NBA playoffs: East difference-makers could be the change they wish to see in the world

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Thumbnail image for nba_wallace_250.jpgWhile the Eastern Conference playoffs may lack the volatility of the West in the first round, there are still all kinds of characters scrambling about looking to cause mayhem. There’s something to be said about being in a series with no expectations, and underdogs looking to seize the moment can have a field day if only for a game or two.

Something, I think, is lost among the talk of difference-makers and x-factors; while such players would obviously swing the fortunes of their team in a particular series, x-factors also have the ability to significantly alter the playoff outlook in a loss.

Think Andre Iguodala against the Magic last year, as he led the upstart Sixers to an early series lead over the Magic. In doing so, he awoke the real Orlando, and the Dwight Howard took that team all the way to the Finals. Think Joe Johnson in 2008, whose Hawks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round. Does Boston go all the way to the title if not for their early, energizing battle with Atlanta?

Early playoff opponents can expose weaknesses to be exploited by later teams, wear down the opposition with a long series, or summon something within their opponents that drives them to further victories. All of these things are what make even the lesser Eastern Conference playoff teams interesting to watch, even if they don’t stand much of a chance to take the series.

With that, I present you the players to watch in the East, who are capable of making an impact on the series level, or shaping the grander playoff picture:

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls): Rose showed in last season’s playoffs that he’s ready for the big stage. We shouldn’t expect an equally scintillating team performance from the Bulls this year, but that doesn’t mean Derrick isn’t a must-watch player for every minute he’s on the floor. Rose will be the first test for the Cavaliers’ D, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Derrick poke a few holes in Cleveland’s perimeter. His ability to run the pick-and-roll will also be crucial, as Rose can use Joakim Noah’s quickness against the likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal, even if its less effective against Anderson Varejao et al. The Cavs are much improved in defending the pick-and-roll, but they could still suffer against finishers like Noah (who could set a precedent for Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, and Dwight Howard).

Gerald Wallace (Charlotte Bobcats): The Bobcats don’t stand much of a chance to beat the Magic, but their upset hopes lie with Wallace. Gerald an All-NBA caliber defender, but the real reason he’s on this list is because of his offense. Wallace seems to be a completely new offensive player this year, sporting a better jumper (especially from three) and a far smoother style than he’s ever displayed before. He’s always been an instinctive scorer, but now he’s a more polished one. With Stephen Jackson’s injured, the Bobcats’ dismal offense will rely on Wallace more than ever, and whether or not his offensive improvements hold up against the Magic D is a big question mark.

Marvin Williams, (Atlanta Hawks): Marvin is the epitome of a traditional x-factor, but what he actually represents is balance. It’s assumed that the Hawks should have no problem taking care of the Bogut-less Bucks in the first round, which means that Atlanta’s most likely second-round opponent would be the Orlando Magic. Just as Wallace’s singular brilliance could push the Magic, how would Orlando respond to a team of balanced scorers? The Hawks’ roster is anything but top heavy, and their style on both ends of the court speaks to their versatility. Should Marvin be able to provide supplementary scoring to balance Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford, the Hawks could expose a weakness in Orlando’s armor.

Michael Beasley (Miami Heat): Be easy, Mike Beasley. The Heat are a fantastic defensive team, and that should do two things: scare the hell out of the Celtics and give Miami a decent shot at the 4-5 upset. They don’t even sniff a first round series victory without Beasley’s help, though. Beas is a thoroughly confounding player, and though he has the raw offensive skills to really blitz Boston, he probably won’t. It would just make too much sense for a player with that much talent to bother with capitalizing on it, and instead Mike will continue in his role as a wild card. However, should Beasley get into an offensive rhythm early in the series, he could help Dwyane Wade dismantle a Celtics defense that has struggled lately. Even if that doesn’t usher the Heat into the second round, it could go a long way in erasing Boston’s defensive prestige.  

Spurs fall to Bulls 95-91 after winning first 13 road games

Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade (3) is defended by San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Banks)
Associated Press
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CHICAGO (AP) — Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA’s best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn’t dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8. But after a big push down the stretch, they came up short in this one.

The Bulls led 65-47 midway through the third following a surge by Butler, who scored seven in a 54-second span after missing his first six shots. But the Spurs jumped back into it in the closing minutes of the quarter.

They went on an 11-2 run that Mills finished with a 3 to cut it to 72-66 just under a minute into the fourth.

Things got real tight when Gasol nailed a 3 to pull San Antonio to within 88-84 with 3:24 left. Doug McDermott then hit three free throws after being fouled by Tony Parker, and the teams basically exchanged baskets the rest of the way.

TIP-INS

Spurs: Parker had eight points and five assists after missing a game because of a bruised left knee. … For the second straight game, the Spurs set a season low for first-quarter scoring. They had 17 points after managing 19 at Minnesota on Tuesday night.

Bulls: F Doug McDermott scored eight points after being sidelined because of a concussion since Nov. 11. … Butler had scored 20 or more in 15 consecutive games, the longest streak by a Bulls player since Michael Jordan did it in 24 straight during the 1995-96 season.

 

Parker returns to Spurs’ lineup against Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker returned to the lineup Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls after missing a game because of a bruised left knee.

The seven-time All-Star did not play at Minnesota on Tuesday night after knocking knees with a Milwaukee Bucks defender the previous night. He started against the Bucks after missing two games with a thigh contusion.

Parker came into Thursday averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 assists.

Chicago’s Doug McDermott returned to the rotation after missing nearly a month because of a concussion.

Gasol, Douglas lead Grizzlies past Trail Blazers, 88-86

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AP
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Marc Gasol scored 36 points and Toney Douglas made two free throws with less than a second left to give the Memphis Grizzlies an 88-86 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Douglas finished with 11 points, scoring the game’s final six points to seal Memphis’ fifth straight victory.

Gasol was 13 of 24 from the field, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc. But Douglas, signed by Memphis this week because of injuries, took over down the stretch. The guard scored on a 19-footer with 34 seconds left, then converted two pairs of free throws in the last 20 seconds.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 24 points, and Damian Lillard had 19 on 6-of-18 shooting. Evan Turner had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Portland held a 79-68 lead after Al-Farouq Aminu scored inside with 5:28 left. But Memphis clicked off a 14-2 rally and it settled into a one-possession contest.

Tony Allen had 15 points and 10 rebounds for Memphis.

Shooting issues that plagued both teams in the first half, spread past intermission as each started 4 of 14 from the field. That helped Portland maintain its lead after carrying a 50-43 advantage into halftime.

Despite converting only 5 of 20 shots in the third, Portland actually extended its lead, entering the fourth with a 69-61 advantage.

The Portland lead would reach 13 again in the fourth and was still at 11 when Memphis started its rally behind Gasol, who had nine straight points for the Grizzlies.

Portland had a previous 13-point lead in the second quarter as every Grizzly but Gasol was suffering shooting woes.

Gasol managed 19 points in the half, while Portland got 15 points each from McCollum and Lillard.

TIP-INS

Blazers: F Evan Turner started his first game of the season due to an injury to Maurice Harkless. …McCollum entered the game averaging 24 points. … G Allen Crabbe finished with seven points after scoring at least 14 in four straight games. …C Mason Plumlee had four points, ending his streak of seven straight games in double figures.

Grizzlies: Memphis coach David Fizdale finally said enough about calls and no-calls late in the first half to earn a technical courtesy of official J. T. Orr. Lillard missed the free throw to open the third. …Gasol also got a tech in the third quarter for arguing a call. … F JaMychal Green had a career-high 18 rebounds. His previous best was 17 this week in a win at New Orleans.

EXTENSIONS

Earlier Thursday, the Grizzlies announced that they have agreed to multi-year extensions with general manager Chris Wallace, John Hollinger, executive vice president of basketball operations, and Ed Stefanski, vice president of player personnel. Terms were not disclosed.

HARKLESS HURT

Portland forward Maurice Harkless did not play because of a left ankle sprain suffered in the latter stages of the Portland’s 115-107 loss at Milwaukee on Wednesday night. “I remember him wincing. He was on the free throw line,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “It was late in the game, like the last 2 minutes.”

NOTHING FREE

Both teams struggled from the free throw line. Portland made 29 of 40 in the game while Memphis was 20 of 30.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Portland hits the middle game of a five-game trip, landing in Indiana on Saturday to face the Pacers.

Grizzlies: Memphis continues its homestand Saturday against the Gold State Warriors.

Stephen Curry gets fouled, hits crazy rainbow circus shot vs. Jazz (VIDEO)

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is a wizard when it comes to shots you don’t think can ever reach the iron. Each time he does something like this, he surprises you even though you should be used to it by now.

But I’m not. The Utah Jazz aren’t. Heck, maybe even Steph isn’t used to it by now.

As Curry was driving down the left side of the floor on Thursday, Shelvin Mack got out of position and wound up trailing the Warriors star. With Curry rounding the pick, Mack reached and earned a foul.

Thinking quickly, Curry then hoisted up a rainbow of a shot that gently kissed the net on the way down.

Curry would go on to make the free throw for the 3-point play.