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NBA playoffs preview: Spurs have tough task

Posted by Eric Fisher On May 13

The Warriors haven’t had to beat the Spurs while advancing to the NBA Finals the past two seasons. They will have to beat them this year in order to make a third straight trip to the finals.

The Spurs aren’t at full strength. They lost Tony Parker to a season-ending injury during their second-round series against the Rockets. Kawhi Leonard sat out the overtime of Game 5 and all of Game 6 against the Rockets, yet the Spurs won both games, blowing out the Rockets in the series-clinching Game 6. The lesson is to that you underestimate the Spurs at your own risk.

Yet it’s difficult to figure out how the Spurs can beat the Warriors. The Warriors have elite players and depth. By sweeping their first two series, the Warriors are also gaining time for their injured players to heal and rest.

The Cavaliers have received even more rest than Warriors. After sweeping the Raptors, they waited while the Celtics slugged it out with the Wizards for seven games, finally finishing them off Monday night.

Let’s examine the conference finals.


SPURS (2) vs. WARRIORS (1)

How the Spurs got here: They fought off the Grizzlies in six games, and then eliminated the Rockets in six games.

How the Warriors got here: They swept the Trail Blazers and then swept the Jazz.

Spurs: The Spurs keep winning with team basketball. They lost Parker, who was averaging 15.9 points per game during the playoffs, to a season-ending quadriceps tendon tear, but kept on winning. They won in overtime of Game 5 and Game 6 with Leonard, their best player, sidelined by an ankle injury. Leonard (25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds during the regular season) is 27.8 points and 7.7 rebounds during the postseason, but there are questions about the condition of his ankle. Without Leonard in the lineup for Game 6, forward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds), who scoring has decreased during the postseason, responded with his best game during the playoffs, scoring 34 points and 12 rebounds during a 39-point blowout of the Rockets. Swingman Danny Green (7.3 point during the regular season, 7.9 postseason) drilled the tying 3-pointer in Game 5, and then scored seven straight points during the Game 5 overtime. Manu Ginobili, the last man standing from the trio that included Tim Duncan and Parker, also came up big during Game 5, including a block of James Harden’s 3-point attempt to tie the game in overtime. Guard Patty Mills (11.2 postseason) has been a steady contributor, but the contributions of swingman Jonathon Simmons (8.8 points) against the Rockets were more surprising.  The Spurs would benefit from more production from center Pau Gasol, whose regular season numbers (12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds) have dropped to 7.1 points and 7.1 rebounds during the postseason. The same goes for forward/center David Lee (7.3 points, 5.6 rebounds regular season).

Warriors: The Warriors are led by the trio of Stephen Curry (25.3 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds), Kevin Durant (25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists) and Klay Thompson (22.3 points). Curry has increased his scoring (27.1) during the playoffs, but Durant (23.3) and Thompson (16.4) have been below their regular-season levels. Durant broke loose for 38 points during a Game 3 win over the overmatched Jazz, but Thompson is only making 40.7 percent of his shots. On the other hand, forward/center Draymond Green (10.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7 assists) increased his scoring (14.9), rebounding (9.1) and assists (7.3). Former Sixer Andre Iguodala (7.6 points) embraces his defensive role, which will probably be to contain Leonard. The Warriors have battled through injuries while sweeping their first two opponents. They were scary without Durant for half of their first-round series due to a calf injury. Forward Matt Barnes (7.1 points) didn’t play at all in the first round and barely played in three games during the second round. Guard Shaun Livingston (5.1 points) only played one game due to injury. Guard Ian Clark (7.3 points in playoffs, ), forward David West (4.8 points) and centers JaVale McGee (7.4 points) and Zaza Pachulia (5.8 points) have filled in the gaps, just as they have all season.

Analysis: The well-rested Warriors (67-15) have won 23 of their past 24 games, winning seven of their eight playoff games by double digits. The scary thing is they haven’t been playing their best basketball during the postseason. The Spurs always seem to be better than the sum of their parts. Head coach Gregg Popovich is a magician. He certainly gives the Spurs an advantage over the Warriors, who are being led by assistant coach Mike Brown because of head coach Steve Kerr’s back problems, but how is Popovich going to counter the Warriors’ superiority at guard? Warriors in 5



How Cavaliers got here: They swept the Pacers and the Raptors.

How Celtics got here: After losing the first two games, they roared back with four straight wins to eliminate the Bulls and needed seven games to eliminate the Wizards.

Cavaliers-LeBronpumpedCavaliers: The defending champions are a bit of a mystery. They seem to have been sleepwalking through parts of the season, including the final 10 games, when they went 4-6 and were overtaken for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference by the Celtics, which is why the Celtics have homecourt advantage in this series. Even during their first-round sweep of the Pacers, the Cavaliers seemed to coast through games, falling behind by 25 points before rallying in one of their victories. But they appeared to wake up a bit during the second round against the Raptors, winning three of their final four games by double figures. LeBron James (26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists during the regular season) is averaging 34.4 points during the playoffs while continuing to rebound (8.3) and distribute the basketball (7.1 assists). Point guard Kyrie Irving (25.2 points, 5.8 assists) is averaging 23.8 points and 5.8 assists during the playoffs. Kevin Love finished the regular season averaging 19 points and 11.1 rebounds, but the question about whether he can be the same player he was before his mid-February arthroscopic knee surgery haven’t been answered during the first two rounds, with his scoring (13.8) average dropping from the first round to the second. Former Sixer Kyle Korver (10.1 points) saw his scoring average rise against the Raptors, but his playoff average (7.8) is still below his regular-season average. Center Tristan Thompson (7.8 points, 10.6 rebounds), forward Channing Frye (8.8 points) and guards Deron Williams and J.R. Smith (6.4 points apiece) have contributed, but not enough to take the pressure off James and Irving.

Celtics: Guard Isaiah Thomas, who was third in the NBA in scoring (28.9 points per game), matched that number with 29 points during the Celtics’ Game 7 triumph over the Wizards. He is averaging 25.4 point during the postseason, but keep in mind that he has been dealing with the death of his sister, which occurred just before the playoffs began. The guard-centered attack includes Avery Bradley, whose 15.8-point average is almost identical to his regular-season average (16.3 points), and Marcus Smart, who dipped from 10.6 points during the regular season to 8.0 during the playoffs. But the Celtics keep teams honest on defense with center Al Horford (16.1 points, 7.5 rebounds), who is second to Thomas in assists (5.8). Forwards Jae Crowder (13.2 points, 5.81 rebounds during regular season) and Gerald Green (9.0 points in first round), 6.8 overall) have also made significant contributions. Center Kelly Olynyk (9.7 points) rose to the occasion in Game 7 with 26 points, including 14 during the fourth quarter. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has done a terrific job of assembling the pieces, and Stevens has done a wonderful job of putting the pieces together.

Analysis: Although they are the top seed, the Celtics are underdogs against the Cavaliers. This makes them determined to prove they deserved the No. 1 seed. The defense of Bradley and Crowder will be extremely important in trying to contain James. The guard matchup between Thomas and Irving should be fascinating to watch. Horford provides the Celtics with an advantage at center. If Olynyk can come close to replicating his Game 7 performance against the Wizards, it would be a huge boost for the Celtics, who already have considerable depth and balance. The Cavaliers were more dominant against the Raptors than they were against the Pacers. Will they continue to improve or will they try to coast their way to an NBA Finals rematch with, presumably, the Warriors? Maybe a little of both. Cavaliers in 6 

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