PBT First Round Playoff Previews: Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs

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SEASON RECORDS

Clippers: 56-26 (third place in Western Conference)
Spurs: 55-27 (sixth place in Western Conference)
Season series tied 2-2

KEY INJURIES

Clippers: No significant injuries

Spurs: Tiago Splitter is battling a calf injury, he practiced with team Friday but will be limited (this matters, Splitter is a good defender on Blake Griffin). Matt Bonner has a calf injury, missed the final game of the season and may miss the start of the series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS

Clippers: 109.8 points scored per 100 possessions (1st in NBA); 103 points allowed per 100 possessions (15th in NBA).
Spurs: 106.2 points scored per 100 possessions (7th in NBA); 99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions (3rd in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Chris Paul vs. Kawhi Leonard. Gregg Popovich is not going to use the best on-ball defender in the league on CP3 exclusively, but when it gets to crunch time in games you can expect this matchup. We didn’t see this much in the regular season; the teams didn’t play after mid-February, so the Clippers didn’t see dominant late-season Leonard. Chris Paul is smart and efficient setting up the Clippers offense, but Leonard’s length and athleticism give every player he guards trouble. It’s a huge question for this series: Can CP3 be CP3 late in games with Leonard blanketing him? If this takes the ball out of his hands, can the other Clippers effectively orchestrate the offense? This is going to be a joy to watch unfold.

2) Hack-a-Jordan. Personally, I prefer the term “hack-the-DJ,hack-the-DJ” sung to the tune of the Smith’s “Panic.”

This should be the best first-round series in the land, and it will be marred at times by Gregg Popovich ordering fouls on DeAndre Jordan, who shot 39.7 percent from the line this season. The last times these teams met Jordan took 26 free throws because of the strategy (he hit 10). More than just the missed free throws, for the Spurs this works because it disrupts and stalls the best offense in the NBA. Then eventually Rivers is forced to sit Jordan and replace him with a lesser player (Glen Davis or Spencer Hawes). It’s also just painful to watch. Having to suffer through this on what will be a much-watched first-round series is maybe the impetus to force a rule change, but not in time for this series. If it works, you can be sure the ruthless Popovich will go to it over and over.

3) Clippers lack of depth vs. Spurs bench. Doc Rivers tried to fill out the Clippers’ bench this season, he went out and got Spencer Hawes and Hedo Turkoglu, they tried guys like Jordan Farmar and Austin Rivers. None of it worked well. Jamal Crawford remains a quality sixth man, but that’s where the rotation stops. Because of that Rivers leans on his starters heavily — the Clippers starting five was the most used lineup in the NBA by more than 300 minutes (that despite Blake Griffin missing 15 games). Meanwhile, the Spurs’ bench is a Swiss Army Knife that Popovich can unfold in a variety of ways, depending on what the matchup calls for. He trusts Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Matt Bonner, and the rest to make plays if their number gets called. And they do. What this gives Popovich is more pieces on the chess board to move around and try to exploit specific situations and match ups. That versatility will be key for San Antonio as the series moves on, and Rivers may not have the players to counter Pop’s moves.

PREDICTION

This is not a first-round matchup, this is a conference finals level matchup — the Clippers and Spurs were second and third in the league respectively in point differential per 100 possessions. These are two of the NBA’s top five teams by any reasonable measure, and yet one team will not even make the second round. (This is also Golden State’s dream scenario, let these two challengers beat each other up and avoid either one until the conference finals.) This is clearly the best first round series this year.

The Clippers are an excellent team, but I think Doc Rivers the GM will have tied Doc Rivers’ the coach’s hands too much. The lack of depth leads to a lack of versatility that is the strength of the Spurs. Then there’s the fact the Clippers’ defense isn’t great — they play an aggressive, Heat-style trapping defense, but not as well and it can be exploited with ball movement. Add it all up and you’re left with a Los Angeles side that needs to play almost flawlessly to win this series. I don’t think they can do that four times out of seven. It’s going to be physical, hard fought and close, but I’ll take the Spurs in six.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

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It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.