NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio vs. Memphis

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SEASON RECORDS
Spurs: 61-21 (No. 1 seed)
Grizzlies: 46-36 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Tied: 2-2, with each team winning both games on their home court. Tony Parker missed one of the Spurs losses, Tim Duncan the other.

KEY INJURIES
Spurs: Manu Ginobili, the two guard from Argentina that is key to the Spurs chances injured his elbow two minutes into the final game of the season and did not return, an MRI Thursday will let us know the severity and time missed.
Grizzlies: Tony Allen, he missed the last two games of the regular season with a sore and swollen knee, but he will go for the playoffs; Rudy Gay, the best perimeter player on the Grizzlies, will miss the entire playoffs with shoulder surgery; Xavier Henry, the rookie backup two guard, has had knee problems and is out for the playoffs; Jason Williams, the backup point guard, is out for the season with back problems.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Spurs: Off. 109.4 (2nd in NBA); 102.8 (11th in NBA)
Grizzlies: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); 102.5 (8th in NBA)

THREE KEY SPURS

Manu Ginobili: He would be on this list if he was 100 percent healthy, but after injuring his elbow in the last game of the regular season he is at the top of the list. The Spurs have modified their offensive attack this season to not focus as much around Tim Duncan in the post and rather have Ginobili and Tony Parker more the decision makers out on the perimeter. There are few guys who can penetrate like Ginobili, and when he does he’s a crafty, willing passer who sets up teammates as much as he takes his own shot. They need him and his health matters.

Tim Duncan: Okay, he’s not the focus of the offense anymore, but he is still central to what they do on defense (and he’s still scoring 13.4 points per game on 50 percent shooting, it’s not like he dropped off the face of the earth). In this series his defense will be key — he will get a lot of time on Zach Randolph and while he’s not going to stop him Duncan has to slow him. Part of that is making Randolph work on the defensive end (or if he chooses not to work, to exploit the mismatch). Look for Duncan to get a lot of touches.

DeJuan Blair: He is the physical enforcer down low for the Spurs, and he’s going to get called on to do a lot of the dirty work by Greg Popovich. The Grizzlies score more points in the paint than any team in the league (51 a game) and the Spurs have to make them work for those points, to not be efficient. Blair and his physical style will be a lot of that.

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES

Zach Randolph: Is there a better low-post scorer in the NBA? If so, not many. The Spurs have size but with Duncan and Antonio McDyess up front they are not young. Randolph had 23 points on 14 shots in the last meeting with the Spurs (with Duncan out) and they are going to need games like that from him again to have a chance.

Tony Allen: He is going to draw the defensive matchup on Manu Ginobili — we’re assuming Ginobili will play in the series at this point — and in that way will be key. The Spurs now focus their attack from their guards and Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. If he can disrupt Manu, it will put more pressure on Parker and George Hill off the bench. Allen and his teammates need to take away the three ball that has become central to the Spurs attack.

Mike Conley: He has had his best season as a pro, really earning the deal he was given last summer by the Grizzlies. But now he really needs to earn that paycheck. He needs to slow Tony Parker. What’s more, on offense he needs to feed the Grizzlies big men and not turn the ball over — points are not going to be that easy to come by this series and turnovers that lead to easy transition points for the Spurs would make them hard to catch.

OUTLOOK

Inside/outside. Which team can do a better job of taking away the other’s strength? Memphis wants to pound the ball down low — with Randolph they have one of the best low-post scorers in the league, his counterpart Marc Gasol provides another 11.7 points per game (and he has a midrange game you have to respect as well). The Spurs will counter with Tim Duncan, who is no longer the best defensive big man in the league, but he’s not bad, and the physical play of DeJuan Blair and McDyess. Tiago Splitter, who played much better at the end of the season, also will get key minutes.

On the flip side, the Spurs make a league-best 39.7 percent of the threes they take (about 21 a game) and the Grizzlies are not good at defending the three (opponents hit 36.9 percent, 24th best in the league). The Spurs generate a lot of their offense off the pick-and-roll with the ball in the hands of Ginobili and Parker, either with them driving or then kicking out for spot-up looks (almost 25 percent of the Spurs offense is spot-up looks, often those discussed threes). Tony Allen and Shane Battier need to be keys to defending those plays. Memphis has not been great this season at defending the pick-and-roll or closing out on spot-up shooters this season but they have to if they want to advance.

The real key to this series could be depth — San Antonio gets a lot out of George Hill, Gary Neal and Bair off the bench. Can O.J. Mayo match them?

PREDICTION

Memphis is about as tough a 1 vs. 8 matchup as we can recall. They have real strengths inside and are going to be a physical team that will leave bumps and bruises on whoever they face. The Spurs big men are going to have to work hard all series to both defend and secure rebounds.

But in the end, what the Spurs like to do on offense the Grizzlies don’t defend well, and without Rudy Gay the Grizzlies lack the scoring on the wings they really need to compete.

Spurs in 6.

Poor defense, Patty Mills game-winner keep LeBron James, Lakers winless

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LOS ANGELES — This loss stung. More than the first two. Because the win was in LeBron James‘ hands and…

The Lakers are 0-3 to start the season.

For much of the first 47 minutes Monday night, the Spurs out-executed the Lakers and exposed their porous defense. The Lakers ran enough, and got hot from three for a stretch, to keep themselves close, but then a LaMarcus Aldridge jumper had the Spurs up 128-120 with 1:10 left in regulation. Frustrated fans headed for the exits. The game looked over.

Then a JaVale McGee dunk and a Kyle Kuzma three (he had 37 points on the night) set up LeBron James forcing overtime in a classic LeBron fashion.

Overtime was the reverse of regulation — it was the young Lakers’ turn to make plays and dominate. A LeBron James driving and-1 had the Lakers up by six, 142-136, with just :55 seconds left. LeBron was on the doorstep of his first win as a Laker… then Bryn Forbes hit a driving layup, and after a Kuzma miss the Lakers gave up the one thing they couldn’t — a three. To Rudy Gay. Uncontested in any meaningful way. That made it a one-point game with 12 seconds left. LeBron was fouled instantly on the inbound pass but then missed two straight free throws, setting up Patty Mills for the heroics.

LeBron had one last chance to get his first win as a Laker… and nothing.

“I got to my spot, I got the shot I wanted, it just didn’t go down,” LeBron said.

For the third game in a row another team executed better than the Lakers when it mattered most, this time it was the Spurs, who pick up a 143-142 win. LeBron and the Lakers fall to 0-3 to start the season.

It was always going to be a process for these Lakers, but it’s going to take longer than fans and most pundits expected.

The same problems from the first two games remained for the Lakers — on defense they allowed 125.7 points per 100 possessions (it’s very early, but the Lakers are bottom six in defense so far). They struggled to slow LaMarcus Aldridge (37 points on 22 shots) and DeMar DeRozan (32 points), which happens to a lot of teams, but Laker defenders lost guys on back cuts and struggled with the Spurs ball movement. Los Angeles gives up too many easy buckets and fouls too much. Offensively the Lakers were impressive in transition and got their buckets in the paint (74 points), but shot 4-of-10 between the paint and the arc, and were 9-of-32 on above-the-break threes (L.A. hit 5-of-7 from the corners, a definite improvement).

“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going it,” LeBron said. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now, but it’s such a long process. We had our chances…

“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, we’re just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”

It was a game all about pace (which ties to the Laker defense). In the first quarter Spurs put up 40 points and shot 72.7 percent, and with that made the Lakers take the ball out of the basket time after time. Los Angeles couldn’t run and trailed by as many as 16 in the quarter. In the second quarter the Spurs shots didn’t fall, and the Lakers were off and running getting 34 points. For the game, the Lakers had 41 fast break points.

It just wasn’t enough.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton earned himself a fine after the game with his frustration with the referees, something that has been a running theme with the Lakers for a couple of games now.

“It’s 70-something points in the paint to 50-something (74 to 50), again they outshoot us from the free throw line, 38 free throws (the Lakers had 26),” Walton ranted after the game. “Watch the play — watch the play where I got a technical, watch what happens to LeBron James’ arm. It’s the same thing that James Harden and Chris Paul shot 30 free throws on us the night before. Then LeBron pulls up on a screen and somebody’s trying to fight over it, same thing they shot free throws on. Same thing.

“We are scoring 70 points a night in the paint. We’re putting pressure on. Josh Hart, watch how plays the game, played 40 minutes tonight, all he does is attack the rim — zero free throws tonight. Zero. I know they’re young, but if we’re going to play a certain way then let’s not reward people for flopping 30 feet from the hole on plays that have nothing to do with that possession. They’re just flopping to see if they can get a foul call. And then not reward players who are physically going to the basket and getting hit. That’s not right.”

We’ll see if Walton gets his money’s worth with that rant when we see the calls Los Angeles gets in Phoenix on Wednesday.

Boston offense stumbles, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic scores 24 in Magic upset win

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BOSTON (AP) — Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 12 rebounds while the Orlando Magic survived two 3-point attempts by Boston in the closing seconds to beat the Celtics 93-90 on Monday night.

Jonathan Isaac added 18 points and 12 boards for the Magic (2-2).

Kyrie Irving led the Celtics (2-2) with 22 points. Al Horford had 15 and Gordon Hayward 11. Irving and Hayward each missed a 3 in the final seconds. Boston shot 9-of-40 from three on the night and 40.7 percent overall, looking out of sync as they have much of the season (and preseason).

The Celtics, who never led in the game, trailed by at least five points from the midway point of the final quarter until Jaylen Brown nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner, closing it to 89-86 with 71 seconds left.

But Isaac answered with a foul-line jumper on the next possession.

Horford and Irving then had consecutive baskets 32 seconds apart, slicing it to 91-90 with 14.2 seconds to play.

With Boston forced to foul Evan Fournier after Orlando inbounded the ball after a timeout, he stepped to the line and made both free throws with 7.8 seconds left.

Irving then missed his 3 from the right corner, and after Horford grabbed the rebound and fed it out – Hayward’s rimmed out just before the buzzer sounded.

Orlando had pulled ahead by 13 points twice late in the third quarter before Boston closed the period by scoring 10 of the final 12 points to slice it to 75-70 at the break.

 

Watch Stephen Curry get the volleyball set assist from his mom during warmups

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Wherever the Warriors are, home or road, fans are filling the building long before tip-off just to watch Stephen Curry warm up. With good reason, he’s a show even before the ball goes up.

Curry’s mother, Sonya, was courtside for his warmups before the Warriors hosting the Suns. Curry played a little volleyball with her, got a good set, and hit the corner three.

Pretty sure rules prohibit him from doing that during the game, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Warriors say DeMarcus Cousins making “good progress,” will participate in part of practice soon

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Don’t confuse this with “DeMarcus Cousins is almost back on the court.” The Warriors are going to be CSPAN call-in show host patient in bringing Cousins back, and a return date is still well down the schedule. There is no official timetable.

Cousins is, however, making progress and will be part of some segments of team practice shortly, the Warriors announced Monday.

“DeMarcus continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation program. After spending the last few weeks doing various individual on-court activities and drills, he will, in the near future, be integrated into controlled aspects of team practices, although not scrimmages at this point. Additionally, he will continue with his off-court strength and conditioning program.”

The Warriors want to keep Cousins happy but also know they don’t fully need him yet — they need him in the playoffs as another option to punish switches. Golden State needs Cousins healthy, back in shape, rust off and ready to go in April, but he doesn’t need to be on the court in October, or even by Christmas, to get there. Cousins wants to play, but as a guy looking to get paid next summer, he needs to come back right and show what he can do, not come back too early and damage his stock. It’s a fine line.

The Warriors and Cousins are moving closer to that line, but there is still a long way to go.