End-of-season mailbag: Time for the playoffs

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Welcome, friends, to the 48 Minutes of Hell end-of-season mailbag, where I attempt to give a passable answer to your crazy questions. It’s been a fun year in San Antonio, and it’s about to get even better. So, without further ado.

1) “Was Manu Ginobili a better player than Dirk? Are you scared of the Rockets? What are the chances LAC knocks off OKC? Who is the worst smelling player in the locker room?” – Harris Nye

  • This season? Wait … any season? No. Dirk Nowitzki is the reason the Mavericks are in the playoffs after returning to All-Star form this season, a year after dealing with major knee problems that caused him to miss 29 games. He’s not quite as lethal all-around as the old Dirk, but he’s shooting lights out and remains that team’s best player. Manu has been very good this season, especially in regard to his health and shooting percentages, putting himself in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation for sure. But no, Dirk is a step above Manu, and that’s not an insult.
  • Not sure ‘scared’ is the right terminology, but they are a problem for the Spurs. James Harden is a nightmare when he gets going — and I don’t need to remind of his past success against San Antonio — and Dwight Howard is certainly a handful on the interior. If they’re healthy and getting up and down the floor, it will be one hell of a series. But they won’t be favored if that series happens. The Rockets’ biggest weakness is their often questionable levels of execution. When those transition opportunities and pick-and-roll situations break down, they’ll do a lot of one-on-one while others stand around. You can’t survive as the playoffs roll on if you can’t execute down the stretch of games, and unless Houston shows something it really hasn’t exhibited at all during the Kevin McHale coaching era, I think that will be the difference. It’d be very difficult, but I’d expect the Spurs to win that series if it happens.
  • Man, Thunder-Clippers would (and probably will) be a blast. If I had to put a percentage on it, though, I’d say at best they’ve got a 25 percent chance. At best. Still, I’d consider that a puncher’s chance. Oklahoma City is just so damn good, and beyond Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford (Darren Collison’s been OK), Los Angeles lacks the necessary number of true shot-creators — both as passers and scorers — to push the Thunder, unless things go exactly the right way. The Clips have shot-takers, but they need assistance. OKC is just so brutal when it turns its defense up to ’11,’ as they say. It’s got the ability to suffocate offenses at the point of attack and recover to contest perimeter shots unlike any other team in the league, in my opinion (Heat included, at the moment), so Los Angeles would have to figure out how to create secondary offense when the initial Griffin, Paul or Crawford plays don’t work, and they’ll have to do so consistently. But! I think the best chance they’ve got is if Crawford catches fire, which is a possibility. We’ve seen what Griffin can do against OKC, and obviously Paul can be a monster, but the Clippers’ chances spike if Crawford gets hot. He’s a guy that doesn’t need help creating his own offense, and he’s almost impossible to guard one-on-one. I still say about 25 percent chance though. Los Angeles will need all hands healthy and on deck.
  • This has become a discussion? Haha. I remember two distinct stinky moments in that locker room, and both involved farts. For the most part, these guys stay fresh; it’s gotta be an international thing. But, one time a member of the media farted in a scrum. No idea who it was, but that’s just deplorable behavior for a crammed, hot room with a slight bit of humidity from the nearby showers. Also, a player ripped one once. I won’t say who it was, but he cleared out his side of the room. Hint: After seeing his diet on Instagram, it’s no wonder he produced a smell of that caliber.

2) “Who has been the most improved player on this season’s Spurs team? Do you miss Nando? And why is the answer ‘yes?'” – Adrian Fernandez

  • Oh, it’s Patty Mills, without question. He’s gone from end-of-bench towel-waver to the Spurs’ sixth-leading scorer. He’s also got the third-best net rating among regular players, behind only Manu and Tiago Splitter. Over the offseason, we all looked at Marco Belinelli as the replacement for Gary Neal, and perhaps, technically, he was. But Mills has been that constant spark-plug scorer Neal used to be, and he’s been much more impactful as a disruptive defender than Neal ever was. He really has been incredible. We all look at Mills as a physically slight shooter/scorer, but he’s been one of the best point guard’s in the league at defending the pick-and-roll this season. He’s been different since Day 1, when he checked into camp no longer a “little fat-ass,” as Gregg Popovich called him. This one absolutely goes to Patty.
  • The answer is ‘yes’ because I miss watching him run through his pre-game warm-ups. Dude is smooth and skilled, and his routines were pretty fun to watch. I saw him bust out some great dribble-drive moves on assistant coaches and such, but for some reason it never consistently translated to the live-action court. I think Nando has a place in this league, but he’s going to have to find a niche given his lack of athleticism.

3) “With the Big Four’s minutes almost certainly increasing to standard levels in the Playoffs, which serious rotation player do you think will see the biggest hit in playing time? Who might see a slight uptick?” – Jake Amberg

  • Great question, something those of us who’ve been covering the team have discussed regularly. Frankly, I don’t think one player in particular drops off consistently. Of course, we’ll see the best players’ minutes spike, but that entire bench is important. Maybe the one guy whose minutes will increase will be Manu, but I’m not necessarily sold on that, as I believe Green will play a major part in this run. In short, I don’t think we’ll see any big change in any capacity. Boris, Manu, Marco and Patty are going to get plenty of minutes as Popovich maintains continuity in the rotation for as long as he can.

4) “What worries you most in this series against the Mavs? And will it be enough to give the Spurs a serious scare? Also, who on the Spurs roster do you expect to have the most success in this series?” – Ryan Martin

  • My biggest worry against the Mavs would be if Dirk just went ballistic for the entirety of the series, shooting like 60 percent from the floor and essentially becoming unstoppable Dirk again. That would be enough to give the Spurs a scare, but I’m not sure anything more than that. The biggest issue for Dallas in this series is its defense, and they’ve shown next to no ability to slow San Antonio’s offense down. I just believe the Spurs will execute them to death in each game, over and over again.
  • This is really close between a handful of guys, but I think Kawhi Leonard is going to be a monster in this series. We saw the other night what he’s capable of doing to that team (16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists), even on a bad shooting night. The Mavs just don’t have anyone who can deal with that guy’s activity on both sides of the ball throughout the course of a game (I love Shawn Marion, but he can’t keep up with Kawhi anymore). Also, Leonard’s likely going to play the most minutes on the team, which should translate to some impressive numbers.

5) “Have you noticed a dip in Marco’s confidence since the last OKC game? I felt like Westbrook and Reggie Jackson exposed his un-athleticism when he had to guard them after Kawhi picked up two early fouls. Since then he has struggled shooting and looked visibly frustrated on the court.” – Jim Bennett

  • Since the Oklahoma City game, Marco is shooting 32 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three. Yeesh. However, I wouldn’t say the Thunder exposed those things, necessarily. Belinelli has never been known to be more than average athletically and certainly hasn’t been considered to be a good defender throughout his career. Look, the Thunder make a lot of people look bad offensively; they’re too long and athletic for the vast majority of players in this league. While Marco will have some secondary ball-handling opportunities throughout the postseason, his main job will be to shoot the ball and score within that second unit. If he can hike those numbers back up to his season averages, he’ll be fine. I haven’t noticed a lack of confidence recently, but that shot certainly hasn’t been falling. Still, if I had to bet, I’d say it’s just a slump at this point, one he’ll have a fantastic chance to get out of it against the Mavericks. If the struggles continue, it will be an issue later.

6) How true is the following statement?: Kawhi’s the limit. And second question: Tony Parker doesn’t look right right now (he hasn’t passed the eye test in a while now) and is it a blessing in disguise that the spurs drew the Mavs (one of the weaker opponents in the west)? – Adam Sandoval

  • I think I get what you’re saying here. I’m not sure it’s 100 percent true, but I’m not sure if I can make an argument for more than one player over him. I still believe the Spurs will go as far as Tony Parker takes them, but I believe Kawhi is right there with him, perhaps even ahead of Duncan and Ginobili. But they’re all so important in their individual ways that it’s difficult to quantify who is most crucial. Leonard probably has the most irreplaceable overall skill set in terms of what he can do on the glass and on both sides of the ball; Parker is still the team’s best offensive player when he’s right; Duncan is far and away San Antonio’s best rim-protector; and without Manu the bench really drops off. They’re all so damn important. But I will say: Kawhi needs to play the best basketball of his career for the Spurs to win the title. He’s their youth, energy and physical strength. So, your statement is certainly not false.
  • You’re right, he hasn’t looked like the Tony of old for a while now. But I still think a lot of that is conservation. He doesn’t need to be great every night for this team to win anymore. Hell, he rarely has to be great. He appears loose and unconcerned after games, so I’m going to trust at this point that this is about him preparing for the grind of the playoffs. And yes, playing the Mavericks will help. He’s gone off against them this season to the tune of better than 23 points per game. But I’m not sure I’d call it a ‘blessing in disguise.’ The Spurs earned the so-called easiest path to the Finals by virtue of their record and performance during the regular season, but I’m not sure there’s a better starting point for Tony than a matchup with the Mavs.

7) How do you see the Houston – Portland series ending up? The matchups with Houston will be tough, (Beverley, Howard, Harden offensively), but no one can matchup with Kawhi until we see OKC (knock on wood). I feel like his performance is even more important this year. Agree or disagree? – Jesse Brockschmidt

  • I haven’t made my official prediction on this, but I believe the Blazers are going to give the Rockets a serious run for their money and might even win this series. I liken them to the Warriors of last season. They’ve been very, very good since LaMarcus Aldridge returned to the lineup, and much of that is because of their overlooked defense. I’ve harped on this for much of the season, but Portland’s defense is very underrated. It’s slowly but surely improved over the last several months, and it’s boasted the sixth-best defensive-efficiency rating in the league over the last 10 games. In fact, gut feeling, I say they beat Houston, but I’m not sold yet because of those names you mentioned, plus Chandler Parsons.
  • As I said above, I believe Kawhi will have to play at the highest level of his career during the upcoming postseason. His performance is massively important, though it was pretty crucial last season as well. Without him, they wouldn’t have had a chance in those final games in Miami.

8) How will Tiago play vs last year’s playoffs? Will Ginobili be less reckless (respectfully)? What is the biggest weakness that a playoff team can exploit of the Spurs? Will we see any rising bench players like Danny Green in the playoffs again? (I’m guessing Mills) – John Gonzaba

  • As always, it’s going to depend on who the Spurs play in regard to Tiago. Sometimes he’ll play alongside Duncan, and other times he’ll serve as his primary backup against the small-ball teams. Splitter has been a consistently great defender for San Antonio this season — the Spurs hold opponents to 94.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, the lowest on the team — and I expect that to continue. There may be some more difficult matchups down the road, but he’s going to be very important to this team’s success.
  • Manu’s found a really solid groove this season. It’s been interrupted at a minimal amount due to injury, relatively speaking, and he’s absolutely shooting the ball more effectively. Ginobili isn’t going to try to go above and beyond within the flow of the game unless he absolutely has to. This team has built its run around roster-wide load-sharing, so Manu doesn’t have to do it all when that bench enters the game. Unless things fall apart with the role players and they stop making plays and hitting shots, I don’t see any need for Ginobili to flirt with recklessness.
  • There aren’t many, but it’s got to be the whole athleticism thing. The Spurs aren’t very athletic, in case you hadn’t noticed, but their execution is so damn pretty that it doesn’t really matter against most teams. They run into problems when an opponent’s length and athleticism become so overwhelming that it feels like bodies are moving as quickly as the ball through the passing lanes. It’s why Oklahoma City is such a difficult matchup. San Antonio has done well with athletic teams over the years, but few are at the level of the Thunder. Against teams like that (think of the Finals) you have to be damn near perfect.
  • I think you answered the question. Mills is primed to have a really nice playoff impact, though we’ve never seen him in this postseason role before which causes a bit of trepidation. I’m pretty excited about it, because this guy’s been amazing all season long, and he’s going to have a chance to show that on the big stage.

 

  • td4life

    Great stuff.

  • Graham

    Agree, great article

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    In regards to a couple questions regarding how the long, athletic teams bother the Spurs, especially defensively: My humble take is that both Kawhi, and to an extent Danny Green, have shown a markedly improved ability to put the ball on the floor in response to an overzealous defender aggressively closing out on their spot up three-point attempt. Danny can now shot fake, dribble in a step or two around the close-out, and confidently pull up for a mid-range jumper (and convert at a decent rate). Or he might venture into the paint to toss up one of his little floaters. And Kawhi, who is actually becoming quite deadly from mid-range – even off a size-up dribble, no less – now seems more willing to take it all the way to the hole when presented the opportunity.

    You can tell that the coaching staff has been working with them both on this, as a counter to those aggressive close-outs the Spurs often see against said athletic, long defenders. Let’s hope those refined skills hold up under playoff pressure.

  • sdedalus83

    I’m sitting here imagining Dirk dreaming about Kawhi pinning him down and whispering “I’m going to execute you to death, over and over again.”

  • Rossticus

    I know that the draft is probably the furthest thing from everyone’s mind with the playoffs ready to finally tip off this weekend but personnel management and evaluation is one of my favorite aspects of the game and one of the most critical for the Spurs in the upcoming year or two. The Spurs need to find some length and athleticism via the draft to provide some impact depth bench-wise (and hopefully a solid starter) to groom behind the FAs that they will be looking to bring in next season after they clear some cap space. This core will be looking to wind things down soon and I’d love to see SA continue to grow organically instead of having to find too many critical parts and pieces via FA after Timmy and Manu depart. I’ve picked out some prospects who I think, after some consideration, could fit with the Spurs and provide some value. These are players that SHOULD be available where the Spurs pick or near enough to possibly devise a means to move up. I just wanted to get everyone’s take regarding your personal opinions on this draft as well as the Spurs’ strategy for maintaining a strong roster during the inevitable transition from the current “Big 3″ era. I’m listing some of this year’s prospects roughly in a composite order of where I see them being picked (earliest to latest) and my view their chances of providing early contribution. Any potential additions to the “Foreign Legion” are necessarily listed closer to last despite their potential because of their increased need for development. Cleanthony Early, PJ Hairston, Glenn Robinson, Isaiah Austin, Walter Tavares, Alessandro Gentile, James Michael McAdoo, AJ Hammons. Thanks!

  • Jimbo

    Good writeup, lots of interesting stuff in there. I had no idea Portland’s D has improved that much over the season. IIRC, it was very soft even as they had the great start to the season.

    I definitely think Mills could tip a playoff game. He should be mentioned as candidate for Most Improved, although there are a couple dozen players this year who deserve the award.

    A lot is going to fall on Leonard and Parker offensively when the Spurs face elite Ds. I hope Parker is healthy- I think the Spurs would have won it all last year if not for the d*mn hamstring injury.

    Some good news regarding the bane of the Spurs: the Thunder’s path to the title may take them through Memphis (3rd best record in the league since January 1st); LAC (second best record); and Spurs (1st). I am not absolutely sure about those records but am 99% sure that is right. The Thunder are young and never seem to tire, but hopefully a couple of tough series will wear on them.

  • Rossticus

    Just a quick note regarding the teams that SA will most likely face from the 2nd round on. The Spurs’ top three players (Duncan, Parker, Leonard) have a group average of 29.2 minutes played individually over the course of ther regular season. This is at least 5 minutes per game less than any of the match-ups the Spurs will likely see after the first round. Houston leads the pack with an average of 36.4 for Hardin (38), Parsons (37.6) and Howard (33.7). Next comes Portland (Aldridge 36.2, Batum 36, Lillard 35.8) with 36, LA with 35.3 (Griffin 35.8, Paul 35, Jordan 35) and OKC with 34 (Durant 38.5, Ibaka 32.9, Westbrook 30.7). Lastly, while the Miami threesome of James (37.7) Bosh (32) and Wade (32.9) average 34.2, Wade has only averaged 21.3 minutes per night in the last 10 games leading up to the playoffs to make sure he’s primed to sustain increased minutes.