NBA Playoffs: Thunder play well, but Spurs win while still seeming unstoppable

20 Comments

The San Antonio Spurs have now played an even ten games in the NBA Playoffs and, amazingly, have won every one of them. The wins haven’t all been dominant — Tuesday night’s 120-111 victory ended up being one of their more difficult challenges this season — but it’s been astounding to watch the old, formerly boring ball players simply click on all cylinders for majority of the past few months.

While we all marvel at what the Spurs have been able to do en route to staying undefeated for 48 consecutive days, the most impressive thing is that the Spurs haven’t been playing any sort of “hero” ball … they’re just playing basketball the way it was meant to be played and, surprise(!), it works. Gregg Popovich has found out a way to put a fine-tuned machine out on the court, allowing the basketball purists among us 48 awesome minutes of watching wings cut to the bucket, guards move the ball around, slashers slash, passers pass and the big men doing what big men have been taught to do since the first time they picked up a basketball and their coach realized they were bigger than anyone else.

The Spurs are winning simply by playing fundamentally-sound basketball, really, so it shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that Mr. Fundamental himself — the ageless Tim Duncan — helped San Antonio earn a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals following Tuesday night’s victory. Duncan wasn’t the most efficient player from the floor as the Thunder got a bit more physical with him than he would have liked, but his double-double while chasing down loose balls and picking up four big blocks were key for the Spurs as Oklahoma City employed the “Hack-A-Player” defense on backup Tiago Splitter (oh, and in case anyone missed it, he also did this to Serge Ibaka).

Most frustrating for the Thunder, though, is likely the fact that San Antonio was able to find another answer on the offensive end. Manu Ginobili was the star in Game 1, but Argentina’s favorite sixth man was bottled up early on Tuesday night and never really found his rhythm … at least not until hitting what might have been a dagger three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. No worries for the Spurs, though — Tony Parker simply decided to show once again why he belongs in the conversation as one of the top point guards in the league by accumulating 32 points, seven assists and turning the ball over a mere two times — all while hitting 15 of his 20 shot attempts in part of a near-perfect performance. The scariest part is that Thursday night’s Game 3 will likely end up belonging to someone entirely different if the Thunder are able to figure out  how to stop both of the Spurs perimeter playmakers (here’s hoping for Gary Neal and Matt Bonner three-pointers early and often).

If the fact that San Antonio continues to find contributors on the other end no matter what the Thunder do on defense — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined for 25 points — it probably isn’t making Oklahoma City happy on offense that the Spurs are also quite adept at keeping them from getting into any sort of rhythm. Tuesday night’s game got grimy in the second half when a plethora of free-throws were shot and, even though the Thunder shot more from the charity stripe, it kept them trailing as they were unable to get into a rhythm and barely picked up even a modicum of momentum before San Antonio eventually elicited an answer for each run.

The worst part about Tuesday night’s game might have been that Oklahoma City’s stars all ended up having excellent games. Kevin Durant scored 31 points on 17 shots (though he was limited quite a bit in the fourth quarter), James Harden came off the bench to hit 10 of his 13 shot attempts and free-throw attempts to score an even 30 points while Russell Westbrook scored 27 points and dished eight assists and nary a turnover. Typically when one team’s top three players are able to score 88 points against an opponent that hadn’t given up triple-digit points in their previous nine outings, it’ll lead to a victory. That surprisingly wasn’t the case on Tuesday night, however, because San Antonio held the remaining six Thunder players to a total of just 23 points despite attempting 35 shots.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Thunder decide to change for Game 3 considering they did almost all they can be expected to do on Tuesday night before falling into a two-game deficit in the seven-game series. If they’re unable to win when their top three players combing for nearly 30 points apiece while shutting down the star from their series-opening loss, can there really be much hope left in the Oklahoma City locker room?

LeBron James on consideration given to signing with Rockets: ‘Not much’

Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For a while, it seemed LeBron Jamesfinalists in free agency last summer were the Lakers, Cavaliers, 76ers and Rockets.

LeBron obviously signed with the Lakers. Cleveland remains special to him. His agent met with Philadelphia.

And then there’s Houston.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

The Rockets – led by Chris Paul – reportedly recruited LeBron hard.

But LeBron reportedly previously said he didn’t like Houston as a city, and at this point, it’s impossible escape lifestyle as a key consideration for the superstar. He clearly enjoys Los Angeles.

I doubt LeBron regrets dropping the Rockets from consideration early. The main appeal would have been their direction path to championship contention, but they’ve been the NBA’s most disappointing team this season.

Which makes it even easier for LeBron to dismiss his Houston consideration.

2018 NBA playoff teams get new alternate jerseys (photos)

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Did your favorite team or player make the playoffs last season?

Well, someone thinks that might have you invested enough to buy yet another jersey.

Aaron Dodson of The Undefeated:

The Bucks jersey is the best – despite the advertisement patch intruding on the otherwise minimalist look. Milwaukee would be the runaway winner without the ad.

As is, I also really like the Pelicans, Pacers and Heat. I suspect Miami’s fuchsia Miami Vice edition will draw the most attention.

A few of these are rather plain, and that’s always disappointing in an alternate jersey. But I particularly dislike the Cavaliers and Spurs jerseys.

Report: Pelicans, Pistons, Kings NBA’s most active buyers in trade market

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Pelicans are likely in a make-or-break season.

They can offer Anthony Davis a super-max extension next off season. If he signs it, he’d be locked up for five more years. If not, he’d head toward 2020 unrestricted free agency. New Orleans could keep an un-extended Davis through the 2019-20 season and hope for the best, but a trade seems inevitable if he’s not willing to sign the largest-possible extension next summer.

So, this season is the last before that moment of truth. And the Pelicans are just 15-15, tied for 10th in the Western Conference.

That’s why they’re on the far end of the trade spectrum.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

But what about the buyers? League executives report the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings lead the list of teams calling around looking for ways to upgrade their rosters in recent weeks.

All three of these teams are understandable buyers:

Pelicans

New Orleans needs to upgrade around Davis before it’s too late. He has set high standards and placed the burden on himself, but he might eventually look around and realize it shouldn’t be this hard.

The Pelicans have drafted in the first round only once since 2012 (when they picked Davis), and they traded that pick – Buddy Hield – during his rookie year. They have all their future first-round picks and could again use one to get immediate help.

New Orleans could also move Solomon Hill (making $12,252,928 this season, $12,758,781 next season) to match salary, though he holds negative value on that contract. Several smaller expiring contracts could also prove useful.

Unloading yet another first-rounder could come back to bite the Pelicans, but they must impress Davis first. Secure him, and worry about everything else later.

Pistons

The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in 11 years. They’ve missed the postseason entirely the last two seasons. At 13-13, they could fall out again.

Or they could bolster their roster to become more competitive in April.

Detroit is fairly locked into this expensive team, led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. The Pistons are stuck, somewhat by choice, playing for the present. They might as well make it count.

They could dangle Stanley Johnson if they don’t plan to re-sign him in restricted free agency this summer. The 22-year-old could fetch a better, older player.

Detroit has little breathing room below the luxury-tax line, and as much as owner Tom Gores wants to make the playoffs, I doubt he’d pay the tax on this team.

Kings

Sacramento (15-12) is the NBA’s brightest surprise. After missing the playoffs 12 straight seasons – the NBA’s longest active postseason drought – the Kings are eighth in the Western Conference. They also already traded their 2019 first-round pick.

It’s time to go for it.

Sacramento’s priority should be building long-term around a young core led by De'Aaron Fox. But there’s still room to focus on satisfying this season, especially with no first-round-pick fallback if the team slips.

The Kings are the only team still with cap space, and they have $11,024,578 of it. They also have several veterans on expiring contracts – Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234), Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500) and Ben McLemore ($5,460,000). That opens a lot of possibilities.

Maybe Sacramento can get a helpful and not-too-old, but overpaid, player on a multi-year deal from a team looking to shed salary? Prime example: Wizards forward Otto Porter.

Bradley Beal foils Celtics’ foul-up-three plan, forces OT (video)

1 Comment

Foul or defend?

Though it’s always worth it for teams to consider how they can incrementally improve their odds of winning, the debate over strategy when leading by three points late probably gets too much attention. Teams up by three points late almost always win, regardless.

But the rare cases of a team overcoming a late 3-point deficit are so memorable.

Take last night, when the Celtics – up three – intentionally fouled Bradley Beal with 13 seconds left. Beal made the first free throw, missed the second, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. It was a heck of a play that forced overtime.

It didn’t pay off for the Wizards, who lost in overtime. But it paid off for us, as the extra period produced this awesome sequence.