SAN ANTONIO — When most people think of the hard-nosed defense in a playoff series between the Grizzlies and Spurs, the images that come to mind are the steely gaze and the locked-in intensity of Tony Allen, the quick hands of Mike Conley or those long arms and smothering style of Kawhi Leonard.
Then there’s Matt Bonner.
Don’t snicker. None other than Kobe Bryant nicknamed him the Red Mamba for Bonner’s ability to fearlessly knock down big shots in big situations. But in the playoffs, Bonner has also been part boa constrictor for helping to put the squeeze on opposing big men.
It was a team effort with Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw all sharing the rugged duties. Bonner’s main responsibility in Game 1 was to front Randolph and try got prevent him from getting the ball in the first place. The eight shots by Z-Bo were his fewest in a game since April 15 and the single bucket scored was his career playoff low for any game in he’s played at least 10 minutes.
“We found something that works for him,” Duncan said. “He’s comfortable doing that. I think when the whole team is locked in knowing he’s going to do that, we feel pretty confident.”
The added bonus of Bonner’s defensive contribution is that it allows Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to give him more playing time and take advantage of his outside shooting ability that stretches Memphis’ defense. Bonner drilled four 3-pointers in Game 1 as the Spurs set a franchise record with 14 3-pointers.
SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan sat down heavily and breathed a sigh of someone who had just been asked to lift the back end of a school bus off the ground.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” he said. “Sorry.”
But the playoffs mean never having to say you’re sorry.
So when the Spurs and Grizzlies open the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, there will be no apologies offered.
Only elbows and hips, pushes and shoves, pulls and grabs and tugs and slaps and takedowns that could turn seven games into one gigantic bruise.
Having already dealt with the front-line size of the Lakers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and the aggressive play of the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry and Festus Ezeli, the Spurs realized it was all just a warmup to the tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, for whom grit and grind is more than a slogan.
“If you thought (the Golden State series) was physical, it’s going to turn up about 10 notches,” Duncan said.
It’s possible the Spurs might still have a few black and blue marks left over from their run-in with the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. San Antonio entered that series as the prohibitive favorite and wound up becoming only the second No. 1 seed in history to lose to a No. 8 seed in a best-of-seven series.
By the time the series was over, the Spurs were as bludgeoned as they were beaten by Memphis’ inside game. Duncan, who played with a sprained ankle, and Manu Ginobili, who played with a fractured elbow, were exhausted and exposed.
Now though, the Spurs are feeling like a team that is much more equipped to deal with the Grizzlies’ size and force, having added Tiago Splitter to their starting lineup and Boris Diaw to their bench.
“It’s going to be a big-man series,” Duncan said. “I think the size definitely helps us. We’re a different team than when we faced them a couple years ago.”
The 6-foot-11 Splitter was a rookie in 2011 and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did not feel confident using him two seasons ago, choosing to go with 6-9 veteran Antonio McDyess in his final NBA season. Splitter played just 51 minutes in the entire season and did not set foot onto the court until Game 4.
“Of course, you always want to play, because you believe that you can help,” Splitter said. “That’s the part of you that is the competitor. But that is the past and now I feel good.”
In the four regular season meetings this season, Splitter averaged 10.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and was able to stand his ground against the low-post relentlessness of Randolph.
“Its just nonstop fighting,” Splitter said. “He’s a warrior over there with the rebounding and positioning.”
The experience two years ago gave the Spurs a head start on the rest of the league in recognizing the Grizzlies as powerful, growing championship contenders.
“I’ve seen them as a major threat for years now,” Duncan said. “Obviously, they beat us in the first round when we were the top seed. They’ve been a very solid team, a very good team. They have always played us really tough. We respect them and their capabilities and we’re not surprised they’re here.”
Popovich rates the Grizzlies with Miami and Indiana as the top defensive teams in the league. But the Spurs themselves turned around the battle against the Warriors and put the clamps on the backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with a defensive job that was aggressive, thorough and a throwback to their old championship ways and days.
Now it’s toe-to-toe, elbow-to-elbow, hip-check to bump-and-grind with the Grizzlies at a time when the 37-year-old Duncan can see the finish line.
“This run this year is extremely special to me,” he said. “People continue to count us out, year in and year out, and we continue to make runs deep into the playoffs. This is a special one.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Only eight teams remain in the playoffs, meaning the fans of 22 other teams have turned much of their attention to the offseason and the free-agent summer of 2013 in particular.
We will encounter a familiar name there, one Dwight David Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers, who along with Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, will be at the center of all things come July 1 (when free agency kicks off in all of its usual craziness).
There are a dozen teams, most notably Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Utah, Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit, Charlotte and Washington, with the cash to spend and the flexibility to significantly tweak, and, in some cases, totally remake their rosters. All these teams need is a free agent willing to give them a chance to make the proper sales pitch.
For the top-level free agents — and this summer that list it two truly elite players deep, Howard and Paul — the list of potential suitors will be exclusive. Only those franchises with championship potential need bother.
But that’s what makes the summer, the scramble by a large number of teams for the same small group of big-time free agents. We have more than seven weeks to before free agency goes into complete crazy mode, but why wait until then to get the party started?
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: A three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year and five-time rebounding champ, Howard is a seven-time All-Star and, when healthy, the NBA’s most dominant big man. When your down year sees you lead the league in rebounding and still help power the Lakers to a playoff spot in an absolute train wreck of a season, you’re worth every penny a team throws at you. What he’s not saying: He still a putrid free throw shooter and has been known to struggle with decision-making. What he’s worth: A max contract, worth approximately $118 million over five years. Who might be buying: The Lakers have no choice but to beg him to stay, with Kobe Bryant on the mend from Achilles surgery and no one else on the roster capable of carrying the mantle as face of the franchise. Houston, Atlanta and Dallas will launch all-out assaults to sway him. Likely landing spot(s): Lakers. They can offer $30 million more than anyone else. Howard will have a hard time walking away from that kind of cash.
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: A six-time All-Star and culture-changer (see Clippers before and after his arrival), Paul is the best in the business at his position, a gold medal winner and an All-Star Game MVP. Toss in his work as a pitch man (Cliff Paul comes with the package) and it’s easy to see why he’s one of the most recognizable players in the game today. What he’s not saying: He has to stay healthy. He’s not getting any younger and he has to get to winning in the postseason, the one glaring hole on his so-far sparkling NBA resume. What he’s worth: A max contract, worth approximately $108 million over five years. Who might be buying: The Clippers are desperate to hold on to him. But they have coaching issues to resolve before that can happen. Houston, Atlanta, Dallas will all make pitches in hopes of prying Paul away. Likely landing spots: Clippers … depending on what happens with Vinny Del Negro. Like Howard, Paul would have to walk away from extra cash if he decides to go elsewhere. But he’s hungry for a title, wherever he goes.
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: An absolute game-changer when he’s focused, Smith makes plays only a few players in the league are capable of on a given night. For all the drama and criticism thrown his way, he helped power the Hawks to six straight playoff appearances. What he’s not saying: His shot selection and motor remain issues. After nine years in Atlanta, his next spot needs to be an ideal fit, because this is likely Smith’s last big deal. He has to make sure it’s in a place where he can thrive. What he’s worth: A max contract of approximately $95 million over five years doesn’t fit here, not from the only team (the Hawks) that can offer him that much. But a deal worth approximately $75 million to $85 million over five years is doable. Smith turned down a $47 million extension offer from the Hawks, so he’s obviously looking for a starting salary of $16 million-plus. Who might be buying: The Hawks say they are interested in keeping Smith, at the right price, of course. Houston, Boston, Phoenix, New Orleans, Philadelphia and the Lakers will all investigate this situation. Likely landing spots: Houston is the frontrunner and is the ideal fit and a place Smith would be comfortable. (more…)
SAN ANTONIO — Ever since they dusted off a young LeBron James and his overmatched Cavaliers with a backhanded sweep in 2007, the Spurs have been searching for a path back to The Finals.
Now, perhaps, the only thing missing is a red carpet rolled down an aisle or a trail of rose petals.
The Western Conference bracket that was supposed to a demolition derby involving a series of jarring collisions is beginning to look instead like dominoes falling just right for San Antonio.
What could have been a dangerous first-round matchup against the Lakers lost its peril the moment that Kobe Bryant collapsed with a torn Achilles tendon. Without their leader, the Lakers were toothless and clueless and simply ran out of healthy bodies to even put up a semblance of resistance, and the Spurs only had to fight boredom and try to avoid injuries.
Then while Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were sitting at home resting their veteran legs for a full week, the remainder of the West came unraveled like a cheap sweater.
So many experts around the league had picked the superstar-less Nuggets to build on their 57-win season with a team-first attack that could carry them to the conference finals or even beyond. Yet No. 3 seed Denver had its home-court dominance ended by the sharp-shooting of Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
A season-long hullaballoo and love-fest over the No. 4 seed Clippers finally winning more than 50 games and their first division title in franchise history went out the window when they were exposed as little more than a sideshow dunking act that gave little inclination to playing defense or being serious when the stakes were raised.
While those two pretenders were being exposed, even the top-seeded Thunder were taking a severe blow when their All-Star guard Russell Westbrook suffered a torn ligament in his right knee in Game 2 of their series against Houston. First it meant that OKC was extended to six games by the young and restless Rockets and then it sent them into the second round and beyond looking vulnerable and anything like the favorites to reach a return match against Miami than a month ago.
Now the Spurs go into a second-round series tonight against the Warriors and Curry, who have become the “must-see” TV-show of the playoffs and it’s likely that the top shooting ace in the game will provide a few moments of entertainment and drama and anxiety in Spurs huddles.
But it can’t be overlooked that Golden State has lost an astounding 29 consecutive games in San Antonio, a streak that goes back to Feb. 14, 1997, four months before the 37-year-old Duncan was even drafted by the Spurs. As much of a test that they’ll get from trying to guard Curry, the Spurs would much rather have it against the No. 6 seed than trying to run and keep pace with the Nuggets in the mile high thin atmosphere of Denver.
Of course, the grit-and-grind Grizzlies are still out there lurking with their powerful inside game of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the much-improved point guard Mike Conley. But the Grizzlies already blew an opportunity to take Game 1 of their series at OKC on Sunday and trail 1-0. So the storyline couldn’t be playing out any better for the Spurs if they had written it themselves.
“We lost to an eight (Memphis, 2011) once,” Ginobili told reporters. “We won being seventh (Dallas, 2009). So anything can happen.”
Of course, the Spurs know they had won 20 straight games and took a 2-0 lead on the Thunder in the conference finals a year ago before dropping four in a row to be eliminated. Nothing is ever certain, nothing is guaranteed.
But the Spurs were looking for a route back to The Finals for the first time in six years, they couldn’t have found a clearer path.
ATLANTA –Lance Stephenson was just a kid the last time the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks squared off in the playoffs. The Coney Island native barely remembers the infamous “Hicks vs. Knicks” battles and all of the drama that came along with those heated and physical contests that have an indelible place in the history of both franchises.
“I really can’t remember much other than Reggie Miller hitting big shots and changing the game around,” Stephenson, the Pacers’ shooting guard said before admitting that he rooted for a team on the opposite coast while growing up in Brooklyn. “I was like nine-years-old. I was a Lakers fan. I didn’t care about the Knicks. I was all Lakers. Magic Johnson, Shaq, Eddie Jones, Kobe [Bryant] with the fro.”
Stephenson and his Pacers will get a chance to write their open chapter in this storied rivalry, courtesy of their 81-73 Game 6 win over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night at Philips Arena. The Pacers chased away one ghost, snapping their 13-game losing streak to the Hawks in Atlanta, proving they can win in a hostile environment. They’ll chase another in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Knicks, winners in a series-clinching Game 6 of their own in Boston Friday night. Game 1 of that series is Sunday afternoon.
Stephenson and the Pacers can’t wait.
“It’s gonna be great, playing in front of my friends and family and in my hometown with the bright lights,” Stephenson said. “It’s gonna be great.”
It’s also going to be a completely different undertaking, dealing with the No. 2 seed Knicks and those raucous crowds, that arrive on time, at Madison Square Garden.
Let’s be real, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd and a much deeper and more seasoned Knicks team presents more significant challenges than a Hawks team that the Pacers should have handled in four or five games instead of six. The Pacers get just one day off between games. They flew straight from Atlanta to New York late Friday night and will have to use Saturday as a preparation day.
“This next round is going to be a totally different beast,” Pacers forward David West said. “We’re going to have to defend probably one of the best one-on-one players in the game [in Anthony]. They play small at times, too, so we know there will be some funky matchups but for the most part, we have to just concentrate on what we can control, our energy and effort and how we defend. But we have to be ready to go.”
The same way they were against the Hawks in the final two games of their first round series. After getting run off the floor here in Games 3 and 4, the Pacers went home and cleaned up a bit before Game 5. They showed up for Game 6 focused and ready to break down a Hawks team that seemed vulnerable from the start Friday night.
They led by as many as 19 points early, weathered the Hawks’ late run and put the finishing touches on the win with All-Star swingman Paul George scoring just four points on 2-for-10 shooting, both series lows). West and George Hill picked up the scoring slack, tying for game-high honors with 21 points each. Roy Hibbert added 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. Stephenson chipped in with 11 rebounds of his own, eight points and six assists, helping the Pacers make the final push needed to finish off the Hawks.
The Pacers finally imposed their physical will on the Hawks, outrebounding them 53-35, long enough to break the Hawks down when it matter most, a strategy they’ll have to try to repeat against the Knicks.
“We finally got the monkey off our back in this building,” Hill said. “”It felt good tonight. We were more physical and made them take tough shots around us. We capitalized on the offensive end and made some shots, trying to get to the paint and playing inside-out. We’re happy but we have to get our hard hats back on with another game in 48 hours.”
A return to their defensive roots was the key to beating back the Hawks and will be the key against the Knicks, too.
“Our defense has been our identity all year,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that was the key to the last two victories. We held them to 33 percent shooting [Friday night]. We needed to guard the three[point line], we needed to guard them on the break and we needed to limit them to one shot and this was our best game in the series in doing those three things.”
The Knicks and Hawks operate in a similar fashion, albeit with much different personnel. Hawks coach Larry Drew was Knicks coach Mike Woodson‘s lead assistant for six years with these same Hawks before replacing Woodson three years ago. They share similar philosophies and similar schemes.
The Pacers split the regular season series with the Knicks with the home team winning all four games, same as they did with the Hawks. But the Knicks won’t be pushed around inside as easily as the Hawks were. The Hawks don’t have a defensive presence anything like Chandler or an enforcer like Kenyon Martin.
“Madison Square Garden is a place where you know it’s going to be crazy energy in there,” West said. “Obviously, they play well at home. We have to go in the memory bank and remember how we had some success against them during the [regular season]. It starts with Carmelo and keeping him and J.R. under control, to the extent you can control them. Our focus just has to be possession by possession, know their going to make runs, and we have to play to our advantage. Our defense is our strength and our ability to make it an ugly, grind-it-out game. And that’s what we’re looking forward to, a great series and a great Game 1.”
The Pacers passed the pre-test. They showed they could go on the road, in a tough environment and win a game when the crowd is against them and they don’t control the emotional momentum. There is confidence that is built under those circumstances, no matter who the opponent might be.
Again, the Knicks pose different challenges because they can play at different tempos, they have more than one or two players you have to worry about shooting from distance and they can spread the floor and isolate Anthony and Smith on basically anyone when they need to manufacture possessions and shots.
And they’ll have that crowd and the Garden, the same one Stephenson played in nearly a dozen times during his standout career at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High.
“I had a lot of big games at the Garden” Stephenson said and then smiled. “But this is just a regular game to me. We just have to go in there, limit our mistakes, play hard and try to get wins in their building.”
HOUSTON – It was 44 years ago when Don Nelson’s foul-line jumper kicked improbably high off the back of the rim, fell right down through the net and kept all of those celebration balloons trapped up there at the ceiling in the Forum.
That was an ending.
Nelson’s shot gave the Celtics the two-point margin they needed in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for another championship over the Lakers.
Kevin Durant’s shot with 41.9 seconds left on the clock took Nelson’s little tap dance on the rim and turned it into an entire chorus production. The first bounce kicked so high off the back of the rim that it cleared the top of the backboard, then teasingly hit the front rim and then the back rim two more times before sliding down into the basket, a Tibetan prayer wheel offering that was answered immediately.
This was just a beginning.
Before the Thunder get to jubilantly race off a court somewhere to celebrate a championship, there will likely have to be many more nights like this, where they sizzle and fizzle, where they thrive and survive, where they just grind on.
It was the first time in five years — and 440 games — that Durant ran out onto a basketball court wearing an Oklahoma City jersey without running mate and buddy Russell Westbrook at his side.
The lightning rod point guard was back at home watching on TV after having undergone surgery Saturday to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. That means the road to the top of the mountain just got far bumpier and more treacherous.
“It feels the same,” Durant said. “I just go out there on the court, and I knew I had to give it my all no matter what. That’s what I’m going to do for however many games we have to play…I’m going to give it my all no matter what and not worry about missed shot, turnovers or anything.”
But Durant knows that the margin for error just got slimmer than a supermodel’s waist. No more nights when Westbrook and all of his inherent idiosyncrasies and flaws will be able to bail out the Thunder with his bodacious talent and his sheer audacity.
Now there will be far more nights like this one where wilo-’o-the-wisp Durant has to go the virtual distance, getting all of 44 seconds to rest on the bench while putting up 30 shots to equal his career playoff high of 41 points.
Now there will be more nights when the Thunder will have to rely on the combo of second-year Reggie Jackson and 17th year Derek Fisher to hold down Westbrook’s position at the point.
Now there will be more nights when Serge Ibaka has to be the leaping, dominating monster at both ends of the floor with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two official blocked shots and about a dozen more altered.
The Thunder built a 26-point lead early in the third quarter and had to hold on to the final tick of the clock because they’re now missing one of the legs they usually stand on.
“It definitely was an emotional time the last 48 hours,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We all love what Russell is about. The guy has probably the biggest heart I’ve ever been around. He’s done a great job of putting us in this position.”
But now the season-ending injury puts the Thunder in the position of having to, if not reinvent themselves on the fly, at least make a major adjustment. So here they are against an inexperienced No. 8 seed in Houston — the youngest team in the NBA this season — getting burns on the palms of their hands as the rope slips through.
If it wasn’t a case of being physically spent, then OKC had to be mentally exhausted from battling all night to fill in the gaps. Brooks had said before the game that it’s just a matter of getting everybody to do “a little bit.”
However, in playoff games that little bit can become a quite heavy lift.
There were the Rockets, playing with few expectations and not much to lose, roaring back. Here was picking up a loose ball that Kevin Martin seemed to lose as the shot-clock ran down and Ibaka flicking it up over his head and off the glass with 1:25 left in the game. Here was the untested-in-the-playoffs Jackson, standing at the foul line and draining two nervy free throws with eight seconds remaining and then leaping up and latching onto the final rebound of the game when Carlos Delfino’s 3-pointer missed just ahead of the horn.
“We learned Russell was going to be out at practice (Friday),” said forward Nick Collison, “but eventually we have to get over it. You have to be able to move on and play. We’re basketball players and we’re in the playoffs and we have to get ourselves ready to play.
“Our problems were more execution and a lot of that has to do with playing without Russell because we rely on him for a lot on the court.”
It took the Rockets missing numerous opportunities down the stretch — open shots that clanked off the rim and turnovers that were fatal – for the Thunder to escape.
For a team that entered the playoffs with its sights set strictly on playing all the way into June and getting back to The Finals, now each game, every day, each ensuing round will be a challenge.
They will need to learn to get by without the nonpareil talents of Westbrook to pull them out of the fire, get things done with pure execution or enough similar fortuitous bounces as Durant’s improbable 3-pointer, a tantalizing dance-of-the-seven-veils shot that pulled them back from the brink of what could have been a crushing defeat, giving birth to recrimination and doubt.
“The Lord was with us,” he said. “That’s all I was thinking. I knew as soon as that shot hit the back rim, I was thinking, ‘Not again. Tough 3 shot. Maybe I should have drove. Maybe I should have got a foul.’ But it was able to bounce in and all because of the good Lord. I really can’t say too much else about that. I’m glad we made it.”
A happy ending for now. But really just the start of a grind.
It was hustle. It was aggressive. It was the way virtually every coach who ever carried a clipboard wants his to players to play — until he hears the whistle.
Was Westbrook trying to call a timeout? Probably. But he hadn’t and no referee had signaled for play to stop.
Were the chances of Beverley making the steal slim? Probably. But the best players don’t always need the odds in their favor. They force the action.
It is understandable that fans in Oklahoma City have been devastated by the news that one of their two All-Star players could be lost for the rest of the season following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
It is not understandable, reasonable or even civilized for fans to direct threats toward Beverley on Twitter.
For those over-reactors in the 24-hour media maw, have you watched the video replays? Westbrook dribbled across mid-court and was perhaps a bit too cavalier in thinking he was going to get a timeout and Beverley did what he always does — he played.
The two players bumped knees and when that happens, often someone gets hurt. In this case, it was Westbrook who turned and slammed down his fist onto the scorer’s table.
Take note: Not only was there no foul called on the play, but Kevin Durant, who was standing right there, did not even give Beverley the slightest derisive look. And not a single player or coach on the Thunder bench reacted as if a breach of etiquette had occurred. By the way, Westbrook played all 24 minutes of the second half, scoring 16 of his 29 points.
Injuries happen and they have derailed more than a few teams and careers. This season alone injuries have kept the likes of Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Danny Granger, among others, on the sidelines in the postseason. Dikembe Mutombo’s long and glorious career came to an end when he collided with Portland’s Greg Oden in a playoff game in 2009. The 1989 Lakers were a flawless 11-0 in the playoffs and maybe motoring toward a “three-peat” when hamstring injuries claimed Magic Johnson and Byron Scott on the eve of The Finals and they were swept out by the Pistons.
These are the playoffs and these are the big leagues. Through the years I have seen Spurs coach Gregg Popovich stand up as if he were going to call a timeout. Then the defenders relax and Tony Parker scoots all the way in to the basket for an uncontested layup. It occurred most famously at the Staples Center in a playoff game against Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers.
Two years ago, while playing for the Blazers, Andre Miller dribbled across the half-court line, head-faked toward the referee and when the Hornets defense stopped in its tracks, turned the corner and scored a cheap bucket.
It’s a bad time for Westbrook, who had played 439 in a row and never missed a game in his career. It’s bad luck for the Thunder, who will now have to lean on Durant more than ever and have others step up to fill the void. It’s a bad break for everybody who wants to see the best go head-to-head at this time of the year. It was not bad basketball.
Those who suggest that the Rockets be fined, suspended or somehow punished should perhaps turn to croquet, tea parties or other gentler pastimes.
Beverley was playing frantic, frenzied, feverish, furious. Sassy and smart too.
SAN ANTONIO — The Black Mamba didn’t tweet. Something about not wanting to be a distraction.
So Kobe Bryant sat at home again on the sofa in Orange County, this time resting his surgically repaired Achilles’ tendon and both his thumbs.
The Red Mambadid tweak. And jostle. And shove. And pull. And prod. It was all about being as bothersome as a mosquito at a nudist colony.
Matt Bonner never rested for even a single one of the 29 minutes that he had to contest, confront and confound Dwight Howard.
The Lakers All-Star center scored 16 points, pulled down nine rebounds and blocked four shots, but also picked up five fouls and a technical in another one of those nights when he did so much head-shaking that you wondered if it might fall right off his broad and muscular shoulders.
This is life without Kobe for the Lakers, nobody to bail them out at the end of difficult possessions or do some of the improbable things that might make the Spurs defense loosen up and have to guard the perimeter.
There were times in the first half of Game 2 when Howard was a monster at both ends of the floor, muscling inside for rugged buckets and trying to swat down any shot that the Spurs tried. He snarled after rejecting a Tim Duncan shot and he roared after making back-to-back rejections on Tony Parker.
But Howard also went up for an offensive rebound and swung a hard right elbow that caught Bonner square on his face and sent him to the floor like a bag of rocks.
The red-haired Bonner wore a sheepish smile and a red welt as he stood in front of his locker.
“You knock me down, I’ll keep getting up,” said Bonner.
Call it the Chumbawamba defense. Maybe that’s why none other than Kobe himself bestowed the nickname Red Mamba.
Or maybe it was the 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting — including another running one-hander — dubbed the “Shyhook” by the wags of the Internet.
“Matty’s a tough-minded individual,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He’s a heck of a competitor and a great team guy. He’ll do whatever we ask him to do. I think his family worries about him and the things we ask him to do out there.” (more…)
That effort turned younger brother Marc Gasol of the Grizzles into the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a great award to receive, great recognition, great accomplishment for him and I’m just very proud of what he’s been able to do and what he’s become as a player and a person,” Pau said. “I’m a proud big brother.
“He gets it done on both ends of the floor. He’s a great anchor for their team. On the defensive end, he gets a lot of deflections, a lot of steals, gets blocks. He makes critical defensive plays and helps them be the defensive team that they are.”
ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said recently that whoever taught the Gasol players the game should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“You’ve got to give the credit to a lot of people,” Pau said. “We had a lot of coaches growing up. We paid attention to the fundamentals of the game, ballhandling, passing, court awarenesss, team ball. That’s what we’ve been taught since we were little and have been able to absorb it really well and put it to practice. Also the values that our parents taught us were also crucial as far as being humble and hard workers and respectful.”
Naturally, the question was posed of which of them is a better defender.
“Apparently Marc,” Pau said chuckling. “He has always been more of a hard-nosed player, does more of the dirty work. He has a bigger body and can be a little more physical and more effective with it.
“I’m not discontent with my ability to defend…When we had our championships I had to defend and I usually defended the best post-up player and was very successful and got some All-Defensive team votes a couple of years.
“But I’m not gonna take any credit for (the award). Marc has just grown into a magnificent player all around. Defense, offense and quietly, under the radar and I’m glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
With the Lakers and Grizzlies in the same half of the Western Conference bracket, the brothers could meet in the next round of the playoffs if they advance.
“It would be a pretty amazing feeling,” Pau said. “I wish that would happen. We’re both in a disadvantaged position at this point this year. They’re down 2-0 against a team playing well and they took a really tough hit in Game 2, losing that way. And we’re playing against San Antonio. It is what it is. It’s a nice thought that we’ll continue to pursue.”
SAN ANTONIO — Long before they ever squared off down in the paint, exchanged pushes and shoves, elbows and hips and knees in the frenzy of a playoff game, Dwight Howard knew all about the Spurs’ No. 21.
Howard was only 11 when Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall by San Antonio in 1997 and Duncan had already won two NBA titles by the time Howard entered the league as the No. 1 pick in 2004.
“He’s a big guy who handled the ball, shot the ball well, had a lot of moves on the block and made it tough for guys to guard. I loved watching that.”
But Howard never tried to imitate that. The truth is, his angular body and his offensive moves that are less-than fluid did always resemble those of another famous Spur, David Robinson. Those two have become friends, occasionally chatting by phone.
Yet when it came time for hero worship, Howard cast his gaze in the direction of, perhaps, the most famous big man of all time.
“My childhood idol was Wilt Chamberlain,” Howard said.
But it wasn’t grainy old videotapes that piqued his interest. The 1980′s-era Alphie the Robot,a one-foot tall toy that asked questions and dispensed bits of trivia to young minds, first told Howard about Chamberlain.
“He used to say: ‘Wilt Chamberlain scored a hundred points,’ ” Howard recalled. “I was intrigued by Wilt Chamberlain from that moment on. I wanted to meet him, but he died before I got a chance to get to the NBA. He was my childhood idol.”
A six-year-old quickly began to research and learn about Chamberlain.
“If you came out the back of his house and looked up to the right, my house is right there,” Howard said. “Mariah Carey lives right by me. You can see the ocean from my rooftop, downtown and the Staples Center from the back.
“And I’ve got a telescope just like Wilt had. The roof of his bedroom used to open and he’d look at the sky. Now I’m looking up at all the same stars.”
Along with a slice of the sky, it seems they also share struggles at the free throw line and a few personality traits, including a persecution complex. (more…)