Associated Press

Three things to watch: Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Cavaliers are the Eastern Conference favorites, but the last time these teams met it was one of the best games of the season, a double -OT thriller the Cavs won 125-130, where LeBron James and Paul George had a classic duel. Will we get more of that? Let’s break it down.

How focused with the Cavaliers be on defense? The malaise that enveloped the Cavaliers the second half of this season has become part of the narrative of the postseason — just how vulnerable are the Cavaliers? They had a defensive rating of 111.6 over their final 26 games, a number worse than the Lakers’ season average (and LA was dead last in the league in defense). Tyronn Lue said he has a fix for the team’s defense and when Kevin Love and other Cavs are asked about it they’ve said they can fix it. I’m not sold, they haven’t built good defensive habits, Plus they are going to miss Andrew Bogut in the paint on defense.

The other half of that equation is do the Pacers have the tools to exploit that defense? Expect Paul George to have some huge games because he’s that good, but the Pacers are going to need Myles Turner to put up big numbers (and pull Tristan Thompson out of the paint), plus have Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young have big games as well. The Cavaliers are going to score, can Indiana keep pace?

Who will LeBron James for the Pacers? And who is going to guard Paul George for the Cavaliers? Both teams in this series defensively will want to “cut off the head of the snake” and make someone other than the best player on opposition beat them. Which is a sound strategy — although the Cavaliers have legitimate other top scoring options — but leads to another problem: Who is going to guard these key guys? Who gets the LeBron assignment? Who gets the George assignment.

LeBron torched the Pacers this season, averaging 32.3 points per game on 60 percent shooting in the three meetings where he played (the one game Indiana beat Cleveland LeBron rested). LeBron was able to get into the restricted area and finish at a high rate this season, and the Pacers lack a rim protector who can make him think twice. George will certainly get some time on LeBron, but he shot 52 percent when PG13 was on him this season (stats via Sports VU and the NBA). Of course, there is the drama of Lance Stephenson, and he likely will get some time on LeBron, but Stephenson has lost a step and that’s a bad matchup for the Pacers.

Also, the Pacers do not have a good defender to match up on Kyrie Irving, who could have a big game or two in this series.

Who on the Cavaliers will draw the Paul George assignment? In crunch time that will be LeBron, we saw that at the end of the double-overtime game (remember LeBron and Tristan Thompson yelling at each other over a missed assignment in that stretch?). But it could be too taxing on LeBron to carry the offense and guard George for 40 minutes a game. Expect some Richard Jefferson, but if guys like J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert draw the assignment for a while George is going to put up big numbers. And he has to for the Pacers to have a chance in this series.

Is this the last time we see Paul George in a Pacers’ uniform? George has been brilliant over the last month of the season and reminded everyone why the Pacers’ primary goal this summer is to keep him in Indiana. If George makes the third-team All-NBA — and that’s a coin flip, one that will not land until June 26 at the NBA awards ceremony — then the Pacers can offer him the designated player contract of five years and more than $200 million, and he will stay put.

However, if George doesn’t make that team, the Pacers have to consider trade options this summer. Larry Bird may not pull the trigger, but he can’t lose George for nothing to free agency in the summer of 2018, so there will be pressure this summer if a team steps up with a good offer (and Boston has the pieces to do that, among others). What George wants to do is win, and if the Pacers have a strong series against the Cavaliers and push this to six or seven games, Bird can say to George that this team is close and to trust him to build a contender around George. How this series goes will have some impact on the summer

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. The Pacers starters can hang with the Cavaliers starters, but once these teams start going to the bench the Cavaliers will pull away. The Pacers don’t have the shooters to hang in this series.

Gregg Popovich: “Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now”

Associated Press
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The Spurs are on to the second round of the playoffs, and the reason is Kawhi Leonard. Through six games he averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting overall and 48.3 percent from three. Plus he was taking on Mike Conley — the toughest Grizzly to defend — for stretches of the game. Leonard has a PER of 36.4 through the first round of the playoffs, which is flat-out ridiculous.

That comes on the heels of a season where Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate who will draw a lot of votes.

“We have a knack for hanging in ’cause things happen, and obviously Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “He’s the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it’s impressive.”

“His conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added about Leonard. “I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble.”

If Leonard isn’t the best player in the game — LeBron James can stake a claim, among others — he’s damn close. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can do whatever a team needs to win — get buckets driving the lane, hit threes, grab a board, or lock down an opponent on a key play. That kind of versatility is rare.

It just feels like an MVP trophy and some more rings are in Leonard’s future, although probably not this season. On either count.

Spurs advance: San Antonio beats Grizzlies 103-96 in Game 6

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs wanted no part of playing a seventh game against the Grizzlies, not with the Houston Rockets looming in the next round.

Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points, and the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by beating Memphis 103-96 on Thursday night to take the series 4-2.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich congratulated Memphis on a great year, especially rookie coach David Fizdale.

“I’m seriously thrilled that we were able to get through that first round,” Popovich said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that now we have to go play Houston.”

The Spurs now have beaten Memphis four of the five playoff series between these teams, and this was San Antonio’s second straight win over the Grizzlies in the first round. But this was the first time all season that the visiting team won.

“It’s huge for us,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Memphis, you have to give them a lot of credit. They played unbelievable. They’re a great team, and they made it hard on us and so we didn’t want to come back for Game 7. We treated this game as if it was Game 7. We wanted those days off before playing Houston because it’s going to be a fast-paced game against them.”

Parker added 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 12 rebounds. San Antonio outrebounded Memphis 46-28, with 16 of those offensive boards. That led to 17 second-chance points.

Fizdale said rebounds, points in the paint and who pressured the best impacted each game in the series.

“I kept stressing that to our guys,” Fizdale said. “To their credit, (the Spurs) won it more games than we did. But it definitely wasn’t from a lack of competition on our part. I can sleep at night knowing my guys battled and competed their tails off.”

The Spurs’ semifinal with Houston will start Monday night in San Antonio.

Mike Conley scored 26 points, leading the five Memphis starters in double digits. Marc Gasol added 18.

The Grizzlies fell to 3-10 in elimination games, losing six straight.

This was a taut game with 16 ties and nine lead changes, especially with four ties in the fourth quarter.

The Spurs took control after the Grizzlies went up 88-81 on three free throws from Conley with 6:29 left. Then Leonard scored eight straight for San Antonio, starting a 22-8 run to finish the game.

“The guys were amazing in the fourth quarter,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “Huge plays. Great defense too. So, happy to go back home with a win and win the series.”

Even with Conley and Gasol a combined 2 of 10 in the first quarter, the Grizzlies trailed only 24-22 after Conley knocked down a 3 at the end of the quarter for his first bucket of the game. Conley hit another 3 for the final shot in the second quarter, putting Memphis up 50-45. The team that led at halftime won each of the first five games.

Parker hit his first six shots before finally missing his seventh with 29 seconds left in the first half.

The Grizzlies took their biggest lead at 57-47 on a 3-pointer by James Ennis III. That gave Memphis as many made 3s (9 of 17) as the Spurs had attempted (3 of 9) at that point. Randolph’s layup with 7:19 left matched that 10-point lead at 63-53.

Then the Spurs went on a 13-3 run over a 4-minute span to erase that lead on Aldridge’s three-point play at 67-66. Aldridge finished with nine points in helping the Spurs lead 75-74 at the end of the quarter.

TIP-INS

Spurs: They improved to 36-15 with a chance to clinch a series under Popovich, who took over in the 1996-97 season. … Ginobili converted a four-point play with 1:31 left in the third, putting the Spurs up 73-69. … The Spurs wound up tying the Grizzlies’ reserves with 16 points thanks to Mills.

Grizzlies: The Grizzlies set a franchise record hitting eight 3-pointers in the first half, topping the previous mark of seven in the second half May 1, 2005, against Phoenix. … Conley has 20 or more points in five straight playoff games, the longest such streak in franchise history.

HE SAID IT

Popovich: “I’m thrilled we were able to win because if we played 10 times, we each would probably win five.”

FREE THROW WATCH

Fizdale earned a $30,000 fine from the NBA for his “Take that for data” rant about the free throw discrepancy in Game 2. Well, Leonard was 9 of 10 at the free throw line through three quarters compared to the Grizzlies’ 7 of 8. The Spurs were 18 of 20 through three quarters. The Spurs finished 22 of 25 compared to 20 of 24 for Memphis.

 

Cavaliers celebrate Raptors win over Bucks because they don’t have to practice (VIDEO)

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The Toronto Raptors closed out the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night in Game 6, 92-89. Toronto’s social media team even tried trolling the Bucks about it.

In any case, the Raptors now move on to the second round, despite their best efforts, to face the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have been waiting for an opponent after sweeping the Indiana Pacers.

Cavaliers wingman Richard Jefferson — a Snapchat legend, it should be mentioned — took to the social media platform to celebrate playing the Raptors.

Er, or maybe just the fact that the team didn’t have to practice Friday.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland’s biggest test before the Finals might just be the Raptors, and we will get to see them head-to-head in the second round.

Raptors troll Bucks after closing in Game 6 with RapsIn6.com website (VIDEO)

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Despite a disastrous fourth quarter performance, the Toronto Raptors closed the series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night. The Raptors came away from Game 6 with a 92-89 victory and a chance to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between the Raptors and the Bucks appears to be alive and well, as the Raptors pushed a video on social media after the game ended that was pointed toward the Bucks.

In it, the Raptors mascot registers a domain name for the team at RapsIn6.com, then proceeds to sip tea in the style of the famous Kermit meme.

In case you are out of the loop, this is a reference to Brandon Jennings saying Milwaukee would beat the Miami Heat in six games back in 2013.

Meanwhile, game ops at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee played the theme song from the children’s TV show “Barney” during Raptors player introductions.

Nothing really happens if you go to RapsIn6.com. There’s nothing on the website save for the video the Raptors posted to social media, which you can watch above.

Toronto has their core together and presumably will for a little while. The Bucks are a growing young team. I’m cool with them duking it out in the postseason for years to come.