NBA Playoffs: Utah beats Denver at their own game

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The first game of the Utah-Denver series was a clash of styles. The Jazz used flex sets in the half-court to get points, while the Nuggets were able to prevail by utilizing organized chaos. On Monday night, the Jazz tried to be more aggressive offensively. With no Okur or Kirilenko, the Jazz were forced to push the ball and look for early offense. Against Denver’s iffy defense, the strategy worked beautifully. 
Deron Williams was an absolute monster for the Jazz. He finished with 33 points and 14 assists, and hurt the Nuggets from every spot on the floor. When he put the ball on the floor, he got to the hoop or drew the foul, going to the line a total of 18 times. When the Nuggets gave him space, Williams stepped back and stroked the outside shot. Williams was the difference in the game on Monday night.
Boozer and Milsap also had plenty of success against Denver, scoring a combined 38 points on only 25 attempts from the field. The Jazz looked for them early in the clock, and were often able to set them up with home-run passes for layups or free throws before the Denver defense was able to react. When the Nuggets did get between Boozer and the basket, he was able to turn around and drain his patented shoulder-mounted fadeaway. They both needed to step up with Kirilenko and Okur out, and that’s exactly what they did. 
Both teams looked to score early in the clock, either by driving to the rim, finding their bigs down low, or firing the first open shot they could find. Of the 215 points scored in this contest, 103 came from behind the arc or from the free-throw line. Both teams were aggressive taking the ball to the hole, and were more than happy to take a quick three when it was available to them. Early in the game, Denver actually looked to slow the action down to exploit Fesenko (who did look out of place), but later on they went right back to playing up-tempo and taking the first shot available. What resulted was a crazy game with lead changes, fast-breaking, and lots and lots of free throws. 
The Nuggets’ reliance on guard play may have hurt them in this game. The Nuggets’ bigs were effective all game; Nene, K-Mart, Birdman, and Petro combined to go 17-24 from the field while Anthony, Billups, Smith, and Afflalo combined to go 18-51. Billups and Anthony were able to get to the line, but the Jazz were able to hide their own lack of bigs by exploiting Denver’s over-reliance on their ball-handlers to create points. 
Denver’s soft interior defense ended up costing them the game. The only field goal Utah made from outside the paint in the fourth quarter was the go-ahead three by Kyle Korver; everything else was a shot inside the paint or a free throw. Deron Williams cut the lead to one with an unforgivably easy basket off a UCLA cut with 2:32 remaining. 
After Chauncey Billups missed a three, Kyle Korver hit his first three of the night to put the Jazz up two with 1:28 to play. After Chauncey Billups split (!) a pair of key free throws, the Nuggets were able to deny Deron Williams the ball and bait Kyle Korver into a drive that led to a charge. Korver was able to acquit himself on the very next possession, drawing a key charge of his own on Carmelo Anthony to put Denver in desperation mode. Utah made its free throws, Chauncey Billups missed both of his three-point heaves, and Utah was able to steal one in Denver. 
On Monday night, Utah decided to change up their tactics and embrace Denver’s philosophy of organized chaos. The difference in the game ended up being that Utah remembered the part about organization. Denver has the firepower to beat any team in the West, but they’ll need to be more disciplined at both ends of the floor if they want to make any kind of a playoff run. 

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.

Celtics draft pick Marcus Thornton gets beer dumped on head during Australian game (video)

Marcus Thornton, Will Cherry

The Celtics drafted Marcus Thornton with No. 45 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. That essentially entitled him to the required tender – a one-year contract offer, surely unguaranteed at the minimum.

Thornton rejected that, which is almost always a mistake.

Rejecting the tender is a favor to the drafting team, which gets to keep the player’s exclusive rights for a year. If Thornton tries to join the NBA now, he’s stuck negotiating with only the Celtics.

By accepting the tender, the player typically gets one of two outcomes. He either plays on that contract and draws an NBA salary or he gets waived. But even getting waived is better than rejecting the tender, because at least the player becomes a free agent and can negotiate with any team.

Players who reject the tender go to another league and play for less money. In Thornton’s case, that mean Australia.

How’s that going?

(Almost) never reject the required tender as a second-round pick.