NBA Playoffs: Mavs and Spurs deliver as promised, but Dallas draws first blood

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Butler_Dunk.jpgDallas and San Antonio both played well but not perfectly. That said, the most important word in that sentence is both, as every terrific performance was countered and every sloppy play met with another by the opposition. It was a game of brilliant, beautiful, and flawed (but balanced in its flaws) basketball, and we shouldn’t want it any other way.

The Mavs and Spurs played a tight game throughout, until the Mavs’ late-game execution allowed them to pull away to a safe, decisive margin. Dallas overcame some decent shooting from San Antonio thanks to taking slightly better care of the ball, parading to the free throw line (in part due to favorable officiating), and limiting the Spurs’ effectiveness in the pick-and-roll in the second half.

Front and center was Dirk Nowitzki, whose shooting was otherworldly. Nowitzki finished with 36 points on just 14 shots, but the most impressive part of Dirk’s evening was his 85.7% shooting from the field. Nowitzki simply refused to miss, as he supplemented his usual array of turnarounds and fadeaways with a few lucky bank shots and a series of makes after contact. There are nights where Dirk is dialed in, and then there are nights like this. If anyone ever questions just how special an offensive talent that Nowitzki is, I would simply pull up this game on the non-existent video monitor, cue a highlight reel of improbable shot after improbable shot, and rest my case.

Dirk was hardly alone, though, as Gregg Popovich made perfectly clear. ” There aren’t many nights where Dirk is not special. He was special tonight, but he had a lot of help,” Pop said. “A lot of other guys played really well; Butler killed us and both big guys were really good on the boads defensively. Jason [Kidd] was a gnat. He was a focused, driven individual, as usual. They had a lot of people well. They played sharper than we did.”

Pop is right: Butler’s 22 points, Kidd’s 11 assists, and Dampier’s 12 rebounds were all essential components of the Dallas’ victory. In a game so close, the importance of every contribution is magnified, and the Mavericks not wearing #41 were still incredibly valuable elements of a winning cause.

Naturally though, the Spurs wouldn’t have been competitive if not for superior performances from Tim Duncan (27 points, eight rebounds, six turnovers) and Manu Ginobili (26 points, six assists, four rebounds, five turnovers), the two stars whose success is absolutely fundamental to what San Antonio looks to accomplish. Their turnovers — some forced and some unforced — were a huge detriment to the tandem’s efficiency. That combined with the Mavs’ tightened defense on the screen-and-roll and Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood’s defense on Duncan in the post was just enough to surrender the momentum that Dallas needed to secure a victory.

Game one felt like a lifetime. Dirk was brilliant, Duncan persevered, Kidd’s was masterful in the half-court, Tony Parker (18 points, four assists) was moderately effective coming off the bench, Jason Terry had a mostly empty night (five points, three assists), George Hill departed early (just 18 minutes), Rick Carlisle altered his rotation (no minutes for Eduardo Najera, just 18 minutes for Brendan Haywood), and Gregg Popovich engaged in what can only be called shenanigans (three straight possessions of Hack-a-Damp in the third quarter). These two teams are just getting started, and if game one was any indication of what the rest of the series will be like, we’re in for a treat.  

Former Pacers’ star Danny Granger on Paul George: “you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana”

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There was a time when Paul George was an up-and-coming but raw young player on an Indiana team led by Danny Granger. It was when Granger went down injured that George was thrust into a larger role, where he thrived in the trial by fire.

Granger knows what it’s like to be the star player of the Pacers, and he knows George, so on Bill Reiter asked Granger his thoughts during an episode of CBS’ “Reiter Than You” and Granger’s answer was not what Pacers fans wanted to hear.

“You look at him in that press conference (after losing to Cleveland) and his face and the dejection on it – the guy wants to win. Money don’t make everybody happy, but winning and success and your craft, that does fill a void that a lot of these players have. So you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana, I’ll tell you that.”

Oh, Pacers fans will fault him. Even if he’s traded.

Pacers’ decision maker Larry Bird isn’t going to do anything until he sees if George makes an All-NBA Team, because if he does Indiana can offer him the new “designated player” contract this summer worth around $80 million more guaranteed than any other team can offer. George will not walk away from that.

However, if, as expected, George doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Bird is going to have to revisit the idea of trading George, who can be a free agent in 2018 — and the sense around the league is he will walk away at that point if the Pacers are not contenders. (There are a lot of Lakers’ rumors there, but whether George would leave a team where he is dragging lesser players to a low playoff seed and a first-round exit in Indiana for the same situation in his old hometown is up for debate.)

Bird isn’t going to deal George for pennies on the dollar at this point — think the Kings’ trading DeMarcus Cousins — but if some team comes through with a legitimate quality offer of young players that can help jump start the rebuild in Indiana, he may have to jump at it.

Either way, Granger is right that you can’t blame George for wanting to move on, but plenty of fans will anyway.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley keep trading insults in postgame press conferences

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley were having their war of words during Tuesday night’s close-out game that ended the Thunder season, and they both picked up technical fouls for it.

The two continued that postgame speaking to the media.

Westbrook was up first, and he was asked what happened between him and Beverley (see the video above).

“He was talking about he was first team all-defense, but I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about because I had 42 at the time, I don’t know, maybe he was dreaming or some s—.”

You know the media was going to ask Beverley about that.

“He said no can guard me I’ve got 40 points, I’m like, that’s nice but you took 34 shots to get it.”

So, no Christmas card exchange for those two.

For the record, Westbrook finished the game with 47 points on 15-of-34 shooting, but he was 2-of-11 in the fourth quarter as he started to wear down. The Thunder were +12 in the 41:52 that Westbrook played, but were -18 in the 6:07 he sat to get rest. The game was almost a Rorschach test for what you think of Westbrook on the season — he wasn’t terribly efficient, but he carried OKC as far as he could, that just wasn’t as far as James Harden could take a superior Rockets’ team. If you were in the Harden (or Kawhi Leonard) for MVP camp, you can point to the inefficiency and the end result. If you’re team Westbrook you can point to the raw numbers and what happened in the limited time he sat.

Also, Beverley is going to make an NBA All-Defensive team. If he doesn’t make the first team, that’s more about the time he missed due to injury (and a good field of guards who can defend) than his play.

Beverley has the advantage now of being able to turn his attention to how to defend Tony Parker (or maybe Mike Conley), as the Rockets are advancing to the next round.

 

Watch Gordon Hayward, Chris Paul get double technical fouls after wrestling for ball (VIDEO)

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I said earlier on Tuesday that the double technical foul handed out to Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley during Game 5 of the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder series was the weakest of the playoffs so far.

All I had to do was wait about two hours. The NBA fixed that right up for me.

Late in the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward got tied up on a jump ball. The two ended up on the floor, and neither wanted to let go of the ball.

Hayward and Paul wrestled for the ball, with Hayward eventually winning. Paul then gave him a little shove in the back. Both, somehow, wound up with a technical foul.

I … what?

Utah won an exciting game at the wire, 96-92, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

That ball movement — and again some key johnson buckets — led to a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night.

Historically, if the road team wins Game 5 of a 2-2 series it has gone on to win the series 63.8 percent of the time.Friday night, Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing much of Game 4 with food poisoning to play much of this one (despite saying postgame he didn’t have his legs). This time he made the Clippers sick, scoring 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson with just under three minutes left that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a smart passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing opportunities.

Utah took advantage of those opportunites early in the fourth to push the lead to 11 after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures. Paul had 28 for the Clippers, J.J. Redick had his best game of the series and added 26.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the real questions will begin.