NBA Playoffs: Howard, Magic hold off Charlotte's comeback attempt

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I had the Bobcats pegged as a potential first-round spoiler because of the way they play defense and how good they are on their home floor, but the Magic represent some fairly significant matchup problems for them on both offense and defense.
When the Bobcats have the ball, they don’t have any way to consistently score on the league’s best defensive player. They don’t have anyone fast or powerful enough with his dribble-drives to beat Howard to the hoop or challenge him and get free throws. They don’t have a post threat consistent enough to initiate the offense from the block and limit Howard’s ability to roam. They don’t have enough outside shooting to put points on the board without having to go the paint at all. Other than that, though, they’re fine. 
What the Bobcats do have is as good a defense as exists in the league. Unfortunately for them, the Magic are so unorthodox offensively that they defend themselves as much as their opponent does. That can get the Magic into trouble at times, but against a team as offensively challenged as the Bobcats, it shouldn’t kill them. Here are my notes from Sunday night’s contest between the Bobcats and the Magic, in chronological order:
-Early in the game, Theo Ratliff tries to take it strong at Howard and gets rejected for his efforts. On the ensuing semi-transition possession, Jameer Nelson pulls up for a three and nails it. As Kevin McHale noted, that’s Magic basketball.
-Jameer Nelson is a dynamo early. When he decides to drive, he’s going all the way to the cup and making the Charlotte bigs pay for staying at home on Howard. When the Bobcats give Nelson space, he’s pulling up and hitting everything he looks at. Nelson was absolutely unstoppable in the first half. He scored 24 points, only missed two shots from the field, and hit a pull-up 35 footer as time expired in the half. A jaw-dropping performance.
-Brown goes to Diaw in the post twice early, and it works both times. Posting up Lewis is generally a good idea if you have the personnel to do so, because it prevents Howard from coming over to get the block. Diaw’s two hooks accounted for the Bobcats’ only points in the paint up to that time.
-The Magic get their third basket in the paint by feeding Ratliff in the post against Howard. Still no layups, dunks or free throws from a drive to the basket or cut up to this point for the Bobcats.
-The Bobcats are getting their points by using screens and lateral passing to free up their bigs for mid-range jumpers, and are doing a pretty good job of it. The Magic are getting the ball, making 0-2 passes, and going for the drive or the first good look they can find from the perimeter. The Bobcats’ offense may look more under control, but layups and threes will almost invariably be better than mid-range jumpers over the course of a game.
-The Bobcats finally complete their first successful drive to the basket when Stephen Jackson gets a layup with 44 seconds to play in the quarter. Before they were able to do that, Dwight Howard had recorded five blocks. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Howard dominated the paint when he was in the game. 
-With Howard resting in the second quarter, the Bobcats quickly cut the lead to four. Then the Magic summon Mickael Pietrus, who hits three straight threes in the span of a minute and a half. In between two of the threes he made, Pietrus bricked a pair of free throws. I have given up trying to figure out Mickael Pietrus. Nelson and Redick drain threes of their own, and it’s back up to a 14-point Magic lead. When the Magic get hot, watch out. 
-With 1:50 left to play in the half, Larry Hughes tries to drive on Howard. In the most predictable outcome ever, Howard swats his shot away, giving him eight blocks. That put him one away from his playoff career high and two away from an NBA playoff record. (Remember, no recorded blocks when Russell and Chamberlain played.)
-Thanks in part to two ticky-tack fouls, Howard picks up his fourth infraction with eight minutes to play in the third quarter. At this point, the Magic were up 19. When he re-enters the game in the fourth, the Magic are up by 10 points. The Magic go completely cold with Howard on the bench; without him in the lane, Charlotte is free to rotate against the drive and contest shots on the perimeter instead of sagging back into the lane. Orlando can’t get anything going, and is settling for deep jumper after deep jumper. 
-Howard picks up his fifth foul just over a minute into the quarter. The Magic hold the fort this time, and don’t lose a point off their lead in the five minutes Howard sits. The Bobcats begin to creep back into the game by hitting threes and getting to the line, and cut the lead to five with 1:39 remaining. 
-That was when Pietrus came to the rescue again. Pietrus caught a pass in the corner and got his man in the air with an up-fake. Pietrus jumped to try and draw the foul, but didn’t get the contact. While falling over his defender, Pietrus threw up the three…and it went in. There were some free throws after that, but that was the shot that effectively ended Charlotte’s comeback hopes. 
General Notes:
-Howard was on the floor for 28 minutes of Sunday’s game. He was on the bench for the other 20 minutes of it. When Howard was off the floor, the Bobcats played the Magic dead even. When he played, the Magic were +9 over the Bobcats. Howard completely dominated the game while scoring five points. One of the most amazing defensive performances I’ve ever -seen.
-One more illustration that Orlando is tough to guard: they put up 98 points against one of the best defensive teams in the league with Howard and Carter combining to go 6-23 from the field. Scary.
-Rashard Lewis made just about everything he looked at, whether it was a catch-and-shoot three or a pull-up from midrange. Huge games for Lewis, Redick, Pietrus, and of course Nelson. 
-Stephen Jackson was one of the only Bobcats who wasn’t afraid to take it at Howard. This is strange, as he hyper-extended his knee in the first half. Jackson says he will play in game 2, but will reportedly undergo an MRI on his injured knee. 
-Great game for Gerald Wallace, who had a line 25/17 and had just about every aspect of his game going. If Charlotte got some shooters to give Wallace space to operate, he could be scary. 
That’s about the story for game one. Like they generally do when they’re on their game, the Magic survived their cold stretches and absolutely rained sulfur when their shots were falling. If they can keep Howard on the court, the Magic could have a relatively easy time putting Larry Brown’s squad away. 

Three Things to Know: All-Star starters named, who should be in reserve?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) All-Star Starters named, but the decisions much tougher with reserves. Not everybody took their jobs seriously (unless you think Semi Ojeleye, Cedi Osman, and Royce O'Neale earned starting All-Star slots). Not everybody liked the results — Damian Lillard felt snubbed.

Still, it was mostly the usual suspects and there were no surprises as the NBA All-Star Game starters were announced. They were picked by a vote of the fans (50 percent), players (25 percent), and selected media members (25 percent). Here’s the list.

Western Conference: Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Houston’s James Harden, and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Eastern Conference: Cleveland’s LeBron James, Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

Remember it is not East vs. West this year. LeBron and Curry, as the top vote-getters, will be the captains and select teammates in a playground-style draft, first from the starters listed above, then from a pool of reserves selected by the coaches to be announced next Tuesday. LeBron chooses first and what is Curry going to do when LeBron goes with Durant?

Picking those reserves is where someone will get snubbed — there is no way to pick just seven players per conference and not leave out deserving guys. Damian Lillard didn’t deserve to be an All-Star starter no matter what he thinks, but is he even an All-Star this year in the loaded West? There must be two backcourt, three frontcourt, and two wild-card selections for each conference. Here’s who I would pick:

Eastern Conference: Victor Oladipo, John Wall, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry. That leaves out Kevin Love, which was hard as he’s been very good after being pushed to center this season.

Western Conference: Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Klay Thompson, Lou Williams. This was brutal, leaving out Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, and Paul George completely, even though they fully deserve an All-Star slot. So much talent moved West this season that the conference is overloaded.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers win… over the Orlando Magic. By one point. After blowing a 22-point lead. “Right now we’re in Strugglesville,” is how LeBron put the Cavaliers right now. He’s right. Cleveland had lost four in a row and was 2-8 in their last 10 coming into this one, but Thursday night they were facing one of the flat-out worst teams in the NBA in Orlando, so easy win? Nope. It took a couple Isaiah Thomas free throws with 11 seconds left — then Elfrid Payton missing a contested layup with a couple of seconds left — to give the Cavaliers a 104-103 win.

Cleveland was up 22 in this one, but once again their defense isn’t good and when the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders they can be beaten by anyone. The Cavs shot 1-of-17 from three in the second half and were outscored by 16 in the third quarter, blowing another good first half effort.

There were bright spots for the Cavs. Derrick Rose returned to the lineup and after missing two months due to a sprained ankle, and he had nine points in 13 minutes on the court. And Isaiah Thomas had a strong night.

However, the play of the night — and maybe the assist of the season — went to LeBron.


3) James Harden returns, Rockets pick up win over Timberwolves.
The Houston Rockets picked up a quality win at home over a Minnesota Timberwolves squad that is playing good basketball — and that’s not really the big news out of this one.

James Harden was back and starting for the Rockets. He missed seven games with a strained hamstring and the Rockets went 4-3 without him, which is not bad but they were not the same dominant team. Harden had 10 points and seven assists in limited minutes, and he understandably showed a little rust. His return this fast is a boost for his MVP chances if he can return to form — he and LeBron have been neck-and-neck as the frontrunners for the award this season, and the injury gave LeBron the chance to take charge of the race, but instead the Cavaliers have stumbled badly of late. Harden has a chance to take hold of this race, something that does matter to him.

Finally having Harden and Chris Paul healthy moved Eric Gordon back to his sixth man role and he thrived, dropping 30.

Gordon would be the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year, but he started too many games due to injury (half of them, coming into this game). If Paul and Harden can stay on the court, Gordon could repeat as Sixth Man winner.

Elfrid Payton slams chasedown block on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is usually the guy handing out chasedown blocks. He’s famous for them, and has carted out his signature move in the biggest moments of his career.

He’s also not used to having his own shots blocked from behind, and certainly not by opposing point guards.

Enter Elfrid Payton.

During a play halfway through the first quarter against the Orlando Magic on Thursday, LeBron was on a drive to the hole with Elfrid trailing far behind.

Thanks to a pinch by two Magic defenders, LeBron had to try and use brute force a bit deeper in the paint than he wanted to.

That allowed Payton — running at full speed — to catch up and pin The King on the glass.

Cleveland still got the best of the Magic, as Isaiah Thomas hit a clutch free throw to win the game with 11 seconds left, 104-103.

All-Star Joel Embiid doesn’t need Rihanna: “On to the next one”

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For about as long as we can remember, Joel Embiid has famously thirsted after Rihanna on Twitter. Fans have tried to boost his standing with the singer, but it apparently that has not been enough.

In 2014, Embiid mentioned on social media that a “famous girl” — presumably Rihanna — told him to “Come back when you’re an All-Star.”

Well, today is that day.

Embiid is a starter out of the Eastern Conference, and on Thursday night he had his chance to speak to Rihanna (or whomever) via national TV on TNT.

Did Embiid decide to reach out to this famous person? Apparently he’s off it.

Via Twitter:

This is like that scene from Private Parts when Howard Stern hits No. 1 and he tells Paul Giamatti’s character to get lost.

Embiid had the chance to curve Rihanna (or whomever) and took it. Long live The Process.

Here are the weirdest NBA All-Star voting results for 2018

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NBA All-Star voting is over, and now we have the results. The starters are in, and what’s left is for us to wait until they announce the teams after they are picked in double secret ceremony.

Of course, the NBA did release the full voting results via their PR website this week, and as such there are some head scratchers. My boy Patrick Redford over at Deadspin did an excellent job rounding up some of the players who got exactly one (1) vote from other players.

The gag here is that these guys presumably voted for themselves.

Of course, what I found most interesting was actually the guys who got multiple votes from their compatriots without being All-Star caliber players.

My favorite list of player-voted non-All-Stars includes: Michael Beasley (4), Gordon Hayward (2), Boban Marjanovic (2), Jahlil Okafor (4), Quincy Acy (2), Tyler Zeller (4), T.J. McConnell (2), Elfrid Payton (2), Zaza Pachulia (3), Taj Gibson (6), Zach Randolph (5), Maurice Harkless (2), Deyonta Davis (3), Lonzo Ball (9), Mike Conley (3).

There’s a whole smattering of guys in there who either didn’t play enough, aren’t stars, are injured, or who aren’t very good.

That multiple players took time to vote for these guys really speaks to the frivolity of the NBA All-Star Game. At least outside of player contract incentives.

Bring on February!