Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

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

John Wall pushes down Jusuf Nurkic from behind in retaliation (video)

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John Wall didn’t like how Jusuf Nurkic bumped him, so Wall shoved the Nuggets center from behind and sent him to the floor.

An overreaction to the bump? Probably. Wall got hit with a technical foul.

But I’m mostly just impressed Wall was strong enough to push over Nurkic.

DeMar DeRozan throws down massive dunk against Timberwolves (VIDEO)

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AP
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DeMar DeRozan is having one of those seasons for the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. During Thursday night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, 124-110, DeRozan scored 27 points while adding eight rebounds, five assists, and shooting a whopping 13 free throws.

DeRozan also sealed the victory in the final minute with a huge put back dunk.

The Raptors led by 9 points with a minute left as they were inbounding the ball. A long pass from the baseline to a streaking DeMarre Carroll resulted in a blocked layup, but DeRozan was there to clean up the mess.

Via CJZero on Twitter:

Three things we learned Thursday: Memphis, Marc Gasol just win every close game

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, from left, center Mason Plumlee, and forward Jake Layman (10) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Here’s what you missed Thursday around the NBA while you were drinking homemade glow-in-the-dark beer with jellyfish genes in it (no, you try it first, I insist)…

1) Don’t play Memphis in a close game, they just find a way to win.
Last week, when Mike Conley went down with a back injury and was going to miss six weeks (give or take), we questioned if Memphis could keep their heads above water. They promptly went out and lost to a very good Toronto team.

Since then they have won five in a row, capped by an impressive 88-86 win over Portland Tuesday. Impressive because:

• Memphis is now 12-0 in games that were within 3 points in the final minute. You get in a close game with Memphis, you lose. (Statistically, we know some of that is luck, that there will be some regression to the mean, but that stat has propelled a team has been outscored by nine points this season, one that should be 12-12, to the 16-8 record they have.)

• Memphis trailed Portland 79-68 with less than five minutes to go, and still won.

Marc Gasol had 36 points and has been an absolute beast since Conley went down, doing whatever it takes to win.

• Toney Douglas — a guy the Grizzlies just picked up off the street this week, basically — comes in and is clutch down the stretch for them, including hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.5 seconds left (Damian Lillard tried to argue the call, to no avail).

The schedule gets tough for Memphis the next couple of weeks — Golden State, home-and-home with Cleveland, then Boston and Utah looming not long after — but do not doubt the Grizzlies. No team is as resilient as this bunch.

2) Bulls prove Spurs aren’t perfect on the road. It was bound to happen, the San Antonio Spurs were 13-0 on the road, they were going to stumble at some point. That point turned out to be Thursday night in Chicago, where the Spurs came out of the gate like they went out and had a big pregame meal of Lou Malnati’s pizza — 32 points on 30.6 percent shooting in the first half for San Antonio. The Spurs didn’t defend poorly, for example Kawhi Leonard held Jimmy Butler to no first-half points — in fact, midway through the first quarter Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez had scored almost all the Bulls’ buckets — but the San Antonio offense was dreadful. Throw a little credit to the Chicago defense if you want, but this was more San Antonio stumbling than a Chicago return to the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls were up 12 at the half and were able to hang on despite a strong second 24 minutes from Leonard (17 of his 24 came in the second half) and get the win. Dwyane Wade had 20 points and hit a couple of key buckets late to stabilize Chicago. For a Bulls team that is going to be in a playoff battle all season — they are the seven seed right now, one game ahead of the Pacers in ninth — these kinds of wins at home can prove huge.

3) What is it with Minnesota and second half? On the road, the Minnesota Timberwolves had played the Toronto Raptors even for the first 24 minutes — it was 59-59 at the half. And yet, there was a sense of dread for Timberwolves fans because all season their young team has just come apart in the third quarter — and then Toronto opened the second half on an 11-2 run. Minnesota, to their credit, crawls back into it, but midway through the fourth the Raptors go on a 17-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors pull away for the 124-110 win. The Timberwolves lost another game because they can’t defend well.

Minnesota shows flashes of the kind of brilliance that has everyone thinking they might be a contender in a few years. But we all expected too much too soon from this group. Those impressive stretches are followed by ones where they play like a young team, they don’t defend well, and they throw those good efforts away. Not that they were going to beat a good Toronto team on the road, but the Timberwolves can be frustrating to watch. Patience is hard, and Minnesota fans are being asked to show a lot of it. We can debate if it’s time to bring Ricky Rubio off the bench and let Kris Dunn sink or swim, but that’s not the core problem. Ultimately, the Timberwolves are young and playing like it. They don’t know how and aren’t putting in the effort to defend well yet. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they can be the core of a contender eventually, but there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Tom Thibodeau can teach them. But it’s going to require patience.

Watch Joel Embiid completely erase Anthony Davis’ layup

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Anthony Davis is languishing in New Orleans, but at least Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers pitted The Brow against The Process. That is, Joel Embiid.

When the two multi-talented big men met on the floor in New Orleans, Embiid got the better of Davis on at least one play.

With the ball on the left wing, Davis was able to get a step on Ersan Ilyasova out of the triple-threat position. As Davis dribbled toward an open lane, Embiid slid over to add some extra protection:

Great timing and court feel from Embiid, who has looked like a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.