Spurs Down Resilient Thunder, Take Commanding 2-0 Lead

The Oklahoma City Thunder never gave up, but a dominant Game 2 performance characterized by Tony Parker’s penetration, fantastic ball movement and prolific outside shooting helped San Antonio win their 20th game in a row and take a 2-0 lead on the series with a 120-111 victory at home. Parker annihilated Russell Westbrook and a downright lazy OKC interior defense with 34 points and eight assists while Manu Ginobili once again hit big baskets down the stretch to fend off Oklahoma City’s attempts at coming back. Ginobili finished with 20 off the bench as the Spurs led by as many as 22 until the Thunder cut the lead to six with less than six minutes to play.

For the majority of the night, this was a complete blowout. The Thunder mounted a comeback to gap the third and fourth quarters as the Spurs missed 12 of 15 shots during one stretch, but it was too little too late for the OKC after playing so poorly in the first half. Ever since Gregg Popovich gave his “I Want Some Nasty!” speech in Game 1, the Spurs have been completely unstoppable. Parker torched Westbrook on the offensive end, shooting 16-of-21 from the floor. Ginobili hit six of his eleven shots and made a big difference down the stretch to help stave off the Thunder’s late comeback. Kawhi Leonard was a killer, going 7-of-12 to finish with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Tim Duncan shot only 2-of-11 and finished with just 11 points and 12 rebounds, but San Antonio still shot a staggering 55 percent from the floor to put up 120 points. Westbrook couldn’t keep Parker out of the lane, and that penetration got him easy looks and freed up teammates as well. The Thunder’s help-side defenders didn’t help matters either, as they were forced to play off their man to help with the penetration off the pick-and-roll, giving the Spurs wide open 3-point looks. San Antonio hit 11 3-pointers thanks to Parker’s penetration and prolific ball movement that left the Thunder’s defense dazed and confused. Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks switched strategies in the third quarter to try and minimize the Spurs’ offense by using a “Hack-a-Splitter” tactic. However, it only gained them one point as Tiago Splitter hit 6-of-12 free throws.

Tony Parker torched Russell Westbrook for 34 points and gave the Spurs a commanding 2-0 lead.

Scott Brooks will likely catch a lot of heat for that “Hack-a-Splitter” strategy, but he should hear a lot more criticism for his poor substitutions and overall coaching in this series so far. Popovich has his entire rotation system completely figured out, while Brooks has left key players on the bench for extended periods of time. In Game 1, it was Serge Ibaka who sat out for the game’s final 16 minutes. In Game 2, Derek Fisher was left on the floor late into the fourth quarter while Thabo Sefolosha, who offers nothing on the offensive end but could have helped get stops and rebounds to aid OKC’s comeback, sat on the bench. Fisher finished with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting, so Brooks’ decision to leave him in the game so late seriously hindered the Thunder’s improbable comeback. Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 31 points, five rebounds and five assists while James Harden played much more like the Sixth Man of the Year, finishing with 30 points and seven rebounds. However, Russell Westbrook let his team down once again by being completely exploited by Tony Parker on the defensive end. He ended up with 27 points, but shot just 10-of-24. Durant, in contrast, shot 10-of-17 from the floor. To summarize, Westbrook took seven more shots than the NBA’s scoring leader this season. That cannot and should not happen in Game 3 if the Thunder want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

For the Thunder, this game almost certainly means elimination. Unless they win both games at home and build massive momentum in the process, OKC will fail to reach the NBA Finals for the second year in a row. The Thunder have monumental problems on the defensive end: In Game 1, they gave up 39 points in the fourth quarter; in Game 2, they gave up 37 in the third. And the trouble isn’t just Westbrook trying to guard Parker, but Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are another massive problem area as well. Ibaka and Perkins were bad enough on the offensive end (they combined for just 11 points), but their defense on the interior was borderline laughable at times. Granted, it wasn’t their fault Westbrook was getting burned on the pick-and-roll, but they played too far off of shooters, gave up easy buckets on the inside and did little to prevent the Spurs from completely spreading the floor on every possession. San Antonio put on a show in Game 2, but the Thunder’s ability to compete in this series has been nothing short of disappointing up to this point. Westbrook has been inefficient and is taking too many shots away from Durant; Ibaka and Perkins have had no impact on either side of the floor; OKC’s role players have given them nothing; and to top it all off, Scott Brooks has been completely out-coached by Gregg Popovich. The Thunder still have a chance if they take care of business at home, but only 14 teams have ever come back to win a series after facing a 2-0 deficit. At this point, Oklahoma City would need a complete defensive overhaul to win the next two at home, where they went 26-7 during the regular season. I’d like to say the Thunder are good enough to do so, but all the Spurs need to do is steal one of the next two games in OKC to close this series up at home. That might be too much pressure for anyone to handle against this offensive juggernaut.

OKC’s back is up against the wall. Do the Thunder have what it takes to come back in this series?

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.

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.

Spurs Take Commanding 2-0 Lead

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.

Tony Parker and the Spurs took a commanding 2-0 lead and the end result was never in doubt.

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 have no chance unless Chris Paul regroups and gets something going offensively against these San Antonio Spurs.

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.

Spurs Look To Sweep Jazz

Devin Harris and Al Jefferson finally came to play for the Jazz, but Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs still got the win and increased their series lead to 3-0 with a 102-90 win in Utah yesterday. Parker took over in the fourth quarter and finished off a desperate Utah side that was down by only five with about eight minutes to play. The Utah crowd was looking for any signs of hope in their matchup with the number one seed in the West, but Parker and the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final quarter dispelled any hope the Jazz had in staying competitive in the series.

Parker had 27 points, Tim Duncan had 17 and Daniel Green pitched in 14 while Stephen Jackson contributed 13 off the bench. Tiago Splitter had 10 points and 8 rebounds after missing Game 2 with a bruised wrist. Al Jefferson finally had a great game with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but Paul Millsap had another poor offensive outing with just nine points. Devin Harris also had a much better offensive night with 21 points and five assists, but Gordon Hayward finished with only four points. Going up against an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs, the Jazz needed to be able to score in bunches to stay competitive, which is why Hayward and Millsap’s performances were especially devastating. Now San Antonio will likely get the sweep unless we see a near-perfect game from Utah’s starters, and if the Jazz do get a Game 4 win at home, Popovich and company will finish them off in Game 5 in San Antonio.

Tony Parker silenced the crowd and gave the Spurs a 3-0 lead.

What is especially concerning for other contending teams in the West is that the Spurs have been steamrolling opponents and Manu Ginobili hasn’t even had a significant impact on the offensive end yet. Ginobili had six points but he also had 10 assists, which shows that he doesn’t need to score to be happy. As long as he’s contributing and helping his team win, he’s good to go. The thought of a team full of role players all satisfied with their assignments that plays well together and is coached by Gregg Popovich is a pretty intimidating concept, and Ginobili’s lack of scoring is just one example of that. Popovich’s coaching was also on fully display, including a beautifully drawn-up play right before halftime that ended in a Matt Bonner 3-pointer, giving the Spurs the lead and effectively crushing any momentum the Jazz might have had going into the half with a lead.

Jazz fans can only be so upset about the possibility of being swept in the first round. This is a young team with a promising future that had the unlucky task of facing the top team in the West right off the bat. Jefferson, Millsap, Harris and Hayward are a decent core that needs to learn how to show up night in and night out, but it’s a start. Utah will also need to build up their supporting cast to get more out of their bench in the future (even with Derrick Favors and Alec Burks combining for 26 points in Game 3). Utah hasn’t played extremely well in the series, but they need some time to develop before people start taking them seriously. But even though the chance of being swept by this impressive Spurs team is pretty good right now, Utah fans can look forward to a pretty optimistic future.

Jefferson had a good game, but the Jazz will still likely be swept.