NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trail Blazers

14 Comments

SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs: 62-20

Portland Trail Blazers: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: none

Portland Trail Blazers: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 100.1 (4th in NBA)

Portland Trail Blazers: Offense 108.3 (5th in NBA), Defense 104.7 (16th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How much does experience matter?

The attention increases, the lights brighten and the pressure mounts. Relative to the second round of the NBA playoffs, the first round is practically an extension of the regular season. The difference between the first two rounds, especially if you haven’t experienced it before is, stark.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, this makes sense. Going from 16 to 8 teams is a greater drop by magnitude than going from 30 to 16 teams.

If experiencing this level of the playoffs matters, San Antonio has a huge advantage.

Five Spurs – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner – have each played more games beyond the first round than all the Trail Blazers combined.

Just three Trail Blazers have played in the second round to 13 Spurs.

image

2) How much do benches matter?

The Spurs’ reserves combined for 30.5 win shares this season. Give them a little more playing time, and maybe they could have competed for a playoff spot in the East.

The Trail Blazers’ reserves… well, they’re no longer historically bad, like they were last season. Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas have helped, but Portland still ranked last in bench scoring.

In the playoffs, benches matter less. There are no back-to-backs, so teams can more easily depend on their top players rather than their depth.

However, that’s less true in this series than most. Games 1 to 6 feature only one day off between each, and Game 7 would follow just a two-day break.

Still, that sure beats the regular-season pace of games.

If the teams’ benches will matter, it’s based mostly on what’s already happened.

Throughout the season, the Trail Blazers’ starters have carried a much bigger load than the Spurs’. Here are the 120 leaders in total minutes this season, including the playoffs:

image

Portland is the only team with two players in the top nine, three in the top 23, four in the top 31 and five in the top 56. No Spur ranks higher than No. 78.

San Antonio, despite needing a game longer to win its first-round series, should be better-rested than the Trail Blazers. Considering the age gap, the Spurs might need to be.

3) How much can LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard do?

As noted in the previous two keys, the Spurs have some decided advantages. The main question is how much they matter.

But the Trail Blazers might have the series’ two best players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and that definitely matters.

Aldridge and Lillard were both All-Stars, and Aldridge finished 10th in MVP voting. Although Tim Duncan and Tony Parker both received MVP votes – Lillard didn’t – Lillard is just 23. He’s better today than he was in October, and an award that considers an entire season’s body of work doesn’t necessarily reflect Lillard’s current ability.

Lillard (25.5 points on 47 percent shooting and 49 percent 3-point shooting, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game) excelled against the Rockets, and so did Aldridge (29.8 points on 48 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game). These are stars playing their best at the exact right moment.

It won’t get any easier against the Spurs, though.

Lillard didn’t have to extend much energy defending Patrick Beverley, and Jeremy Lin gave him issues at times. The margin for error is greatly reduced against Parker. Can Lillard provide at least tolerable defense and still bring it offensively?

Aldridge has generally fared well against Tim Duncan, but Houston provided a model for slowing him. Aldridge didn’t fare as well against the Rockets’ jumbo power-forward-center combo, Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, and San Antonio the size to at least try replicating that strategy.

Plus, the Spurs are one of the NBA’s top defensive-rebounding teams, which could neutralize Portland’s excellent offensive rebounding. If Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson need help creating second-chance opportunities, something the Trail Blazers depend on, Aldridge might have to move out of his preferred mid-range spots and work closer to the rim.

Lillard and Aldridge are true stars. San Antonio might prevent them from looking like it, though.

PREDICTION

While debating the importance of experience and benches in the playoffs, I’ve ignored one key factor that definitely impacts postseason series: coaching. Terry Stotts has improved a great deal since coaching the Hawks and Bucks, and he has Rick Carlisle’s indirect help. With Nicolas Batum in the Shawn Marion role, the Trail Blazers’ can replicate the switching, mismatching defensive strategy that gummed up San Antonio’s offense in the last round. However, the Spurs adjusted then, and two good coaches might still not equal Gregg Popovich.

Spurs in 7

Adam Silver: LeBron James leaving East hurts TV ratings, NBA could start West Coast games earlier

Leave a comment

The NBA’s TV ratings are down this season.

Asked about that, NBA commissioner Adam Silver cited LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers for the Lakers.

Silver on Today:

Face it, LeBron is one of the biggest stars in the world, and he also played in the East.

And so, the reason I look a little bit tired is a lot of our games are in the West, and it’s late at night. And I recognize most people choose to go to sleep at a reasonable time. And so, from a rating standpoint, not having LeBron in the playoffs, not having him in the East, has clearly impacted ratings.

Fifty percent of television households in this country are in the Eastern time zone. And so if your West Coast games start at 10:30 at night in the East, you’re invariably going to lose a lot of viewers around 11, 11:30. I mean, you can just chart it. You see how many television households turn off around 11:15, 11:30 at night, just because people have to get up for work in the morning.

I mean, it is something we can address. We’re talking about it. I mean, it would obviously be less convenient to those fans on the West Coast if we played even earlier. I mean, just think about people getting to those arenas after work if you start a game at 6 p.m. local time in the West. It’s not the most convenient thing. It’s not as convenient for a television watcher on the West coast, either. But when you look at the league from a national standpoint, it may make sense to play a little bit earlier in the West. And that’s something we’re going to talk to our teams about this summer.

There is no single reason ratings are down. As Silver also said, people – especially young people – watch less television through conventional methods.

Of course, the league still wants to maximize viewers in this new media landscape.

Determining start times is a delicate balance between appeasing home fans, road fans and a national audience. There’s no easy answer.

But this is why I’m against seeding the playoffs 1-16. That’d create more inter-time-zone games, not just in the playoffs but also in the regular season. The whole point of 1-16 seeding is increasing fairness in competition, which would be achieved only through balancing the regular-season schedule. Right now, teams play 52 games against their own conference and 30 against the other conference. A balanced schedule would mean more East Coast teams with late-starting games out West and more West Coast teams with early-starting games out East. That doesn’t serve fans of those teams.

So, the league should avoid those cross-time-zone games as much as reasonably possible.

Yet, some must still occur. The NBA is also trying to appeal to a national audience. So, every game has a cross-time-zone element.

People are concentrated in the Eastern time zone. That’s also where 13 of 30 NBA teams are located. And the league office.

No wonder people out West are the ones who might have to adjust.

David Griffin on possibility of keeping Anthony Davis: ‘We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George’

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
7 Comments

New Pelicans lead executive David Griffin wants to sell Anthony Davis on staying in new Orleans.

Even with the Pelicans landing the No. 1 pick and ability to draft Zion Williamson, Davis reportedly still wants to be traded.

But New Orleans doesn’t have to acquiesce. No matter what Davis wants, he’s still under contract next season. The Pelicans can keep him and spend the season trying to convince him to re-sign in the summer of 2020.

Griffin, via Zach Lowe of ESPN:

“We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George,” he said. “We can hold onto [Davis] and let him see what we really are. [Winning the lottery] changes how quickly he can buy into it. It gets us closer. Every day, maybe he believes a little more. As much as elite talent likes to play with elite talent, I can’t imagine any elite player in his prime looking at our situation and saying to himself, ‘There’s a better grouping to play for’ than ours.”

George had his eyes on the Lakers when the Thunder traded for him in 2017. But he enjoyed his time in Oklahoma City and re-signed.

The big difference between George and Davis: Davis requested a trade from the team trying to keep him. George didn’t.

In fact, George didn’t even request a trade at all. George merely told the Pacers he wouldn’t re-sign the following year. Obviously, he knew that made them more likely to deal him. But he was content playing out the the final year of his contract in Indiana or anywhere else.

Davis told New Orleans he wanted out. He’s not coming to a new team, let alone with an open mind.

Still, the Pelicans have changed significantly since Davis’ trade request. Griffin and Williamson significantly improve the the franchise’s outlook. Depending what offers he receives for Davis, Griffin keeping the superstar and attempting to change his mind throughout the season could make sense. New Orleans can always deal Davis before the trade deadline if it’s not working, though trading him later likely lowers the return.

Of course, Griffin could have no intention of keeping an unhappy Davis. Saying he might only increases Griffin’s leverage in trade negotiations.

But if they truly want to keep Davis and pitch him throughout the season, the Pelicans are facing a much steeper hill than the Thunder had with George.

Report: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers expected to sign super-max extension

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
1 Comment

Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers entered this postseason with an opportunity to prove themselves to each other. Portland had gotten swept in the first round the last two years, including a devastating sweep as the No. 3 seed last season. Lillard would be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $193 million over four years.

Everyone feels good now.

Lillard hit one of the biggest shots ever, and the Trail Blazers advanced to their first conference finals in 19 years. Both sides want to continue their partnership.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to come to terms over the summer on a four-year, $191 million supermax contract extension, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Lillard is under contract two more seasons. So, his extension would take effect in 2021, when it’s exact value would be determined. I project it at $193 million over four years.

As an All-NBA lock this year, Lillard will be eligible to sign a super-max extension this offseason or next. If he waits until 2020, he could sign a five-year extension. That deal would carry the same terms as the four-year extension for the first four years but would add a fifth year worth a projected $57 million – bringing the total projected value to $250 million. But there’s no guarantee Portland will offer the megadeal next year.

Already, this is a real risk for the Trail Blazers.

It’s probably one they must take. Lillard is an excellent player who does so much to set the team’s culture.

But paying someone projected salaries of $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34? Nearly no player can assure he’ll warrant that. Build a winner around a single player earning so much is quite difficult. Portland’s ownership situation after the death of Paul Allen, who frequently paid the luxury tax, only adds to the uncertainty.

This could be a litmus test for the designated-veteran-player-extension rule altogether. If it doesn’t work with Damian Lillard – who exudes so many traits you want in a superstar – who will it work with?

Meyers Leonard delivers all-time out-of-nowhere playoff performance

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

In 1967, Richie Guerin retired. The former Knicks star had been the St. Louis Hawks’ player-coach a few years, and he shifted fully into coaching. He even won Coach of the Year that season. As the Hawks moved to Atlanta the next year, he occasionally returned to the lineup, but played sparingly while focused on coaching. He played even less the following season, scoring just seven points in eight games.

But when the Hawks were facing injuries, inexperience and a 3-0 deficit to the Lakers 1970 Western Division finals, a 37-year-old Guerin stepped up on the court. He scored 31 points in Game 4, though Los Angeles completed the sweep.

Afterward, Hawks publicity director Tom McCollister called in the game’s stats to the league office:

”Guerin played 35 minutes,” reported McCollister, quietly, ”made 12 of 17 field goal attempts, 7 for 7 free throws, had 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 personal fouls. Thirty-one points.” Pause. ”They are burying him tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”

That was a rare time someone with a lower scoring average than Meyers Leonard scored 30 points in a playoff game.

Leonard – who averaged 5.9 points per game in the regular season – scored 30 points in the Trail Blazers’ Game 4 loss to the Warriors last night. He scored 25 in the first half!

This was the same Leonard who was in and out of the rotation all season, who had a DNP-CD in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, who had a previous career high of 24 points. That came in 2015, preceding a much-maligned four-year, $41 million contract.

But when Portland needed a more-mobile defender at center, Leonard started. He played well in Game 3, scoring 16 points and dishing four assists. That wad already an unexpectedly good night for him.

Yet, Leonard upped the ante yesterday. For a while, he was going shot-for-shot with Stephen Curry. Though he couldn’t keep up with Curry (37 points), Leonard went 12-of-16, including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers.

Here are the players to score 30 points in a playoff game with the lowest regular-season scoring averages:

image

The only other player besides Guerin to drop 30 in a playoff game after scoring so little in the regular season was Daniel Gibson. Boobie averaged 4.6 points per game his rookie year then scored 31 points on 5-of-5 3-point shooting in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, helping send the Cavs to their first NBA Finals.

“If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up,” Gibson said. “This was perfect, to win it for Cleveland.”

The most recent player to crack the leaderboard was CJ McCollum, who averaged 6.8 points per game in 2014-15 then scored 33 in a season-ending Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies in the first round. McCollum won Most Improved Player the next year and has remained a near-star ever since.

Could Leonard make a similar jump for the Trail Blazers? Don’t count on it. McCollum was in only his second season. Leonard, who just finished his seventh season, has been in the league even longer than McCollum now.

But appreciate Leonard’s scoring binge for what it was – one heck of an outlier.