After both sides took care of business in the first round, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets are set to lock horns in the Western Conference semifinals. As the best two teams in the league that didn’t have Kevin Durant join them last summer, the Texas-based sides dominated all season as polar opposites. These franchises have been fated to face off in the postseason for much of the year, pitting a stout defense against one of the league’s best offenses of all-time.
Just as James Harden defeated one of his competitors for MVP honors last round, he’ll be asked to take down the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard next. Although the Spurs took the regular season series with a 3-1 record, the Rockets have the offensive firepower to outpace any team on a given night.
But can they do it four times against Gregg Popovich and the No. 1 ranked defense in the league?
#2 — San Antonio Spurs
The more things change, the more they stay the same — and, once again, the Spurs are a great basketball team. Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA and Popovich continues to prove his case as one of the best coaches in league history. Flanked by the aging-but-playoff-worthy future Hall of Famers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the typically steady play of LaMarcus Aldridge and long-range threats in Danny Green and Patty Mills, the Spurs have a well-constructed roster. And, as most Spurs teams go, it’s one that is suited for another deep postseason run.
Yet, the Spurs had their hands full in their 4-2 series victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Of course, the Grizzlies have long been a tough playoff out, but San Antonio collectively had no answer for Mike Conley. The Memphis point guard averaged 24.7 points and 7.0 assists as he wreaked havoc on the Spurs’ top-rated defense (100.9 points per-100-possessions allowed in the regular season).
Yes, Patrick Beverley is no Conley, that’s for sure, but the bulldog defender had quite the series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and may relish the opportunity to go against Parker and Mills instead of Russell Westbrook for 35 minutes a game. Look for the Spurs to go to Aldridge as much as possible in this series, as he’ll be most often guarded by Ryan Anderson or another smaller player. While Anderson isn’t a sieve defensively, he’s far more suited to collecting rebounds and hanging out on the perimeter than banging in the post.
Aldridge struggled at times against Memphis, shooting just 3-for-8 in Game 2 and then 5-for-13 in Game 5. If Aldridge can get that wonderful mid-range and post-up game cooking right away, it’ll open up the rest of the floor against the 18th-ranked Houston defense.
However, the Spurs’ crème de la crème is the aforementioned Leonard, the soft-spoken lockdown defender that Popovich called the best player in the league after they eliminated the Grizzlies on Thursday. With Leonard dedicating most of his on-court time to defending the opposing team’s superstar (sorry, James), the Spurs ranked second in opponent points per game in 2016-17 — a feat they’ll need to replicate against the (usually) unconscious shooting of the Rockets.
Harden, for the most part, slogged through the series with the Thunder, hounded constantly by Andre Roberson, a legitimate contender for some NBA All-Defensive honors. In Games 4 and 5, Harden shot a combined 13-for-41 from the floor, but his free throw shooting was often enough to propel the Rockets to victory. The bearded MVP candidate loves to draw fouls — as many Thunder players found out the hard way — but particularly so out on the perimeter. If Leonard can limit those cheap, free points for the Rockets’ star, the pressure will fall firmly on his supporting cast to pick up the slack, something that ran hot and cold in the first round.
Leonard averaged a healthy 28.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 50 percent shooting in the Rockets and Spurs’ four regular season matchups — can he carry the load offensively while frustrating Harden for four quarters? The Klaw is, by far, the most compelling storyline headed into this juggernaut showdown between contrasting styles.
#3 — Houston Rockets
For the Houston Rockets and all the pre-series bluster about their historically great three-point shooting, their cast of characters came up short against the Thunder. The Rockets, who averaged 14.4 made three-pointers on 35.7 percent during the regular season, saw their numbers from deep plummet through the six hard-fought contests. Overall, Houston went 48-for-170 on three-pointers in the series (28.2 percent) but that’s a total that you’d expect to rise, even against San Antonio.
Even then, however, the Rockets still found other ways to win, dispelling the lower-seeded Thunder in a slew of unexpected ways. From Beverley’s inspired play to the unexpected bench flurries from Lou Williams, somebody new was there to step up alongside Harden each night. All series, the Rockets took advantage of quality mismatches against Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Taj Gibson as Harden picked apart the defense time and time again. If there’s a semblance of consistent improvement from the likes of Anderson, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, then the Rockets will like their odds to hang tough with the Spurs.
Anderson, in particular, can only go up after a poor 13-for-39 showing in five games against the Thunder. But while the usual suspects traded off on carrying the load behind Harden, it was the surprise contributions of Nene that pushed the tightly-contested series in their favor. Nene averaged just 9.1 points per game in the regular season, but surpassed that mark in three games against Oklahoma City, including his masterful 28-point and 10-rebound effort on 12-for-12 shooting in Game 4. Against Pau Gasol, whose best defending days are well behind him, the Brazilian veteran should be a favorite to pitch in heavily off the bench once again.
Even with Leonard defending him, Harden should continue to put up some fantastic statistical lines, but he’ll need to be a little more efficient from the field at times as well. Harden attempted 73 free throws in just five games, something that a Popovich-coached team will assuredly look to cut down on in this series. Of course, Harden had his struggles with Roberson, just as he will with Leonard, but the Rockets love to get him switched onto a big or lesser defender at the top of the key.
Additionally, the Rockets are poised to get Sam Dekker back from a hand fracture he suffered in early April. Dekker hasn’t played in about four weeks, but his energy off the bench could be interesting should head coach Mike D’Antoni re-insert him into the shortened rotation the Rockets have generally worked with this postseason.
Harden will likely get his fill one way or another, but the series will hinge on getting more consistent performances from his teammates. Beverley’s energetic 21 points in Game 1 and 15 in Game 2 were huge reasons why the Rockets took their commanding lead in the series. On the flip side, however, he managed just one point in Game 3, a compelling argument for a big reason behind the Thunder’s sole win of the series. More often than not, the Rockets can get away with those nights against a team like Oklahoma City, but the well-oiled San Antonio machine is an entirely different beast.
Who Wins Game 1?
The Spurs struggled with their first round opponent more than the Rockets did, but they took three of four games from the in-state rivals during the regular season. Although their margin of victory in the three wins was by a total of 10 points, it’s enough to back Leonard, Popovich, three other Hall of Famers and the rest of the Spurs at home in Game 1.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.
Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”
Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.
The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.
Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.
With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.
One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.
“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”
Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.
“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”
In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”
Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.
While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.
Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.
“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”
The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.
Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.
“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”
Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.
NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.
The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.
Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.
Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.
There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.
Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.
In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.
Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.
Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.
This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?
There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.
Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.
Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.
The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.
There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.
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