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. 

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.

Watch Kyrie Irving drop 31 on Knicks in Celtics’ win

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn’t win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

 

Damian Lillard scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.

 

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.