The Spurs try to take down a new batch of Blazer-mania while a heated regular season rivalry between the Thunder and Clippers makes its postseason debut
#1 SAN ANTONIO SPURS vs. #5 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
After a scintillating and breakneck-paced six-game series win over Dwight Howard and James Harden’s Houston Rockets, the city of Portland has embraced their Trail Blazers more tightly than they have in decades. Sure, the Blazers have been solid to really good for nearly every season since the late 1980’s when Clyde Drexler and company represented Rip City. Even when the team was not at its best, you could never count out the energy that vibrated through the previously named Rose Garden when it came to influencing the games. The entire world saw it in the Moda Center last Friday when Damian Lillard sank a three-pointer at the buzzer to take down the Rockets and nearly incited a joyous riot. Now, after years of hand-hanging misery with the infamous “Jail Blazers” and the no-frills apathy of Nate McMillan’s teams, the Blazers have finally arrived to the dance after winning their first playoff series since 2000 when they came within one quarter of going to the NBA Finals.
The resurgence of the Blazers was amplified by tragedy when Dr. Jack Ramsay, the head coach of the beloved 1977 team that won an NBA title thanks to Bill Walton, died at age 89 on April 25th. There have been plenty of memorable Blazers teams over the years, but none of them will ever top the ’77 squad that brought Blazer-mania to the national forefront, winning the Northwest city its only professional sports championship. Some of the players on the Blazers team weren’t even born when Ramsay was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, but Dr. Jack’s passing does spark a connection between the brightest days of Blazers basketball and what feels like a rechristening of those same spirits, raising in victory the hands of Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, and Nicolas Batum. Terry Stotts has done a wonderful job leading his young team out of the first round. Now, after beating the Rockets and moving up the ladder, they have to fight off a team at the top of that ladder.
It seemed like a formality to many that the San Antonio Spurs were going to dispatch the division rival Dallas Mavericks in the first round. In fact, they did, but this entry into the postseason did not come easy at all for the defending Western Conference Champions. After sweeping the Jazz in 2012 and Lakers in 2013, San Antonio were minutes away from going down 3 games to 1 in the series before pulling out a 93-89 win in Game 4 in Dallas. The Spurs won a competitive Game 5, but still could not finish it on the road in Game 6. It was in the elimination game that, after a few false starts, the Spurs offense really took it up a notch, scoring 68 points in the first half in a 23-point win over the Mavericks to end their season. The Spurs are used to easing their veteran way through the early portion of the playoffs, but the seven-game pressure cooker that the Mavs put them through may have helped in preparing them for a second round match up that could quickly spell doom.
The Spurs played a team last year in the same vein as Portland’s when they took on the small ball-happy Golden State Warriors in the second round. The Spurs had made it look easy against the Lakers, but got stunned in the first two games at home against the Warriors, losing Game 2 and nearly losing Game 1. It wasn’t until they went to Golden State that San Antonio peaked as team, only losing one game after that before reaching the Finals. Now the Spurs, having been surprisingly battle tested by Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, have to play a team that is a pup in playoff experience compared to their fully bred terrier. The Spurs’ offense has improved year after year and averaged 105.5 PPG in the regular season, but the Blazers were even better at 106.6 PPG. Portland under Stotts loves to run and is by far the best three-point-shooting team remaining in the postseason at 9.4 made triples per game.
The Spurs have the Blazers (and the rest of the league) beat in the three-point field goal percentage at 40%, but there are other categories that point to a close series. The Blazers are worlds better at getting to the free throw line and were the best FT percentage team in the league at nearly 82 percent. The Blazers are a better rebounding team, especially on offensive boards where Aldridge and Robin Lopez wreak havoc. The defensive numbers all favor San Antonio by a significant margin, but believe me, both of these teams want to play quickly and show no remorse when they find their sweet spots on the court. Tony Parker, while still at a young age, has taken on every great guard the NBA could throw at him over the years, and he now can add another All-Star name to that list in Lillard. While many players like Jeff Teague, Bradley Beal, and Mike Conley played brilliantly in his year’s awesome first round, the second-year guard out of Weber State was the one who stole the hearts of many so far.
Lillard helped lead the Blazers to overtime victories in Games 1 and 4 and then hit the dagger to end all daggers at home in Game 6. His All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge was ungodly in the series, averaging 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nearly 3 blocks. His 46-point, 18-rebound performance in Game 1 at Houston was a sight to behold, the true arrival to the big stage for a player who had been on the fringe of super stardom for years. Thanks to their entertaining win over the Rockets, everyone knows who Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are now as the point guard-power forward combo of the future fights the old guard in Parker and Tim Duncan. Duncan is in a position where he no longer has to carry the load inside thanks to Thiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, so the way Gregg Popovich attacks Aldridge defensively will be interesting. He is a killer from mid-range, where Duncan can be exposed these days on defense, but the Spurs are one of the best teams in forcing a team into taking their least favorite shots.
The match up that I am dying to see, and will be crucial in the development of the series, is Nicolas Batum, a French swingman who can rebound as efficiently as he makes three’s, taking on a throwback cerebral small forward in Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills almost never miss from outside the arc and they will do battle many times with the likes of Mo Williams, Matthews, and Dorrell Wright. I would not be shocked if Matthews, a hustler by trade, guards Parker one-on-one late in games. The major concern when it comes to Portland in comparison to San Antonio is that their bench play is one of the worst while San Antonio’s is one of the best. While Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are household names and Lillard and Aldridge are freshly minted stars, this series will be one by the other guys in many ways. It is a mighty tall task to take down the Spurs in the playoffs, but the Blazers have enough offensive firepower, creativity, and brass balls to pull it off if they can stay the course. I am sure Dr. Jack is clapping them on somewhere, win or lose.
#2 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER vs. #3 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
You could call it predictable on paper that the #2 seed and #3 seed moved to face each other in the Western Conference playoffs, but like the Spurs and Blazers before their match up, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder had to fight with everything they had to get through the first round. Both teams had to go seven games with their first round opponents in order to win the series, with the Thunder staring down elimination down 3-2 and playing in Memphis. The Grizzlies had eliminated the Thunder last postseason and it seemed like it was going to happen again after four consecutive overtime games from Game 2 to Game 5. It looked for a couple days that Kevin Durant would be on the wrong side of history: A regular season league MVP who didn’t win a playoff series.
It was with that potential embarrassment that local paper The Oklahoman decided to rub salt into that fresh wound, foolishly labeling their local superstar as “Mr. Unreliable.” Certainly, Durant has not always been at his best in the playoffs, but to slap an insult that brooding on K.D. is just mean-spirited. Maybe the Oklahoman did the Thunder a favor by ostracizing themselves, because in Game 6, like LeBron James in Boston in 2012, we got Angry Durant, and you can rely on that guy. He took over early in Memphis with 18 points in the first quarter, finishing with 36 along with 10 rebounds. It almost felt like the series had gotten back to normal as the Thunder rolled the Grizzlies for the first time since Game 1. The writing was on the wall even more for the plucky Grizzlies when Mike Conley injured his hamstring and Zach Randolph got suspended for punching Steven Adams in the jaw while jogging down the court. The Thunder went on to take Memphis out 120-109 in Game 7 back at Oklahoma City.
The Thunder’s next opponent is a team that also fell to the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs last year, the Los Angeles Clippers. When the Clippers lost four games in a row in the first round to Memphis, their head coach was the clearly overwhelmed Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro was fired and replaced with Doc Rivers, who has won an NBA Championship coaching the Boston Celtics. Those who believed that Doc would slow things down and rely on defense like his Boston teams did were quickly mistaken as the Clippers led the league in scoring at 107.9 PPG. DeAndre Jordan won the regular season rebounding title, they won more games than ever in a single season, and they are even more of a blistering highlight reel than they were before. Thanks to the intensity of Chris Paul and the general perception of Blake Griffin as a crybaby, the Clippers have had no problems finding teams that are high on the animosity meter.
One of those teams was division rival Golden State, whom the Clippers had to go the distance to eliminate in the first round. The Warriors took Game 1 at Staples Center before the Clippers took one right back in Game 3 thanks in large part to a fantastic performance from Griffin. Then came the bizarre and unfathomable events that led to Donald Sterling, the current owner of the team, being banned for life by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after a tape recording revealed that he did not prefer having African Americans associate with his mistress girlfriend. Sterling was appropriately labeled as a racist and became public relations poison overnight. Before Game 5 against the Warriors at Los Angeles, Silver’s decision to ban Sterling, while incredibly risky from a legal perspective, was met with unanimous praise from an angry players’ union that claims they were going to begin boycotting the games. Thankfully, no one walked off the court after tip-off for the Clippers as they eventually ran off the Warriors with an easy win in Game 5 and an incredible overall performance in Game 7, one of the best games I have ever seen. The Clippers finally took out the Warriors 126-12 to win the series.
There were plenty of emotional fireworks going off in the Clippers/Warriors series, but if you think you saw intensity in that match up, wait until you see what we have in store when Los Angeles faces off with Oklahoma City. This is their first time matching up in the playoffs, but there is quite a juicy history of bad blood between the two teams in the regular season. It goes all the way back to 2012 when Blake Griffin baptized Kendrick Perkins with a dunk that has been seen on YouTube nearly as many times as “Charlie Bit My Finger.” That led to a series of incidents between Blake and Perkins’ front court teammate Serge Ibaka, who punched Griffin directly in the junk under the basket last season. Every game has some sort of skirmish between the two; they flat out hate each other. Chris Paul is a superstar who can either dish out 16 assists or score 30 points if he so desires, and his counterpart in this series, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, is the same way. Westbrook took a ton of shots against the Grizzlies but his stats were phenomenal, clocking in 26 points, 10 boards, and 16 assists in the seventh and final game.
The Clippers just got done with a track meet of sorts against the Warriors, and they are gonna have to put their speed shoes on again when they face the Thunder. They are the two quickest teams left in terms of overall pace along with both teams being excellent at field goal percentage, rebounding and getting to the free-throw line. They are close to equal in terms of three-pointers made per game at more than eight, but the Thunder shot at a higher percentage. The tale of the tape is pretty darn close, and I would not be stunned at all if this one goes another seven fast-paced, hard-fought games and be the most entertaining playoff series so far. All this will be predicated around the leaked news that Durant will win league MVP, the first time since 2011 that someone other than LeBron James has won the award. After being dubbed “Mr. Unreliable” by a rogue paper, it now seems like Durant is the only guy that the Thunder can truly rely on as they face the Clippers.
Doc Rivers made a lot of strides with the other Los Angeles team in the regular season, but it is obvious in the postseason that his money is being made in the playoffs where the Clippers are enjoying their best success ever as a franchise, this time without their bumbling owner. The motto for the Clippers this year is “We Are One,” and it has become a message across the league as the organization tries to move past the stain that Sterling’s comments have left on the their psyches. Rivers learned how to squeak out the tough wins in Boston by promoting togetherness and relentlessness, and it paid off big time in an elimination game against a game Warriors team. Can Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and the rest of the reinvigorated Clippers continue their reign as the new basketball kings of Hollywood against the soon-to-be-crowned league MVP? The players are united as “One” against the bigotry of the Clippers’ former owner, but in this series, there can only be one and there will be a different kind of hatred spilling out on the court.