After what seems like a month, the interminable first round is finally over, and since the idea of a championship trophy split eight ways is wholly unsatisfactory, league rules stipulate that we play more of these playoff "series" in an agreed upon best-of-seven format that "eliminates" more and more teams until only one is, in Spurs parlance, "left standing."
Now it's totally understandable if you'd forgotten that our Spurs are indeed one of the eight teams alive to compete for the shiny gold ball sitting on a golden ice cream cone, since they knocked off Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and like the cast of "The Voice" back in February or whenever it was. I barely remember any of the games at this point, but I swear Matt Bonner played well in them, which doesn't seem at all possible so maybe I just dreamed it.
What I do know, dear reader, is that this is the first time the Spurs will be facing the Warriors in the playoffs since 1991, back when I was a precocious 13-year-old in the seventh grade. As most of you know, I've lived pretty much my whole life in the Bay Area, yet because I've got some kind of brain damage that prevents me from forming positive relationships of any kind with the people around me, I made the decision as a child --subconsciously I suppose-- to root for the Philadelphia Eagles (Randall Cunningham) in football, the Spurs (David Robinson) in basketball and the Kings (Wayne Gretzky) in hockey. I root for one local club, the baseball Giants, and my two favorite all-time Giants are Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, universally acknowledged as humongous jerks.
Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
Back in '91, the Spurs were a two-seed, much as they are now, and huge favorites against the seventh-seeded Warriors who had finished 44-38 on the season; 26th (out of 27 teams) in points allowed per game and 23rd in defensive rating. Larry Brown's Spurs meanwhile, led by second-year superduperstar David Robinson but also fellas like Sean Elliott, Terry Cummings, Rod Strickland and Willie Anderson, led the league in defensive rating.
Nevertheless, some kid at school named Mike bet me $50 even money that the Warriors would win the series, a bet I eagerly accepted before he could change his mind. Sure, the first round was a best-of-five back then and anything could happen in a short series, but this seemed like a no-brainer. The Warriors had no size whatsoever to deal with Robinson and Cummings. We'd dominate in the paint and that would be that.
The early 90's Spurs bore very little, if any, resemblance to the squad we know and love today. The league as a whole was very different, and nobody really utilized the three-ball that much or understood what a weapon it could be. Teams also pretty much played by All-Star rules, in that they only cared about defense if it was close in the fourth quarter. It was pretty much a non-stop lay-up line out there.
The Spurs won Game 1 130-121, shooting 55% and converting 50(!)-of-91 field goal attempts, precisely zero of them coming from downtown. I'm not sure, but it's quite possible the team had 40 dunks in the game. Robinson scored 30, on 9-of-10 shooting and 12-of-15 from the line, the Strickland-Anderson backcourt combined for a ridiculous 68 points on 30-of-45 shooting and the Spurs capitalized on a 69-42 edge in the middle two quarters to survive a final period in which the Warriors scored -- and this is not a typo -- 49 points.
From there, things went sour. The Warriors, led by Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond (aka "Run TMC") kept shooting at a ridiculous pace and the Spurs just couldn't keep up. Warriors coach Don Nelson, the modern day small-ball guru, out-foxed Brown by spreading the floor with four guards and killing the older Cummings both in transition and in the half-court since he wasn't used to guarding so far away from the basket. The Spurs couldn't take advantage as much on offense with Cummings or Robinson because the Warriors would just double down low and dare the Spurs to beat them with jumpers.
The X-factor in the series was a fella by the name of Sarunas Marciulionis, a Lithuanian who was a poor man's Manu before Manu. He led a bench that outscored the Spurs 37-16 in Game 2, and that was the difference, as Robinson once again was brilliant, scoring 28 points on 9-of-13 from the field and 10-of-10 at the line and Cummings chipped in with 26, but Strickland and Elliott did nothing.
In Oakland in Game 3, the series was effectively decided, with the Warriors pulling out a narrow 109-106 win. They shot 57% (44-of-77) and made 5-of-9 threes. The Spurs made 1-of-11. San Antonio's size advantage allowed them to take and make way more free throws, but it just couldn't make up for the difference of the Dubs being able to shoot way better than the Spurs. They also had more depth, with Marciulionis personally outscoring the Spurs bench 21-15.
Game 4 was kind of a rout, 110-97 Warriors, and just like that the Spurs' season was over. Elliott and Strickland found some redemption, but this time it was Anderson's turn to wear the goat horns, as his 4-of-16 night killed them. The Warriors again won the bench battle, 32-16, and made five threes to the Spurs none. For the series the Spurs shot 3-of-26 from downtown.
You have to understand, it was just a different game back then. Elliott led the team with 20 three pointers made for the whole season. By comparison, Danny Green made 34 of them during the Rodeo Road Trip alone this season. Anderson, the team's "shooting" guard, converted a cool 20 percent of his three point tries (7-of-35) during the year. I'm pretty sure you're not going to be able to find employment as a shooting guard in the Ukraine much less the NBA in 2013 if you're hitting threes at a 1-out-of-5 clip.
Just by playing small ball and being able to stretch the court and putting superior shooters out there, the Warriors were able to blow past the Spurs despite the young Admiral averaging 25.7 points (on 68% shooting), 13.5 rebounds and nearly four blocks in the four games.
It wasn't much fun watching those games at home by myself, knowing I couldn't really go anywhere because everybody would be screaming and cheering against my team. Having to pay out the fifty bucks (big money for a 13-year-old) -- also not fun.
Fast forward 22 years and look where we are. Lo and behold, the Warriors are hardly any different from that spunky bunch of midgets shooting the lights out, complete with a "T" in Klay Thompson, a "C" in Stephen Curry and an.. uh, a "B", I guess, in Harrison Barnes. Jarrett Jack is their Marciulionis now, the bench gun who actually plays the majority of games and can kill you shooting it, passing it or driving to the cup. The comparisons pretty much stop there because Andrew Bogut (who looks like Samwell Tarly stretched out in a funhouse mirror) is way bigger and way better than Tom Tolbert ever was.
If only Bogut would take the black.
How the Warriors will approach the Spurs will largely depend on two factors: A) how much David Lee plays for Golden State and B) how effective Bogut is in defending Tim Duncan. I'm guessing Pop would be thrilled if Lee could suit up for significant minutes because, as good as he is on one end of the court, he is an absolutely atrocious defender, especially versus the pick-and-roll. Our roller, whether it's Tiago Splitter or Duncan would thrive against him, or the guard would just have uncontested 18-footers all game. The bigger the Warriors play, the more it is to the Spurs' advantage, I believe; just because their bigs are more complete in both facets of the game and because they have more depth there with Diaw and --dare I say it?-- Bonner. Heck, even DeJuan Blair and Aron Baynes are far superior to their counterparts on the back end of the Warriors' depth chart.
My guess though, is that for the majority of the games, Dubs coach Mark Jackson will indeed go small, with rookie Barnes, their nominal starting small forward, as the stretch four and Jack shoehorned into the lineup as the point, with Curry sliding over to the two and Thompson to the three, with another rookie, 6-7 Draymond Green, buying them some minutes of rest here and there even though he's not much of a shooter.
To counteract this lineup Pop will have several options.
One, he can stay big, and hope to take advantage with Splitter or Diaw working over Barnes down low though. I have my doubts whether either will be assertive and healthy enough to do that effectively. The bigger problem is the other end of the floor. It's one thing for Splitter to be able to hang with ancient Derek Fisher in the half court, but I'm not at all convinced he can check Barnes (and neither can Diaw, Bonner or Blair, for that matter).
Or Pop can counteract small with small, but what does that mean, exactly? Green and Ginobili haven't played together all postseason and Manu doesn't have the stamina to be able to play in a run-and-gun game for 30-plus minutes. Since you need to find perhaps as many as 120 minutes out of your 2-3-4 in a smallball game, and assuming Kawhi Leonard is good for 40 of those and Green and Ginobili another 60 between them, where are the other 20 going to come from? Are you really comfortable giving Gary Neal 20 minutes on defense against these guys? That sounds like a trainwreck waiting to happen.
If not Neal though, then it means we're looking at either Cory Joseph playing alongside Parker (guess who the Warriors will double off of for open shots then) or a rusty Tracy McGrady, which actually sounds like an intriguing option to me. If we can somehow get 10 decent minutes out of McGrady a game, it'd be a godsend. He's the one guy on the roster who can buy Leonard some rest at a stretch four and still have enough size and mobility to check Barnes or Green.
The good news is I don't think Jackson can get away with playing small for more than 30 or 35 minutes against the Spurs. First of all, Bogut can't go forever and even if he could, nobody plays against Duncan that long without eventually getting called for some fouls. And there's no way that either Landry or Lee can handle Tim one-on-one, so even if Jackson wants to stagger his subs for when Duncan checks out, there's bound to be some overlap. Also, Bogut isn't totally healthy. He's had to take some painkilling shots just to get through the Nuggets series, and they didn't even have a real post threat.
Another positive is that small-ball doesn't necessarily have to be to the Warriors' advantage. I don't really see them slowing down the Spurs offense in that alignment either. Pretty much the Warriors' best case scenario is an open corner three from Green or Leonard on every possession. Otherwise it'll just be an endless array of Parker and Ginobili forays to the basket or Duncan finishing off screen-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. The Warriors will scramble and switch like crazy, but patient teams will always get open looks against them and there's just a galaxy of difference between our outside shooting and Denver's.
I'm not worried about the offense, really. I'm more curious how the defense will hold up. I'm in favor of letting Curry get his, not sending any help and sticking to the other guys like glue, but that's pretty much my answer for everything because --hello-- I'm not actually a basketball coach. All I ask in this series is that Neal never ever ever ever be stuck guarding Curry under any circumstance and for Pop to really think twice before going to that Parker-Joseph backcourt, which just seems like an offensive sinkhole waiting to happen.
I have to think we have the coaching edge, the big man edge, the experience edge and just an overall talent edge in general. Call me crazy, but I still think we have the two best players in the series, even with Curry's emergence as a star. If Ginobili can come close to matching Jack's production, it should be a quick series.
Spurs in five, with me watching the games in my apartment to avoid the din.
Other playoff thoughts...
In case you ever feel the urge to defend Bill Simmons' basketball acumen, I give you this, from a 2007 column about the NCAA tournament:
The other winner: Corey Brewer, who emerged this month as the most intriguing draft prospect other than Kevin Durant. My buddy House and I spent a few minutes on the phone Monday night trying to find the right comparison for a 6-foot-8, 190-pound guard who's unlike anyone in the NBA right now -- ultimately, we settled on a 6-foot-8 Ricky Davis, only if you surgically implanted Manu Ginobili's brain in Ricky's head. Why Manu? Because of his open-court play and penchant for sneaking away from his man to cause turnovers. Because of the way he rises to the occasion in bigger games. Because of the deadly 3-point shooting. And especially, because of the unconventional angles that Brewer takes when he's driving to the basket.
If you want to get technical about it, he's the player we always wanted Todd Day to be. And since he's a better athlete and defender than Manu, and since he's a winner and all, the question remains ... why isn't Corey Brewer being considered for a top-five spot in this draft? Is there a chance he could make a Ben Gordon-type leap as we get closer and closer to end of June, and the lottery teams realize, "Wait, why are we killing ourselves trying to figure out who's better between Noah, Horford and Hibbert ... why don't we just take Corey Brewer?"
Yeah, when I think of "open-court play" "deadly 3-point shooting" and "winner," I think of Corey Brewer, the same Brewer who's a .416 career shooter (.298 from three), barely has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6 to 1.3), a career PER of 11.9, and somehow has worse career numbers in the playoffs, during which he's failed to get out of the first round in three tries. Brewer shot 31% against the Warriors this series and 25% from downtown, submitting a 7.1 PER and likely cost himself millions of dollars as a free agent. He's just like Manu, but you know, more athletic and way better defensively.
Much like the '90-91 Spurs, the Nuggets were done in, ultimately, by being unable to shoot from the outside consistently. The loss of Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL late in the season doomed their season. He led them with 135 made threes and shot a respectable 37% from downtown. With him out, Wilson Chandler had to take on too much of a role, shoot more from outside than he should, and the domino effect caused their offense to self-destruct. What also hurt them was that between Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee, none of them can score outside of five feet. As we've seen from the Spurs, Thunder and Heat, it's a lot easier to have an effective half court offense when a big man can stick a 15-footer. The Nuggets tried to game that system all year with a stretch four, but one injury waylaid that. It's just not meant to be for George Karl, and I'm not about to feel sorry for him, since I still remember all-too-well how much the "Thuggets" hammered Ginobili in 2005.
I really hope Daryl Morey doesn't do the predictable, stupid thing by snatching up Howard in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Omer Asik and who knows what else. Asik averaged a double-double in his first season as a starter for the Rockets and was even better in the playoffs, compiling a 16.9 PER and leading the Rockets with a +17 in their series with the Thunder while far outplaying Serge Ibaka and (LOL) Kendrick Perkins.
Asik is two years younger than Howard, durable (started all 82 games this season), and fits in nicely with their young core of James Harden and Chandler Parsons, who was also a breakout star in these playoffs. The Rockets have a great foundation. Morey should use the cap space to find a power forward and fortify the bench. They're set at center and the last thing they need is a petulant whiny baby in Howard who's more interested in farting in the locker room than winning games.
Hopefully the Lakers' stupidity (and Howard's own greed) will save Morey from himself.
Oh, and for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster, jettison Royce White from the organization already. Just admit it was a bad pick and move on. The dope, who didn't play for them all season, had the gall to troll Kevin Durant's twitter account after Houston's Game 5 win. It's like he wanted the Rockets to lose the series. What an imbecile.
Farewell to the most unlikable team in the NBA.
I should say up front that I've met DeAndre Jordan and he was charming, gracious and extremely easy to like as a guy. However, if half of what T.J. Simers of The Los Angeles Times (and Simmons) alleges about him here is true, then it's a shame that his considerable physical talent is going to waste. It sure does seem like both Jordan and Blake Griffin are more interested in making highlights than winning; though to be fair to Jordan, I see his point in wanting to be in games down the stretch. You can only get better at something by practicing, right? And Vinny Del Negro refused to allow him that opportunity during the regular season.
On the other hand, Jordan's pitiful free throw shooting kind of makes him unplayable in tight spots.
Griffin, for his part, has shown some progress as an outside shooter and back-to-the-basket post scorer, and he does take a lot of hits. However, he also flops a ton too, which no doubt annoys defenders to no end, so guys probably figure that if they're going to get whistled anyway, they might as well get their money's worth. It might be a chicken-and-the-egg thing there. His defense, however, still blows.
I can see how playing with a guy like Paul would grate on both of these guys, since he never passes anybody the ball down the stretch and he's not the one banging bodies down low for 35 minutes a night, but at the same time Paul is the only guy on the team willing to do whatever it takes to win and doesn't mind scrapping on defense. Why I can't ever respect Paul, besides the incessant (and often terribly executed) flopping is that he's a dirty punk.
I would've gone eight-for-eight in my first round predictions if it wasn't for a pathetic, gutless Game 7 effort from the Brooklyn Nets, who couldn't win at home against a M*A*S*H unit Bulls team. Joakim Noah was fantastic and kudos to Marco Bellinelli as well for finally showing some cojones and developing into a half-decent player after years of softness and mediocrity that drove so many former coaches crazy.
It's tempting and cliche to say that the Nets lost the series in Game 4, where they blew a 14 point lead late, with Nate Robinson channeling Sleepy Floyd, but the fact of the matter is they still had a Game 7, at home, and were the far healthier team. There is no excuse in that situation for not closing it out, none, and it's just another mark against the already checkered resumes of both Deron Williams and Joe Johnson (and P.J. Carlesimo, while we're at it). It just blows my mind how little depth so many of these playoff teams have.
Heat vs Bulls
It's just as well that the Bulls won, because at least they're mentally tough enough to give the Heat a series. Don't forget, this is the club that broke their 27-game winning streak on Mar. 27. Brook Lopez' size might have caused Miami some difficulty, but that team is so mentally soft that it would've been a sweep regardless. The Bulls will at least fight.
It's a shame Derrick Rose still can't find it in himself to play, but this article suggests to me that he's got too much pride to go out there at anything less than 100 percent. Basically, it sounds like if he can't dominate he doesn't want to play, and we're talking about a guy who got his rear end handed to him by the Heat two years ago when he was healthy and they were mostly dysfunctional. It just sounds like he doesn't want to get embarrassed, but he's still leaving his teammates hanging out to dry in my book. He's tarnished in my eyes, and if that makes me a jerk, well I'm a jerk.
As weird as it sounds, Kirk Hinrich's injury is the killer blow for the Bulls here. He's no star, but very underrated defensively and he's someone who would've hounded Dwyane Wade into some bad shots. Now though, his calf is in such poor shape that even if he does play, he won't be worth anything. I'm guessing Luol Deng will eventually suit up again (though Game 1 might be a stretch), and you know Noah and Boozer will be game, but against the best team in the league that's not enough. It's not even close to enough.
The only chance the Bulls have at all is if Wade is a lot more injured than he's letting on and the percentages catch up to LeBron James in a major way, but really that's a pipe dream.
Heat in five, but they'll have to work for it.
This looks to be quite the rock fight, with Roy Hibbert and Tyson Chandler among the elite defenders in the league. If George Hill can match Raymond Felton's production, that's a big edge to Indy. With Danny Granger out for the Pacers it doesn't look like there's anyone on their roster who can slow down Carmelo Anthony. Paul George is too slight, David West is too slow and Lance Stephenson is too short. However, I'm not sure if the Knicks can get away with playing their favored small ball against the Pacers because Anthony can't handle West on the other end.
I think the Knicks got over a big mental hurdle in getting past the Celtics, even though those Celtics were a shell of their former selves. I think Felton is a safer bet to score consistently than Hill, and that he has some insurance behind him in Pablo Prigioni whereas Hill has none. I think Iman Shumpert can at least make George work for his points, whereas Anthony will get more breathing room against Indy. Finally, I think the Knicks have more of a bench with J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Jason Kidd and (dare I suggest) Amar'e Stoudemire, though it's possible all those guys will hurt them as much as help.
I've got the Knicks in seven brutal games.
Thunder vs Grizzlies
Finally we come to the OKC against Memphis, who is a scary team right now. This Zach Randolph looks very much like the 2011 version, Marc Gasol is at the height of his powers and Mike Conley has never been better. Their offense hummed along fine the last few games of the Clippers series, with even Tony Allen finding his scoring touch and guys like Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter resembling a fair approximation of a bench.
While their macro offensive potential is up for debate, what cannot be argued is that these guys are a mentally tough collection of S.O.B.s, the West's answer to the Bulls but without any health concerns, and they're going to be a tough out for anybody, whether it's the Thunder, the Spurs or the Heat.
With the way Asik had his way with Ibaka and Perkins, it's hard to be too optimistic that that dynamic duo will fare any better against Z-Bo and Fat Gasol. Ibaka was being guarded by a much-shorter James Harden (who's been a total matador on defense all season) and couldn't take advantage of that match-up at all, while Perkins combined in the final three games of the series to clock in for 27:10, shoot 1-of-4, commit eight fouls, five turnovers and register a sweet -39. His playoff PER is 0.5 at the moment.
Oh, and he also did this. Way to pick on a guy your own size, fella. Kendrick Perkins is clown shoes.
Durant will get his, but the match-ups everywhere else are so overwhelmingly in Memphis' favor that I think this will get ugly and quickly. We might all owe Russell Westbrook an apology.
On second thought, nah.
Grizzlies in five.