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. 

Report: After not landing Lou Williams, Wizards may target Shabazz Muhammad

GREENBURGH, NY - AUGUST 06:  Shabazz Muhammad #15 of the Minnesota Timberwolves poses for a portrait during the 2013 NBA rookie photo shoot at the MSG Training Center on August 6, 2013 in Greenburgh, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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The Washington Wizards are thinking about a deep playoff run this season — they are the current three seed in the East, they have the best record in the conference since Dec. 1, and they have a starting five that has been powerful all season and is staying healthy.

What they could use is some bench help to help make that run, which is why the Wizards were linked to the Lakers’ Lou Williams in trade talks. However, Williams is now headed to Houston. So what’s next for the Wizards? They have interest in the Nets forward Bojan Bogdanovic, but instead how about talking to the Timberwolves, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Shabazz Muhammad has shot the three ball better this season than at any point in his career, hitting 41.4 percent but taking just 1.9 shots from deep a game. He’s not a great shooter generally but is more of a physical small forward who would like to post smaller guys up inside and score at the rim. The bigger problem is he is simply not a good defender — ESPN’s real plus-minus has him as 75th among small forwards on defense.

He could step in and give the Wizards a little help in the rotation, but not near as much as Williams. The question is what would the Wizards offer for Muhammad, who is a free agent after this season? A second-round pick is probably the top end, maybe a player they don’t need to balance the salaries gets thrown in.

The Wizards are one of the more active teams trying to land help heading into the trade deadline. There just aren’t a lot of good options left for them.

Report: With Jahlil Okafor trade talk stalled, Sixers could reconsider Nerlens Noel offers

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The trade market for centers heading into the trade deadline isn’t good — there’s a glut of them on the market. If a team wanted a guy to play the five, they could acquire Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Greg Monroe, and some others who are available. Also, the low price the Pelicans paid for DeMarcus Cousins — the best center in the game — has driven down the price.

Which is why the Sixers have had little success moving Jahlil Okafor. They came close with Portland, but the Blazers instead traded Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second round pick to the Denver Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick. With Portland off the table, the market seems barren for Okafor.

So the Sixers may think about moving Nerlens Noel more, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said in a recent podcast (hat tip Hoopshype).

“If they can’t get a deal for Okafor done before the deadline, I’m told that it’s possible they’ll start – there are still teams still checking on Noel, re-engaging on him. What complicates it for Noel is that he’s a restricted free agent, and teams want to know ‘what is it going to cost to us to re-sign him’. And it’s going to be a big number.”

Noel fits more with what teams are looking for in a five — he can protect the rim, he has hops, and he can finish around the rim (63.4 percent of his shots come within the restricted area, and he shoots 72 percent on those). He gets most of his offense off cuts or being the roll man — get him the rock near the basket and he’ll do the rest, but he’s not going to create or step out. He provides rim protection in the paint on defense (but if you have a big that can pull him out of the paint it gives him trouble).

There’s also the concern about his injury history.

The question is what the Sixers can get for Noel — it’s not going to be a first-round pick, because if a team wants him that badly they’ll just wait until this summer and try to poach him as a free agent. Come July, the Sixers could be forced to match a contract they don’t love just to avoid losing him for nothing.

Or, Bryan Colangelo can trade Noel for whatever he can get (a couple second rounders, most likely). Which has not been his style in Philly.

In nearly 3 years on job, Phil Jackson hasn’t fixed Knicks

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson watches from the stands during the second half of the Knicks' NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  The Pelicans won 110-96. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony had a half-season of clues about what Phil Jackson thought of him, and now it was his turn to evaluate his boss.

Anthony had trumpeted his trust in Jackson when he re-signed in 2014 and reaffirmed it months later, even as Jackson continued trading away key players from the best team Anthony ever played on in New York.

Reminded of that recently and asked if he still trusted Jackson, Anthony stopped well short.

“I trust the process,” he said, mimicking Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The process isn’t going well for Jackson in New York.

The Knicks are 23-34, 12th in the Eastern Conference and on pace to miss the playoffs for the third time in Jackson’s three full seasons as president of basketball operations. He’s made his relationship with Anthony worse and hasn’t made the Knicks better, and a guy who could do little wrong as a coach just can’t get it right as an executive.

Maybe Jackson can swing a trade to fix things before Thursday’s deadline.

Or maybe he’ll just never fix the Knicks.

If Jackson is planning anything, it remains a mystery. He hasn’t spoken to reporters covering the Knicks since his preseason press conference in September – backtracking from his vow to be accessible when he took the job – and isn’t expected to before the deadline. He has made only three postings on Twitter all season.

Yet he’s still made plenty of noise.

He angered LeBron James by referring to his friends and business partners as a “posse” in an ESPN story. And he upset some of the league’s other power players with his actions toward Anthony – which could prove damaging when trying to lure free agents. Jackson has either appeared to endorse or refused to distance himself from articles criticizing his best player and has largely cut off communication between them – after saying when he was hired that he planned to focus on “how players are treated” and “the kind of culture that’s built.”

Hall of Fame finalist Tracy McGrady told reporters this weekend he couldn’t remain quiet the way Anthony has.

“I’m not going to let you disrespect (me) in the public’s eye like that,” McGrady said. “You’re not going to be sending subliminal messages about me like that and I don’t respond to that. I don’t operate like that. I’m just not going to do it. And then you hide and don’t do any media? You leave everything for me to talk about? Nah, that’s not cool.”

Jackson retains the support of Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan, who said in a recent ESPN Radio interview that he would not fire Jackson during the two-plus years that remain on his contract. (Both sides have an option to terminate the deal after this season).

Dolan didn’t even express much disappointment in the results, even though the Knicks had their worst season ever in Jackson’s first season and are 72-149 since the start of 2014-15.

“He was the best guy we thought we could find to run the New York Knicks,” Dolan said.

Maybe if he’d been hiring Jackson to coach, as Jackson’s 11 championships are a record for coaches. But there were questions about how he would do as an executive with no experience, and the answers haven’t been good.

He fired Mike Woodson and replaced him with first-time coach Derek Fisher, who lasted just 1 1/2 years. Starters Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton were traded in one deal, and J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert went in another early the next season. They were all mainstays on the Knicks team that won 54 games and reached the second round of the playoffs not even two years before Jackson was hired in March 2014.

Now all that’s left is Anthony, and it certainly seems Jackson wants him gone, too. He would have to find a workable deal, hard enough given the 32-year-old Anthony’s salary and age, then get him to waive the no-trade clause he gave Anthony when he re-signed him.

If not, maybe Jackson himself would leave this summer – though Dolan said he had no indication that was the 71-year-old Jackson’s plan. But he insists he can’t coach for health reasons and doesn’t appear to enjoy scouting and dealing with agents, essential parts of his job.

He must be disheartened that the work he put into this team hasn’t paid off. Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek to open up the offense after two years of his favored triangle, traded for Derrick Rose, and signed free agents Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings. None has sparked a turnaround, and drafting Kristaps Porzingis remains Jackson’s only inarguable success.

Jackson played on the last championship Knicks team in 1973 and said when he was hired what it would mean to build another winner here.

“It would be a capstone on the remarkable career that I’ve had,” Jackson said.

There’s still time for that.

But these days, Anthony probably isn’t the only one who no longer trusts in Jackson.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down DeMarcus Cousins trade with Dan Feldman

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 17:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings speaks with the media during media availability for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game at The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans on February 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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It happened very quickly and snuck up on the league. As of Friday night there was not even a whisper of the Kings shopping Cousins among the NBA media. By Sunday night it was done, and executives from a few other teams wished they had been contacted and could have gotten in on the bidding.

DeMarcus Cousins was traded from Sacramento to New Orleans. Who won? What do the Pelicans do now? Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it all down.

They also talk about a handful of other possible trades that could come before the deadline. (Note, this was recorded before the Lakers’ front office shakeup or Lou Williams trade.)

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.