NBA Playoffs: Bryant, Lakers hold on against Oklahoma City

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The Lakers-Thunder series promised a showdown between two of the best defensive teams in the Western Conference and two of the best scorers in the league. When Durant and Kobe struggled on Sunday, the game became an ugly, grind-it out affair. On Tuesday night, both Durant and Kobe showed up. The result was one of the best first-round games so far. 
Before the game, Phil Jackson talked about how he wanted to establish the Lakers’ inside game and had become concerned about Kobe Bryant’s number of shot attempts. Naturally, Kobe came out gunning, and the Lakers didn’t even make their first entry pass into the post until four minutes had gone by in the quarter. 
Kobe made a contested jumper on the Lakers’ first possession of the game, and was clearly looking to get himself going early. He had mixed results in the first half, going 6-16 from the field, but his confidence ended up paying major dividends late. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was out to remind the viewing public that he didn’t win the scoring title by accident. He made a big adjustment in his offensive game, getting his catches backing down Artest in the mid-post area and rising over him for 15-20 foot jumpers rather than relying on off-ball movement and screens to free him up with good looks on the perimeter. When I asked him about this after the game, Durant said that “I was trying to mix it up a little bit. Artest is so strong, it’s hard to post him up. But I was able to use my length a little bit to shoot over him. It’s about playing physical, and I think I did a better job of that on both ends of the ball tonight.
Durant still wasn’t able to have success at the rim in game two, going 2-6 on shots at the rim and only shooting six free throws all night. In fact, Durant had serious problems whenever he put the ball on the floor, as he turned it over eight times. Just by virtue of taking his mid-range shots closer to the basket and getting set up with some catch-and-shoot threes, Durant was able to drop 32 on the Lakers. If he can have this kind of success from the perimeter and find a way to get to the rim, he could explode. 
Both the Thunder and the Lakers played great interior defensive. The Thunder only shot 10/22 from the paint, and the Lakers got blocked 17 times on their way to an 18/45 performance from inside the painted area. Seven Thunder players recorded a block on Tuesday, Kevin Durant had four, and rookie Serge Ibaka introduced himself to a national audience with seven blocks. And believe me, each of the seven were memorable. Ibaka’s been a fan favorite on Oklahoma City all year, and now a much wider audience has been introduced to Ibaka’s shot-blocking prowess. 
The 17 blocks were somewhat of a two-edged sword for the Thunder. Thanks to the Lakers’ length advantage and the Thunder’s eagerness to go for the block, the Lakers absolutely dominated the Thunder on the boards. They had 19 offensive rebounds to the Thunder’s seven, and gave the Lakers second chances in crucial situations down the stretch. 
There were other key mistakes by the Thunder that look bad in what turned out to be a one-possession game. Durant flubbed a wide-open fast-break slam in the first half. The Thunder turned it over with a chance to run out the clock at the end of Q1, allowing the Lakers to score. Russell Westbrook sent himself to the bench by tripping Derek Fisher with one second left on the shot clock and picking up his third foul. There were a few plays like throughout the game, all of which will likely cost Scott Brooks some sleep tonight. 
As soon as Kobe Bryant came out to play the second half, he had that look in his eye. He started the quarter off with two deep, flat-footed threes from the left wing. He absolutely embarrassed Thabo Sefolosha with a gorgeous mid-post spin halfway through the quarter. When he re-entered the game with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, he ripped off five points in 50 seconds to put the Lakers up four. Bryant ended up with 15 points in the fourth quarter. While Durant was holding his own trying to match Bryant’s production, the former MVP got the better of the 21-year old on Tuesday night. 
After Bryant hit a contested jumper and a pair of free throws to push the Laker lead to four with 1:31 remaining, missed free throws by the Lakers left the door open for the Thunder. Shannon Brown split a pair, and Russell Westbrook came back down to draw a foul and make both free throws. After an OKC stop and a Jeff Green leaner in the lane, Kobe was intentionally fouled and split the pair to give the Thunder a chance to go for the tie or the win down two with 15 seconds to play. Scott Brooks elected to go for the win, and Durant missed a three-point attempt off a screen that would have given the Thunder the lead. After Pau Gasol split yet another pair of free throws, the Thunder had no timeouts and seven seconds to get a three. They set Jeff Green up with a good look behind a back-screen, but no dice. Lakers lead the series 2-0. 
There are some problems with this Laker team. They can neglect to use their bigs and exploit their size advantage inside. Artest and Fisher will take things off the table offensively. The bench is paper-thin. Even Kobe isn’t quite as dominant on a night-in, night-out basis as he once was. 
But this Laker team manages to find ways to win as well as any team I can ever remember seeing. When they miss a big shot, they come up with the offensive rebound. When they need a stop, they get one. Artest, Fisher, and even Odom aren’t great three-point shooters, but they’re all capable of delivering a dagger three at the worst possible time for their opponents. And Kobe Bryant is pretty good when the game is on the line. The Lakers aren’t a juggernaut like they were last year or the year before, but somehow they keep winning basketball games. They did it in the regular season, and now they’ve done it in the playoffs. Call it luck, call it experience, call it skill. Whatever it is, the Lakers need to do it fourteen more times to repeat as NBA champions.   

Denver reportedly claimed Mo Williams off waivers. Again. Then will waive him. Again.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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This is starting to make Vanilla Sky easy to follow.

It’s all about the dead-money contract of Mo Williams, and the Sixers and Nuggets trying to save a few bucks. Everything starts with Williams being owed $2.2 million this season, however, he decided he didn’t want to play anymore and didn’t show up to Cleveland’s training camp. The Cavaliers kept Williams on the roster — and more importantly the financial books — in case they could use his salary in a trade. Which they did, shipping him to Atlanta as part of the Kyle Korver deal. Atlanta quickly traded Williams to Denver, because the Nuggets wanted to add $2.2 million to their payroll and bring them closer to the salary floor. However, the Nuggets didn’t want him on the roster, so they waived him. Then the Philadephia 76ers claimed Williams off waivers — that moved them closer to the salary floor and negated the Nuggets savings. But we’re not done yet, the Sixers didn’t want Williams soaking up a roster spot, so they waived him.

And now we’re back in Denver, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

That would be Alonzo Gee, who they have already signed to one 10-day contract (he can have two before Denver has to make a decision on keeping him).

Why are Denver and Philly doing this? To save a little money. The NBA doesn’t just have a salary cap, it has a salary floor that is 90 percent of the cap, which means this season it is $84.7 million. Teams that don’t reach the floor — and with the fast rise in the salary cap last summer, there are a few teams in this boat — have to pay the players on the roster the money they are short of the floor (for example, if a team is $10 million, short of the floor, the $10 million gets divided up among the players on the roster). For Denver, they can shave $2.2 million off that bill by being the last team to waive Williams. Philly wanted the same thing.

Salary cap guy Albert Nahmad explained on Twitter who saved how much with all these deals.

Will Philly just claim Williams again? They can, Nahmad explained why they probably will not.

What would be funny now is another team to step in and claim Williams. Okay, it’s not really that funny.

Report: Magic offered first-round pick, Nikola Vucevic to Heat for Goran Dragic

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 26: Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat goes to the basket against Elfrid Payton #4 of the Orlando Magic on opening night on October 26, 2016 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. 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 Manuela Davies/Getty Images)
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We already knew the Magic were interested in Heat point guard Goran Dragic.

Orlando has an excess of power forwards and centers (or players who should be at those positions) – Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green – and have been better with an offense-first D.J. Augustin starting and Elfrid Payton coming off the bench. Dealing a big man for Dragic would be logical.

This isn’t that.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Orlando, according to league sources, recently tried to engage Miami on a Goran Dragic deal in which the Magic were said to be offering center Nikola Vucevic and a future first-round pick.

Dragic is on the wrong side of 30 and due more than $54 million over the next three years. The Magic are 18-28, 4.5 games and four teams out of playoff position.

Why would they want a player like Dragic?

Orlando should focus on building for future seasons, which means not swapping first-round picks for veterans. There will probably be better avenues for a point guard upgrade offseason. If not, the Magic can always get a solid point guard for one of its bigs and a first-rounder. There should be no rush to pursue a deal like that now, because a late playoff push is impractical.

Perhaps, the protections on the pick are strong enough to make this deal palatable for Orlando. But this just reeks of general manager Rob Hennigan mortgaging the future to show progress now, even if that’s foolish for the organization.

Miller family transfers ownership of Jazz to trust that will keep team in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 4: General view of the former EnergySolutions Arena which has been renamed Vivint Smart Home Arena, where the Portland Trail Blazers will play the Utah Jazz on November 4, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. 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 Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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Since Larry Miller died back in 2009, there have been some around the league that thought the Jazz might eventually be sold out of the family, most likely to an owner looking to move them out of Utah. The Miller family has denied that vehemently, and there has been not even a step that direction, but it’s easier to kill Freddy Krueger than an NBA rumor.

Monday, the Miller family killed that rumor for good, taking an unprecedented step that will keep the Jazz in Utah for a long, long, time.

Gail Miller has transferred ownership of the Utah Jazz and Vivint Smart Home Arena into a Legacy Trust that will keep the Jazz in Utah for what she said would be “generations.”

“As a family, we have always considered the Utah Jazz a community asset and it has been our privilege to serve as stewards of this team for more than 30 years,” Miller said. “There have been many opportunities to sell and move the franchise, but from the day Larry and I purchased the Jazz our goal was to keep the team in Utah. The Legacy Trust will help to ensure this commitment is kept for generations to come.”

The Miller family will continue to manage the trust (along with a board of directors) as well as the Jazz the organization. However, the Miller family will not profit from the running of the team as it had before. That eliminates the profit motive for selling the Jazz.

“As a family and company, we have always been committed to doing things the right way and working to achieve our mission of enriching lives and giving back,” said Miller. “This trust and our new corporate structure will continue this important legacy in perpetuity and represents our commitment and deep love for the State of Utah.”

Jody Genessy, Jazz writer for the Deseret News, added these notes from the press conference for the announcement.

This is a huge win for the fans in Utah. It’s also a win for the NBA — billionaires buying up teams with the promise/idea of moving them is not good optics for the league. Adam Silver has favored stability (he was one of the key reasons the Kings are still in Sacramento), and this is a step in that direction.

Report: Nuggets actively trying to trade Jusuf Nurkic

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 17:  Kyle O'Quinn #9 of the New York Knicks guards Jusuf Nurkic #23 of the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on December 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. 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 Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic have been healthy and productive for the Nuggets in the last two seasons.

Just not at the same time.

So, Denver wanted to test its bigs together this season, to see whether they could form a long-term pairing. The Nuggets experimented, and the results are in: Nurkic and Jokic can’t play together.

Here are Denver’s offensive/defensive/net ratings with:

  • Just Jokic: 115.7/109.9/+5.9
  • Just Nurkic: 99.2/107.9/-8.7
  • Both: 93.2/109.3/-16.1

So, the Nuggets are making the logical choice to build around Jokic.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

A player who is sure to move between now and the trade deadline?

Denver’s Jusuf Nurkic.

Sources say that the Nuggets, having acknowledged that Nikola Jokic and Nurkic didn’t click as a pairing, are actively working to find Nurkic a new home that would give him the chance he deserves to be a front-line center.

Nurkic can help a lot of teams. Just not the Nuggets.

Only 22, he’s an intimidating interior presence. He scores well in the paint, and he provides tough defense. He has lowered his high foul rate. If reducing turnovers is the next step in refining his game, that’d be welcome.

It shouldn’t be difficult to find a team that values Nurkic more than Denver does. It’s just a matter of determining which team values him most.

Kenneth Faried can handle the role in certain matchups, but if they trade Nurkic, the Nuggets will need someone to play center when Jokic sits. Still, that’s a small complication in a plan that makes sense overall.

Despite being anchored by 108 minutes of Jokic and Nurkic sharing the court, Denver is in playoff position at 18-25. Simply removing Nurkic from the starting lineup has produced a 9-8 stretch. The Nuggets have moved on with Jokic as a franchise cornerstone. It’s time to get Nurkic to a place he can thrive.