As we head toward the All-Star Break and the ensuing stretch run, let’s look at a few of the most important players in the Western Conference playoff race. Each of these guys brings a specific component which will likely prove significant to the success or failure of their respective teams.
Leonard’s 26-point explosion last night against Chicago came with Duncan, Parker and Ginobii sitting out once again. Despite getting destroyed on the glass, 49-26, the Spurs handed the tired-seeming Bulls a 103-89 thumping. Popovich’s strategy of resting his elder statesmen and leaning on his extremely talented younger core led to a 51-42 half-time lead. Like the Heat two months ago, the Bulls couldn’t seem to find the motivation to compete with this new edition the Spurs put on the court. Popovich knows how good the 21 year-old Leonard can be, and he’s wasting no time getting him that confidence that will allow him to replace an aging Ginobili/Jackson combination at the small forward. Leonard’s 7-foot-3-inch wing-span allows him to defend power forwards, while he’s quick enough to drive by shooting guards. With confidence, Leonard has the potential to lead San Antonio through the later rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. Last night, Leonard’s 11-18 outing (with zero turnovers) showed just how valuable he can be. Splitter also showed incredible efficiency against one of the league’s toughest defenses, going 5 of 7 from the field and knocking down all 6 free-throws. The type of ball movement this Duncan-less Spurs team put on display was telling. Fittingly, it was from the phenomenal passing of Duncan that Splitter has learned how to see the passing angles he now executes so well. The international trio of Splitter-de Colo-Diaw know how to share the rock, as the kids like to say. Danny Green’s range (3 of 5 from distance) is the icing on the cupcake of that great ball movement. The Spurs have the NBA’s best combination of wisdom and youth and it’s because they’ve passed the torch: Duncan to Splitter, Bowen/Jackson to Leonard, Ginobili to Green.
Scott Brooks has the cushiest job in the NBA when it comes to coaching offense. Durant’s mesmerizing ability to get his shot off whenever he wants, over whomever he wants, when combined with his new-found focus on attacking the rim make him the least-guard-able player in the NBA (yes, Durant is a tougher cover than LeBron). LeBron’s strength and agility are unparalleled, but if (and these are two big “if’s” the Heat don’t get out in transition, and “if” he’s not particularly warm from distance, LeBron is possible to defend. Jeff Green did a great job on him in the 2nd half of the Celtics double OT win over Miami two weeks ago. Green was physical and persistent, and stifled LeBron effectively. Since then, LeBron went on one of the more dominant stretches of any single player in NBA history.
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Thanks for reading and Good luck to Pop and the Spurs on another deep playoff run,