Numbers preview: Cavs-Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Last season, the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and had home-court advantage in the conference finals … and got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, the Hawks won just 48 games. Expectations are lower and they’ll be in Cleveland to start the conference semifinals. But the Hawks may be better prepared to make things difficult for the Cavs this time around.

They’re certainly healthier than they were a year ago, when Thabo Sefolosha was out with a broken leg, Paul Millsap was dealing with a shoulder injury, and Kyle Korver was lost to an ankle injury in Game 2. The Hawks are also better defensively than they were last season.

Atlanta was the league’s best defensive team from Christmas to the end of the regular season. In the first round of the playoffs, they held the Boston Celtics to 12.6 points per 100 possessions under their regular-season mark. Their defense has been strong in transition and at protecting the paint, two huge keys to slowing down LeBron James and the Cavs.

But they weren’t able to do that enough in the regular season, when James averaged 27.3 points on 58 percent shooting as the Cavs swept the season series, 3-0. That’s seven straight wins against Atlanta for the Cavs, who are also healthier and better defensively than they were a year ago.

The Cavs are trying to get back to The Finals with their “Big 3” intact this time. Before they can play for that opportunity, they have to get through the Hawks, which could be a much tougher proposition than it was last year.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Cavs-Hawks, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)

First round: Beat Detroit in four games.
Pace: 88.9 (15)
OffRtg: 115.8 (2)
DefRtg: 107.4 (12)
NetRtg: +8.4 (4)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Atlanta: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Cavs playoff notes:

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Atlanta Hawks (48-34)

First round: Beat Boston in six games.
Pace: 101.1 (3)
OffRtg: 97.7 (13)
DefRtg: 91.3 (3)
NetRtg: +6.3 (5)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Hawks playoff notes:

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The matchup

Season series: Cavs won 3-0 (2-0 in Cleveland).
Nov. 21 – Cavs 109, Hawks 97
Apr. 1 – Cavs 110, Hawks 108 (OT)
Apr. 11 – Cavs 109, Hawks 94

Pace: 99.8
CLE OffRtg: 106.9 (2nd vs. ATL)
ATL OffRtg: 95.5 (21st vs. CLE)

Matchup notes:

Morning shootaround — April 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers look to finish off Clippers | Pacers’ George willing to play full game | Warriors’ depth getting it done | Drummond to shoot Barry style?

No. 1: Blazers look to close out series tonight — Months ago, when the 2015-16 season began, who would have thought the young, mostly-untested roster of the Portland Trail Blazers would be one win from the Western Conference semifinals? Granted, injuries to the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Chris Paul made life a little easier on Portland in their series with L.A. But nonetheless, the Blazers are on the cusp of their first Western Conference semifinals trip in two years and as John Canzano of The Oregonian writes, want to seal the deal in tonight’s Game 6 in Portland (10:30 ET, ESPN):

The Blazers defeated the Clippers 108-98 Wednesday night in Game 5 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, snatching a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. A Blazers win Friday night at the Moda Center would improbably secure them a second-round date with the Golden State Warriors and add a stunning twist to a surreal season.

As Griffin scooted off toward uncertainty, the Blazers pushed ahead toward inevitability. Doesn’t it feel like this series is over? Doesn’t it seem like the shorthanded Clippers need a miracle?

Fighting without injured stars Chris Paul and Griffin, the Clippers played inspiring basketball Wednesday, pushing the Blazers to the brink before Lillard went nuts in the fourth quarter. But the Blazers won their third consecutive game in the series and left Los Angeles fueled by momentum, optimism and purpose. They return to Portland aware they’re on the cusp of doing what was once unthinkable, saying they remain the underdogs but sounding very much like the favorites.

“We want to close the series out,” CJ McCollum said. “We’ve got a unique opportunity here to play an elimination game at home, and we want to make sure we take full advantage of it.”

About 90 minutes before tipoff Wednesday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers spent nearly eight minutes answering questions about his injured stars, his team’s bleak outlook and his long-term hopes for his hard-luck franchise. Near the end, a reporter asked Rivers who he leaned on during such trying moments, when it was hard to stop from growing discouraged.

This series was supposed to be emotional, as two budding rivals went toe-to-toe in what was expected to be the most competitive and alluring series of the first round in the West. But it wasn’t supposed to feature this kind of emotion.

A couple hours after tearing up, Rivers, who had said he was contemplating 10 different lineups, was forced to start Austin Rivers, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce and DeAndre Jordan. The group had played just four minutes together all season.

Now the Blazers come home, leading 3-2, owning the unlikely opportunity to close out their series and continue their improbable season.

“Obviously we want to finish it off,” Ed Davis said. “We don’t want to come back (to Los Angeles). We’ve got to watch film, focus on us, stay in the moment and just be ready to play.”

***

 

Numbers preview: Spurs-Thunder

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Neither the San Antonio Spurs nor the Oklahoma City Thunder had much trouble in the first round of the playoffs. They each made quick work of injury-depleted opponents, registering point differentials of 22.0 and 18.2 points per per game, respectively.

Things are going to get a lot more interesting in the conference semifinals, where the Spurs and Thunder will have their third meeting in the last five postseasons. The previous two meetings were in the conference finals, with the Thunder advancing in 2012 and the Spurs advancing in 2014.

This season, we’ve been anticipating a Warriors-Spurs matchup in the conference finals. And the Thunder may be a bigger obstacle than Stephen Curry‘s knee injury for that dream meeting of teams that won 73 and 67 games in the regular season.

The Spurs have home-court advantage and have won six of the last seven meetings in San Antonio. But the Thunder have won 11 of the last 13 in Oklahoma City and, going back to the 2012 conference finals, 14 of the last 21 games that Kevin Durant has played against the Spurs.

Of course, Kawhi Leonard was just a rookie in that 2012 series and has since evolved into the two-time Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year and the league’s best two-way player. His matchup with Durant will be the feature of this series, but there will be a lot more that will help determine the outcome.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Spurs-Thunder, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

San Antonio Spurs (67-15)

First round: Beat Memphis in four games.
Pace: 91.4 (13)
OffRtg: 111.9 (3)
DefRtg: 89.3 (2)
NetRtg: +22.6 (1)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Oklahoma City: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Spurs playoff notes:

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Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)

First round: Beat Dallas in five games.
Pace: 94.8 (7)
OffRtg: 117.7 (1)
DefRtg: 99.3 (6)
NetRtg: +18.4 (3)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. San Antonio: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Thunder playoff notes:

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The matchup

Season series: Tied 2-2 (home team won all four games).
Oct. 28 – Thunder 112, Spurs 106
Mar. 12 – Spurs 93, Thunder 85
Mar. 26 – Thunder 111, Spurs 92
Apr. 12 – Spurs 102, Thunder 98 (OT)

Pace: 96.1
SAS OffRtg: 99.7 (22nd vs. OKC)
OKC OffRtg: 102.9 (6th vs. SAS)

Matchup notes:

Do the Cavs have any worries in the East?

Watching these playoffs, and concentrating their attention for now on the Eastern Conference, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers are somewhere literally sitting pretty right now.

They’re sitting because, after sweeping aside the Detroit Pistons, there’s nothing else to do but wait.

And they’re pretty because most if not all of their internal worries of the past are gone, and meanwhile, their competition in the East has never looked more beatable.

While it’s true that anything and everything is possible in the playoffs, the notion that the East title is Cleveland’s to lose looks stronger than ever. When you combine the good health and good vibes of the Cavs with the flaws of the remaining field, it screams Cleveland dominance. Wouldn’t you be shocked if LeBron James doesn’t make a sixth straight trip to the NBA Finals?

In a sense, the Cavaliers deserved a break. Come again, you say? Remember last year: Kevin Love‘s shoulder was ripped apart on a cheap shot by Kelly Olynyk in the first round. And Kyrie Irving was injured most of the East finals, then was gone for good after Game 1 of The Finals (knee). LeBron carried the Cavs anyway and took two games from the Golden State Warriors, but the health gods owed Cleveland a full compliment of bodies and, in particular, two All-Stars (Love and Kyrie). Hopefully we’ll get to see how good the Cavs are with LeBron, Love and Kyrie on the floor and clicking. And judging by what happened in the last month of the season and the first round, those three are finally playing in harmony.

As for the competition in the East?

Atlanta Hawks: Entering Thursday’s Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, TNT), they hadn’t won in Boston in 10 previous playoff games. So there’s a chance the Hawks could be extended to seven games. After winning 60 games last season, the Hawks were then swept by the Cavs without Love and Kyrie in the East finals. What gives anyone the idea things will be different in the semifinals this year? Paul Millsap is having a beastly series against Boston, but he was torched by LeBron last season. Meanwhile, if Jeff Teague has his hands full with Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie is a step up from that.

Toronto Raptors: If not for a few breaks their way in Game 5, the Raptors would be down 3-2 instead of up 3-2 on the Indiana Pacers. That’s not what you’d expect from the No. 2 team in the East. Kyle Lowry bombed in the 2015 playoffs and this time has upgraded to inconsistent. Speaking of that, the Raptors signed DeMarre Carroll to major dollars, hoping he’d be their defensive rock. The first impressions aren’t very kind — injuries didn’t help — and he’s the guy who’ll be assigned to LeBron.

Indiana Pacers: Paul George is averaging 28.8 points, six rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game in the postseason. You have to love Paul George. You don’t have to love the Pacers.

Miami Heat: What a weird situation — and we’re not talking about Dwyane Wade on that last drive in Wednesday’s Game 5 and whether or not he got fouled. We mean Chris Bosh. He hasn’t spoken in public since All-Star weekend and hasn’t been officially ruled in or out of the playoffs. He and the Heat are involved in some sort of stand-off regarding his status — he wants to play but there’s a medical issue — and without him, Miami may not beat Charlotte.

Charlotte Hornets: This is a cool story, how a team that hadn’t won a playoff game since 2002 has won one, then two, then three, and now finds itself in position to win its first playoff series since 2002. Good for Steve Clifford, Kemba Walker and especially Michael Jordan. But they’d get swept by the Cavs.

Boston Celtics: Brad Stevens can coach, and Isaiah Thomas can play. But a coach can’t take a team deep into the playoffs, and the only way a 5-foot-9 player can carry a team far is if he’s Allen Iverson-like. Nice showing by the Celtics, though. Their big moment will comenot next week, but next month at the Draft Lottery show; they hold Brooklyn’s pick.

 

Morning shootaround — April 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lowry feeling pressure to advance | Rockets’ dysfunctional season ends | Will Bosh play in first round? | Westbrook grateful for Durant’s comments

No. 1: Lowry on advancing to semifinals: ‘We have to do this’ — One win is all that stands between the Toronto Raptors’ first Eastern Conference semifinals appearance since 2001. Yet grabbing that final victory won’t be easy as the Indiana Pacers have given the No. 2-seeded Raptors everything they can handle in their opening-round series. Toronto’s players definitely are feeling the pressure to advance and star guard Kyle Lowry admitted as much in an interview with The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

Perhaps this Eastern Conference series shouldn’t be such a struggle for a No. 2 seed with 56 regular-season victories, but the truth is unmistakable: Winning a playoff series has transformed into a monstrosity for the Raptors.

“The crowd is waiting,” GM Masai Ujiri told The Vertical. “The fans are waiting. The city is waiting. The whole country is waiting. We hope we can do it for everybody. And the players, I know they feel it.”

Hours earlier in the corridor of the arena late Tuesday, Ujiri had been chatting with the most famous Raptors fan of all. Drake had exhaled too, and shared a laugh with Ujiri and Raptors executive Jeff Weltman over a past postseason memory. Fifteen years of fervor since Vince Carter led the team past the New York Knicks in 2001, 15 years of regular-season futility and playoff failures linger like a fog rolling off Lake Ontario.

“It’s there,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey told The Vertical. “We can’t hide from it. … Listen, you’ve got to go through something as a program. Five years into our program [as a coaching staff], and the expectation level is through the roof.

“For our program, this next step is the hardest one to get … one of the hardest things to do in sports.”

“I haven’t once talked about our woes in the first round,” Casey told The Vertical. “Not once. There’s so much hoopla. There’s so much pressure.”

Between Games 5 and 6, Lowry stopped to study a series of text messages that popped into his phone. His college coach, Villanova’s Jay Wright, broke down Lowry’s decisions and plays in the final several minutes of Tuesday night’s victory. Three weeks ago, Lowry was sitting behind the Villanova bench for the national championship victory over North Carolina.

“I’ve always listened to him – except when I was in college,” Lowry told The Vertical.

Now, there’s a Game 6 in Indianapolis on Friday night, a chance to unburden these Raptors, himself, and reach the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“We know what it is,” Lowry told The Vertical. “We hear it. We’ve played with the pressure on our shoulders. We’ve been here three years now. That’s the biggest thing: the first round – we’ve got to get out of the first round. We have to get that monkey off our back.”

Eventually, there are no more text messages and speeches and game plans and pep rallies outside the arena. Eventually there are no more excuses and explanations for an organization and its GM and coach and star players.

“We have to do this,” Kyle Lowry finally said, and that’s the burden of this franchise, the hard truth of 15 long years that hang like an anvil over these Toronto Raptors.

***

 

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 236) Featuring Dan Woike

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The “Clippers Curse” seems all too real these days for Doc Rivers and his crew.

You lose Blake Griffin to a quad injury for the remainder of the playoffs after losing Chris Paul (broken hand), on the same night, and yes, you are entitled to believe in any urban legend you’d like if you are a Los Angeles Clippers fan.

Rivers still has a chance to do the unthinkable and guide his team to the conference semifinals without Griffin and Paul in uniform. It’ll require him trusting the role players and supporting cast in ways no coach has had to in years.

It’s up to you Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, and Austin Rivers. And you Paul Pierce, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And yes, even you Cole Aldrich.

It’s going to take everyone for the Clippers to survive the Portland Trail Blazers in this first round series and that still might not be enough to get past Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and their suddenly confident supporting cast.

That curse … it’s real.

We discuss that and all things Clippers and playoffs on Episode 236 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. And Woike is pronounced “woy-key.”

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

***


VIDEO: Can the Clippers win without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? We’re all about to find out

Westbrook likes ties that bind with K.D.

Idiot.

One word.

But one you might want to keep in mind when it comes time for free agent Kevin Durant to make his big decision about where to play next season.

It’s the word that Durant directed at Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after OKC’s series-clinching win Tuesday night for saying that Russell Westbrook is not a superstar.

Durant: “He’s an idiot. He’s an idiot. Don’t listen to him. All right. That’s what we’ve got to say about that. He’s an idiot. Next question.”

It wasn’t just what he said, but the way Durant said it forcefully and immediately, reaching to put his hand over the microphone before Westbrook could respond first.

While there will be pitches from Washington and L.A. and New York and Golden State and Houston and every other corner of the NBA to get Durant to make a jump, the bond that he’s formed playing eight seasons with Westbrook shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated. Royce Young of ESPN.com noted how Westbrook felt:

On Wednesday, following the team’s practice, Westbrook was asked what it meant for Durant to jump in and defend him like that.

“It was very important [to me],” Westbrook said. “Me and Kevin’s relationship is great. He’s like my brother. We talk about different things, not just basketball-related. He’s always gonna have my back and I’ll always have his.”

When all is said and done, even an idiot knows that blood brothers could prove to be thicker than water.

Heat and Hornets in a fight for control of the paint

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Charlotte Hornets have been beating the Miami Heat at their own game in their first round series, which is tied at two games apiece with Game 5 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, TNT). After the Heat, a team that owned the paint after the All-Star break, destroyed the Hornets in the paint in Game 1, the Hornets have turned the tables.

Since Game 1, the Hornets have outscored the Heat, 146-104, in the paint. They’ve slowed down Miami’s attack and attacked more often themselves. The Heat won Game 2 comfortably with a 27-3 advantage from 3-point range, but their perimeter shooting came back down to earth in the two games in Charlotte.

The difference between the first two games and the last two games has been primarily on Miami’s end of the floor. The Heat scored a ridiculous 132 points per 100 possessions in their two wins and an anemic 88 points per 100 possessions in their two losses. They not only shot worse from the outside in Charlotte, they also shot 41 percent in the paint after shooting 67 percent in the paint at home.

But the Hornets’ offense has also evolved as the series has gone on. After recording just 24 drives off pick-and-rolls in Games 1 and 2, they recorded 37 in Games 3 and 4, according to SportVU.

Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin drove a combined 13 times in Game 1. Since then, the pair have averaged a combined 27.3 drives per game. They rank second and fourth, respectively, in playoff drives per game and in the series, the Hornets have scored 1.23 points per possession on Lin or Walker drives.

The point guards have scored 86 of the 116 points on those drives themselves and only have 4 total assists (two apiece) on the 94 drives. Lin’s free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 0.703 ranks fourth (trailing three centers) among 97 players who have attempted at least 25 shots from the field in the playoffs.

The Heat’s defense has cut off the Hornets’ ball movement a bit, and the Hornets have been taking what they’ve been given. After assisting on 59 percent of their baskets in the regular season (17th in the league), they’ve assisted on only 37 percent in the playoffs (last by a wide margin).

Only Portland had a bigger home-road NetRtg differential in the regular season than the Heat, who were 9.1 points per 100 possessions better (7.1 better on offense) in Miami than they were elsewhere. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that this series turned when it moved to Charlotte, and location will have an impact on the outcomes of the next two or three games.

But the series will also be determined in the paint.

Blogtable: Warriors or Clippers more capable of winning without star guard?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Can Warriors or Clippers better absorb loss of star guard? |
Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder? | Who should be the Lakers’ next coach?


> The Warriors or the Clippers? Who is better equipped to win in these playoffs without their All-Star point guard? And how far can they go?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Warriors. This question might have been posed before the full extent of Blake Griffin’s injury was known, but there’s no denying the double-whammy delivered to Doc Rivers’ crew. It sounds like a rehab race as far as which point guard gets back sooner – and whether Stephen Curry‘s or Chris Paul‘s team still will be alive by then – but Golden State’s superior depth makes them the favorite against either L.A. or Portland, in my opinion. If Curry isn’t back by, say, Game 3 of the conference finals, though, I think San Antonio will represent the West in The Finals.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: As odd as it may sound when we’re talking about the soon-to-be two-time MVP Stephen Curry out of the Warriors lineup, I’d say Golden State can handle the loss better. For one, the Warriors roster is much, much deeper. For another, Chris Paul is the one that makes everything go in the Clippers offense. He runs the pick-and-rolls. He sets up virtually all of DeAndre Jordan’s buckets. He drives the team and also is a tough defender. Add in the fact that Blake Griffin is done for the playoffs and the Clippers are clearly more vulnerable. They are now in danger of being knocked out by Portland. However, without Curry, the Warriors can’t get past either the Spurs or Thunder in the Western Conference finals.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Warriors. And it’s not even a question. The Clips will be without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, very possibly, if not likely, for the rest of the playoffs. Golden State still has two All-Stars, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, plus others, and could also have Curry back before the end of the second round.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comStephen Curry is about a week from winning another MVP, and his worth to Golden State is obvious, but the Warriors are deep enough to travel far in the playoffs. That’s because they can at least attempt to replace what Curry does well: pass and shoot. Klay Thompson is a proven 20-point scorer and Draymond Green is excellent at finding open teammates. Besides, Shaun Livingston might be the best backup point guard in the playoffs. Could they win it all? I wouldn’t dismiss that. Without Chris Paul‘s deft direction, though, the Clippers are a one-on-one troupe. And without Paul and Blake Griffin, they’re in for a quick exit.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Warriors by a mile, even if Blake Griffin was healthy. Golden State has the better defense and more of a plug-and-play system where the ball will continue to move no matter who is on the floor. Both teams rely heavily on their point guards to generate offense and both offenses have been much worse when the point guard has stepped off the floor. But the Warriors’ ensemble cast beyond their star is much stronger than that of the Clippers, who look sunk against Portland without their two best players. The champs can beat the Blazers without Curry, but will obviously need him to get past the Spurs.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Warriors, by a long shot. The supporting cast in Oakland is much deeper and stronger. As critical as Stephen Curry is to what the Warriors have and continue to do, his value to his team isn’t the same as Paul’s is to the Clippers. The Warriors share the leadership load on and off the floor. Paul is the tone-setter for the Clippers in every facet. And without him, there is no way they play beyond the conference semifinals. The Warriors can get to the conference finals without Curry.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Based on the Clippers’ injuries and the Blazers’ youth, we can pencil the Warriors into the conference finals – which in turn relieves them of any immediate pressure to hurry Curry back into the rotation. If the next two to three weeks enable Curry’s knee and ankle to heal, then I’m thinking the Warriors’ chances of returning to the NBA Finals aren’t going to be affected. It will be as if Curry’s injuries never happened. My sympathy is with Chris Paul. This is one of the NBA’s great leaders, and another year goes by without him reaching a conference final. I can’t imagine someone like him retiring without at least one NBA Finals appearance. And yet Paul is turning 31 next week, and the years are beginning to slip away.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogIs this a trick question? The Clippers are almost fully dependent on Chris Paul to get his own buckets (like those midrange jumpers he’s so great at knocking down) or to create for everyone elseDeAndre Jordan on alley-oops, J.J. Redick coming around picks. The Clips can get buckets without CP3, like if they just turn Jamal Crawford loose, but it’s nothing like the Warriors without Stephen Curry. The Warriors have two other players (Draymond Green, Klay Thompson) who can do all parts of the game — score, facilitate, play defense — and do it at as high of a level as anyone in the league.

Blogtable: Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Can Warriors or Clippers better absorb loss of star guard? |
Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder? | Who should be the Lakers’ next coach?


> Game 1 of the Spurs-Thunder conference semifinals series is Saturday. Who or what is the X factor in this series? And which team do you predict will advance?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Danny Green, as another Spurs’ on-ball defender, is my X factor. When an opponent has two explosive scoring stars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it means some San Antonio player has to step up besides Kawhi Leonard. Green has the size to match up with Westbrook and the fundamentals to make deny or bother Durant while chewing up some shot clock. He also can force OKC’s guys to work at the other end if he’s able to contribute offensively. Green’s 40 percent shooting from the arc against Memphis was a nice start, a bump from his 33 percent of the regular season. Where does it all end? Barring any more of these playoff-convulsing injuries we’ve been getting, I think San Antonio advances in six or seven games.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com Serge Ibaka is my X factor. When he’s running the floor, guarding the lane and also knocking down jumpers, he’s an athletic force that can be tough for the Spurs to handle. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook demanding so much attention from defenses, Ibaka is the third weapon that can be a difference-maker. But we haven’t seen much of that guy all season. Spurs in 7.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: That guy trying to break into the Spurs rotation, Tim Duncan. That’s a little extreme, but Duncan did have a reduced role at just 20.3 minutes per game in the first round because of matchups and San Antonio blowout wins. Now comes the chance to face an opponent with more bigs — Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter — that should mean a larger presence for Duncan. A big contribution will be a step toward the Spurs advancing.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com This sounds weird, but the X-factors are named Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. For over a decade they were the backbone of the franchise. Right now, none are playing efficiently and for the most part are backup singers to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. That must change ASAP. San Antonio will need more from at least two of those three against a hungry OKC team, or else Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be a series away from returning to the NBA Finals.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Danny Green is the X-factor. The ball will find the open man in the Spurs’ offense and that open man is often Green. He had a rough regular season, shooting 33 percent from 3-point range (27 percent in March and April), but was 6-for-13 in the first round. He’ll also be the primary defender on Russell Westbrook, so his ability to get back in transition, fight through screens, and stay in front of the Thunder point guard will be critical.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The dueling wild cards in this series are salty Kevin Durant and raging Russell Westbrook. The Thunder superstars (sorry Mark Cuban, they’ve got two) are playing with monstrous chips on their shoulders these days and nothing would delight them more than to upset all the conference finals plans we’ve all been talking about for months. That said, I’m picking the Spurs to advance in a knock down, drag out six-game affair.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: This one is going to be all about defense. The Spurs are the league’s most cohesive and versatile defensive team. Will the Thunder be able to match San Antonio’s passion and attention to detail? I’m afraid not.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogHaving seen both of these teams in person over the last two weeks, the one part of the match-up that I can’t reconcile is how will the Spurs stop Russell Westbrook? You haven’t seen elite speed until you’ve watched Westbrook in person — he literally flies down the court, his feet barely touching the floor, like he’s running across the surface of a lake. And i just don’t know how San Antonio matches that speed. I guess you could try Kawhi Leonard against him, although I’d rather save Leonard for Kevin Durant. Either way, the Spurs have a matchup problem waiting to happen.