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.

Report: NBA not bringing other eight teams to Disney World bubble

Knicks vs. Bulls
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The NBA bringing the “Delete Eight” teams to its Disney World bubble to train as other teams depart?

Like other plans for the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors… it’s not happening.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said.

The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said.

Bringing those other eight teams to the Disney World bubble was always a ridiculous idea. Why would the NBA jeopardize its highly profitable setup just so some lousy teams could train and maybe hold glorified scrimmages?

Voluntary team workouts are a reasonable allowance. Though it’s difficult to ensure players coming and going from a team facility won’t spread coronavirus, some players are playing basketball in groups, anyway. At their own facilities, teams can at least enforce protocols to increase safety. And players who’d rather be more careful wouldn’t be forced to participate.

There’s no reason to make anything mandatory. These eight teams’ seasons are over.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.