2012 NBA Playoffs

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

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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?

Sixers edge Celtics with (surprise!) balanced offense

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The Philadelphia 76ers’ 92-83 Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics may be remembered for many things: altogether brutal offensive play, defensive flurries, or even a pair of huge Andre Iguodala makes in the closing minutes of a game where points were precious.

Or, more realistically, this is exactly the kind of game that might be swept under the playoff rug altogether. Our basketball memories don’t exactly cling to these 48-minute slogs, and though this was a crucial win for a Sixers team fighting for the possibility of a potential upset, it was ultimately the kind of contest that holds more weight in narrative worth than it does in strategic or aesthetic relevance.

And if this game really is destined to be forgotten in the playoff mass, I only ask that a few important footnotes be worked into the total playoff tales of these two battle-hardened clubs. Friday night brought no revelation or reinvention, but if we cast a light on certain spots, it did offer bits of valuable affirmation.

  • The Sixers, scoring in balance: As mentioned above, Iguodala (16 points) was able to dole out the killing blows, but his late-game success provided a stark counter to his early ineffectiveness. The same could be said of Evan Turner (16 points), who was slow to start but ultimately instrumental. Or Lou Williams (15 points), who orchestrated the offense to startling effectiveness in the second half. Throw in Thaddeus Young (12 points), who functioned as the Sixers’ most productive big, and Jrue Holiday (11 points), and Philadelphia managed five double-digit scorers in a game where points were fairly rare. There was no anchor for the Sixers, save their defensive system; Iguodala may get to play the hero after laughing last, but it was the collective and persistent work of his team’s offense that finally pulled this game out. Philly’s offense may not be the most secure out there, but they managed to knock down the vaunted Boston D in the second half — a feat which shouldn’t be taken lightly.
  • The Boston Celtics are — even at their best — utterly inconsistent: The Sixers are by no means some monument to basketball stability, but their prospects also aren’t considered as seriously as Boston’s are. As such, Philly is allowed its flaws, while Boston must answer for its own. Due to prestige and familiarity, the Celtics are still regarded as something resembling an elite team; they hold the same core and the same Celtic green, and as such we’re apparently supposed to pretend that they still have a notable chance at this year’s title. It’s simply not so, and this is one area in which Boston’s regular season performance is particularly telling. These Celtics are simply too erratic to take a series against a more proficient opponent; it’s one thing to take down the Atlanta Hawks or even these Sixers, but the prospect of toppling the Heat or Pacers is incredibly slim, and the chances of beating the Spurs or Thunder even more so given Boston’s volatility.
  • Kevin Garnett’s carriage reverts to a pumpkin: KG had been among the finest performers of the postseason, and his offensive progression gave Boston’s offense a surprising buoyancy. With Garnett operating so consistently and efficiently from the block, the chronically injured Celtics were finally able to bank on the slightest offensive foundation, and build leads with something other than the strength of their ever-impressive defense. Not only did that defense break down a bit in Game 4, but so too did Garnett. KG finished the evening with nearly as many turnovers (seven) as points (nine), as the defense he anchors also ceded a ridiculous advantage to the creatively limited 76ers offense. Garnett’s hardly done yet, and if nothing else, we should expect the Celtics’ defense to bounce back in both spirit and scheme for Game 5 on their home floor. But it remains to be seen if he can hold up with such a substantial offensive workload going forward; Boston already relies on Garnett to maintain so much of their defense, and considering his wear and age, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see the Celtics’ star fade ever so slightly. As much of a unique joy as it’s been to see Garnett turn back the clock, these futile fights against time itself can only last so long.

Bosh returns from birth of child, expected to play in Game 3

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From the AP:

NEW YORK (AP) – Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh returned to New York hours after his wife gave birth and is preparing to play in Game 3 of his team’s Eastern Conference first-round series against the Knicks on Thursday night.

Bosh left the team shortly after it arrived in New York on Wednesday night, taking a private plane back to Miami after getting word that his wife was in labor. His son – the couple’s first child – was born at 3 a.m. Thursday, said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

Bosh’s plane touched down in the New York area around 4:30 p.m. Thursday and he was expected to arrive at Madison Square Garden long before the 7 p.m. tipoff.

Bosh hasn’t put up huge numbers since coming to Miami, but he’s been an integral part of the team’s success — only LeBron James had a higher +/- for the Heat this season than Bosh did. Bosh will probably be underslept, but the Heat will almost certainly be thrilled to have him in the lineup for Game 3 regardless.

Obviously, that’s not the most important bit of news here — congratulations to Mr. Bosh and his wife on the birth of their son.

NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies survive Paul’s 29, even series at 1-1

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Memphis Grizzlies were able to bounce back from their heartbreaking Game 1 defeat and even up their 1st-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers before the series goes back to Los Angeles.

Chris Paul was the best player on the floor on Wednesday night, as he was able to record 29 points on 17 shots, six assists, and five steals, but his efforts were for naught against the Grizzlies, who got contributions from a huge number of players and handily won the possession battle.

During the regular season, the Clippers had the 2nd-best turnover rate in the league and 6th-best rebound rate in the league, but they lost on Wednesday night because they were unable to hold onto the ball or haul in rebounds. The Clippers allowed 23 points off turnovers on Wednesday, and only managed four offensive rebounds to Memphis’ 16. That led to Memphis getting eight more field goal attempts and 21 more free throw attempts than the Clippers, who lost despite shooting 57% from the field and 56% from beyond the arc.

Even though the Clippers managed to steal home-court advantage with an incredible comeback, they’ll be coming back to Los Angeles with a lot to worry about. The team isn’t getting balanced contributions, and would have been on the wrong end of two blowouts if the Grizzlies didn’t take their foot off the gas pedal in Game 1 or Chris Paul hadn’t been absolutely on fire in Game 2. Home-court is important, but right now the Grizzlies look bigger, deeper, tougher, and hungrier than the Clippers do, and those are things the Clippers will need to address if they want to make it out of the first round.

Jazz plan to get more physical with Tony Parker in Game 2

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The AP’s Paul J. Weber:

The Jazz are mapping a more physical game plan for All-Star Tony Parker after the Spurs point guard shredded them for 28 points in Game 1. Jazz point guard Devin Harris said his counterpart will likely be in for a ”hard foul or two” after Parker slashed into Utah’s big and bruising frontcourt without hesitation.

It wasn’t tough talk from Harris, who had complimented Parker in the same breath. Jazz center Al Jefferson said the goal was ”not to hurt him or nothing like that,” but rather to dissuade Parker from barreling into the paint and punishing Utah with either an acrobatic layup or kicking out to a 3-point shooter.

”The playoffs is physical. We just can’t let him feel like he can come down in that paint any time he ready,” Jefferson said.

Parker brushed off the warning Tuesday. He’s heard worse.

”It’s not the first time someone has said that,” Parker said. ”My answer is always going to be the same: I’m going to keep coming.”

Parker torched the Jazz for 28 points on 10-19 shooting and 8 assists in San Antonio’s 106-91 defeat of the Jazz in Game 1. Parker is clearly the “head of the snake” for San Antonio’s offense right now, and the Jazz will have to slow him down in tonight’s Game 2 if they want to have any chance of evening up the series before it goes to Salt Lake City. As NBA fans, all we can hope is that the Jazz don’t cross the line with Parker when they try to muscle him up and cause another injury in a playoffs that has already seen to many of them.