NBA Playoffs: Jazz unable to deal with Denver's firepower

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Anthony_game.jpgAs much as anything else, the Jazz-Nuggets series is about old school vs. new school. Both Utah and Denver came into this series as one of the 10 best teams in the league in terms of offensive efficiency. The difference is that Utah relies on Jerry Sloan’s old-school flex sets to get points, while Denver uses Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, a harem of other talented scorers, and a hearty dose of organized chaos to outscore their opponents.

On Saturday, both Utah and Denver were able to execute their offensive game-plans. Deron Williams was brilliant as always, finishing with 26 points and 11 assists in a losing effort. On the other side of the ball, Denver was unable to fight through the bevy of screens Sloan uses to free up his offensive threats. As a result of that, Carlos Boozer and Paul Milsap were able to hurt Denver all game by spotting up from mid-range or rolling all the way to the hoop, finishing with a combined 34 points on 29 field goal attempts. C.J. Miles and Mehmet Okur were both able to do some damage early, but both got injured over the course of the game. (Miles would later return, but Okur did not.) Kyle Korver was able to get some open looks off of penetration and pin-down screens, and knocked down most of those looks. 
In the third quarter, the Jazz tried to beat the Nuggets at their own game, and acquitted themselves fairly well. They pushed the tempo, let Deron Williams do most of the playmaking, and looked for early offense. They were able to score at will against the Nuggets during the period, but switching to a zone didn’t help them stop Denver at the other end of the floor. 
Thanks to the efforts of all of those players and Jerry Sloan’s time-tested offensive strategy, the Jazz were able to put up a fight on the road. After three quarters, the Jazz were very much in the game, trailing by a score of 86-88.
In the end, however, Denver was able to overpower Utah with their arsenal of offensive weapons. First and foremost, the Jazz had no answer whatsoever for Carmelo Anthony. Anthony might not be the best pure scorer in the NBA, but he should certainly be in the yearbook picture. Anthony lit up the Jazz in a variety of ways on Saturday en route to getting 42 points on 18-25 (!) shooting from the field. He scored from mid-range. He posted his man up and took him to the hole. He hit threes. He used his spin move. When the Jazz switched into a zone, he moved without the ball and found the seam in the defense. He did just about everything but miss. An absolutely mesmerizing performance from ‘Melo. 
And it wasn’t just ‘Melo killing the Jazz. Chauncey Billups finished with 19 points and a team-high eight assists. Nene torched Utah inside to the tune of 19 points on 10 field goal attempts. Ty Lawson had 11 points and six assists of the bench, as well as a complete lack of rookie jitters. Arron Affalo stretched the floor effectively and hit five of his seven field-goal attempts. 
In the fourth quarter, J.R. Smith ended up being a key factor. There is perhaps no other player who personifies the difference between the Jazz and the Nuggets as poignantly as Smith does. Smith is a gifted athlete, but his game revolves around taking quick-trigger threes with no hesitation whatsoever. He has adorned his neck with tattoos and occasionally likes to celebrate big threes by making finger circles around his nipples and dancing like a chicken. To put it simply, he is not the epitome of a Jerry Sloan player. 
Smith had a rough start to the game, and made only one field goal in the first three quarters. True to form, Smith did not let that deter him. In the fourth quarter, Smith went off for 18 points, including a run of 11 straight points near the beginning of the quarter to give the Nuggets a commanding lead. He got the smallest possible window of daylight from the perimeter, and drained three straight quick-trigger threes. When the defense closed out on him, he went to the hole and made a lefty layup. If there’s a game that better describes who J.R. Smith is as a player, I’ve yet to see it. For better or for worse, the man always thinks he’s going to make the next shot. 
Utah should be pleased with how hard they competed with the Nuggets for the first three quarters and how well they ran their offense. However, they’re going to have to find some way to slow down Denver’s offense if they want to have any hope of winning this series. 

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?