For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!
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 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.
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?
In the past few days there have been a few minor headlines in the NBA worth noting. First of all, the Spurs signed Patty Mills yesterday. Mills has spent this season playing in China because of the NBA lockout. He averaged 5.1 ppg as a backup point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers the past two seasons and will fill the gap left when T.J. Ford retired a few weeks ago. The Spurs have made small, but significant moves leading up to the postseason that should improve their already impressive bench. Stephen Jackson has played well off the bench so far and San Antonio also signed Boris Diaw last week.
Another piece of news that has made major headlines (and been blown WAY out of proportion) is Lakers coach Mike Brown’s decision to bench Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of LA’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. Brown substituted Metta World Peace for Kobe down 14 with less than six minutes to play, drawing boos and “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. The media and some fans have blown this move way out of proportion, suggesting Mike Brown’s incompetence as a coach and Kobe’s anger with his head coach. Kobe said he was frustrated with Brown’s decision, but that the decision was ultimately Brown’s to make. Anyone thinking this move was a big deal needs to stop. Kobe has been shooting terribly in the past few games, including that loss to Memphis. Despite the fact that Kobe is considered one of the most clutch players in the league, statistics say otherwise, and Mike Brown is the coach. It was his decision to make, and if a player isn’t playing up to their standards, it’s a coach’s job to put him on the bench. Notice that the Lakers cut the lead to nine at the 1:51 mark without Kobe in, and it clearly wasn’t a personal move against Bryant because Brown put him back in the game at that point. Chalk it up to a dumb yet semi-defendable coaching decision and move on.
Meanwhile, the Knicks have put some distance between themselves and the Bucks for the eighth seed in the East, but how long will that two-game gap last? Amare Stoudemire is out indefinitely after the results of an MRI on Monday showed he has a bulging disk in his lower back. The Knicks were able to get a win over the Bucks Monday without Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, who sat out with a sore knee, but if not for Carmelo Anthony’s elevated performance and an appalling shooting night for Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, things might have been different. To make things worse, Melo, who is the Knicks’ biggest offensive threat without Lin or Amare on the court, tweaked his groin in that game and is listed as day-to-day. Melo said he will be reevaluated and hopes to be ready for the Knicks’ game against the Magic tonight. But if Amare, Lin AND Melo can’t go, New York could be in serious trouble.
Speaking of injuries, LeBron James might have a dislocated finger after injuring it in the Heat’s loss to the Pacers on Monday. He had already been playing with a sore elbow, seeing his field goal percentage drop from 53 percent down to just 40 in the past five games. The fact that he injured his ring finger makes the jokes all too easy, but if LeBron continues to struggle, so will the Heat. However, Miami has plenty of time to turn things around and be contenders in the playoffs even if they don’t finish the regular season on a strong note.
A few more recent injury headlines. First, Daniel Gibson will likely miss the remainder of the season after an MRI revealed a torn tendon in his left foot. Gibson has averaged 7.5 ppg for the Cavs, who are reeling as it is. Gibson isn’t a huge contributor, but Cleveland needs all the help it can get it at this point. With another loss like this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland starts to tank. Next, Jerryd Bayless partially tore his left oblique muscle in Monday’s game against the Magic and will be out for the rest of the season. Bayless has averaged 11.4 ppg and 3.8 apg this season for Toronto and averaged 21.8 ppg and 7.6 apg in the five games he started in this month. This is a big loss for an already floundering Raptors team.
To wrap things up, after a week of speculation about Vinny Del Negro’s job security as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, reports emerged that the Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and GM Neil Olshey are both behind Del Negro, who will finish the season as head coach. Previous reports had stated that Del Negro had lost support in the locker room and that his job was in jeopardy after a Clippers losing streak, but it appears that for now, Del Negro is here to stay. So you can expect the Clippers to continue to underachieve this year.