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

Michael Beasley had his truck stolen out of his driveway

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Michael Beasley will be getting buckets, shooting long twos, and playing inconsistent defense for the New York Knicks next season (the analysis is just based on recent history).

But first, he’d like to find his truck. Which was stolen.

Well, I did see a Dodge Ram 1500 on the road today, but since I’m on the West Coast and I have no idea what color/year Beasley’s truck is, I’m going to assume the guy I saw didn’t perpetrate the heist.

Still, that sucks for Beasley, even if he can easily afford to replace it.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.