoffs:

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Portland is the only team with two players in the top nine, three in the top 23, four in the top 31 and five in the top 56. No Spur ranks higher than No. 78.

San Antonio, despite needing a game longer to win its first-round series, should be better-rested than the Trail Blazers. Considering the age gap, the Spurs might need to be.

3) How much can LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard do?

As noted in the previous two keys, the Spurs have some decided advantages. The main question is how much they matter.

But the Trail Blazers might have the series’ two best players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and that definitely matters.

Aldridge and Lillard were both All-Stars, and Aldridge finished 10th in MVP voting. Although Tim Duncan and Tony Parker both received MVP votes – Lillard didn’t – Lillard is just 23. He’s better today than he was in October, and an award that considers an entire season’s body of work doesn’t necessarily reflect Lillard’s current ability.

Lillard (25.5 points on 47 percent shooting and 49 percent 3-point shooting, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game) excelled against the Rockets, and so did Aldridge (29.8 points on 48 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game). These are stars playing their best at the exact right moment.

It won’t get any easier against the Spurs, though.

Lillard didn’t have to extend much energy defending Patrick Beverley, and Jeremy Lin gave him issues at times. The margin for error is greatly reduced against Parker. Can Lillard provide at least tolerable defense and still bring it offensively?

Aldridge has generally fared well against Tim Duncan, but Houston provided a model for slowing him. Aldridge didn’t fare as well against the Rockets’ jumbo power-forward-center combo, Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, and San Antonio the size to at least try replicating that strategy.

Plus, the Spurs are one of the NBA’s top defensive-rebounding teams, which could neutralize Portland’s excellent offensive rebounding. If Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson need help creating second-chance opportunities, something the Trail Blazers depend on, Aldridge might have to move out of his preferred mid-range spots and work closer to the rim.

Lillard and Aldridge are true stars. San Antonio might prevent them from looking like it, though.

PREDICTION

While debating the importance of experience and benches in the playoffs, I’ve ignored one key factor that definitely impacts postseason series: coaching. Terry Stotts has improved a great deal since coaching the Hawks and Bucks, and he has Rick Carlisle’s indirect help. With Nicolas Batum in the Shawn Marion role, the Trail Blazers’ can replicate the switching, mismatching defensive strategy that gummed up San Antonio’s offense in the last round. However, the Spurs adjusted then, and two good coaches might still not equal Gregg Popovich.

Spurs in 7

Derrick Rose, his agent both say winning more important than money in free agency

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Lets’s start with a disclaimer: Nearly every player and agent say for them free agency is not about the money, it’s about winning/fit/style of play. Then they go to the team that gives them the most money, even if it’s not very good or plays a style that doesn’t fit with their game.

That said, as players get along in the league, winning does matter more and some players will sacrifice dollars for rings.

Derrick Rose is a free agent this summer, and both his agent and Rose himself said that finding a winning team is what will guide the process.

“Derrick wants to win,” Rose’s agent B.J. Armstrong told NBCSports.com as part of a PBT Podcast (which will drop Friday morning). “That’s who he is, whether he’s playing pick-and-roll or not. In the end, what I found as a player, what I found as an agent, is it’s much easier to play when you’re winning….

“This is his first time, in his nine years of playing in the league, that he’ll actually have an opportunity to select the people he thinks he can work best with. As long as you’re playing in a good spot and healthy, money and the rest of it will take care of itself. Where you get in trouble in this league is when you start trying to do things strictly for money.”

Here is what Rose himself said about his free agency this summer, via ESPN.

“Not even thinking money. I’ve got more than enough money saved. If I stopped playing basketball now, I’ll be all right,” Rose told reporters in Utah on Wednesday night. “I want to win. I want to be happy and feel at peace with myself wherever I’m at. But being at the negotiating table, you never know. I’m not going to negotiate with people where money is the No. 1 thing I’m asking for. I want to win.”

It’s going to be an interesting market for Rose, the number of “winning” or quality teams in need of a point guard and with enough cap space to sign Rose is a limited market. While he has said he would love to stay in New York and the Knicks have not given up on the idea of re-signing him, if they are committed to the triangle offense that may be an awkward fit (and it’s not exactly a winning team). The sands will shift this summer and something will open up, but will Rose take less money — and maybe a lesser role — to be on a team that’s a threat to do deep in the playoffs?

He says so. His agent said so. We’ll see what happens when the money hits the negotiating table.

Charles Barkley says if he was dying he would kill fellow talking head Skip Bayless

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Charles Barkley knows how to get ratings. He said weird stuff all the time. He’s feuded with LeBron James and made fun of LaVar Ball. Now Barkley has said that if he had some kind of terminal illness, he would want to kill former ESPN and current Fox Sports talking head Skip Bayless.

Uh, what?

It was the end part of a conversation Barkley had on The Dan Patrick Show this week, with Barkley quickly cramming it into the final minute of the show.

“You know what we should do for ratings?” said Barkley, “If I get a disease and I’m gonna die, how about you get Skip Bayless in here and I kill him live on national television.”

Bayless makes a living being abrasive, but this feels pretty clumsy. Then again, Shaquille O’Neal saying the Earth is flat is also simply testing the waters of how to get instant buzz around you.

Let’s hope Barkley stays healthy, if only for Bayless’ sake.

Sacramento King’s Ty Lawson denies violating DUI probation

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DENVER (AP) — Sacramento Kings point guard Ty Lawson has denied that he violated his probation in a Colorado drunken driving case by drinking and failing to complete community service.

Lawson and his attorney Harvey Steinberg made the assertion Thursday during a brief appearance in a Denver courtroom. In addition, Steinberg said Lawson wanted his vehicle equipped with an interlock device that would test him for alcohol consumption so he could prove he’s not drinking.

The judge agreed and plans to hold a hearing in May before deciding whether the former Denver Nugget should get a more severe punishment.

Probation officials allege Lawson tested positive for alcohol three times in the past six months.

He was arrested twice on drunken driving charges in 2015, first in Denver and then in Los Angeles.

Shocking news: Carmelo Anthony still doesn’t like triangle offense, wishes they played previous way

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Can we just start another Triangle vs. pace-and-space argument with the obvious: It doesn’t matter what offense the Knicks run when their defense is this bad.

New York has the fifth worst defensive rating in the NBA this season, and it’s been slightly worse since the All-Star break. The Knicks as a team don’t show much effort on that end of the court, they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA, and they are fourth worst at creating turnovers. If you don’t get stops and just try to outscore teams, even if your offense is good you don’t win consistently.

Whew. Okay. All that said, the Knicks offense isn’t that good, it’s been pedestrian most of the season. There is talent there — Carmelo Anthony can still get buckets, Kristaps Porzingis is a rising star and scoring machine, Derrick Rose has his moments, and there are role players who can knock down shots. Part of the problem has been the push-and-pull between Phil Jackson (with friend Kurt Rambis as an assistant coach) pushing for the triangle, vs. coach Jeff Hornacek wanting to run a more modern offense. Right now the pendulum has swung back toward the triangle, with that set to be the offense next season.

In a surprise to nobody, Anthony prefers the pace-and-space style offense, and wish the team would just stick with just one offense, as he told the New York Post.

“Early in the season, we were winning games, went on a little winning streak we had. We were playing a certain way. We went away from that, started playing another way. Everybody was trying to figure out: Should we go back to the way we were playing, or try to do something different?…

“I thought earlier we were playing faster and more free-flow throughout the course of the game,’’ Anthony said. “We kind of slowed down, started settling it down. Not as fast. The pace slowed down for us — something we had to make an adjustment on the fly with limited practice time, in the course of a game. Once you get into the season, it’s hard to readjust a whole system.”

Anthony may not need to worry about the Knicks offense next fall as he may well not be with the team.

The question for the Knicks is, how many free agents can they draw willing to play in the triangle? Of course money talks, but guys with options will consider the system and how they fit in it.