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Elation and Deflation

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 121, Houston 96
Series tied 1-1

Let’s start with what we can control: let’s start with the game.

After the blowout in Game 1, we were all eager to see how the Spurs would respond. Would there be huge line-up adjustments? Strategic tweaks?

The big adjustment was starting Gasol in place of Lee, a move that doesn’t scream “genius stroke”. But it worked. There are a couple of things at play here. First, you could argue that the primary letdown in Game 1 was the defense. But against these Rockets, sometimes a better offense is what allows for better defense, by preventing transition and slowing the game down a bit. Want better D? Play better O. Gasol certainly helps that. While Lee is a great offensive player, he is not a floor spreader, while Gasol is (at least this season). So putting Gasol on the floor opens up the offense.

Second, if you’re going to go big, go big. Many people wondered if the Spurs would have to counter Houston by going small. But going small favors Houston greatly. The Spurs got here by being a big team; it’d seem foolish to abandon that one game in. Yes, there will be small-ball counters, but you have to keep your identity.

The problem with starting Lee is that he is not a big big. He plays inside, and he is crafty around the rim. But Gasol is big, tall, long, and everything else associated with being a “big”. While his reputation as a defender is poor, what that really means is that he doesn’t move well in space or defend on the perimeter well. But you know what he can do? Be big and tall and long around the rim. Much like late-career Duncan, he offers rim protection just by being tall and putting his arms straight up.

The Spurs seemed content to keep the bigs back and allow the Rockets to shoot the midrange shot they so loathe. With Gasol and Aldridge, the Spurs had the two biggest bigs out there, and were able to hold their own against the smaller Houston team.

Another way they took advantage of that size? Offensive rebounds. There are obvious advantages to being small and quick, particularly in today’s NBA, but it isn’t without sacrifice. Often, that sacrifice is rebounding. Defensive rebounds are important, but they don’t really stymie the opposing team’s offense. Offensive rebounds, on the other hand, slow down the opposing team’s offense and depress their defense. The Spurs grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, and were hounds on the glass, particularly late when they made their dominating push.

On offense, the ball also moved a lot better. This isn’t the 2014 Spurs, but this is the most they’ve looked like that team these playoffs. With 27 assists, the team found the right balance of movement and space with Kawhi dominating in isolation.

Speaking of Kawhi: he was a monster. He guarded Harden on one end, forcing him into one of his worst playoff games (all without committing a single foul). He scored 34 points on 16 shots. He had 7 rebounds and 8 assists. He had 3 steals and 1 block. He only committed 2 turnovers. He basically had the perfect game.

The defense looked better overall. More movement, more understanding, more connection. They held the Rockets to 34 threes (after giving up 50 in Game 1), often a better indicator than number made. They bothered Harden at nearly every turn, and didn’t overreact to some hot shooting from role players. Again, in that dominant 4th quarter run, they held the Rockets to 5 points over about a 9 minute span. That will win most playoff games.

Sadly, now we must get to the real headline of the game: Tony Parker’s injury. By now we know it’s a torn tendon in the quadricep that will require surgery and will likely sideline him for months.

Parker is a favorite punching bag of Spurs fans, but nobody wants to see this. Our hearts and sympathy go out to him. He might be the Spur we’re most critical of, but he is still a Spur, and he is still family. More than any other player on the team, we’ve grown up with Tony, watching him mature from a spry 19 year old into the crafty veteran he is today. Without getting into the long-term implications of this injury, we all wish a speedy recovery for him and we’ll be pulling for him the whole way.

We must dive into the immediate impact of this injury. Despite his up and down season, Parker was clearly the second best player in these playoffs. The Spurs basically went as he went. Outside of Game 4 against Memphis, when he played well, the Spurs won; he played poorly, the Spurs lost. Kawhi is the leader and dominant driving force; Parker is the bellwether.

We not only have to replace his production, we must replace his leadership. This is a team of veterans, but Tony was the guiding hand at the wheel in a way nobody else on this team has been, including Manu. Hopefully with the intelligence and heart on this team, there won’t be a vacuum created here.

His production is another story. Often when a player in injured, it’s not the back-up you worry about, it’s the back-up to the back-up. So whether he starts or doesn’t, Mills can fill a lot of Parker’s role. But then who fills Patty’s role?

Let’s start with the starters. In the regular season, we all know that Murray would get the start and Mills would stay on the bench. Will Pop still do that in the playoffs? It seems out of character for Pop to trust those Western Conference Semifinal starting minutes to a rookie. But we’ll see.

If not, Patty will get the start, and then Pop will be forced to rejigger his rotation to include more minutes for Simmons, Manu, and possibly Anderson. (Basically, bigger wing players who can handle the ball a bit.)

Either way, I expect Kawhi to get more time as the primary ball handler. But at what point are we asking too much of him. Guard Harden, score most of the points, and be the main ball handler and facilitator? That’s a lot.

Some outside the box options: Start Manu at PG. Late in the game, Pop went to strategy that I like to call medium ball. Go small, but with all wings (and one big). So you’re basically playing small (countering the Rockets small ball), but you’re still ‘bigger’ at every position. During the critical stretch, the lineup was Kawhi, Green, Simmons, Manu, and Pau or Aldridge. 4 wings and 1 big (bigger than any of their bigs). So at the PG matchup, Beverley was giving up size, and the Spurs were even or bigger at every other position. And yet, it’s still a team that can play fast and spaced.

Beverley is not a traditional PG (since Harden is the PG), so you don’t have to worry about guarding him in the traditional way. Manu could guard him. Or Green. Either way, there are favorable cross matches everywhere.

Another outside the box option: start Anderson. He basically played PG in college, and with Kawhi on the floor, you’d have two functional ball handlers.

The biggest question, outside of rotations, is playing time. Will Pop trust Murray? Or will Mills be the only PG that actually plays, and the rest will be hybrid big-small lineups?

Who is going to get more minutes? Manu should, but there is a limit to his effectiveness (though if ever there was a time for a vintage Manu stretch, this is it.) The way Simmons played in this game–his energy and athleticism were critical in that 4th quarter–I expect to see a lot more of him. This is the perfect match-up for his skills.

With Parker going down, the Rockets are likely favored the rest of the way. But I liked what I saw in Game 2, and I feel much better about our chances, with or without Parker. If we can steal one in Houston, this series gets very interesting.

Game 3 is Friday night.

Go Spurs Go.

2017 Western Conference Semifinals Preview: The Familiar Strangers

Given the animosity between the fan bases (or is that just me?) and the continued success of both franchises over the years, it’s pretty miraculous the Rockets and the Spurs haven’t met in the playoffs since 1995. This is the only Western Conference team Duncan never faced (or beat) in the Playoffs. That’s crazy.

My first thought: we owe it to Duncan to get this spiritual victory for him.

My second thought: man, I want to beat this team. Badly. Nothing makes me happier than beating the Rockets. Throw D’Antoni into the mix, and that’s a powerful desire to win.

My third thought: this could be a very good series.

In the regular season, the Spurs took the series 3-1, but finished those four games with a mere +8 point margin. Every game was close and came down to the final possessions. We of course remember the Kawhi 3 and block that sealed one victory; we might also remember that crazy comeback from 14 down with about 6 minutes left earlier in the season.

My memory of each of the games was that the Rockets always seemed to have a lead late and seemed to be in control, but the Spurs were able to execute and perform better in the clutch. Under the postseason spotlight, this could become more magnified and could hopefully benefit the Spurs in tight games.

The first worry when playing the Rockets is always James Harden. How the Spurs choose to defend him will set the tone for the series. Can you guard him one-on-one with a combination of Green and Leonard? When he runs the pick and roll, can you defend that 2-on-2, so that the other three defenders stay home on the perimeter shooters, thus minimizing the 3-point damage this team wants to inflict? Can we avoid fouling him? Can we make him work on defense?

Beyond that, the next concern is the 3-point shot. It’s no secret Houston wants to jack them up early and often. It can be the great equalizer, allowing a less talented team to hang in a game when the shot is on. Will Houston have enough hot shooting games to take the series? When they are not shooting well (they shot poorly in their first round match-up against OKC), do they have enough to stay with the Spurs? Can the Spurs maintain their defensive integrity while still limiting and contesting the long ball?

After the tough first-round series with Memphis, it may seem like the Spurs offense is a bit stalled out. But moving from Memphis to Houston must feel like being released from basketball prison. Houston will score a lot; but they will let San Antonio score a lot, too. However, an offensive battle favors Houston; a defensive one favors the Spurs. Where on the continuum will these games (and the series) fall. The average score for the regular season series was 105-103. If the scores stay around there and lower, I think the Spurs should be heavily favored. If they drift into the 110-115 range, the Spurs might be in trouble.

Turning to the Spurs, there are still plenty of questions 6 games into the postseason. Will Kawhi continue his historic playoff run? By extension, can he out-MVP James Harden in a showdown of the potential MVP runner-ups? Whichever MVP candidate can contribute more to winning will likely lead his team to the series victory.

But Kawhi still needs help. Parker was great in the first round. Can we get 3-4 more great games from him? Will Beverley cause him defensive problems? He’s a great defensive guard, but so is Conley, so it might not be that much different for him.

After that, who else is ready to step up? Manu? Mills? Green? Anybody want to start hitting shots consistently? With Houston usually trending small, will San Antonio stay big and really force a style-vs-style fight? Or will they match and play some with Kawhi at the 4?

Which bigs will play? We know Aldridge will (and he needs to have a great series), but after that, who will get the call? Will Lee continue to start? How many minutes will Gasol play, and can he be effective? Both Dedmon and Bertans seem like good match-ups against Houston, but how much will Pop trust them?

Finally, which team is playing better right now. Presumably, Houston played a better first-round opponent and beat them more handily. They didn’t necessarily look good doing it, though, and required OKC to self-combust a bit to cover up their own myriad of mistakes in the end games.

San Antonio, on the other hand, was in a tougher series, but had to beat Memphis to win the games: the Grizzlies definitely weren’t giving anything away. While OKC was the better regular season team, I think Memphis was a better playoff team, and the Spurs had to play better, more playoff-style basketball in the first round. This might make them more prepared for this second-round match-up, when the intensity will crank up even more.

Of course, the question of health is always important. Both teams have had a nice rest before this series, so I expect both teams fully healthy. However, Harden did seem a bit banged up (ankle, hand) near the end of that first round series, so that will be something to monitor.

With any luck, this will be a great and competitive series…that the Spurs win.

Game 1 is Monday night in San Antonio.

Go Spurs Go.

Bear Down

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 103, Memphis 96
Spurs win series 4-2

It only took 10 games for one of these teams to find an edge over the other on the road.

All credit to Memphis: they are a bear to play. What they lack in quality they make up for with determination and execution. They never let the other team get too much separation, and they continually find answers in clutch situations. In reality, this was a 5-game series in which the Spurs came out on the wrong end of a few too many 50-50 situations. But that’s what Memphis does: they consistently win the moments that have no reason to them.

The Spurs showed their own grit and grind in Game 6, though. There were a few key stretches to the game. After playing relatively even in the first half, Memphis opened up a 10-point lead in the 3rd quarter. The Grizzlies could have pulled away here, but the Spurs clawed their way back into it.

The key stats of the quarter: 8 offensive rebounds, 9 second chance points, 10 free throws. Effort and physicality.

Again in the 4th, Memphis opened up a bit of a lead, pulling out to an 88-81 score with just about six minutes left. To close the game, though, San Antonio showed their championship pedigree, closing on an extended 15-8 run, clamping down on defense and executing just enough against the bruising Memphis defense to gut out the road win.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

As with most games, we should start with Kawhi. While he didn’t shoot as well as he had in previous games (only 8-for-19), and while he was met with resistance at every turn and every drive, he found a way to get it done. It wasn’t fluid, and it wasn’t always pretty, but Kawhi leveraged most every situation to the Spurs advantage. In the second and third quarters, it was drawing fouls and keeping the team afloat at the line. In the fourth, when the attention turned squarely to him, he continued to show his playmaking touch for two huge assists late (and another two passes that led to wide open shots or easy baskets without the assist credit). He was easily the best player in this series. (Coach Pop thinks Kawhi Leonard is the “best player in the league right now.”)

The Spurs second best player in the Grizzlies season? Tony Parker. It wasn’t there every game, but it was there enough in the wins, and it was all there in Game 6. This was vintage Parker, nailing that midrange jumper, driving to the basket, and just running the team with a steady hand in a pressure situation. He finished 11-for-14 from the floor for 27 points, 4 assists, and only 1 turnover. More importantly, he got the team going in the first quarter when the energy of the Memphis crowd could have easily overwhelmed the team, and he hit three huge baskets late when the series was on the line. Can he bring it every night? No. Can he bring it enough to win a series? For now, yes.

The rest of the game was an aggregation of tiny contributions adding up to just enough. David Lee worked his ass off under the rim to win those cheap points that add up in games like this. LaMarcus Aldridge struggled to put the ball in the basket from close range, but battled to a team-high 12 rebounds. Aldridge is easily criticized when he struggles on offense, but rarely gets enough credit for his defense. It’s just assumed that he stinks at defense, and people don’t want to change their minds.

Manu Ginobili hit a huge and-1 3 pointer; Patty Mills had 10 off the bench; Danny Green played his usual great defense and hit a couple of clutch 3s; Dewayne Dedmon had 3 of the highest energy minutes in a closeout game you could hope for. Together, they pieced together the necessary contributions behind Leonard and Parker.

I can’t decide if Memphis was an unusually tough match-up for a 7-seed with their experience and toughness, or if the Spurs played a bit below their regular season level. Houston (who we’ll meet next round) dispatched a seemingly better team in Oklahoma City in the first round in 5, while San Antonio went to 6 against a lower seed. But Memphis might be a better constructed playoff team, while OKC is more easily exposed in the playoffs for the one-man army they are.

All to say, many people are going to be predicting Houston to beat the Spurs in the next round based on the first round results. While the Rockets certainly have a chance, I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. It’s not apples to apples.

We’ll get into that in our series preview, but suffice it to say, San Antonio is relieved to be getting out of the mud with a physically brutal team and Houston will have to figure out how to guard more than one player.

The second round series kicks off Monday night in San Antonio.

Go Spurs Go.

Home Is Where The Shot Is

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 116, Memphis 103
Spurs lead series 3-2

Sometimes the most trite analysis is also the most true: it’s a make or miss league.

It seems a bit reductive, but in Game 5 the Spurs made a bunch of shots they didn’t make in Game 4. Manu finally got on the board and Patty caught fire in the 4th quarter, and there’s your ball game.

If you remember, in Game 4, the non-Kawhi Spurs were 2-for-20 from 3. In Game 5, the non-Kawhi Spurs were 11-for-23 from 3. 38% better and 27 points greater. That covers up a lot of the margins.

The shots in Game 4 were mostly open; the Spurs just couldn’t hit them. If they hit just their team average in Game 4, this series might be over. But alas, it was a “miss” night, and the series is stretched. In Game 5, the bench and role players came to play, and huge contributions from Manu and Patty (along with the usual brilliance of Kawhi and the solid play of Parker) provided the difference in getting the crucial win.

While the shot-making was the biggest difference, there were plenty of little adjustments that helped contribute to the victory. David Lee once again got the start–this time for a healthy Dedmon–and it provided so much needed loosening up of the offense. Lee isn’t a floor spacer, but he is an offensive spacer, working beautifully in the margins and weak side of the offense, providing movement and offensive cohesion. Dedmon has his strengths on offense, but it relies on others finding him. Lee inserts himself into the offense.

Sliding up into Lee’s usual spot in the rotation was Bertans, which was also important. Bertans provides spacing on offense, stretching that Grizzlies defense thin. Like any great shooter, his presence alone has great impact on the game. He only played limited minutes, but they were important.

The Spurs also played a much more aggressive defense, often doubling Gasol and Randolph on their catches and daring the Grizzlies role players to beat them. While the likes of Selden, Harrison, and Ennis have played better than expected in the last few games, it’s a worthy risk. If the Grizzlies “others” can win this series, they deserve to win this series. I’m happy taking my chances with wide open 3s for Harrison if it means less shots for Gasol and Conley.

Conley continues to kill us. As long as he’s the only one, though, we can contain that. Damn, he’s a good player. He would have been a perfect replacement for Parker.

Kawhi was great once again, but in a less superhuman way, which is probably better overall. Once again, Memphis aggressively defended him, often sending 1 or 2 extra defenders. Kawhi was patient accepting the double teams and making the right pass. He finished with 6 assists and rarely forced the action. (Another benefit of Lee: he works great off of Leonard in the dunker position, often getting easy points off of drop offs and second chance tip ins.)

The Spurs were able to reassert control of the series, but they’re not out of the woods yet. They haven’t won a game in Memphis yet, and they certainly aren’t favored to on Thursday night. It’d be lovely if this historically great road team could get one road win in this series; it’d be great if the Spurs could make a few shots in Memphis; it’d be fantastic if the team could close this out in 6, and not drag a first round series to 7 games.

We’ll find out Thursday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Exceptionalism, Wasted

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 108, Memphis 110 (OT)
Series tied 2-2

I’m of two minds about this game.

On the one hand, it was a fantastic basketball game, everything we love about playoff basketball.

On the other hand, the Spurs lost.

But then again, it was likely Kawhi Leonard’s best playoff game (in a lead performance) and arguably the best 10 minute stretch of playoff basketball by any Spurs player ever.

And yet, the Spurs lost.

It’s actually pretty easy to figure out my feelings on that game. Despite the gloriousness that was Kawhi Leonard, that game hurt. Now we have a series. While I still favor the Spurs, the Grizzlies winning would not shock me.

Let’s talk about Kawhi first. Man, oh man. The thing I was most curious to see in this postseason was Kawhi. Did his game have another gear? Could he show up in the playoffs? Through 4 games, I think we have our answer, and I think we have our player moving forward for another generation.

His fourth quarter (and OT) Saturday night was something else. He just took that game over on both ends of the court. I feel more confident with the ball in his hands that I have since early-aughts Tim Duncan in the post. His ability to get a clean look at the basket from any position on the court is remarkable. And his court vision is improving by the game. (I think he’ll average a career-high in assists next season.)

But that brings us to the rub: the rest of the team needs to do something. Anything. (By that I mean hit a wide open shot when it’s presented to you). Fun fact: the Spurs are now 0-4 on the season in Memphis. In those 4 games, they’ve shot 32-for-101 on 3s, for a whopping 31.7%. Take away Kawhi’s crazy 7-for-10 in Game 4, and that drops to an abysmal 27%.

The Spurs total FG% from the floor in those 4 games in Memphis is 42.3%, 41.9% if we remove Kawhi’s game 4.

This is not good. But it also hints at an easy solution: make your shots, especially the wide open ones.

Despite their reputation, Memphis is allowing the Spurs wide open looks. They just can’t make them in Memphis. Green was 0-for-10 from 3 in the last two games; Manu was 0-for-5; Parker was 0-for-2; Gasol was 0-for-3; Mills was really the only player to hit anything, going 4-for-9 in the two games.

The Spurs need to hit open shots. Memphis is too good at grinding out wins to get into trenches with them. The Spurs need to win this series with offense, shot-making, pace, and space. Right now, they are 0-fer on those things away from the AT&T Center. When the game slows down, gets really physical, and becomes a nip and tuck affair, the advantage is squarely with Memphis.

This points to another disturbing trend in these last two games: the Spurs inability to dictate the terms of the fight. Yes, they played it tough in Game 4 and had multiple chances to win. But it never felt like the Spurs controlled that game. Memphis controlled that game (and likely deserved the win because of it). The Spurs aren’t really taking anything away from them, or making them uncomfortable anywhere. Conley is abusing us, Gasol is abusing us, Randolph is bullying us, and the Memphis role players are playing great (while the Spurs’ are shrinking).

The good news? All of these things could be said about Memphis after the first two games. Heading back to San Antonio, the friendly confines of the AT&T Center should do wonders for the team. You know who is 0-4 in San Antonio this year? Memphis. If this turns into a home court series, then the advantage clearly lies with the team who has home court advantage (and is the reason the regular season matters).

But we  can’t rely solely on returning home. Memphis is confident and feels like they’ve found something against this Spurs team. San Antonio needs to disabuse them of this notion quickly and emphatically in Game 5.

And they need to get Kawhi some help.

Green’s defense has been wonderful, but he needs to hit open shots.

LaMarcus has had stretches of brilliance, but he plays passive for long stretches and usually needs some inciting incident to wake up. It’s Game 5; come ready, LA.

Parker has played well, but you can only expect so much from him. He is no longer what he used to be (and what Mike Conley currently is). We need to make up for the difference somewhere else.

Lee has been unable to find any of that regular season magic, and seems overmatched by the playoff (and Memphis) intensity.

Mills hasn’t had a breakout moment yet, which he is usually good for every few games.

Anderson and Simmons have played solid in moments, but one of them will likely need a burst somewhere along the way.

Gasol has been solid, as well, but will likely need to provide even more scoring punch off the bench.

Dedmon (who was out sick for this game) is playing with his usual energy, but the team seems to have forgotten (or other teams have figured it out) how to get 3-4 cheap buckets with him at the rim every game (read: alley oops!). His defense will be needed, though, as the Spurs really need to hold Memphis in the low-to-mid 90s to win these games.

Bertans showed me something in Game 4, and the floor is just spaced so much better when he is on the court. I expect a few more minutes for him in Game 5.

Manu… I’m not ready to talk about Manu just yet. Whatever magic he and Vince have had to play so well at this age, it looks like Manu’s has run out. If Manu gives us anything (playmaking, 3-point shooting, pesky defense, ferocious energy and competitive fire), our bench can come alive and provide a comfortable margin for victory.

I said that Game 4 was really going to show us what kind of team we had. Despite the loss (and the many worrying trends), I liked the heart the team showed. They had that game to win, and they couldn’t. But that game could have also been an overwhelming loss, and they didn’t let that happen.

They’re coming home, where so often the little things tend to turn in your favor.

Game 5 is Tuesday night. Let’s get it.

Go Spurs Go.

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