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: Police officers involved in Sterling Brown’s arrest suspended 15, 10 and two days

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Bucks guard Sterling Brown was tased and arrested in January despite not being violent or overly combative while being questioned about a parking violation.

Gina Barton, Mary Spicuzza and Ashley Luthern of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The Milwaukee police officer who first confronted Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown outside a Walgreens in January was suspended for two days, the Journal Sentinel has learned.

Two supervisors who later arrived, escalating the situation, were suspended for 10 and 15 days, sources said. Several other officers were reprimanded.

I don’t know whether these suspensions are the appropriate punishment.

But police too often trampling on the rights of people, especially minorities, is a far greater problem than these three officers and this incident.

No, Tom Izzo is not going to coach the Orlando Magic

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The Orlando Magic have been looking for their next head coach — after letting go of Frank Vogel right after season ended — while Mike Budenholzer (Bucks), David Fizdale (Knicks), Lloyd Pierce (Hawks), James Borrego (Hornets), and Igor Kokoskov (Suns) all got jobs (plus J.B. Bickerstaff had the interim title taken away in Memphis).

Not much news had leaked out of Orlando through all of that process, outside of interest in University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and an interview this week with former Charlotte coach Steve Clifford.

Then came a report from Michael Scotto of The Athletic that the Magic had interest in Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

It didn’t take long for people close to Izzo to shoot that down.

A few points of clarification here. First, plenty of NBA front office executives have thought Izzo would make a great NBA coach and have reached out with feelers over the years. I have no doubt the Magic were interested, and may well have reached out (directly or through back channels) to gauge interest. That’s what smart organizations do.

At this point in his career, at age 63, it’s hard to imagine Izzo making the leap to the NBA — and if he does it will be for a Godfather offer (in both money and roster). With all due respect to Aaron Gordon, that’s not Orlando. Never say never, but like Mike Krzyzewski and others who could have made the leap to the NBA, at this point Izzo seems a college lifer. He’s in one of the best jobs in the land, a place where he is revered and respected, and he’s not likely to change that up now.

You can’t really blame him. It’s hard to leave a good job — just ask Jay Wright. But with Izzo, NBA teams will still ask occasionally, just to make sure.

Steve Kerr calls NFL’s new national-anthem policy, which is strikingly similar to the NBA’s, ‘idiotic’

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The NFL released a new national-anthem policy that requires players to stand on the field or remain in the locker room (or similar location) during the song.

That didn’t sit well with Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Melissa Rohlin of the Bay Area News Group:

Good thing Kerr doesn’t work in a league that mandates players, coaches and trainers “stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the anthem, that suspended a player for sitting during the anthem, that warns players for chewing gum or being in the bathroom during the anthem, that has a team that blocked a black anthem singer who wore a “We matter” jersey.

Oh, wait.

He does.

The NBA, like the NFL, is first and foremost a business seeking profit. When confronted with social issues, from Donald Sterling to “I can’t breathe” shirts, the NBA has always kept an eye on its wallet.

With the threat of anthem protests looming, the NBA proactively met with players to head off any kneeling. That was business strategy, nothing grander.

The result? Players linked arms during the national anthem in the name of same vague unity, co-opting the space and distorting the message of Colin Kaepernick’s more meaningful protest.

Eventually, teams stopped linking arms during the anthem. Nobody really noticed when it fell off.

All the while, no sponsors or fans were aggrieved.

The NFL is just trying to get to the same point with a similar policy.

But the NFL already alienated its players through the heavy-handed implementation of this policy and years of other issues. The NBA has established greater trust from its players, both by finessing them in talks about societal issues and actually standing behind them, like the Bucks did with Sterling Brown.

There are plenty of opportunities to criticize the NFL relative to the NBA. The leagues’ national-anthem policies are not a good one.

And spare me the idea that leaders trying to divide us from on high is What’s Wrong With Our Country. Centuries of racism have already divided us.

Some leaders, like Donald Trump, exploit those divisions. Other leaders talk fancifully of unity without actually reconciling what caused the divisions.

But the actual divisions were already significant.

LeBron James, James Harden unanimous All-NBA first-team selections

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Joel Embiid was the biggest loser in All-NBA voting.

The big winners?

Here are the All-NBA teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, third-team votes, total voting points):

First team

G: James Harden, Houston (100-0-0-500)

G: Damian Lillard, Portland (71-24-5-432)

F: LeBron James, Cleveland (100-0-0-500)

F: Kevin Durant, Golden State (63-37-0-426)

C: Anthony Davis, New Orleans (96-4-0-492)

Second team

G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City (24-63-13-322)

G: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto (2-39-38-165)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee (28-71-1-354)

F: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio (2-68-22-236)

C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia (11-78-5-294)

Third team

G: Stephen Curry, Golden State (2-39-37-164)

G: Victor Oladipo, Indiana (0-24-33-105)

F: Jimmy Butler, Minnesota (1-8-52-81)

F: Paul George, Oklahoma City (0-4-42-54)

C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota (0-18-45-99)

Other players receiving votes with point totals: Chris Paul (Houston), 54; Rudy Gobert (Utah), 51; Kyrie Irving (Boston), 42; Ben Simmons (Philadelphia), 36; Al Horford (Boston), 32; Nikola Jokic (Denver), 28; Andre Drummond (Detroit), 7; Clint Capela (Houston), 6; Draymond Green (Golden State), 6; Kyle Lowry (Toronto), 3; Steven Adams (Oklahoma City), 2; Donovan Mitchell (Utah), 2; Klay Thompson (Golden State), 2; Trevor Ariza (Houston), 1; DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans), 1; Dwight Howard (Charlotte), 1; Kevin Love (Cleveland), 1; Kristaps Porzingis (New York), 1

My takeaways:

  • Most underrated by this voting: Chris Paul
  • Most overrated by this voting: DeMar DeRozan
  • Anthony Davis clinches he’ll be eligible for a designated-veteran-player extension in the 2019 offseason, but only from the Pelicans. Will that keep him in New Orleans?
  • Who the heck voted for Trevor Ariza? That had to be a submission error, right?
  • Here were my picks.