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. 

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”

 

Heat have work cut out vs. surging Sixers

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MIAMI (AP) — Philadelphia 76ers reserve guard Justin Anderson scored six points on Thursday, but he played a major role nonetheless in a 128-108 playoff win over the Miami Heat.

It was Anderson who worked on the psyche of teammate Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ All-Star center who returned after missing 10 straight games because of a concussion and left-eye injury.

“Justin was hyping me up on the bench, telling me I’m one of the best players in the league and that I have to take over,” said Embiid, who wore a mask during the game. “I liked that.”

Embiid, with that added boost of confidence, produced 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 30 minutes. He missed his first five shots from the floor and then made five of his next six, including three 3-pointers.

In addition, Embiid made 10 of 15 free throws, wrapping up his highly successful NBA playoff debut.

On Saturday afternoon, the teams will meet again at AmericanAirlines Arena in a first-round series the Heat trails 2-1.

Certainly, the Heat will try to corral Embiid, but Miami gave its own star center, Hassan Whiteside, just 13 minutes on Thursday, in part because of foul trouble.

Whiteside produced just five points, two rebounds and one block. He made his only shots from the field, but his four fouls helped to keep him off the court.

“I want to get more minutes,” said Whiteside, who led the NBA with 3.7 blocks in 2015-2016 and with 14.1 rebounds last season. “Even with the fouls, I could’ve been out there. I would not have fouled out.”

This season, Whiteside is averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But, on average, his minutes per game are down seven minutes from last season and even more in the playoffs.

Whiteside said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra “wants me to just be in a corner and set picks.”

Spoelstra, meanwhile, said “it’s part of my job to figure out how he can get to his strengths and make an impact on defense and rebounding.”

Aside from the two centers, the other big story line in this series revolves around the 76ers, a young team that won 18 of its past 19 games. After years of horrendous records amid a major teardown and rebuild effort, the 76ers have looked like the best team in the league during the past month.

They didn’t just beat the Heat on Thursday — they ran them over, making 18 of 34 3-pointers (52.9 percent). They also shot 50.6 percent overall and were plus-eight on rebounds and plus-14 on paint points.

Ben Simmons, the 76ers’ star point guard, nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and seven assists.

JJ Redick, one of the top shooters in the league, scored just 10 points, but 76ers teammates Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each scored 21 points and each hit four 3-pointers to help the offense flow.

Miami was led by 23 points and eight assists from point guard Goran Dragic. Heat reserve forward Justise Winslow scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But Miami’s top three shooting guards — Tyler Johnson, Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington — combined for just 21 points.

The game’s biggest factor was Embiid, who had been listed as unlikely to play until Thursday afternoon, when he was cleared by doctors.

Embiid had a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter, which continued a trend. In Philadelphia’s two wins in this series, they have outscored the Heat by 31 and 21 points, respectively.

Anderson said Embiid has been a team player throughout.

“One of the things (Embiid) told me during (Thursday’s) game was to tell Coach that he didn’t want any plays run for him,” Anderson said. “He just wanted to play within the scheme.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk

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For the first time this series Friday night, the Bucks looked like the more talented team.

That got them a comfortable win at home against the Celtics and set up a huge Game 4 on Sunday, with the Celtics still up 2-1 in the series. This looked more like the Bucks team that some of us picked to win the series, the team with the long and superior athletes unleashed on defense to challenge everything Boston tried. Milwaukee also got a big game out of Thon Maker at the five, which helped spread the floor because he’s a threat from three (as a team, the Bucks were 16-of-33 from deep) that the Celtics had to cover. That opens up driving lanes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo took advantage of those lanes laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk.

🛫 THE GREEK FREAK TAKES FLIGHT! 🛬

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Damn. That’s not fair.

🇬🇷💥

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Game 4 is Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee… and let’s just say I’m not betting Baynes will be able to turn the tables and put the Greek Freak in a poster.