Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

Thunder vs. Spurs Game 5 preview: Is home cooking enough for San Antonio?

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San Antonio doesn’t want to hear about 2012 (when it was up 2-0 on Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals and got swept the next four). The Spurs are a different team now they say, as are the Thunder. This is a different series. All of that is true.

The Spurs biggest problem for Game 5 is one they couldn’t solve in 2012:

When the Thunder players get off the plane in San Antonio, they are still going to be incredibly long and athletic. For a couple years now that advantage has not been something the Spurs have been able to overcome.

Through four games of the Western Conference Finals the home team has won in a blowout. Yet while the series may be even 2-2 but the games have not been. The Spurs owned the first two. After getting crushed on the road now the Spurs come home seeking to reassert their dominance. The Spurs need to win at home because it’s become evident through their nine-game losing streak there they can’t win in Oklahoma City.

Their Serge Ibaka is coming to Game 5, too.

Since he returned to the Heat in Game 3 from a calf injury that was allegedly going to keep him out of the playoffs (nice bit of gamesmanship by the Thunder) the Thunder have been a different team. Their offensive spacing is vastly improved, Ibaka’s threat on the pick-and-pop has opened up driving lanes for Russell Westbrook. On defense the Thunder are more aggressive in extending their pressure because Ibaka is lurking back in the paint to clean up their mistakes. The Thunder’s length and athleticism, with Ibaka back in the lineup, allows them to contest virtually everything — in Game 5 the Thunder contested 47 percent of the Spurs shots, and San Antonio shot 33 percent on those (for comparison, the Thunder shot 49 percent on contested shots in Game 5).

Gregg Popovich has had a couple of years to tinker and experiment on how to beat a healthy Oklahoma City, and as evidenced by the last two games he’s still looking for answers. His team played well for the first eight to nine minutes of Game 4 but then he said they got away from what worked and that will doom you against the Thunder.

“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Popovich said in his post game press conference broadcast on NBA TV Tuesday night. “All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge (Ibaka) could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench so they’d know who Serge was. Really unwise basketball all of a sudden. Rather than hitting open people we started attacking the rim unwisely and that turns into blocked shots and turnovers.

“You got to play smarter against such great athletes. They’re talented, obviously, but their athleticism and length gives you a smaller margin for error and you better be smart the way you play. And you can’t afford to screw that up as many times as we did.”

For two games the Thunder have not only been more athletic, they have been far more aggressive and far more physical. Their ability to challenge passes on the perimeter with that athleticism (and Ibaka as a backstop to clean up problems) has the Spurs hesitating to make passes for a split second, which is allowing defenders more time to recover and contest. Tony Parker has had Russell Westbrook in his face defensively and Ibaka in the lane when he drives, taking away anything easy and clean. When Parker struggles the Spurs offense stalls.

Going home for Game 5, and realizing the desperate situation, expect to see the Spurs play harder. Play smarter. Expect the Spurs to come out with a new sense of physicality to their game.

The question is will it matter, or are these Thunder just a matchup problem Popovich and the Spurs cannot solve?

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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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.