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

2 Comments

Thumbnail image for Howard_Felton.jpg

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 We Learned Wednesday: Kevin Durant saves his best games for Thunder

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles past Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on January 18, 2017 in Oakland, California.  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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Here are the big takeaways from a busy night around the NBA:

1) Kevin Durant saves his best games for going against Thunder. Kevin Durant’s highest-scoring game this season was 39 points, something he broke out the first time his new Warriors team faced his old Thunder squad. That changed Wednesday night when Durant scored an incredibly efficient 40 points on 16 shots — again against the Thunder. Just in case there wasn’t enough salt rubbed in that OKC wound.

Whatever you think of his choice, Kevin Durant’s team is way better than Russell Westbrook‘s. Which we expected and was part of the reason Durant made the move — he is closer to a ring now than he was before. Part of that is obviously what Durant brings to their offense — and how efficiently he’s been doing it this season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9, his career best (for some perspective, the league average is around 52). But he’s also been bringing it on the defensive end this season, particularly of late, having a strong game against LeBron James Monday then doing well when switched onto Westbrook a couple of times in this game.

Westbrook himself had a triple-double (that’s 21 this season) in the loss… actually, it was a quadruple-double when you throw in the 10 turnovers. Westbrook wasn’t efficient, hitting 8-of-23 from the field, and when he isn’t this team struggles to win, they rely on him that much. Of course, that’s not the play everyone is talking about — it’s Zaza Pachulia with the hard foul, and then taunting Westbrook by standing over him.

When Westbrook saw that, he promised to “get his ass back.” These teams meet again in March — when Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time in a Warriors’ uniform.

Bonus thing we saw: Russell Westbrook had the travel of the year (and Kemba Walker tried to top him).
Even in the NBA, this is a travel — and a funny one.

Earlier in the night, Kemba Walker got away with one almost as bad.

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

2) The Sixers beat the Raptors and have now won 7-of-9.
When the run of wins from the Sixers started, it was easy to say “they are just beating other weak teams.” Then they beat the Bucks. Thursday night they beat the Raptors. Brett Brown has settled on a 10-man rotation, found lineups he likes with Joel Embiid starting (surrounded by shooters) and Nerlens Noel relieving him off the bench. Plus, the Sixers are finding their defensive identity.

Still, this all comes back to Embiid — the Sixers are outscoring teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. He had 26 points — including 12-of-14 from the free throw line — plus nine rebounds against Toronto.


3) Rudy Gay is out for the season, which changes West playoff chase and trade picture.
This is bad news for the Kings, it is worse news for Rudy Gay himself — trying to drive out of the right corner Wednesday night Rudy Gay tore his left Achilles tendon (something the team announced, although it needs to be confirmed by an MRI Thursday).

Gay is done for this season and likely the start of the next one.

In the short term, that is a blow to the Kings’ playoff chances. Technically they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, but the Kings have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions this season when Gay is on the bench, and now he is on the bench for the season. He has scored 18.7 points per game, which was second-best on the team, and now that role falls to Matt Barnes and Omri Casspi (once Casspi returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks). Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings, don’t be surprised if Sacramento tries to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

It also changes the trade deadline. Gay was clear he wanted out of Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone on the trade block teams were calling about (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted what the Kings might do). Now obviously that is off the table, and the question becomes will Gay even opt out?

Kings’ Rudy Gay suffers apparent torn left Achilles tendon, would be done for season

1 Comment

This not only changes the Kings dreams of making the playoffs in the West, it also alters the trade deadline and free agency.

Rudy Gay, the Kings wing and second-leading scorer, has been diagnosed with a torn left Achilles tendon, according to the team. During the third quarter of Wednesday night’s game against the Pacers, Gay drove out of the right corner and, untouched, fell to the floor hard. He had to be helped off the court by teammates.

Team doctors made the initial torn Achilles diagnosis, which will need to be confirmed by an MRI scheduled for Thursday. He would be out not only for this season but likely the start of the next one as well.

Without Gay, a lot more will fall on Matt Barnes and, once he returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks, Omri Casspi. Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings — this season the team gets outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court — and with that team’s playoff chances have taken a hit (they are 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers). Don’t be surprised if the Kings look to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

Gay was not happy in Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone potentially traded before the deadline (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted that). Gay averaged 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a game for the Kings, and while his game was a little old school — more isolation and midrange shots than teams prefer — he put up points. Enough that he was drawing trade interest heading toward the deadline from Oklahoma City and other squads.

That is all off the table now. At age 30, if Gay does still opt out of his contract for next season this will impact what he would make on the free market.

Zaza Pachulia lays out Russell Westbrook, stands over him (video)

6 Comments

Kevin Durant playing the Thunder invites extra emotions.

Russell Westbrook felt them – in the form of a flagrant foul by Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, who stood over Westbrook for emphasis.

Pachulia is really embracing his role doing the dirty work for star-studded Golden State.

Report: 76ers’ Ben Simmons sitting entire season still on table

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images
3 Comments

That rumor No. 1 pick Ben Simmons won’t play this season?

It just won’t die.

Even after Simmons tried to quash it, even after the 76ers’ CEO outright denied it, even after Simmons returned to practice, even in an otherwise optimistic report.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

76ers rookie forward Ben Simmons could make his much-anticipated NBA debut shortly after the All-Star break, league sources told ESPN.

Barring a setback in his recovery, sources say the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft has a chance to take the hardwood near March. There still remains the possibility Simmons sits the entire season, sources said, but his situation will continue to be thoroughly evaluated throughout his comeback quest.

76ers coach Brett Brown said there’s “no chance” Simmons plays in Philadelphia’s nationally televised game against the Rockets next week. Other than that, there isn’t much clarity.

It mostly sounds as if Simmons is still too far from returning to say something definitive.