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- Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Playoff Previews: San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks (Ball Don't Lie) April 18, 2014The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason. Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test Without the paper, this looks like yet another fantastic Western pairing. San Antonio and Dallas, those ancient combatants, teams that took on each other to great acclaim several postseason times over the course of the dueling Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki eras, in a first-round matchup that shouldn’t be predetermined by Dallas’ stinkful eighth seed and San Antonio’s well-worked top overall seed in the Western Conference. In 2014, though, these records seem to hold out. Dallas is a respected 49-win team, one that had to navigate a terrific Western Conference and make sure that every game counted down the tough playoff-earning stretch. San Antonio is a league-best 62-win squad, the only such NBA club to top 60 wins in 82 tries, a beaming achievement considering they are the only club in NBA history to not boast a player working over 30 minutes a contest. Considering the history, and the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, and the fact that Dallas is just three years removed from a title in comparison to San Antonio’s seven , one would think that 13-win difference could be trimmed to near-nil. Though you should respect these Mavericks and expect that they’ll put up their typical fight, don’t bet on as much. (Seriously, don’t wager.) San Antonio had a regular season for the ages, and there’s no reason to think this wouldn’t carry over into the playoffs. It’s completely true depth and versatility are often outmoded once things turn into a best-of-seven routine, but these are the bloody Spurs we’re talking about. We’re talking about potentially handing seven games to San Antonio in a full two-week term, presuming San Antonio needs as long to dispatch the Mavericks. Which they won’t. The Mavericks are to be respected, and everyone wishes that in a modern Adam Silver-led world they would be starting their postseason against the Portland Trail Blazers (which would be the case if the NBA shifted to a 1-through-16 seeded format for the playoffs), but the Spurs just seem to have Dallas’ number. This isn’t a case of respecting the seeds above all. The typical No. 1-versus-8 matchup, at least prior to the Western Conference’s recent regular season dominance of NBA basketball, pitted a .500 team against a club that had topped 60-some wins, and these Mavericks were on pace for those 49 wins for just about all of 2013-14. It’s true they are the worst defensive team in the playoffs by a sound margin, but the Nowitzki and Monta Ellis-led club is a fantastic offensive team, one that rarely turns the ball over, one shoots exceedingly well in all areas – top six from any stripe or paint you can think of during the regular season. Somehow, San Antonio still has this team licked, despite playing someone like Duncan nearly a thousand minutes less than Monta Ellis played during the regular season, and despite Manu Ginobili seeing half as much court time as Mr. Ellis in Monta’s first season in Dallas. Injuries and rest played a part, but by and large this was San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s intention. Those who are just tuning into the NBA in mid-April might give such fawning a big “ho-hum” to San Antonio’s West-beating routine, but Popovich masterfully worked with his enviable core and full rotation, in a legendary mixture of coaching and commitment from the players in the wake of a 2012-13 season that lasted 103 games plus a month-long “preseason.” That century-long turn didn’t even result in a title win, which could have been a killer to most, and coupled with the onset of age and perhaps the most fearsome of conferences we’ve seen in NBA lore, it would have been understandable for the Spurs to roll over. The return of Russell Westbrook and rise of Kevin Durant could have sent the Spurs into a tizzy, as could the pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden or the move to let Doc Rivers run the Los Angeles Clippers like adults. Instead, the Spurs kept on. As did the Mavericks, to the best of their abilities. In spite of the relative growth of Ellis and sound work of Jose Calderon, plus the continued solid play of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, or the pocket-filling add-ons from Brandan Wright and the returning Devin Harris, it was somehow “only” worth 49 wins. Even with Nowitzki around. With no flies on him. The reward is a chance to match up and match wits with San Antonio. And though in most cases you’d expect a lengthy battle pitched irrespective of seeding, San Antonio is still a full Tim Duncan arm’s length removed from Dallas. Prediction: San Antonio in 5. Dan Devine's One Big Question Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over. Can Dallas even make this interesting? There is, I'll grant, a fundamental hole in the question -- Rick Carlisle's flowing, whirring offense is always worth watching, Dirk Nowitzki In The Playoffs will be must-see TV until he heads back to Wurzburg for good, and there always exists the possibility that Monta Ellis will go nuclear. But there's also a reason I'm asking. The Spurs have bounced back from Games 6 and 7 with great vengeance and furious anger, storming to the NBA's best record, ripping off a franchise-record 19-game winning streak and outscoring their opposition by just under 10 points per 100 possessions (tops in the league) since the All-Star break. They have done so while ensuring that all of their players average less than 30 minutes per game for the season. They've developed depth and rotational versatility along the way, giving Gregg Popovich multiple options to deploy whether the run of play dictates going big or small, allowing him to run out potent offensive lineups that won't give up the store or stout defensive units that won't stagnate. They're the favorites to return to the NBA finals, and while dangerous matchups lurk -- namely, in Houston and Oklahoma City -- the Mavericks aren't one of them. This intra-Texas rivalry was once the stuff of legend, but at this stage in the two teams' life cycles, the state of affairs is simple: San Antonio beats the hell out of Dallas, because that's just what they do. The Spurs are 13-3 against the Mavericks over the past four years, including 4-0 sweeps in each of the past two seasons, and the 1 vs. 8 seeding disparity is borne out when you look at how this year's series played out. Only one of the four meetings (a 112-90 early January beating) was a blowout, but the Spurs essentially smothered the Mavericks everywhere. Against the league at large, the Dallas offense was a vicious machine on par with the Miami Heat (109 points per 100 possessions, tied for No. 2 in the league). Against the Spurs, the Mavericks were basically the Atlanta Hawks (103.5 points-per-100, smack dab in the middle of the NBA pack). Against everybody else, Dallas' high-powered attack fired 22.9 3-point tries per game (12th-most in the NBA) and made 38.4 percent of them (second-best, behind only San Antonio). Against a Spurs team dedicated to shutting off opponents at the arc, the Mavs managed only 16.5 long attempts per game, which would've ranked between the everything-on-the-interior Chicago Bulls and without-injured-Ryan-Anderson New Orleans Pelicans for the third-lowest per-game mark over the course of the full season, and connected on a comparatively pedestrian 36.4 percent. San Antonio's sound positional defense kept Dallas off the foul line (only 18.5 free-throw attempts per game, which is about 2 1/2 fewer than their season average and would've been dead last in the league). Their commitment to finishing defensive possessions also kept Dallas from making hay on the offensive glass -- a Mavericks team that snagged nearly a quarter of available offensive rebounds on the season collected only 15.4 percent against the Spurs, limiting opportunities to catch the defense off-guard with tap-backs or kickouts that lead to side-to-side ball swings for quick dribble drives or open 3-point looks. On the other end of the floor, Dallas' season-long defensive problems -- an inability to corral dribble penetration on the perimeter and a lack of reliable rim protection (allowing the NBA's third-highest opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area, and the fifth-highest on other shots in the paint) -- cropped up in very ugly ways against the Spurs. San Antonio torched the Mavs to the tune of 115.2 points per 100 possessions, leaps and bounds better than the Los Angeles Clippers' No. 1-ranked offense, thanks to a blistering 43.3 percent mark on more than 24 3-point attempts per game. Tony Parker had a field day during his three appearances against Dallas, averaging 23.3 points in while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor and dropping just under six dimes in 31.3 minutes per game while guarded primarily by Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington and Shawn Marion. And when Parker sat out the teams' last meeting of the season to rest his ailing back, the Spurs worked through Tim Duncan (20 points and 15 boards in 39 minutes) while Kawhi Leonard did a lot of everything (16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, two steals) and backup point man Patty Mills confidently lit Dallas up (26 points and six assists without a turnover). Even without their engine, the Spurs' offense could comfortably cruise against Dallas' not-exactly-big D. Heavy minutes for Marion and substantial reserve guard Devin Harris could help shore up the leaky perimeter D, but so much of the Mavericks' identity relies on the floor-tilting looks their offense can generate by teaming Calderon and Ellis with Nowitzki in lineups that essentially bet their firepower can overwhelm you faster and more completely than yours can overwhelm them. It's not a bad gamble most nights, against most teams. But the Spurs will call, every time, and before very long you'll find yourself wondering how Pop managed to get 11 cards in his hand, and how all of them can be wild. I hold out hope for one more baffling and ridiculous Dirk performance in the early spring sun, but I expect Dallas' defense to fold sooner rather than later. Prediction: Spurs in 5. Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question. The NBA postseason is often a time to discover new things about players and teams, but it often ends up reaffirming things we already know. The San Antonio Spurs, for instance, have proven that they can reinvent themselves, but they’re perhaps most likable for the fact that they don’t seem to allow circumstances or typical aging processes to deter them from their goals. There is comfort in knowing that they will approach every series as a puzzle to be solved — that Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the cast of characters surrounding them will comport themselves in a manner to which we’ve become accustomed. The Mavericks are not the same team that won the NBA title in 2011, but their general character remains the same. Dirk Nowitzki is an offensive marvel and remains one of the most compulsively watchable talents in the NBA, and his veteran cohort of teammates has been in the league long enough to provide few surprises. Perhaps we will learn if Monta Ellis has matured enough control some of his worst shot-taking impulses in big moments, but the Mavs are generally a known quantity. They will succeed with efficient shooting, creative offense, and just enough of a defensive effort to contain the opposition. It’s unlikely that the Mavericks can make that happen — regular season results are not always predictive of playoff results, but the Spurs appear to have their number. It might be best to think of this series not as a rip-roaring thrill ride, but a chance to witness some superior craft. It’s a well-made genre story, not an epic. Yet that can be pretty darn enjoyable. Rating: 7 out of 10 Glasses of Milk Prediction: Spurs in 5.
- 76ers look toward future after dismal season (The Associated Press) April 17, 2014The Philadelphia 76ers opened the season with a win against Miami, and they beat the Heat again in the finale. It was the rest of the NBA that gave the Sixers fits. The Sixers entered this season in clear rebuild mode - labeled around the league as tanking - and they lived up to their preseason billing as one of the worst in the league in record fashion: Philadelphia matched an NBA record with a 26-game losing streak. There was no real outrage because losing was part of Philadelphia's blueprint all along.
- Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Playoff Previews: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies (Ball Don't Lie) April 17, 2014The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) for the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason. Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test So we’re doing this again, eh? Oklahoma City and Memphis don’t have nearly the same enmity or respect or mixture of the two that the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers have, or the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat boast. There’s not a level of disgust there that will carry over into fisticuffs or even furrowed brows. These teams are meeting for the third postseason in four years, though, and we’d call this turn the rubber match if we didn’t think both outfits had a strong chance to hook up in 2015 or 2016 as well. The Thunder has been hot from the outset, even if the team hasn’t truly turned into a fully realized version of itself until the dawn of spring. Guard Russell Westbrook only recently returned to form, struggling in response to a torn meniscus suffered nearly a year ago in a playoff series against the Houston Rockets, and the two follow-up surgeries that the frightening injury necessitated. Westbrook, as is his custom even when he is healthy, marked his return with equal amounts brilliant and too-forced play in the bouts between operations, though his fulminations rarely took away from the Thunder’s chances at a win. Unless the team was on national TV, of course. Over the last month, though, Westbrook has been playing the finest basketball of his career. Just 25, he still notches an assist on 40 percent of the possessions he uses up, his rebounding has never been better, and though he’s tossing up more shots per minute than ever before, it’s hardly taken away from the work of his more-tenured teammate. Because Kevin Durant has come through with an MVP season. He came through with it without Russell, and with Russell both at his best and still-recovering worst when the two shared a court. He’s been the best player in the league this year, he’s helped drag the Thunder to the second-best record in the NBA with Westbrook gone for nearly half of his team’s games and former teammate James Harden working out of Houston, and he’ll rightfully take home the league’s MVP award sometime later this spring. It’s Houston that ticks Oklahoma City off most, not Memphis. The Grizzlies were the ones that ended OKC’s season last year with Westbrook on the sidelines, but Memphis didn’t exactly preen after downing a Thunder team working without its All-Star point guard, and Westbrook’s personal dartboard is likely filled with far more pictures of Houston guard Patrick Beverley (who caused Russell’s meniscus tear) than anyone else. That’s not to say Memphis doesn’t have Oklahoma City’s attention. The Grizzlies clawed their way into the playoff bracket in the last week of the regular season, working up a 33-13 record once Marc Gasol returned from an early season knee injury, slowing the pace along the way and turning in a stellar defensive effort. Other factors have aided in this return to form — Courtney Lee was a fantastic midseason acquisition, Mike Conley seems to get better game by game — but by and large this is the same Grizzlies crew, hoping to beat you in spite of the game plan that you think you’ve already sussed out. The problem here is that nobody has an answer for Durant, who ended his season with a brilliant 42-point, six-assist effort on Wednesday night . OKC is nearly a top-five team on both ends of the court in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, and luring Durant into beating you with a singular effort — putting up huge points while the others struggle around him — is tougher than ever. The spacing and ball movement are improving, and while this may not be enough to topple last year’s NBA finalists later on in the postseason, it should be enough to gain revenge on the team that ended Oklahoma City’s season in 2013. They’ll have Westbrook this time around, though that’s only part of it. Durant is in the heat of a year for the ages, and the respect that Memphis has earned via its playoff series’ with the Thunder in 2011 and 2013 may hurt the Grizzlies as much as help. The Thunder knows what’s coming. That won’t keep them from bruising easily, though. Memphis doesn’t go down without a fight. Prediction: Thunder in six. Dan Devine's One Big Question Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over. What the hell are we about to see? No, seriously: The more I look at the matchups, the numbers and the recent history, the less of a bead I feel I have on what's about to happen. You can toss last year's second-round series thanks to the whole "no Russell Westbrook" thing. This season's first matchup came while Marc Gasol and Thabo Sefolosha were out of action, before the Jerryd Bayless-Courtney Lee deal that reshaped Memphis' wing rotation, and featured 32 minutes of pure uncut Jon Leuer. (He has played 69 minutes in the last five weeks. He's not likely to be a factor here.) Westbrook missed meeting No. 2, which saw the newly acquired Lee and Mike Conley roast the Thunder backcourt. Conley and Westbrook were absent for Part III, in which Lee and backup point guard Nick Calathes struggled against OKC's length and Serge Ibaka gained a measure of revenge on Zach Randolph for last year's Round 2 matchup. The season series finale was played without Kendrick Perkins (groin strain) and with Sefolosha leaving after just four minutes (ditto), and saw Mike Miller score 19 points in the fourth quarter (pretty weird) to fuel a Memphis rally that fell short because Kevin Durant scored 30 points after halftime (not that weird). Now, though, everybody — well, everybody except Quincy Pondexter , who we miss (and Buckets , who we miss DEARLY) — is back, and both teams seem as loaded as they've been in quite some time. Memphis has the third-best record in the NBA (33-13) since getting Gasol back from his MCL strain on Jan. 14, with OKC (31-14) right behind them. The Grizzlies enter the postseason having won five straight and 10 of their last 14 to fend off the Phoenix Suns and overtake the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 7 seed. They've basically been playing playoff basketball for four straight months, having to claw their way back from a 10-15 start, and they've got Gasol (averaging about 17 points, 8.5 rebounds , three assists, a steal and a block), Conley (about 17.5 points, six assists against two turnovers, three rebounds and 1.5 steals) and Randolph (about 19 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 assists ) all hitting their stride over their last 15 games. The Thunder had a curious end to the season, dropping games to the reeling Indiana Pacers and the injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans, and needing a game-saving dunk by Durant on the season's final night to knock off the Detroit Pistons and clinch second place. But the late-season record mattered less to Scott Brooks and company than successfully reintegrating the long-injured Perkins and Sefolosha back into the lineup and rediscovering their rhythm, and the latest signs seem promising. In 62 minutes of floor time over their last four regular-season appearances, the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-Perkins-Sefolosha starting five outscored opponents by just under 21 points per 100 possessions, a gigantic number. They scored at a clip that would rival the Los Angeles Clippers for the best mark in the NBA, while allowing fewer points per possession than the league-leading Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. They're getting back to locking down the paint, disrupting passing lanes, recovering to shooters and clearing the glass, which allows for the likes of Durant and Westbrook (and, in second-unit lineups, potential X-factor Reggie Jackson) to take advantage of their athleticism and ram the ball down opponents' throats in transition. OKC ranks sixth in the league in fast-break points per game; Memphis, as you might expect based on their reliance on two interior behemoths, ranks 19th among 30 NBA teams in fast-break points allowed per game. Floor balance will be key for the Grizzlies, who have to force the Thunder to beat their set half-court defense (second-stingiest in the league since Gasol's return) as often as possible, and can't afford to give up easy buckets. Will Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger give Durant a variety of looks, rotating among Prince's length, Tony Allen's aggressive D, and the evidently forgotten James Johnson's length and aggressive D? Can Memphis keep things close enough throughout the first 43 minutes to bring their remarkable regular-season record in "clutch" time — 33-16 in games where the score was within five points in the final five minutes, outscoring opponents by a staggering 26.2 points per 100 possessions over 167 such minutes — to bear in the playoffs? Can all-of-a-sudden-iron-man Miller make OKC pay for packing the paint the way he did for the Miami Heat in the 2012 finals (and against the San Antonio Spurs last summer)? Will first-year coach Joerger be in over his head in a matchup with playoff veteran Brooks? Will Brooks' tendency toward sticking with unproductive lineups and making unimaginative offensive calls late in tight games give Memphis a chance to steal one a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena? Is Westbrook — who sure seems to be back to his old tricks, averaging 24 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals in just 29 minutes over his past 15 games — ready to show the playoff-watching world just what we missed after last year's meniscus tear? That's the problem with one big question; when you really think about it, it turns into an awful lot of little questions, and in the case of this particular series, I'm largely at a loss. So in the absence of more definitive data, I'll go with a gut feeling that also seems to make logical sense — when in doubt, pick the team with the nearly unstoppable scoring machine who's on a mission to take over the league. Even if it bums you out to say goodbye to such a fun Grizz team. Prediction: Thunder in 6. Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question. There are several ways we typically judge the quality of a playoff series: its length, the extent to which the teams’ styles complement each other, their past matchups, etc. By all these criteria, this series should deliver. The Grizzlies have rebounded from early difficulties and injuries to reestablish themselves as the tough-minded team they have been for several seasons, which suggests that they won’t easily bend to the will of the ostensible favorites. The Thunder also serve as a stylistic contrast to the Grizzlies, even if they’re not a pure finesse team. On top of all that, the Grizzlies ousted the top-seeded Thunder from the playoffs after Russell Westbrook went down in the previous series. It’s easy to predict that Westbrook will want to prove that he would have been a difference maker. More than all that, though, this series takes on special meaning because it comes after a truly special regular season from Kevin Durant. The OKC superstar was already acknowledged as one of the NBA’s two best players, but he elevated his game in virtually every conceivable manner and stands to collect his first MVP award in a few weeks. This postseason is not just an opportunity for the Thunder to re-enter the championship discussion, but a chance for Durant to prove that his regular season marks an ascendance to the same level (and/or above) as that of LeBron James. Other series may be better on a team-vs.-team basis, but Durant’s voyage through the playoffs looks like the most interesting storyline of the entire postseason. That journey starts here. Don’t miss it — you’ll either see a watershed moment in his career or a setback full of intrigue. Rating: 9 out of 10 Lil B hate-tweets Prediction: Thunder in six.
- NBA Power Rankings: Spurs top final rankings of 2013-14 season (Yahoo Sports) April 17, 2014As the NBA playoffs begin, plenty of teams, including the Knicks, Lakers and Celtics, are beginning their offseason plans.
- Davis provided hope for Pelicans, but needs help (The Associated Press) April 17, 2014The way Anthony Davis blossomed into an All-Star before he'd even turned 21 provided the Pelicans with hope for the future during an otherwise bleak season. It also bolstered coach Monty Williams' reputation for developing young big men. But to lead New Orleans back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011, Davis is going to need a lot more help than he had in 2013-14. The Pelicans went 34-48, finishing 15 games behind Dallas, the eighth and final playoff team in the West.
- Solid Win for the Nets, Starting With Their Reserves February 10, 2014The combination of health and depth helped the Nets bounce back after a disappointing loss Friday in Detroit.
- 2 Stars Sit, But Heat Still Edge The Spurs April 1, 2013Chris Bosh scored 23 points and the Heat escaped the Spurs with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sitting out with injuries.