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Three Things to Watch preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

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This was the series we have been waiting for these playoffs (well, at least before the Finals). Golden State’s small ball, high-scoring attack against San Antonio’s league-best defense where the goal is to play big. A clash of styles. A clash of the teams with the two best regular-season records. After the first round, we need this. Here are three things to watch for.

1) Spurs big lineup vs. the Warriors’ death lineup.
San Antonio can carry some optimism about this into this series from the last round against Houston, San Antonio was able to slow the game down and won thanks to their big lineups. They defended the arc well — the Spurs contested 34 of 40 Rockets three-point attempts in Game 6 — and had success taking away drives to the rim by planting Pau Gasol and/or LaMarcus Aldridge near the rim and daring James Harden or anyone else to come all the way in and shoot over them. It worked.

It’s also going to be much harder to do against the Warriors. For one, there is not Clint Capella hanging out at the rim — Gasol and Aldrige are going to have to come out to the arc because Draymond Green and Kevin Durant will drill the three if left open. Beyond that, the Warriors run an array of actions — back door cuts, split actions, screens off the ball, and much more — that will be hard to defend. Golden State’s offense is more diversified than Houston’s, and it simply has better shooters — some days it doesn’t matter if you contest Klay Thompson. Also, on just a very basic level, the Spurs dared the Rockets to beat them from them from the midrange, and Houston would not take the bait (Mike D’Antoni wants threes or shots at the rim). Do that to the Spurs and Durant/Thompson/David West and others will destroy the Spurs from the midrange.

On the other end, the Spurs will need to pound on the Warriors inside. The Warriors have some size to throw at them — JaVale McGee/Zaza Pachulia/West have been a strong trio at the five — but Spurs have to dominate inside in this series. The thing is, a lot of teams have tried that against the Warriors in recent years and it doesn’t go well. Draymond Green makes things difficult — he is the key to the Warriors playing small and still defending inside.

2) Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant. This matchup is one to watch on both ends. There are few players with the strength and length to hang with Kevin Durant, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is one of those guys. Leonard has to handle Durant and not let him be the guy who takes over on the nights Stephen Curry is not on fire from deep (with Danny Green draped all over him). The thing that makes these Warriors more dangerous than the last couple years is on the nights the threes are not falling, the nights that the Curry/Thompson backcourt isn’t dominating, Durant can take over. Remove Durant from the equation and the Warriors are just who they have been the past couple of seasons (a team that made the Finals both years and won a title, but still). The thing is, Durant has had success against Leonard in the past.

Just as interesting, Durant’s length can make things challenging for the guy who is the fulcrum of the Spurs offense. If the Spurs are to have any chance in this series, Leonard has to win this battle and be phenomenal. It’s a lot to ask, but he can do it.

3) Mike Brown, you up for this?
At some point during this series, Gregg Popovich is going to make a clever adjustment that the Warriors were not expecting, and with it some Spur we weren’t expecting is going to be a put in a position to succeed. Popovich is the best coach in the game, maybe the best coach ever, for good reason. Steve Kerr would counter, likely with something else unorthodox.

Mike Brown, are you ready for this stage? He’s essentially the renter in the home Kerr built, just trying not to stain the carpet so he gets his security deposit back. Brown has coached teams in this situation before, but he tends to be conventional, do the expected. In this series that may be enough, but it is the toughest coaching job he will have in the playoffs. He is going to have to have his moment in this round.

Prediction: Warriors in 5. The Spurs are the second or third best team in the NBA (them vs. the Cavaliers would be a fascinating series in its own right), but this is just a rough matchup for them. The Warriors have more and better counters to everything the Spurs will try this round. San Antonio may slow the Warriors, but they are going to struggle to score enough to win.

Report: Kawhi Leonard and Spurs must repair ‘broken’ relationship before San Antonio offers super-max extension

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The Spurs can offer Kawhi Leonard a super-max contract extension – which projects to be worth $219 million over five years – this offseason.

Will they?

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

The relationship between Kawhi Leonard is broken, and it’s got to be put back together again before the Spurs are going to make that kind of commitment to a player. And that’s going to take a lot of talking, communication and some comprise here in the next few months before the Spurs can make that offer. But the idea that an organization like the Spurs are going to just blindly walk in and give the biggest contract in franchise history to a player who has behaved the last few months like he doesn’t want to be a part of them, it’s not going to happen that way. So, there’s a lot of repairing that’s going to be done before they even make that offer, I believe.

Leonard will reportedly meet with San Antonio for an exit interview, and that’s the next big step toward mending fences.

Remember, LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade last summer. Then, he and Gregg Popovich talked and got on the same page. Aldridge just had an excellent season for the Spurs. Handling unhappy players is part of the job. When they’re as good as Aldridge and Leonard, it’s worth making the effort to find common ground.

If San Antonio finds enough with Leonard to offer him the super-max extension, the next question becomes: Will he sign it? He might prefer to move on.

But nobody is that far. The big benchmark in this process is the Spurs offering or not offering the super-max extension. They must determine whether or not they will.

Report: Heat to explore Hassan Whiteside trade options

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Is there much demand for Hassan Whiteside around the NBA marketplace?

The pro-Whiteside camp can point to some raw numbers: He averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds a game this season (and 17 and 14 a season ago), he shot 54 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 24.1.

However, his shortcomings were on full display in the playoffs. In the first two games, when Philadelphia played small, Whiteside didn’t have a place on the court and saw limited minutes. When Joel Embiid returned things got worse — in the three games matched up against Embiid, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Whiteside played just 10 minutes in Game 5, where he was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. All through the series, Whiteside complained about his lack of minutes.

Whiteside and Erik Spoelstra are not on the same page, and the Heat would like to move him in a trade… but good luck with that. From Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

The Heat is expected to explore a Whiteside trade, with the center due $24.4 million and $27.1 million in the final two years of his contract.

In a tight financial market, the Heat are going to struggle to find a team with the space (or willing to create the space) to take on $51.5 million over two seasons. Even if they do, the Heat are going to have to attach sweeteners — multiple first round picks, or a pick and young players that interest teams (Kelly Olynyk or Bam Adebayo, for example). It’s going to be a lot to give up to get out of that contract. Maybe in the summer of 2019, when the market loosens up and Whiteside is an expiring contract, they more easily can find a deal. This summer it would be difficult.

But expect the Heat (and Whiteside’s agent) to look for a trade. It’s time to part ways, it just may not be that simple to do.

PBT Podcast: What went wrong and what’s next for Trail Blazers?

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It was embarrassing, and left both fans and players of the Trail Blazers angry and frustrated — Portland was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now what happens in Portland? Is Terry Stotts in danger as the coach? What about GM Neil Olshey? Would they consider trading C.J. McCollum? Is there any way to offload the contract of Evan Turner?

Kurt Helin and the Northeast’s own Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest podcast, and Blazers fans may not like the answers. The pair also touch on other series around the league, like do the Pelicans have a shot against the Warriors? And, as required by NBA law, they touch on the Sixers run.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”