Best of the Western Conference Semifinals

NBA

May 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in game four of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports


1.) Who is the MVP of the second round?

Bryan Toporek: Had Kawhi Leonard not hurt his ankle toward the end of Game 5 and missed the series-clinching Game 6, I’d give him the nod. Instead, I’m handing it to Draymond Green, who anchored the stingiest defense of any team in the conference semifinals. What he did to the Utah Jazz during Golden State’s four-game sweep — 16.0 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.5 triples, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in 35.7 minutes per night — is defined as a felony in 23 states, I’m pretty sure. By faring that well offensively against a fellow Defensive Player of the Year front-runner in Rudy Gobert, Dray ensured the Warriors would coast into the conference finals and save their energy for the time of year that matters most in the NBA.

Eli Horowitz: Kawhi Leonard. He averaged 23.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the series. All season, he was criticized in the MVP race for not being a “play-maker” and not distributing the ball like Russell Westbrook or James Harden. But after Tony Parker’s injury, the Spurs went to “Point Kawhi” and he delivered, with seven assists in a Game 3 road victory. Especially telling was Leonard’s Game 2 performance.

After getting blown out in Game 1, Kawhi responded in Game 2 with 34 points, eight assists and seven rebounds and locked up James Harden; guarding him from the opening tip and executing on a different defensive game plan than Game 1. That was an MVP-caliber, season-saving performance as the Spurs could have gone down 0-2 on their home-court. As well as the Spurs played without Kawhi in Game 6, I’m not holding that against him. Without Leonard, the Rockets win this series in 5.

Shane Young: You know; I think it was Kevin Durant.  Kawhi Leonard will deserve the praise and mention here, but he did miss the entire overtime of the Game 5 win over Houston, and the entire Game 6, which the Spurs won by 39 points. Durant averaged 24.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in the sweep over Utah. That’s not even the most impressive part of his series.

Durant was a critical part of the Warriors’ offense throughout the second round, taking 70 total shots in four games. His usage rating was 28.5 percent, meaning he used a lot of Golden State’s possessions. Yet, he only committed four total turnovers in the series. That gave him a turnover percentage of 3.9. Let’s compare that combo to James Harden and Durant’s teammate, Stephen Curry:

  • Harden: 32.9 percent usage, 14.2 turnover percentage
  • Curry: 26.2 percent usage, 8.7 turnover percentage

If Durant continues to play this efficiently — essentially 54-39-88 shooting splits from two-point, three-point, and free throws, he’ll have a title in a few weeks.

Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

2.) Who has been the best defensive player of the second round?

Bryan Toporek: Going right back to the Green well here. It’s tough to put much stock into a four-game sample size, but among all players in the second round who faced at least four shots per game at the rim, the Michigan State product led the way by holding opponents to just 34.4 percent shooting. Seeing as his primary defensive responsibility (Gobert) had a full six inches on him, that type of defensive efficiency is absurd. Leonard was a close second, as he made life miserable for James Harden throughout much of San Antonio’s series against Houston, but Dray earns the nod for helping limit Utah to a ghastly 97.6 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark of any team on either side of the bracket.

Eli Horowitz: Although the Spurs collectively figured out how to stop James Harden, and a lot of that fell onto Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green had the most overall impact on the defensive end. He was the best rim protector in the second round and led the Warriors in holding the Jazz to the most futile offensive output of any team in the second round. Green’s ability to both win his one-on-one assignment and be the free safety for the Warriors is unparalleled.

Shane Young: Sticking with the Warriors here, it has to be Draymond Green. After Golden State advanced to the West Finals, Ben Dowsett perfectly detailed how tied together the Warriors’ defense has been during the playoffs. This starts with Green, who made life difficult for Utah’s offense to get into any rhythm. With Green on the court, the Warriors’ defense only allowed 95.1 points per 100 possessions in the second round. When Green is off the court, that swelled to 105.1.  It’s not like Utah is some offensive powerhouse, but they do have a lot of versatility and great coaching. The Warriors still made them suffer.

Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

3.) Who made the biggest impact off the bench?

Bryan Toporek: Patty Mills. I’m slightly cheating here, since Mills technically started the final two games of the series against Houston, but he proved such a steadying force in the wake of Tony Parker’s season-ending quad injury that an exception deserves to be made. It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, Gregg Popovich was calling Mills a “little fat ass,” as the soon-to-be free agent helped San Antonio stay afloat with 12.2 points on 45.8 percent shooting, 3.3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 2.2 triples and 1.3 steals in just 27.5 minutes per game. Kawhi Leonard couldn’t stifle James Harden and play point-forward for 48 minutes a night, so Mills’ ascendance upon Parker’s departure from the lineup helped San Antonio stave off a frisky Houston squad otherwise primed to pull off the upset.

Eli Horowitz: Jonathon Simmons, who came off the bench in Games 1-5 and started Game 6 in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. He finished the second round averaging 13.2 points per game on 47 percent shooting, and shut down James Harden in convincing fashion in Games 5 and 6. For Simmons, it’s about getting an opportunity. He’s capable of this type of play, and next season, in a bigger role, you could see this consistently. During the regular season, he averaged just 17.8 minutes per game, but that’s deceiving. He played bigger minutes when starters rested but never had a clear role game to game. In 23.7 minutes per game against the Rockets, he changed the dynamics of this series, allowing the Spurs to play four-out and emerging as another on-ball defender to go after Harden.

Shane Young: Both Jonathon Simmons and Patty Mills were huge reasons why San Antonio advanced past Houston. Although it feels like cheating to pick any Spurs’ bench player — since Popovich has turned every one of them into a basketball gem — Simmons and Mills stepped up for their starting counterparts, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.

Simmons did start in Game 6, but he’s still considered a bench role player. He shot 47 percent during the series, while being the Spurs’ third-leading scorer after Leonard and Aldridge. Mills changes the game when he’s playing more minutes. His speed, lack of hesitation from three, and ability to start transition opportunities is what helps the Spurs. Traditional viewers will think you’re crazy if you say San Antonio is “better” without Parker, but Mills does keep them at least at the same level offensively. He also took care of the ball, coughing up just 1.3 turnovers per game against Houston.
Spurs

Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

4.) Whose second round shows the biggest improvement from their regular season performance?

Bryan Toporek: Jonathon Simmons, without question. After averaging just 6.2 points and 2.1 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per night during the regular season, Simmons more than doubled his scoring output despite coming off the bench for all but one game against the Rockets. CBS Sports’ Matt Moore repeatedly joked Simmons was doing his best LeBron James impersonation throughout the series, and, well… it wasn’t that off base. The Warriors are going to be commanding favorites against San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals, but Simmons’ versatility will be critical for the Spurs to have any chance.

Eli Horowitz: A lot of Spurs who were forced into a bigger role due to injuries could qualify for this: Jonathon Simmons and Manu Ginobili especially come to mind. But I’m going with Danny Green. His overall stats won’t jump out at you, but he shot 48 percent from the field in this series after shooting just 39 percent in the regular season. His 3-point percentage only jumped up from 38 to 39 percent, meaning it was Green’s ability to drive and hit the mid-range shot that gave the Spurs another player who could penetrate the defense with Parker and then Leonard hurt.

Green drove on closeouts consistently and scored seven straight points in overtime of Game 5, including an “and-1” that was his first basket with a foul of the entire season on a 2-pointer. The Spurs were dead in the water in overtime of Game 5, going scoreless for over two minutes and facing a potential 3-2 deficit going back to Houston. If for nothing else, Green’s ability to almost single-handedly step up in such a critical moment deserves recognition.

Shane Young: Simmons is the popular pick, but I thought Trevor Ariza played a huge role in keeping Houston competitive. Well, until the Game 6 beat down. Ariza shot 10 percent points better from three-point range in this series than he did in the regular season, and completely made up for his 18.8 percent long-range shooting in the first round. He made just as many threes as James Harden (20), in 20 fewer attempts. Unfortunately, Houston’s superstar shot poorly during the series, and committed 15 total turnovers in the final two games.

5.) Who has put together the best coaching performance of the second round? Please point to an adjustment or strategy that supports your reasoning.

Bryan Toporek: Gregg Popovich. After the Rockets hammered San Antonio by 27 points in Game 1, it looked like the concerns about Houston having too much firepower for the Spurs were coming to fruition. Instead, Pop guided his squad to two straight wins to wrest control of the series, ensuring Houston’s complementary shooters wouldn’t get nearly as open as they did during the opening game. Even after the Rockets knotted things up in Game 4, San Antonio proceeded to come home and lose its MVP candidate to an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, yet the Spurs still prevailed in overtime due to timely contributions from Danny Green, Patty Mills and the ageless Manu Ginobili. Give credit where credit’s due: When Pop recognized something wasn’t working — more often than not, Pau Gasol was involved — he didn’t hesitate to break out a quick hook and alter his game plan before it was too late.

Eli Horowitz: Gregg Popovich. After the Spurs got torched in Game 1, with bigs consistently switching onto Harden and getting beat, Pop made several key adjustments. He zoned up pick and rolls involving James Harden and Clint Capela, which crowded the lane for Harden and allowed the Spurs to stick to the Rockets shooters. He also hedged on picks and rolls with Harden and Trevor Ariza, which allowed Kawhi Leonard and Green to get under and through screens.

Once the Rockets went to Anderson at five, forced onto them by the Nene injury, Popovich countered by increasing the minutes of Jonathon Simmons, which allowed the Spurs to simultaneously play smaller but still control the offensive glass. Finally, his willingness to play 13 players throughout the regular season allowed the Spurs to still thrive when Kawhi Leonard went down.

Shane Young: Gregg Popovich’s ability to stick to his guns, not care about what advantage Houston thought it had with small-ball lineups and taking over 42 threes per game to stretch out the Spurs, is what made him the most valuable coach. He started Pau Gasol for five of the six games, and continued to stay big while Houston tried to exploit it. He trusted Aldridge to take advantage of the post, and kept running the offense through him.

He screamed at Gasol during Game 5 after a slight mistake at the end of regulation, which (along with making me laugh) reminded me of Phil Jackson basically punching Gasol in the chest during the 2011 Playoffs.

Popovich’s best adjustment is perhaps the one he doesn’t make. He doesn’t adjust for anyone, even the most modern, analytically-fused team in basketball, the Houston Rockets.


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