Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio 50-16 (1 seed)
Oklahoma City 47-19 (2 seed)

SEASON SERIES
San Antonio took the season series 2-1, however Manu Ginobili missed all of them (which might worry Thunder fans), the games were in March and earlier, bottom line these teams are different now.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)


San Antonio: offense 108.5 (1st in NBA); defense 100.6 (11th)
Oklahoma City: offense 107.1 (2nd); defense 100 (9th)

THREE KEY SPURS:

Tony Parker: He outdueled Chris Paul, so as his reward he gets Russell Westbrook. In one key regular season meeting between these teams Gregg Popovich asked Parker to attack Westbrook on offense, to wear him down and make him work at both ends, he did taking 29 shots and scoring 42 points. It worked. Expect a lot of that this series. On the other end, Parker is going to have to defend the pick-and-roll as well as he did last series (although don’t be shocked if Popovich has Parker cover Thabo Sefolosha and puts Danny Green on Westbrook for long stretches).

Tim Duncan: He has been fantastic in these playoffs, but the “old man” is about to be put to the test with the long and athletic Serge Ibaka shadowing him. Duncan and Parker (and Manu Ginobili) will keep the ball moving until the Spurs get open shots, but they have to produce themselves as well. Duncan has to get points inside against a big front line of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

Kawhi Leonard: He is the guy who is assigned the impossible task of guarding Kevin Durant. Nobody is stopping as good a pure scorer as there is the game, but if he can make Durant really work for his points — keep him shooting contested long jumpers — and not be efficient, it will put pressure on the Thunder to keep up with all the points the Spurs offense will score.

THREE KEY THUNDER:

Russell Westbrook: To me, Westbrook is the key to this series. San Antonio did a great job containing Chris Paul by zoning him off when he came off the pick and moved to the wing, but that’s not how Westbrook attacks off the pick-and-roll — Westbrook prefers to come off near the top of the key and dive straight down the lane to the basket. It’s harder for the Spurs to defend and if Westbrook can get into the paint he can get the Thunder the points they will need to hang in this series and win it.

On the other end of the floor, he has to make Parker work for his shots, get the ball out of his hands and contain him on the pick-and-roll. Nothing is stopping the Spurs offense, but the Thunder need to find a way to slow it.

Kevin Durant: This is obvious, but in a series where the Thunder need to put up points they will need big, efficient nights from him. That means not all pull up jumpers, he needs to get to the rim as well. Last meeting between these teams he was 8-19 shooting, he needs to be better this time around.

James Harden: Harden is the Sixth man of the Year, but the Spurs are deeper and get fantastic bench production. Harden needs to find a way to match it or come close. Also, he’s going to be the ball handler at the end of close games – and there will be close games — and his ability to make plays for others will be key.

OUTLOOK

This will get painted as a “pass the torch” series with the rising Thunder trying to take the mantle as the next great team in the West. In reality, the Thunder are going to have to rip that torch out of the Spurs hands, San Antonio isn’t done with it.

These are the two best offenses in the association and this whole series really boils down to this — which team can get more consistent stops?

It’s going to be hard for the Thunder, despite their length and athleticism. In their regular season meetings the Spurs just carved the Thunder defense up — and San Antonio is playing better now. The Spurs offense uses pressure and fantastic ball movement to get the shots they want — at the rim, the corner three, or specific jumpers like Duncan’s 15-foot bank. The Spurs are 8-0 in these playoffs and having’t lost since you were doing taxes because they get their shots on their terms. San Antonio will wait for the eager and active Thunder defense to overreact to something then in two quick passes get a good look or a matchup they want. They did it in the regular season matchups between these teams.

Another key for San Antonio and its ball movement is good look jump shots — the Spurs will take a lot of spot-up jumpers but are getting a very good 1.18 points per possession off it so far in the playoffs (via MySynergySports). Those looks are often corner threes — Oklahoma City has to rotate fast and challenge those corner threes. The Thunder have to contest everything, something they have done well in the playoffs (top field goal percentage against on spot ups in the postseason).

Spurs biggest challenge will be defending the pick-and-roll — they have done it well in the playoffs but this will be a different look and speed. Chris Paul tried to attack them from the wing, but Westbrook will attack from the top of the key, trying to turn and run down the lane and get his own points. They have to stop him out high, make him shoot jumpers, because if he gets into the lane the Spurs lack the big-man shot blocker too stop him.

This series is fascinating because of the matchup chess that will go on. In the playoffs Popovich has liked to play Parker, Danny Green and Ginobili together — will Scott Brooks counter by going big and forcing Green to try and cover Durant? Will Parker get time defending Thabo Sefolosha so the more athletic Green can go on Westbrook? Will the Thunder ignore Serge Ibaka on the pick-and-pop, and can he make them pay for it?

This series is so close. But if it becomes a chess match, you have to like Popovich against Brooks.

PREDICTION

Spurs in 7.

This could go either way and the only outcome that would surprise me is a team winning in less than six games. That said, in the end there will be too many Parker rainbow floaters over Ibaka’s arm, too many Matt Bonner corner threes, too many Boris Diaw or DeJuan Blair baseline cuts to catch a pocket pass and lay it in. Basically, too much Spurs offense. The Thunder will be close but when it comes to who can get enough stops to win, I like the Spurs. Barely, but the Spurs.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.