Think the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will waltz to a rematch in this year's NBA Finals? Think again.
The defending conference champions are still the odds-on favorites to meet later this spring, but they'll each have to contend with some serious competition from No. 2 seeds.
The San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors gave their respective conference adversaries a good, long look at what could come during the former's 102-95 win over the latter in the Alamo City.
LaMarcus Aldridge (31 points on 12-of-18 shooting, 15 rebounds) logged his third 30-point double-double of the season. Kawhi Leonard erupted for a career-best 33 points (10-of-17 from the field, 11-of-11 from the free-throw line) with six rebounds and a game-high seven assists. San Antonio's two All-Stars joined forces with Manu Ginobili on a brilliant fast break in the second quarter that ended with an Aldridge dunk.
That pair, the foundation of San Antonio's long-term future, has already lifted the Spurs to new heights. Their excellence secured a franchise-record 64th win, extended the team's historic home start to 39-0 and gave them at least one victory against each of the league's 29 other teams this season.
The Spurs will have more than a puncher's chance of knocking out the Warriors and bringing a sixth Larry O'Brien Trophy to the Alamo City. San Antonio's frontcourt of Leonard and Aldridge combined for 44 points and 27 rebounds during an 87-79 win over Golden State in mid-March and will have another opportunity to shine when traveling to Oakland on April 7.
The concerns for San Antonio rest with everyone else. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili, while still valuable contributors, can no longer be counted on to carry a heavy load from night to night. The Spurs' historic triumvirate totaled 18 points and combined with the rest of the supporting cast to shoot just 13-of-42 (31 percent) from the floor.
The Raptors, on the other hand, wouldn't have given the Spurs such a scare without their depth.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto's All-Star backcourt, spent the night resting their weary bodies in street clothes. In their stead, Cory Joseph dropped 16 points and seven assists against his old squad while rookie Norman Powell (17 points on 6-of-10 shooting) registered his sixth straight game in double figures and dunked all over the Spurs not once...
The Raptors reserves doubled up their Spurs counterparts, 44-22, with Patrick Patterson (12 points), Terrence Ross (13 points) and rookie Delon Wright (12 points) all hitting double digits.
Toronto's bench has been its greatest strength all season long. According to NBA.com, half of the Raptors' eight best lineups (minimum 50 minutes played) feature at least three of their regular reserves.
The size of Dwane Casey's rotations won't matter quite so much in the playoffs, wherein teams tend to stick to smaller cores. That depth, though, has helped the Raptors not only survive in DeMarre Carroll's absence since early January, but also thrive on the way to a franchise-record 51 wins.
Carroll's return from midseason knee surgery remains in doubt. He'd offer a huge boost to Toronto's hopes, as a capable scorer and lockdown perimeter defender, but the Raptors should be able to compete in the East either way. They've beaten the Cavaliers with and without Carroll this season.
Toronto will need all the help it can get to halt LeBron James' inexorable march back to the Finals. The same goes for San Antonio with its group of aging Hall of Famers and experienced role players around Aldridge and Leonard, be it against the defending champs in the Western Conference Finals or the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round.
Longer odds of that happening or not, the Warriors and Cavaliers could be in for quite the comeuppance during the NBA's version of the Final Four.
Updating East's Race to the Bottom
For once, clarity trumped chaos in the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons strengthened their claims to playoff spots with big road wins on Saturday, though not without some difficulty.
Indy closed on a 19-4 run, boosted by a pair of threes from Paul George (20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists), to seal a 115-102 seesaw victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
A night after clinching the league's worst record, the Sixers played like a team that wouldn't shoot its future in the foot with a win.
Carl Landry poured in 14 of his 19 points during the first quarter to keep them within striking distance early. Philly climbed out of an 18-point hole with a 24-3 run to end the third quarter, bolstered by eight points from Jerami Grant (20 points, nine rebounds, three assists), nine from Isaiah Canaan (24 points, four rebounds, two assists) and a poster slam by Nik Stauskas (nine points, three assists).
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But the Pacers' second unit, with Myles Turner returning to the bench, was too much for Philly to handle. Indy squeezed 61 points out of its reserves, including a game-high 25 from C.J. Miles and 17 with five assists from Rodney Stuckey.
"We needed to give our team a spark," head coach Frank Vogel said afterward, per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner.
The win helped the Pacers (40-36) hang onto eighth place in the East.
So did Detroit's 94-90 nail-biter over the Chicago Bulls.
Jimmy Butler went above and beyond to give the home team a shot. The All-Star swingman tallied his first career triple-double (28 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists) to go along with three steals and two blocks in 39 minutes.
But Butler's individual brilliance wasn't enough to save the Bulls, who shot 7-of-23 from the field in the fourth quarter and 38.6 percent for the game.
The Pistons weren't exactly firing on all cylinders themselves. Detroit mustered a mere 42.1 percent shooting with 17 assists on 32 makes.
Detroit's effort, while ugly, was just enough to pull out a crucial victory on the road. Five Pistons scored in double figures, led by Reggie Jackson's 22 points and Tobias Harris' 21.
"Our guys gutted it out pretty good," Stan Van Gundy said postgame, per the Pistons. "I was really proud of them tonight"
The result gave Detroit (41-36) its first non-losing season since 2007-08. More importantly, it put the Pistons back in seventh place in the East, with a two-and-a-half-game cushion over ninth-place Chicago and a three-and-a-half-game edge on the 10th-place Washington Wizards.
A lot can happen in five games, but for now, the Pistons and Pacers look like safe bets to leave the lottery behind.
Another Big Game For the Other Curry
After nearly three years wandering the NBA’s fringes, Seth Curry is finally getting to prove he belongs in the world's best basketball league because of more than just his star-studded pedigree.
The younger brother of reigning MVP Stephen Curry scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting with five assists off the bench to boost the Sacramento Kings to a 115-106 win over the Denver Nuggets in the Mile High City.
Curry’s outburst was the latest in a string of standout performances. The Duke product started in each of his previous five outings, averaging 14.6 points while draining 52.2 percent of his threes.
Perhaps Curry’s caliber of play will change George Karl’s opinion of him for the better. As Karl remarked after the first of those aforementioned starts, per SB Nation’s Blake Ellington:
"I think Seth will be a combo guard, play both 1 and 2. I think usually those guys when I look at them, I see them probably trying to score a little bit too much and I think he probably should become more of a playmaking point as much as a scoring point," Karl said. "But he's going to be around for a couple years. He's definitely going to have a few more years of someone; I think we have him for one more year. I think he has a tenacity to him and a good basketball feel to him. Now he's just got to be confident and consistent."
If Curry keeps this up, he’ll outlast Karl’s expectations by a long shot.
Blazers Keep Gaining on Grizzlies
If the Memphis Grizzlies already booked flights to L.A. for the playoffs, they may want to check for trip insurance. With their 110-93 annihilation of the Dwyane Wade-less Miami Heat on Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers moved to within a half-game of the banged-up Grizzlies in the race for fifth place in the Western Conference.
Portland’s high-scoring backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combined for 42 points and 11 assists, with Gerald Henderson adding 17 off the bench. McCollum, in particular, made a quirky bit of history with his combination of three-point marksmanship and quick hands on the defensive end.
The Blazers, as a whole, broke the franchise record for threes in a season—807, set in 2014-15—with the 10 they knocked down against Miami.
Portland practically put the game away with a 20-5 run in the second quarter before coasting to a 26-point lead in the third. From then on, the Heat never so much as sniffed a single-digit deficit.
As for the Blazers, they’ll be pulling for the Grizzlies to stumble in Orlando on Sunday while they bounce down to Oakland to take on the Warriors at Oracle Arena. If Portland pulls ahead of Memphis between now and the end of the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers, currently slated for the No. 4 seed, will have more to worry about than the tendon tear in Blake Griffin’s quadriceps.