The United States earned a 98-71 win against France in their 2012 Olympic opener, making it clear that it will take a gargantuan effort to knock this team off. However, it also became pretty obvious that this is no ’92 Dream Team. Read the game recap and analysis from Team USA’s Olympic opener here.
After falling behind by 18 points in the first half of a pivotal Game 6 at home, it looked like Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to head back to San Antonio for a next-to-impossible elimination Game 7. Instead, they rebounded with a monumental second half to win their fourth straight and win the Western Conference Finals in six games over the mighty Spurs. Oklahoma City will take on the winner of Boston and Miami in the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1996 back when they were the Seattle Supersonics. Durant led OKC to a 107-99 victory with 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as the Thunder outscored San Antonio 59-36 in the second half.
It certainly didn’t look like things would play out well for the Thunder in the first half, though. After struggling for three straight games with Thabo Sefolosha shutting him down, Tony Parker made a point of starting off on a strong note. Parker single-handedly gave his team a big lead early on, dropping 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Parker had 21 points and 10 assists by halftime. And although he only scored 12 points the rest of the way, his first prolific performance in the first quarter supplied San Antonio with a 14-point lead after one and was the exact spark they needed to get the game started on a good note. Stephen Jackson and Tim Duncan were also terrific in the first half; Jackson knocked down all four of his 3-pointers (in fact, Jackson finished with 23 points and made his first six 3-point attempts) while Duncan was a much bigger force in the paint with 12 points at the half. However, Kevin Durant hit a monumental and impossible 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Spurs’ advantage to 63-48 and give his team a little bit of hope of a comeback in the second half. Which is exactly what they did.
As soon as the ball was inbounded at the start of the third quarter, the Thunder showed why they’ve been undefeated at home in the postseason so far. Oklahoma City went on an 11-2 run to start the third and it looked like a completely different game. OKC’s defense, which had been at the mercy of Tony Parker and superior 3-point shooting (9-of-15) in the first half, suddenly made its presence known again as the Spurs’ perimeter shooters started to cool down. Russell Westbrook, how had been struggling with his shot for the entire Western Conference Finals, picked a great night to elevate his game, dropping 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists. Durant and Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the third, combining for 22 of the Thunder’s 32 points in the period as they cut the Spurs’ lead to just one heading into the fourth quarter.
James Harden had struggled heading into the game’s final period, but he once again gave the Thunder a huge lift in the fourth by making his free throws and knocking down another killer 3-pointer to put his team up six with three minutes to go as the Spurs were threatening. Harden had 16 off the bench, but Derek Fisher’s performance was even more key for the reserves, as his nine points came at critical moments that kept momentum on OKC’s side and helped him live up to his title as a true “Spur-killer.” Serge Ibaka’s 10 points and Sefolosha’s nine were also nice additions that helped this young and talented team advance to the NBA Finals.
For the Spurs, nobody really got going other than Parker, Jackson and Duncan. Parker had 29, Duncan had 25 and Jackson had 23, but other than Manu Ginobili, no one scored more than seven. The Spurs’ depth all but disappeared once again as no one other than Jackson had any success with their shot. Kawhi Leonard put up a measly five points while Gary Neal could only manage seven. Daniel Green only played four minutes and joined Boris Diaw with a goose egg in the scoring column. It also didn’t help that Gregg Popovich shortened up his bench and it came back to haunt them as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were visibly gassed in the second half. Without their legs, San Antonio’s incredible 3-point shooting in the first half completely disappeared and the Spurs went from 9-of-15 to 11-of-26 by the game’s end. The Spurs missed shots, committed too many turnovers and racked up fouls on illegal screens to forfeit any and all momentum. Parker had a few late layups to allow the Spurs to hang around, but eventually the Thunder finished them off with free throws and the Western Conference Finals ended in six.
After facing a 2-0 series deficit, the Thunder could have rolled over and let their inexperience take over and the veteran Spurs would have advanced to yet another NBA Finals appearance. But Kevin Durant was spectacular, Westbrook and Harden added in key performances here and there and the rest of the Thunder emerged as quality role players and defenders on a San Antonio side that specialized in overwhelming opponents with depth and scoring. Ever since Scott Brooks made the adjustment of switching Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker, the Thunder did not lose. And although Parker lit up OKC in Game 6, the Thunder’s defense stepped up big in the second half and held their tough opponent to just 18 points in the third and fourth quarters. Now the Thunder will have the chance to play for an NBA title against the winner of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. OKC has now beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs on their path to the Finals, eliminating all three teams that have come out of the West for the last 13 years. Either way, OKC should be an overwhelming favorite to win it all; the Celtics, while resilient, experienced and well-coached, cannot compete with the Thunder’s youth and experience, while the Heat can’t perform in the fourth quarter or overcome how well this athletic and energetic team is playing right now. The Celtics are playing their best ball right now and are still having problems with a Heat team that isn’t. And with the way Durant has played lately, along with Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and a bunch of constantly improving role players, the Thunder have a clear advantage of whoever they face in the Finals.
Credit the Los Angeles Clippers for withstanding a few runs from San Antonio and a frenzied home crowd, but the Spurs would not be denied and, like they have for the majority of the postseason, eventually overpowered their opponent. The Spurs didn’t have a breakout quarter to extend the lead, but outscored the Clippers in three quarters by at least six points and steadily built a sizable lead that LAC couldn’t overcome, resulting in a convincing 105-88 victory.
Tony Parker led San Antonio with 22 points, five rebounds and five assists on his 30th birthday and Tim Duncan followed up with 18 points and five rebounds. The Spurs’ depth and balanced scoring was also on full display in Game 2: Boris Diaw had 16 points, Daniel Green had 13 off of four 4-pointers, Manu Ginobili chipped in 10 and Tiago Splitter added nine. Meanwhile, Chris Paul’s offensive struggles continued as CP3 only managed 10 points and five assists on 4-of-9 shooting. Blake Griffin led LA with 20 points and Randy Foye had 11, but no one else reached double digits for the Clippers. Mo Williams, Nick Young and Caron Butler had nine apiece, but it wasn’t enough to provide a legitimate threat to San Antonio.
The Spurs controlled the tempo and flow of the game and the outcome was never really in doubt. The Clippers have done an excellent job of weathering the storm and haven’t crumbled under the pressure of some of San Antonio’s most impressive scoring sprees, but they also haven’t been able to provide a real challenge yet. That might have something to do with the Spurs’ home court advantage, but the Clippers haven’t been able to take a lead and sustain it in this series so far. So event though they aren’t getting completely demolished like the Utah Jazz were in the first round, unless the Clippers can find some way to even the series back in Los Angeles, the Spurs will be too offensively dominant to beat.
Chris Paul absolutely has to pick up his game with back-to-back games coming up at Staples Center. Paul has been virtually nonexistent and the Clippers can’t afford for Tony Parker to outplay him, which has been the case for this series so far. Blake Griffin improved in Game 2, but no one else was able to contribute enough to keep this one close. It will take a concentrated defensive effort, a few more missed shots from San Antonio and a collectively improved offensive night from LAC to make Games 3 and 4 competitive. But at this point, the Spurs are on fire and have a wide array of scorers that can catch fire at any time. They pass the ball well and have all the pieces of a championship team that everyone in the West should be wary of.
The Clippers played even with the Spurs through the first half, but San Antonio’s offensive onslaught was too much for Los Angeles in the second half and Gregg Popovich’s squad took a 1-0 series lead last night with a 108-92 victory in Game 1. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 26 points and 10 rebounds, dismantling the Clippers interior defense, while San Antonio’s perimeter shooting gave LA no chance as they knocked down 13 3-pointers and shot over 52 percent from beyond the arc.
Eric Bledsoe had a breakout playoff performance with 23 points, five rebounds and four assists off the bench, but it wasn’t enough for the Clippers to contend after a brutal third quarter extended San Antonio’s lead to 15. Los Angeles got everything it needed out of its bench and even Blake Griffin played well considering that he was playing through an injury, but the one player whose lackluster performance really hurt was actually their superstar point guard, Chris Paul. Paul went 3-for-13 from the floor and finished with just six points and ten assists. Although Tony Parker only put up seven points and 11 assists, the Clips have no chance in this series with their best player producing such underwhelming numbers.
Just as I anticipated in the Spurs-Clippers preview, the Spurs’ depth gave the Clippers a lot of problems. Although Bledsoe and Nick Young combined for 36 points off the bench and Kenyon Martin chipped in seven, Manu Ginobili’s 22-point performance was a killer. San Antonio also couldn’t miss from 3-point range as Ginobili, Daniel Green and Kawhi Leonard each nailed three shots from downtown to keep their distance from the resilient Clippers in the second half. Los Angeles was much more competitive than I thought they’d be (specifically in the first half), but then the Spurs woke up in the second and were too much to handle. Duncan absolutely destroyed the Clippers in the paint, Leonard and Green had surprisingly above-average offensive nights and Manu Ginobili played his second quality game in a row. So despite any concerns about the Spurs being rusty after sweeping the Jazz in the first round, if anything, they looked well-rested.
There’s really not much the Clippers can do if the Spurs keep up these high shooting percentages, especially from behind the 3-point line. Los Angeles has struggled with giving teams wide open looks from long range this year, which is definitely something they can’t afford to do against a team with so many efficient 3-point shooters. Chris Paul can’t afford to have such an underwhelming night from the field but he also really hurt his team with five turnovers. Other than Paul’s performance, the Clippers really did everything they needed to in order to be competitive. Unfortunately for Lob City, this series looks like it’s going to be entirely determined by the San Antonio Spurs.
The Los Angeles Clippers showed great resilience and determination in their big road win against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 7 just a few days ago, but it doesn’t get any easier for them from here. Chris Paul and the Clips now face the offensive juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, and you can be guarantees they will provide a much more difficult challenge for this talented team in its first year together.
Unfortunately for fans of Lob City, the Spurs will present numerous matchup problems for LAC. Chris Paul has an advantage over Tony Parker, but San Antonio’s depth will not be easy for the Clippers to overcome. Blake Griffin would normally be a challenge for the aging Tim Duncan to handle, but it’s still unclear how healthy Griffin will be for this series. The Spurs’ biggest weakness is talented post players, but Griffin’s post play is limited to his athleticism and high-flying dunks, which will be pretty limited if he’s not 100 percent. And because Duncan will still produce on offense, Griffin doesn’t constitute enough of a challenge from the Clippers in the paint, especially considering how offensively inept DeAndre Jordan, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin have been at times during the postseason.
To be competitive in this series, the Clippers will need to play stellar defense and find a way to slow down this well-oiled offensive machine. That requires a strong defensive effort from the entire roster, because San Antonio’s offense doesn’t ever slow down with their starters on the bench. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker and the other big names of this series have excelled in the three meetings between these two teams during the regular season (San Antonio went 2-1), so this series will come down to which role players and supporting cast outplays the other. Everyone knows Manu Ginobili is a threat, but guys like Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter and Daniel Green can all put points on the board. The Spurs’ bench is fully capable of extending leads against opposing teams’ supporting casts with a barrage of 3-pointers and good ball movement. So if the Clippers’ bench can’t keep up or gain a clear advantage from their starting lineup, they will have rough time competing in the series.
You can never count out Chris Paul in the playoffs, but if Blake Griffin is anything less than 100 percent, the Clippers are going to struggle against the Spurs’ balance scoring and depth. Los Angeles will be able to do a better job of keeping Tony Parker from penetrating than Utah did, but he will still find a way to facilitate and with so many perimeter and post options to choose from, the Spurs are extremely difficult to guard. Los Angeles needs a constant high level of production from guys like Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Nick Young, who have all had big nights in the playoffs but haven’t been able to consistently do so. The Clippers have a promising future and will hopefully receive a huge boost next year when Chauncey Billups returns to the floor, but they don’t match up well with the Spurs and will likely not be able to overcome San Antonio’s depth.
Prediction: San Antonio over Los Angeles in 5 games
After the top-seeded Spurs made history last year by losing to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs last year, there were concerns that a similar situation might arise this year with the dangerous Utah Jazz in town. But Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs squashed those sentiments right away with dominant performances in San Antonio’s 106-91 Game 1 win.
It was the first time the Spurs have won their playoff opener in four years and they did so in convincing fashion. The Jazz hung around in the first half and looked like they might be able to keep up, but Tony Parker added more validity to his MVP considerations with total control over the flow of the game. Parker finished with 28 points, eight assists, four rebounds and one steal. Tim Duncan chipped in 17 points and 11 rebounds and Manu Ginobili fired up the crowd with a few flashy and athletic plays (even though he missed a wide open fast break dunk in the first half). But what made San Antonio’s victory so impressive was their display of depth. Ginobili only had seven points, but everyone except Patrick Mills and James Anderson scored in this game. Matt Bonner hit three 3-pointers, Stephen Jackson was once again a spark off the bench and Boris Diaw, who started in DeJuan Blair’s place, had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. The Spurs got something out of everyone and pulled away in the third quarter with a barrage of 3-pointers and an MVP performance from Parker.
However, there are still some positives to take out of this game for Utah and the Spurs aren’t home free just yet. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap bothered some shots at the rim with their length and the Jazz finished with eight blocks compared to the Spurs’ two. Parker ended up abusing the Jazz defense with his penetration, but if Utah can contest more shots at the rim, they will stay competitive in the series. Also, Millsap, Jefferson and Gordon Hayward were able to score pretty effectively; Jefferson and Millsap shot high percentages in the paint and even though Hayward’s shots weren’t falling, he got to the free throw line 12 times and didn’t miss a single one. And on the San Antonio side, Tiago Splitter left the game with a sprained left wrist and did not return. His status for Game 2 is currently unknown although an MRI has been scheduled. Even though the Spurs are extremely deep, they would eventually miss their seven-footer as they advance deeper into the playoffs.
Utah still has a chance to keep this competitive, but they definitely need a road win before taking care of business at home. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have to keep doing what they’re doing down low, Hayward will need to shoot better from the floor, but a critical piece is Devin Harris. Harris made the Jazz such a dangerous team entering the playoffs, but he disappeared today, finishing with just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting. If Harris shows up for a game and makes himself a threat, the paint opens up for Jefferson and Millsap. But if he disappears again, Utah’s only perimeter threat becomes Gordon Hayward, who makes his living off of hustle plays and 3-point shooting. The Jazz could definitely use some bench scoring (looking at you, Derrick Favors) and Josh Howard can’t go scoreless. But the most vital aspect of this series for Utah is Harris; unless he picks his game back up, the Spurs will cruise to a first-round playoff win.
The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.
1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.
2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.
3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.
The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:
4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).
5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.
6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.
7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.
8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.
Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves
9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.
10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.
11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.
So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?