Monday, May 16, 2016

J-Speaks: NBA Eastern/Western Conference Finals Preview

One month ago, 16 NBA teams began their journey to see who would be the last team standing as the NBA champions. We are now down to the NBA’s version of the Final Four. We have the two No. 1 Seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conference trying to garner four more wins to meet once again in the NBA Finals. Their challengers are the No. 2 team in the East, which has had to fight through a lot of adversity from their past and their present to their first birth in the East title series while the defending champs out West will face a team that they defeated all three times in the regular season even though they trailed at one point in the fourth quarter, but pulled each game out. Here is a preview of the 2016 NBA Eastern and Western Conference Finals.

East (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (2) Toronto Raptors

For two straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors won the Atlantic Division and set a record for wins in a season. For two straight postseasons with home court advantage, it ended in heartbreak with a First-Round exit in seven games to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 and a humiliating four-game sweep in the Quarterfinals versus the Washington Wizards.

The 2016 postseason began under the same circumstances. They won a franchise record 56 games and the Atlantic Division for the third straight season. In the opening round versus No. 7 Seeded Indiana Pacers, the No. 2 Seeded Raptors lost Game 1 as they did the last two seasons and those same noises of them fading in the playoffs came right up.

This time around though, the Raptors were up to the task as they defeated the Pacers in seven games to advance to the Semifinals.

They got behind the eight ball in the Semis versus the Miami Heat losing Game 1 102-96 in overtime.

The Raptors recovered to win Game 2 in overtime 96-92 and they won Game 3 on the Heat’s home court 95-91 to take a 2-1 series lead.

The Heat won two of the next three games, including another overtime affair in Game 4 94-87 to force another winner take all Game 7.

With their backs against the wall, the Raptors rose to the occasion putting the Heat in their rearview mirror 116-89 this past Sunday.

After struggling for much of this postseason with his shot and scoring output as he did a season ago, two-time All-Star guard Kyle Lowry had his best all-around game of the postseason when it matter most with a game-high 35 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and four steals. He went 11 for 20 from the field, including 5 for 7 from three-point range and 8 for 11 from the free throw line.

This followed a 36-point performance on 12 for 27 from the field and 9 for 10 from the charity stripe in the 103-91 setback in Game 6 and 25 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals in the 99-91 win in Game 5 a week ago.

Lowry’s backcourt mate in fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who too has had his shooting and scoring struggles in the 2016 playoffs had 28 points and eight boards in the Game 7 clinching win, despite going 12 for 29 from the floor.

Lowry and DeRozan got some big time support from their teammates as center Bismack Biyombo, who started in place of the injured Jonas Valanciunas had a stellar double-double of 17 points and 16 rebounds to go along with two blocks. Off-injured forward DeMarre Carroll had 14 points and five boards and forward Patrick Patterson also had a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds.

In a series that was a statistical wash for six games, the Raptors outplayed the Heat across the boards as they out-rebounded Miami 64-41, particularly on the offensive glass 20-7 and garnered 27 second chance points as a result. The Raptors went 29 for 43 from the charity stripe while the Heat were just 18 for 23 and the Raptors had 16 fast break points while the Heat managed just six. On top of that, the Raptors were 9 for 20 from three-point range and the Heat were just 7 for 25.

Up next for the Raptors is the No. 1 Seeded Cavaliers who have been to put it succinctly, perfect.

They swept the Detroit Pistons 4-0, even though three of the four games were very competitive. That was followed that up with a 4-0 sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Semis.

The dynamic trio of four-time MVP LeBron James (23.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7.3 apg) and All-Stars Kyrie Irving (24.4 ppg, 5.5 apg, 47.7 FG%, 53.8 3-Pt.%) and Kevin Love (18.9 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 44.4 3-Pt.%) are as in sink as they have ever been.

Love and Irving are making the most of their second appearance in the postseason, especially Love, who played just the first three games of the opening round versus the Boston Celtics a season ago because of a severely injured shoulder he sustained in Game 4 of that series.

Besides the stellar play of the “Big Three” of the Cavs, their ability to make three-pointers has put them head and shoulders above their first two opponents, particularly against Hawks.

In their 104-93 win in Game 1 back on May 2, the Cavs were 15 for 31 from three-point range.

In their 123-98 victory in Game 2 back on May 4, the Cavs hit an NBA record 25 triples in 45 opportunities with J.R. Smith hitting 7 for 13 for 23 points. James had 27 points hitting 4 for 6 from long range and going 9 for 15 from the floor overall and Irving hit 4 for 5 from three-point range scoring 19 points.

In their 121-108 win in Game 3 back on May 6, the Cavs went 21-39 from three-point distance and leading the parade from long range was Channing Frye, who had a playoff career-high of 27 points going 7 for 9 from distance and 10 for 13 from the field off the bench to go along with seven boards. Irving had 24 points going 9 for 19 from the field and 4 for 5 from three-point land. James nearly had a triple-double of 24 points 13 rebounds and eight assists. Love had his second straight double-double of 21 points and 15 boards going 5 for 12 from three-point range.

In the nail biting Game 4 clincher on week from yesterday by the Cavs 100-99 over the Hawks, the Cavs went 16 for 37 from three-point range and Love led the way this time going 8 for 15 for 27 points and 13 rebounds. James nearly had another triple-double with 21 points, 10 boards and nine assists. Irving also had 21 points to go along with eight assists.

In their three matchups in the regular season, the Raptors took two of three from the Cavs. While the Cavs scored better averaging 106.0 points per game to the Raptors 100.7, The Raptors shot better from the floor at 50.2 percent to the Cavs 48.7. While the turnovers per game were basically even 10.7 for the Raptors to 12.7 for the Cavs, the Raptors scored more points per game off those Cavs miscues 17.6 to 11.3 

One big piece that will be missing from the Raptors lineup is the aforementioned Valanciunas, who has been ruled out for Game 1 of this series due to a sprained right ankle he sustained in Game 3 of the Semis back on May 7 and his status beyond that is still unknown. That is 15.0 points and 12.1 rebounds that will be missing from the lineup.

If the Cavs play like they have in the first two rounds of this postseason, the Raptors are in serious trouble. If DeRozan and Lowry play like they did in Game 7 versus the Heat this past Sunday, then they have a chance. If they do not, they will just another stepping stone in the Cavs march to The Finals.

Game 1 of this series is tomorrow at 8:30 p.m. and the entire Eastern Conference Finals can be seen on ESPN.

Prediction: Cavs in five.

West (1) Golden State Warriors versus (3) Oklahoma City Thunder

If you like star power; high octane offenses; quick strike shooting and diehard fans who cheer their teams on, the Western Conference Finals matchup between the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors and the Northwest Division champion Oklahoma City Thunder is just up your alley.

This will be just the third time these two franchises will meet in the playoffs and this will be their first since they met back in the opening round of 1992 when the Thunder the Seattle Supersonics and All-Stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Klay Thompson were just rug rats.

While by the face value, the Warriors had an easy time making their second straight appearance in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1975-76 defeating the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in each of the first two rounds, they had to do so without the reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who suffered injuries to his ankle and knee. For a while there was a question would he ever be the same?

He made his return to the lineup in Game 4 of the Semis versus the Trail Blazers and when the game was over, Curry made it very clear that he was back.

Originally supposed to play just about 25 minutes according to NBA Coach of the Year for 2016 Steve Kerr, the ejection of Curry’s understudy Shaun Livingston, who had been starting in Curry’s place was ejected after picking up two technical fouls after arguing over a foul call scrapped that plan completely.

For much of the game, Curry played like a player that had been on the shelf for about two weeks scoring just 13 points over the first three quarters. He kicked into gear when his team needed him the most and Curry scored 10 points in the four quarter and an NBA-record 17 points in overtime to lift the Warriors to a 132-125 win in Portland to take a 3-1 series lead.

Curry finished 16 for 32 from the field, 5 for 16 from three-point range with nine rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes. His fellow “Splash Brother” and fellow All-Star Klay Thompson had 23 points going 5 for 10 from long range. First-time All-Star Draymond Green had 21 points, nine rebounds, five assists, seven blocks and four steals. Marreese Speights had 11 points off the bench and Harrison Barnes had 10 points and five boards.

Fittingly the next day, Curry expectedly was honored as the KIA Most Valuable Player for the 2015-16 season. It was not only his second straight MVP Award, but Curry became the first unanimous winner receiving all 131 first place votes.

Before Game 5 on May 11, Curry received his MVP Award by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in front of Warriors nation at Oracle Arena.

“He reinvents the game every time he takes the floor,” Silver said during the ceremony.

Curry spoke briefly to the fans saying, “I just want to say thank you to the fans, all of Dub Nation, for your support all year long. It’s something I’ll never forget. Let’s keep it going.”

That is exactly what they did as the “Splash Brothers” helped the Warriors to a 125-121 win versus the Trail Blazers to win the series 4-1.

Curry, who was back in the starting lineup had 14 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter to go along with 11 assists. He was 10 for 20 from the field including 5 for 11 from three-point range. He made some more postseason history by hitting a triple in his 44th straight game, tying Hall of Famer and current NBA on TNT color analyst Reggie Miller.

Thompson led the way with 33 points going 13 for 17 from the floor and hitting 6 for 9 from long distance. It was his fourth 30-point game of this postseason and he became the first to make five three-pointers or more in seven straight playoff games. Green had a double-double of 13 points and 11 boards to go along with six assists.   

The question coming into the 2016 playoffs for the Oklahoma City Thunder is how far could they go under first year head coach Billy Donovan?

In the opening round, they took care of the No. 6 Seeded Dallas Mavericks in five games winning the final three games by an average of 18 points.

In the Semis against the mighty San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder were taken to the cleaners in Game 1 back on Apr. 30 falling 124-92. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge was doing most of the cleaning with 38 points on 18 for 23 shooting.

The Thunder bounced back in a big way in Game 2 48 hours later winning 98-97 behind the 29 points, 10 assists and seven boards from perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook and the 28 points and seven boards from fellow All-Star Kevin Durant to tie the series at 1-1.

Thunder got major contributions from the supporting cast like center Steven Adams who had 12 points and 17 boards. Forward Serge Ibaka had 12 points, five boards and two blocks and forward Enes Kanter had 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks off the bench.  

OKC’s momentum would be short lived as the Spurs took game three on the Thunder’s home court 100-96 on May 6 to take a 2-1 series lead.

Counting the playoffs, it was the 16th time this season that the Thunder had a lead in the fourth quarter and lost.

While Westbrook and Durant and big games scoring wise scoring 31 and 26 respectably, Ibaka was the only other Thunder player to score in double-figures with 15. Westbrook was just 10 for 31 from the field, including just 3 for 10 from three-point range.

It was at this moment that a lot of things came into focus for the Thunder and the main one of them is the possible end of Durant’s time as a member of the Thunder as he is set to be a free agent when the Thunder’s season is over.

It was from that point that the Thunder kicked it into gear and finished off the Spurs and conquered their demons.

Behind Durant’s career playoff-high tying 41 points, with 29 of them on 10 for 13 shooting coming in the second half as the Thunder tied the series 2-2 with a 111-97 win on May 8.

Guard Dion Waiters had 17 points off the bench. Adams had 16 points and 11 rebounds along with two blocks. Despite going 5 for 18 from the field, Westbrook had a solid all-around game with 14 points, 15 assists, seven boards and three steals. Kanter had 11 points and eight boards off the bench.

The Thunder took control of the series winning for the second time in San Antonio with a come from behind 95-91 win to take a 3-2 series lead. Westbrook finished one assists shy of a triple-double with 35 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists going 12 for 27 from the field, including 3 for 7 from three-point range and 8 for 8 from the free throw line. Durant had 23 points, six boards, five assists and two steals. Adams had another double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds and Kanter had 13 boards to go along with eight points.

Last Thursday, the Thunder did the unthinkable in finishing off the Spurs 113-99 to win the series 4-2 and advancing to their fourth Western Conference Final in the last six seasons.

After leading 16-10 in the middle of the first quarter, the Thunder closed the opening stanza with a 15-3 run and never looked back.

Durant led the way with 37 points and nine rebounds on 12 for 24 from the field and 12 for 12 from the charity stripe. Westbrook had 28 points on 10 for 21 from the field with 12 assists. Adams had his third consecutive double-double of the series and fifth of the playoffs with 15 points and 11 rebounds and starting shooting guard Andre Roberson who had just four points and was 0 for 7 from three-point range coming into Game 6 had 14 points, seven boards and went 3 for 5 from three-point range in the clincher.

This Western Conference Finals is full of star power. This series features the last three MVP winners in Durant who won the NBA’s prestigious award in 2014 and current back-to-back winner in Curry. It also features six of the last seven scoring champions in Curry, Westbrook and Durant’ five current All-Star 2016 selections in Curry, Thompson, Green, Durant and Westbrook and five of the six Western Conference Players of the month this season.

For the Thunder to have any chance to beat the mighty Warriors, they must find a way to get on of the first two games on the Warriors home court where they went 39-2 for the second straight regular season and are 6-0 this postseason. In their history as the Thunder, OKC is 0-5 on the road Game 1 and the Thunder going back to the 2013-14 season have lost their last five trips to Oracle Arena during the regular season and the Warriors have averaged 116.8 points in those contest.

Along with Westbrook and Durant playing at a high level, they will need Westbrook to play with the balance of knowing when to shoot and when to find his teammates, they will need for Kanter and Adams to be dominant inside, especially on the glass.

If that is the case, the Warriors will need center Andrew Bogut, who did not play in the second half of Game 5 versus the Trail Blazers because of hip injury to be healthy to battle against the Thunder’s big men.

If this series was like the three games during the regular season, all won by the Warriors, this series will be exciting and full of offensive fireworks.

Game 1 of the series is tonight at 9 p.m. and the entire Western Conference Finals can be seen on TNT.

Prediction: Warriors in six.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 5/14/16 7 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Rick Kamla, Dennis Scott and Grant Hill; 5/16/16 3:30 p.m. of ESPN’s “NBA: The Jump,” with Rachel Nichols, Byron Scott and Caron Butler; 5/16/16 6 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Rick Fox and Danny Granger; 5/13/16 2016 Western Conference Finals Preview: “Confident Thunder Get Shot at Champs,” by Fran Blinebury; 5/15/16 Eastern Conference Finals Preview: “Weary Raptors Face Challenge From Rested Champs,” by Steve Aschburner;;

Friday, May 13, 2016

J-Speaks: The Possible End of The Spurs "Big Three"

In December of 1996, the assistant coach Gregg Popovich became the Spurs head coach. In June of 1997, the Spurs because of their 20-62 mark that season had the No. 1 overall pick and in the draft that June they selected Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest. Two years later Popovich, Duncan and now Hall of Famer David Robinson would lead the Spurs to their first ever NBA title by beating the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals in five games. Three years later, the Spurs would add what would eventually be two key lynch pins to their franchise and future All-Stars in overseas stars Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Spurs not only win more games, but they won more titles as well and this season seemed poised to win one more, especially after their 124-92 win versus the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals back on Apr. 30. The Thunder responded in the games that followed and put a stop to the dreams of the Spurs title hopes this past Thursday night.

The Thunder won Game 6 back at Chesapeake Energy Arena 113-99 to take the series 4-2 and joining them with the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks as the two teams to win 67 games in the regular season and not reach the Conference Finals. The Mavs that season lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors in six games.

The Thunder will faced the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, which begin on Monday night at 9 p.m. Eastern time on TNT.

This loss for the Spurs came on the heels of a 95-91 setback in Game 5 back at the AT&T Center, where the Spurs lost for the second time in this series after going 40-1 at home in the regular season, which tied the 1985-86 World Champion Boston Celtics for the best home record in a season in NBA history. The Thunder beat the Spurs back in Game 2 98-97.

The Thunder took control of the game thanks to a 15-3 run to close the first period after trailing 16-10 to take a 25-19 lead into the second quarter. It was there that the game was put out of reach when the Thunder outscored the Spurs 30-12 and held the Southwest Division champs to 5 for 23 from the floor in the stanza.

Kevin Durant led all scorers with 37 points and nine rebounds, going 12 for 24 from the field and 12 for 12 from the free throw line. Fellow perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook after 35 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in the Game 5 win had 28 points on 10 for 21 shooting along with 12 assists.

The Thunder took control of the contest

The loss not only ended the Spurs season, where they won a franchise record 67 games, it might have been the last game for the “Big Three” of future Hall of Famers Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. 

To illustrate how great this trio, who have been teammates since 2002 into perspective in terms of their play in the postseason, their 126 wins are 16 more than the Los Angeles Lakers trio of Hall of Famers Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who helped the Lakers win five titles in nine Finals appearances in the 1980s. The trio of “Magic” Johnson, Hall of Famer James Worthy and Byron Scott won 93 playoff games and three titles together and the Hall of Fame trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish of the Boston Celtics won 92 playoff games and three championships.

The tandem of Duncan and Popovich has produced 1,001 regular season wins and 12 Midwest/Southwest Division titles; 157 playoff wins and the aforementioned five titles.

More than anything else though, this tandem as well as Ginobili and Parker have provided a great example of teamwork, focus and a commitment to doing things both on and off the court with class and dignity.

In today’s era of the NBA, it can about the show and how one player can be the difference in how a team performs.

In the case of the Spurs, it was never about Popovich or about the “Big Three.” The Spurs won because it was about playing defense, sharing the ball on offense, especially in the past few seasons and it was about knowing what to do and doing it at all times.

On top of that, Popovich coached Duncan, Parker and Ginobili just as hard as he did everyone else. No one was bigger than the team and that showed.

That especially on display in the second half on Thursday night when they cut a 28-point deficit to 11 in the fourth quarter thanks to a 23-8 run to start the fourth period.

“We hung tough. Got great character and I expected nothing less,” Popovich said to reporters after the game. “We just went into the second half like its 0-0 and did the best job we could and I thought out guys were great.”

That was especially the case for Duncan, who had his best game of the series with 19 points going 7 for 14 shooting in 34 minutes. He had just 17 total points and made just 7 of his 25 field goal attempts coming into Game 6.

Unfortunately, the Spurs just did not have enough to catch the Thunder, whose starting five of Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson had 40 rebounds, which equaled the total of the Spurs entire team in Game 6. Duncan, who

While swingman Kawhi Leonard led the way with 22 points along with nine boards, five assists and three steals, LaMarcus Aldridge was the only other player besides Duncan as mentioned earlier to score in double figures with 18 points along with 14 rebounds.

Parker and Ginobili combined for just 11 points and five assists on 4 for 12 shooting from the floor.

This was the first postseason that Duncan, who had just five boards in the Game 6 defeat did not record a double-double.

The question now is what is going to happen to the Spurs going forward? Will Duncan and Ginobili retire? Will veterans like David West, Andre Miller and Kevin Martin be back and are the new faces of this franchise in Aldridge and Leonard ready to even take more of a leadership role?

Like he has been for his entire career, Duncan, who is now 40 years of age and just finished his 19th season in the league played it as close to the best about his future after the game when he said, “I’ll get to that after I get out of here and figure life out.”  

If this was the final run for the “Big Three” of the Spurs as we know them, they left a mark on the NBA that the fans of San Antonio, TX and the basketball world.

Tim Duncan, whose 157 playoff wins in 251 career playoff games played are second only to former Lakers, Warriors and Utah Jazz guard Derek Fisher’s 161 in 259 career playoff contests played like star who left everything on the court and was a great leader with his words, all be it not many times and by his amazing example in practice and on the court. His next stop is the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, who in terms of postseason ranks in NBA history is 6th all-time in points with 5,172 and first in minutes played at 9,371; block shots at 568 and as mentioned earlier wins with 157.

Parker and Ginobili went from unknowns into perennial All-Stars and will join Duncan in the Hall of Fame as well along with Popovich, who may not say much in courtside interviews is a great head coach who has two players in Leonard and Aldridge who will lead the Spurs into the future.

If this is it for the Spurs as we have come to know them, they accomplished more than most teams and star players do in a lifetime. Some players go their entire career a do not make the playoffs for as many years in a row as the Spurs have, which is 19 in a row, let alone win a championship.

They appreciate the great moments, but the Spurs during this run also appreciate the journey, even when it ends short of expectations.

“I’m very lucky. I’ve won four times. There’s a lot of great NBA guys who never won,” Parker said after the game. “Of course I want to win every year and we want to try and win every year. It was a great season. We won 67 games and it was a great season. Just didn’t go our way.”

Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of 5/12/16 8:30 p.m. Game 6 of Western Conference Semifinals San Antonio Spurs versus Oklahoma City Thunder on ESPN with Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, with sideline reporter Doris Burke;;; 5/13/16 8 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Jared Greenberg, Sekou Smith and Brendan Haywood; 5/13/16 8 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter” with Sarah Walsh, Jay Harris and Kevin Negandhi; Sporting News Official 2006-07 NBA Guide.”