Thunder Erase 18-Point Deficit, Advance To NBA Finals

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.

Kevin Durant willed his team to victory once again, leading the Thunder in their comeback from an 18-point deficit.

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.

James Harden struggled early on but once again cashed in a solid fourth quarter performance to help OKC finish the series off.

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.

The Thunder aren’t satisfied to just make it to the NBA Finals. They want to win it.

Kevin Durant Powers OKC Past San Antonio In Game 4

Thanks to a phenomenal performance from Oklahoma City’s big men and a prolific second half from Kevin Durant, the Thunder finished their defense of their home court and evened up the Western Conference Finals. With the series tied at 2-2, the Spurs will have to defend their home court and try to snatch momentum back with a pivotal Game 5 on the line.

By halftime, the Thunder had built up a 12-point lead because of elevated play from their frontcourt. Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison were 15-for-17 in the first half and scored 33 of OKC’s 55 points. Ibaka’s performance was key and showed how deadly Oklahoma City can be when he plays at such a high level, finishing with 26 points on a ridiculous 11-of-11 shooting night. Perkins finished with 15 points and went 7-of-9 from the floor and Nick Collison added eight off the bench. But what was even most impressive about the Thunder’s first half lead was how little Kevin Durant had done up until that point: 1-for-3 from the field and just eight points in the first half. But after exploding for 28 points in the second half (18 of which came in the last seven minutes of the game), it seems he was just warming up for something special. The Thunder’s 15-point lead was cut to just four with less than seven minutes to play, but the Durantula kept his team afloat by scoring 16 straight points for the Thunder to give OKC a nine-point lead with less than two minutes left in the game.

Kevin Durant had a Jordanesque performance in Game 3, singlehandedly lifting his team past the Spurs in the fourth.

Oklahoma City should be feeling pretty good about themselves at this point. They tied the series up and defended home court; they got over the hump and proved that they can beat this high-powered offensive team; Kevin Durant is coming off a Jordanesque performance; Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were truly impressive on the offensive end; but most important of all, they won in convincing fashion despite the fact that Russell Westbrook and James Harden had meager performances. Westbrook had only seven points and five assists while Harden finished with 11 off the bench. The fact that the Thunder are winning without Westbrook taking a ton of shots should show OKC how important it is for Durant to take the majority of the shots, especially when their role players play to well. All of this should build confidence for a critical Game 5 in San Antonio. They have all the momentum after defending their home court and not collapsing under the pressure of a 2-0 deficit supplied by this offensive juggernaut known as the Spurs. They’ve proved to the world and to themselves that Gregg Popovich’s high-flying team is vulnerable and can be beaten. The question now is whether or not they can do what no one has been able to do so far in this series by winning on the road.

The Western Conference Finals looked dire for the Thunder after the Spurs won Games 1 and 2 at home. Now the series is a best-of-three where San Antonio has home court advantage for two games. But the Thunder come into Game 5 with the knowledge that they can win if their role players and big men play at a high level, they can win the series. The Spurs have a lot of adjustments to make after Game 4. They were out-rebounded 41-31. They got 11 points out of Stephen Jackson off the bench, but Manu Ginobili only took seven shots. And most important of all, Tony Parker had only 12 points and four assists with Thabo Sefolosha once again playing phenomenal defense on him. So while it was reassuring to see Tim Duncan lead the Spurs with 21 points while Kawhi Leonard picked up his play and added 17, the Spurs need to find a way to handle the Thunder defensively. San Antonio shot 50 percent from the field, but they gave up 56 percent shooting to the Thunder. This series still remains a pick ’em, but something tells me the aging Spurs won’t have enough to overcome Oklahoma City’s youth and enthusiasm with momentum on their side, which is why I’m still standing by my prediction that the Thunder will advance in six games.

Serge Ibaka had a huge game for the Thunder. Can OKC’s role players step up again for Game 5?

Spurs Rally In Fourth To Take Game 1

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t convincing, but Manu Ginobili and the Spurs edged Oklahoma City in a 101-98 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio extended their winning streak to 19 and took a 1-0 lead on the series, but the Thunder played uncharacteristically lackluster down the stretch and still ended up within one basket of what could have been a crucial road victory to start the series.

Ginobili led the Spurs with 26 points off the bench, hitting big baskets down the stretch to help San Antonio come back from a nine point deficit to start the fourth quarter. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds while Tony Parker had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Thunder were outscored 39-27 in the game’s final period after allowing just 62 points through three quarters. Gary Neal pitched in 12 points and Stephen Jackson, who ended up with only five points, hit a back-breaking 3-pointer down the stretch to stop the rolling Thunder from stealing Game 1 on the road. But despite getting the victory in the series opener, I still like OKC in this series. In a highly competitive game in San Antonio, the Thunder only lost by three points after Ginobili played out of his mind and James Harden and Russell Westbrook had awful performances. The likelihood of all three of these things happening at once in a single game again is extremely little. Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, was completely outplayed by Ginobili, who shot 9-of-14 from the field and played an outstanding game. Not that Ginobili isn’t capable of doing so again, but Harden won’t shoot 7-of-17 again (two 3-pointers came him garbage time) while committing four turnovers and five fouls. Russell Westbrook was even worse, finishing with 17 points on an appalling 7-of-21 shooting. That shouldn’t happen again. Tony Parker is a solid defender, but Westbrook has nowhere to go but up after such a disappointing Game 1 performance.

Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with a huge performance off the bench.

The series opener between these two high-octane teams revealed a few things to keep an eye on in the next few games. First of all, role players will be a deciding factor throughout this series. James Harden failed to make an impact until the game’s waning seconds, which the Thunder cannot afford to happen in Game 2. On the plus side though, Derek Fisher made a huge and unexpected impact with 13 points off the bench. For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal also made an impact off the bench, but Stephen Jackson’s defense swayed momentum in San Antonio’s favor. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka all failed to have significant impacts on the offensive end. The big three on each team is the biggest factor, but how the role players perform on each side will make the difference. Another key factor will be how each team performs down the stretch. Last night, the Spurs got the best of the Thunder in the fourth quarter, which is entirely uncharacteristic of how the Thunder have played so far in the postseason. Defense another key point of impact in this series; the Thunder held the Spurs to just 62 points after three quarters but San Antonio still ended up getting to 100 points. For Oklahoma City, or any team with a nine-point lead entering the final quarter of a huge Game 1, getting outscored like that to lose this very winnable game is completely unacceptable.

Despite the fact that the Spurs pulled out the win, all of these factors lead me to believe that the Thunder will be just fine in this series. Barring that fourth quarter meltdown by the Thunder and Manu Ginobili’s prolific night, Oklahoma City was in good position to win on the road. However, they still have Game 2 to improve and steal a game on the road before the series shits back to OKC. All the Thunder really need to improve is getting more out of Westbrook and Harden, playing defense for a full four quarters, and hoping that Ginobili doesn’t have such an incredible performance again. I think that all three of these things are entirely possible and the Spurs’ Game 1 victory doesn’t fully impress me just yet. Credit San Antonio for taking care of business at home, but if the Thunder can sneak in a win in Game 2, this series is still completely wide open. We could be looking at a long series and despite the fact that neither team played particularly well in the series opener, the Thunder have more upside after this loss than the Spurs despite playing so poorly.

I still like the Thunder in this series, but James Harden and Russell Westbrook will need to pick it up offensively.

Western Conference Finals Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

The streaking San Antonio Spurs and the formidable Oklahoma City Thunder tip off tonight in Game 1 of what is sure to be an exciting and enjoyable series. These two teams are coming off convincing victories and certainly earned their appearance in the Western Conference Finals. But with two seemingly unstoppable, high-scoring teams heading on a crash course to get to the NBA Finals, who’s got the edge?

The San Antonio Spurs have silenced critics who wrote them off, calling them old, boring and irrelevant. They’ve won 18 games straight and swept the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in dominant and convincing fashion. Tony Parker has been involved in MVP talks all year, Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth that allows him to continue producing at a high level despite being way beyond his prime and Manu Ginobili is starting to warm up on the offensive end again after missing significant time with an injury. Ginobili’s absence during that stretch strengthened the Spurs’ supporting cast and his return only boosted this high-scoring team’s offensive totals. The Spurs are averaging 102.5 ppg in their eight playoff games and haven’t lost in a month. However, they did face a rather weak Jazz team in the first round, followed by an inexperienced and pretty banged up Clippers squad. Now we’ll get to see just how deep this team is against a team that has a prolific starting five and the bench depth and defense to back them up.

The Oklahoma City Thunder convincingly swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round and then made the Lakers look like an eight seed by finishing them off in five games. OKC is a jump shooting team that can play quality defense, has decent depth and can get out and run. They are the only other team in the playoffs averaging at least 100 ppg (by averaging exactly 100.0 ppg in their nine games so far), so we can certainly look forward to a high-scoring and exciting series. The Thunder’s games were much closer than the Spurs’ and unlike San Antonio, they’ve lost a game, but these two teams are pretty evenly matched. Each side has a big three. Each side has a great coach. Each side knows how to score and how to win. So who’s going to come out on top? The experienced, streaking Spurs? Or the young, white-hot Thunder?

Which big three will lead their team to victory? Durant, Westbrook and Harden? Or Parker, Duncan and Ginobili?

This series is basically a pick ’em, but the outcome will be decided by a few key factors. First of all, whichever big three outperforms the other will give their team a huge advantage in this series. Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have been great in the postseason so far, but because of San Antonio’s depth, they haven’t had to carry the load or even play extended minutes. The Thunder can’t afford for the Spurs’ big three to outplay Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I don’t think that will happen, but the Thunder’s big three have got to squeeze every ounce out of what little advantage they have in their big three. In a which-octane matchup like this, the Thunder’s big three have got to come to play every single night and outshine the Spurs’ best three players. The second major factor will be the role players. The Spurs are able to put up so many points because of how many guys they have that consistently put up solid numbers. Their bench is fully capable of piling on the points by knocking down 3-pointers with good ball movement and they’re a big reason why the Spurs tack on so many points every night. The Thunder can’t afford for guys like Gary Neal, Daniel Green, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner to knock down open looks.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s supporting cast is more defensively inclined (we’re not counting Harden as supporting cast since he’s OKC’s third-best player), but they’ve shown they can provide solid offensive contributions from time to time. If OKC’s big three puts up big numbers, the Thunder will have an advantage, but they’ll still need to score a decent amount of points to balance out how many points San Antonio’s bench will pile on. Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed and especially Derek Fisher, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to be ready to step in and knock down a few shots in addition to locking down the Spurs’ prolific offense. The Thunder have an advantage in their starting five, but if their bench isn’t capable of putting up points, San Antonio will be extremely tough to beat. The final factor is defense. With such high scoring teams on the court, whoever can get a few stops, especially down the stretch, will come out on top. The Thunder need to limit Duncan’s production with their defensive specialists, Ibaka and Perkins. Duncan has the fundamentals and post skills to put up points, but if Ibaka and Perkins’ physicality and length can bother him, the Thunder will have a big advantage. On the defensive end, Oklahoma City will also need to limit Tony Parker’s penetration. But because Russell Westbrook is so quick, I think the Thunder can slow him down and limit the Spurs’ wide open looks on the perimeter.

All in all, this is going to be a close series between two unstoppable teams. Whoever advances from this matchup and on to the NBA Finals is an automatic favorite to win a championship just because of how good these two teams in. Whoever wins have all the momentum coming off such a monumental series and I can’t say the Heat or the Celtics will pose much of a threat to either the Spurs or the Thunder. So even though San Antonio is 2-1 against the Thunder during the regular season and has home court advantage, when all is said and done, I think the Thunder are too much for anyone to handle when they hit their jump shots. They have a tendency to fall in love with jumpers, even when they’re not falling, but with everything on the line, I think this OKC is too young and too hot to stop. This is their year to advance to the Finals and win an NBA championship. Keep in mind that the last two teams to sweep their first two playoff series didn’t advance to the NBA Finals, and the Spurs fit that category perfectly up against the formidable Thunder.

Prediction: Oklahoma City over San Antonio in six games

If Westbrook can keep Parker out of the paint, the Spurs won’t get so many open looks.

Spurs Sweep Clippers, Advance To Western Conference Finals

San Antonio was down late, on the road, against a Clippers team that was finally enjoying a quality performance from Chris Paul. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs would not be denied and swept Lob City in Game 4 with a 102-99 win. The victory marked their second sweep of the playoffs this year and their 18th win in a row, a streak extending back to the regular season.

The Clippers battled, Chris Paul dropped 23 points and 11 dimes and still the Spurs came out on top to finish Lob City off. Blake Griffin added 21 and Eric Bledsoe had 17 off the bench, but there was no answer for the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final two minutes. The Clippers fought hard, got decent scoring off the bench and DeAndre Jordan even pitched in 10, but San Antonio proved to be a little too much for this team in only their first year together. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and nine rebounds and Tony Parker had 17 points. Daniel Green had 14, Gary Neal matched that number off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter added 11 apiece. As has been the case throughout the series and the playoffs so far, the Spurs’ depth and incredibly balanced scoring overpowered San Antonio’s opponent and their execution under Greg Popovich has been flawless up to this point. The Clippers gave the Spurs everything they could handle at home but San Antonio is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Say what you want about his age, but Tim Duncan is still getting it done.

The Spurs really are the complete package right now, despite the fact that one of their best three players has been aging ever so steadily over the past few years. Even so, Tim Duncan hasn’t slowed down. His athleticism and defense on skilled post players leaves a little to be desired, but his offensive technique, rebounding and passing ability and his sheer experience and knowledge on how to win games makes the Spurs a big contender. Tony Parker is playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Manu Ginobili is scoring off the bench again and almost all of the Spurs’ role players and reserves are fully capable of scoring, knocking down 3-pointers and playing defense. It was nice to see Chris Paul play well, but down the stretch, Daniel Green was able to shut him down and keep the Spurs on top at the end. This is just one of many examples of how this well-oiled machine functions as parts of a complete team and will provide a huge challenge to either the Thunder or the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As I mentioned before, Clippers fans shouldn’t hang their heads after their team won its third playoff series in 35 years. The result was disappointing, but Lob City was only in its first year and if the Clips can get Chauncey Billups back, replace Vinny Del Negro with somebody better (almost anyone applies here) and maybe improve at center and small forward, they could be dangerous next year. This year was a learning process and LAC still accomplished so much; unfortunately, they got the difficult task of matching up with the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut in the second round. Although they have a lot of unrestricted free agents at the end of this year, if they can sign the majority back and make improvements where necessary, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be a force in the playoffs next year. As for the Spurs, this sweep just highlighted how dangerous this “old” team really is. Whoever gets them in the Western Conference Finals will certainly have their hands full.

Don’t hang your heads, Clippers fans. Lob City got a tough matchup and will be back next year.

Second Round Preview: San Antonio Spurs Vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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.

Will Blake Griffin be healthy enough to give the Clippers an advantage over Tim Duncan?

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

Chris Paul has to keep Tony Parker out of the lane and outplay him on the offensive end.

Spurs Sweep Jazz

Al Jefferson and the Jazz gave San Antonio everything they could handle, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid elimination by the top-seeded Spurs thanks to Manu Ginobili’s breakout performance on the offensive end. Utah fought hard to get the Game 4 win at home and put together a late rally, but the Spurs kept their distance and finished their sweep of the Jazz with an 87-81 victory.

Manu Ginobili, who had been virtually non-existent in the scoring column through San Antonio’s first three playoff games, finally had a productive offensive night, leading the Spurs with 17 points. The Jazz stayed in the game due to Al Jefferson and Devin Harris, but also because Tony Parker and Tim Duncan had poor shooting nights, finishing a combined 8-for-24. In fact, San Antonio’s starting five all struggled from the field, but their bench picked up the slack, outscoring Utah’s bench 57-10. Jefferson had 26 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Jazz while Devin Harris chipped in 19 points and seven assists. Derrick Favors, who moved into the starting lineup, had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Paul Millsap helped take care of the boards with 19 rebounds, but could only put up 10 points on the offensive end.

Al Jefferson led a late Jazz rally, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Utah from being swept by the balanced San Antonio Spurs.

It was San Antonio’s balance that overwhelmed the Jazz in Game 4, as Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal all reached double digits in scoring off the bench. The timing of Ginobili’s offensive burst was impeccable, as he hit consecutive 3-pointers to silence Utah’s rowdy crowd after the Jazz had cut the lead to three in the third quarter. From there the Spurs built up at 21-point lead that proved to be insurmountable despite Utah’s late rally. But the Jazz were extremely close to extending the series and sending it back to San Antonio for Game 5 behind that late run, putting themselves in position to win by doing almost everything they needed to. They outrebounded the Spurs 57-43. They only committed 12 turnovers. And they had eight blocks compared to San Antonio’s four. But in the end, three major factor prevented them from coming out on top.

First of all, they missed nine free throws. If you want to unseat the top seed in the West, you need to take advantage of free points when you have the chance. Second, they got absolutely nothing out of Gordon Hayward, who basically disappeared from this series after Game 1. Hayward made the Jazz a potentially dangerous matchup entering the postseason, but he had zero points on 0-of-7 shooting in an elimination game. And speaking of poor shooting, the Jazz’s third blunder was failing to make a single 3-pointer at home in Game 4, finishing 0-for-13 from downtown. Utah has struggled with their 3-point shooting all season, but this area really hurt them as San Antonio shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of their 22 attempts. So while Utah was able to exploit the Spurs down low, their inability to convert from long range prevented them from getting a win.

Looking ahead, the Spurs will face either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. At this point, LAC has a 3-1 series lead and will likely be San Antonio’s next opponent. If the Clippers advance, the key matchups will be obviously be Tony Parker against Chris Paul and Tim Duncan against Blake Griffin, but the series will ultimately come down to the two benches. The Spurs have a clear advantage in their bench production over the majority of the league, but if LA can get something out of their reserves and Paul and Griffin outplay Parker and Duncan (which isn’t out of the question), it could be a close series. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies somehow come back from a 3-1 deficit and advance to the next round, the Spurs should beat them pretty handily. This isn’t the same dangerous Memphis squad as last year, Zach Randolph is still up and down, the Grizzlies are having problems getting anything out of their bench and San Antonio will want revenge for last year’s upset. Fortunately, the Clippers should advance barring a complete meltdown over the next three possible games, so we should be treated to a high-octane second round matchup between the top-seeded, experienced Spurs and the dangerous, entertaining Clippers.

If the Clips advance, we have a good second round matchup on our hands. But if Manu Ginobili plays like he did in Game 4, San Antonio will move on easily.

San Antonio Spurs: Best In The West?

The Spurs made their intentions of sweeping extremely clear in a complete 114-83 rout of the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz yesterday. Utah looked like a dangerous team entering the postseason, especially when one recalls that the Spurs were in the same position last year before falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. But so far, San Antonio has been absolutely dominant. So now the question stands: does Utah have any chance in this series against the Western juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs?

To get to the point, the answer is “no.” But let’s take a more in-depth look at why the Spurs have been so dominant this far. Aside from Utah not having any guards that are an offensive threat and playing pretty poor basketball, there have been three main factors in San Antonio dismantling the Jazz so far:
1) Tony Parker has been playing like an MVP candidate
2) Manu Ginobili is healthy and is playing with energy
3) The Spurs bench makes this team truly unstoppable by consistently contributing every night.

Tony Parker is the biggest reason why the Spurs are steamrolling the Jazz so far.

Tony Parker has been able to pick Utah’s defense apart so far. He’s getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line and when the Jazz’s interior defense actually does prevent him from scoring, Parker has been able to find open teammates like Tim Duncan on the inside and a plethora of 3-point threats on the outside. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili finally looks like himself again after struggling with injury problems for the majority of the season. Ginobili is attacking the basket and in two home games, his ability to fire up the crowd with some flashy passing and drives to the rim is priceless. But Ginobili’s injury actually was a blessing in disguise; when he was out, the Spurs’ role players all had to step up. They haven’t stepped down since. The Spurs have nine active players who averaged at least 7 points per game during the regular season: Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Patrick Mills, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Daniel Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. And that number would be 11 if you include the injured Tiago Splitter and Richard Jefferson before he was traded away. Utah has had a hard enough time defending Parker and Tim Duncan, but you throw in another full lineup of guys who can score, play defense and launch 3-pointers and it’s no surprise this series has been a blowout so far.

The Jazz are struggling with their own problems of course. Devin Harris and
Gordon Hayward haven’t played like the guys who made this team so dangerous just a few weeks ago; Al Jefferson hasn’t had a standout game; Paul Millsap disappeared in Game 2; and Utah just doesn’t have enough depth to contend. But this has been a case of the Spurs asserting their dominance and imposing their will rather than the Jazz failing to show up; San Antonio is just too good and they’ve played like it so far. Who knows? The Jazz might have been able to compete in a different Western matchup, but the Spurs have too much experience, talent and depth for this to be anything other than a massacre so far. The Thunder have looked extremely good against an experienced Dallas team and the Lakers are a threat in the West as well, but the San Antonio Spurs are playing extremely well and definitely have to be one of the top candidates for the title of Best in the West.

Stephen Jackson is one of many role players who does his part night in and night out for San Antonio.

NBA Sunday Recap – 3/25/12

Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Miami Heat 87 – Kevin Durant made his case for the MVP award known loud and clear Sunday night, outplaying fellow MVP-frontrunner LeBron James in the Thunder’s dominant victory over the visiting Heat. Durant finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a matchup many predict to have been a preview of this year’s NBA Finals. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had key contributions as well, especially during the Thunder’s second quarter run that established a lead OKC never relinquished. Despite 7 turnovers, Harden finished with 6 assists, and 19 points, 14 of which came in Oklahom City’s second quarter spurt. Perkins had a season-high 16 points while Ibaka had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 22 points and LeBron James pitched in 17, but the Heat never came close in the second half in a thorough win for the Thunder.

Durant's near triple double sent a message to the Miami Heat and the rest of the league

Atlanta Hawks 139, Utah Jazz 133 (4OT) – Utah’s impressive six-game win streak came to an end in a hard fought quadruple overtime game in Atlanta, the first quadruple overtime in the NBA since 1997. The Jazz fell short and were outlasted in the fourth overtime, wasting opportunities to close out the Hawks after having possession on the last play of regulation and each of the first three overtimes. Paul Millsap missed a floater in the lane in regulation. Devin Harris missed a fall-away 3-pointer in overtime. Then Harris’s shot barely rimmed out in double overtime. Finally, Millsap missed a tough 18-footer to close triple overtime. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 37 points and 8 rebounds and hit a big three to tie the game at 113 with 7 seconds left in double overtime. Josh Smith fouled out with 22 points and 10 rebounds while Zaza Pachulia had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Al Jefferson led the Jazz with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Millsap finished with 25 points and 13 boards. Both fouled out in the final overtime. Utah still holds on to the seventh spot in the West thanks to their prior win streak, holding a tiebreaker over Houston and Denver, who also have a 26-23 record. The Hawks moved ahead of the Pacers into the fifth spot in the East and have won four straight.

Joe Johnson hit big time shots in the clutch for the Hawks

Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Denver Nuggets 100 – Kevin Love followed up his 51-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point, 21-rebound effort in the Timberwolves’ blowout victory of the visiting Denver Nuggets. Minnesota, despite losing Ricky Rubio for the season and playing once again without Nikola Pekovic, is only 2 and a half games out of the eight spot in the West thanks to the recent colossal play from Love. Luke Ridnour added 25 points in the rout of a Nuggets team that is currently in the 9th spot 10 and a half games back and has lost two straight. The Nuggets played without Danilo Gallinari once again, as well as Arron Afflalo who was suspended by the league for one game for throwing an elbow at Gordon Hayward in Friday’s blowout loss to the Jazz. Denver needs to regroup if it wants to make the postseason and doesn’t look anything like the impressive squad we saw at the beginning of the year.

San Antonio Spurs 93, Philadelphia 76ers 76- Philadelphia’s lead in the Atlantic division seems to be slipping away after being routed in San Antonio. Because of Boston’s big win over the Wizards, the Sixers are only a half game ahead of the Celtics and 3 games ahead of the Knicks. The Spurs played without Tim Duncan (rest) and Gary Neal (foot sprain), while the Sixers went without Andre Iguodala (left patella tendinitis). Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 7 assists. No one from the Sixers had more than 14 points and Philadelphia only scored 27 points in the second half. The Sixers have only hit triple digits 14 times in 49 games this season.

Los Angeles Lakers 96, Memphis Grizzlies 102 – The Grizzlies got a much-needed road win in LA against the newly revamped Lakers thanks to Rudy Gay’s 18 and OJ Mayo’s 16, including a one-man 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 13. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 30 points and Ramon Sessions added 18, but Kobe Bryant’s slow start prevented LA from building momentum or shortening Memphis’ lead. In fact, Lakers coach Mike Brown benched Kobe for four minutes while being down 10 in the fourth quarter, drawing boos and  “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. Brown finally obliged, but not before the game was out of reach.

Kobe struggled to find a rhythm and was benched in the fourth quarter for a stretch of time by Mike Brown

Cleveland Cavaliers 83, Phoenix Suns 108 – The Suns are only one game out of the eight spot in the West after throttling the Cavs on the road. Marcin Gortat finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds while Markieff Morris had 22 points of his own off the bench. Phoenix jumped out to a 59-38 lead at the half and never looked back. Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison was injured with a bruised left leg and ankle in the first quarter and left the game. He returned later in the game but was completely ineffective and finished with only 2 points. The Suns have now won six of their last eight.

Boston Celtics 88, Washington Wizards 76 – Avery Bradley’s offensive outburst of 23 points led the Celtics to a needed win over the Wizards, bringing them within a half game of the Sixers in the Atlantic division. Boston played without Michael Pietrus, who sustained a head injury against the Sixers. Ray Allen also sat out with a sore right ankle, while the Wizards went without Nene (back spasms).

Portland Trail Blazers 90, Golden State Warriors 87 – A close contest with the lowly Warriors proved to be a challenge for the Blazers until LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up in the game’s final minute. Raymond Felton lead Portland with 24 points and Aldridge finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and a pair of free throws to get his team a 3-point victory. Golden State rookie Charles Jenkins led the warriors with 27 points and David Lee added 16 points and 16 rebounds.

NBA Sunday Recap – 3/4/12

Here are the scores from around the league and the major headlines:

Boston Celtics 115, New York Knicks 111 – The Celtics beat the Knicks at home in overtime after Paul Pierce hit a tough contested three to tie the game in regulation. Pierce ended up with 34, which was overshadowed by Rajon Rondo’s historic triple double of 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists. Only two other players have recorded a 15-15-15 triple double in the last 25 years (Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson). Talks of trading Rondo will likely die down now, even though the Celtics probably need to make some changes to stay competitive in the East. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 25 points and had a few key buckets to give the Knicks the lead before Pierce forced overtime. Jeremy Lin struggled, finishing with 14 points and 6 turnovers. He’ll need to work on keeping his turnovers down while increasing his scoring and distributing for the Knicks to be contenders this year.

Paul Pierce sends the game to overtime

Los Angeles Lakers 93, Miami Heat 83 – Kobe Bryant and the Lakers made a statement with their ten-point victory over the visiting Miami Heat. Kobe started out the night with 18 points in the first quarter and singlehandedly set the tone for his team early on. Kobe finished with 33 and has scored 30+ in each of his last three games while wearing the mask to protect his nose. LeBron James led the Heat with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, but it still wasn’t enough for a Miami side that was down the whole game. The Masked Mamba showed his competitive fire from the start while LeBron, who had a good game, couldn’t carry the load with Chris Bosh out and Dwyane Wade fouling out in the 4th. The Heat probably win this game with Bosh on the floor, but watch out for the Lakers in the West. They are looking like a completely different team from the beginning of the season behind Kobe’s hot hand.

Miami had no answer for the Masked Mamba

Denver Nuggets 99, San Antonio Spurs 94 – Ty Lawson flirted with a triple double as the Nuggets edged the Spurs in Manu Ginobili’s return to the court. Lawson finished with 22 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds, and also hit a critical jumper that put Denver up by three and sealed the deal. Gary Neal tried to tie it up on the Spurs’ final possession but his 3-pointer rimmed out, resulting in San Antonio’s third loss of the season at home. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 25. The Nuggets have now won three in a row without Danilo Gallinari or Nene. This game also showed off Kenneth Faried’s incredible athletic ability. Look for him to continue to evolve his game, he could develop into quite the role player for Denver.

Look for this guy to grow into a pretty good player for the Nuggets

Chicago Bulls 96, Philadelphia 76ers 91 – Derrick Rose tied his season high of 35 points and added 7 assists in a spectacular performance as the Bulls got a road victory over the 76ers. Chicago avenged a loss earlier in the season and led for most of the second half but couldn’t quite close the deal, missing free throws down the stretch. Joakim Noah has 11 points and 18 rebounds for the Bulls, who now own the best record in the NBA at 31-8. Andre Iguodala had two good looks for threes in the fourth that would have kept the Sixers alive, but air-balled them both. The Sixers have now lost seven of their last nine games.

Derrick Rose makes another ridiculous shot to lift Chicago over the Sixers

Los Angeles Clippers 105, Houston Rockets 103 – Chris Paul was clutch again for the Clippers down the stretch, giving Los Angeles a solid win on the road in overtime. Paul led the way with 28 points and 10 assists, including 3 crucial points in the final minute of overtime. The Rockets have now lost three games in a row. The Clippers still hold on to a slim lead over the Lakers in the Pacific.

Chris Paul was Mr. Clutch for the Clippers at the end of the game

New Jersey Nets 104, Charlotte Bobcats 101 – Deron Williams has a historic night of his own, putting up 57 points to set a Nets’ franchise record. Williams’ 57 is the highest scoring total in the NBA so far this season. Williams was a perfect 21-for-21 from the free throw line. The Bobcats still only have four wins on the season.

Deron Williams couldn't be stopped and set a franchise record with 57 points

Phoenix Suns 96, Sacramento Kings 88 – The Suns won their third in a row behind Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat, erasing a double-digit deficit in the second half, also for the third game in a row. Nash had 19 points while Gortat had 14 points and 17 rebounds. This is the longest winning streak for the Suns this season, and has helped put Phoenix only a few games behind the 8th spot in the Western Conference.

Can Gortat and the Suns have a shot at making the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors 83, Golden State Warriors 75 – DeMar DeRozan scored 25 for Toronto, leading the Raptors to a victory over Mark Jackson’s Warriors. Golden State was up by nine at halftime but only scored 11 points in the third quarter. David Lee led the way with 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Warriors, who have now lost six of their last nine.

DeRozan drives to the hoop and helps snap the Raptors' five-game losing streak against the Warriors.