NBA Playoffs: Saturday is the last stand

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G_Wallace.jpg8 teams play today, 4 in Game 3’ss, and 4 in Game 4’s. But for the underdog in each of these contests, this will be their last stand in the hopes of a competitive series. If these teams want to force a Game 7, forget about the elimination game, whenever it comes. Today is their last stand. Here’s a look at what they need to do if they don’t want to wind up like Custer.

Charlotte (hosting Orlando): The Bobcats have done everything to make this a competitive series, and still the Magic have held them at arm’s length. Playoff basketball returns to Charlotte for the first time in a long time today and there’s no way to anticipate what kind of crowd will be on hand for the Bobcats’ playoff debut. They need an emotional crowd, because this team has to surge behind it, play with intensity, and capture every loose ball.

 The Magic are in high gear right now, and burying the Cats at home would make a sweep very likely. As feisty as the Cats have been all season, they have also been known to mail in their fair share, as veterans are wont to do. Going down 3-0 would put the Cats in a hole they would probably be unmotivated to climb out of.

The key is going to be Raymond Felton. Felton was considered a wash against Jameer Nelson before the series started, and now it looks like a complete mismatch. Nelson has been efficient from three, proficient at point, and devastating on the drive. Felton not only has to contain Nelson, but figure out how to get a few buckets of his own. From there, it’s the luck of the three pointer behind a home crowd they need.

Portland (hosting Phoenix): And everything looked so good after Game 1, too. No series’ momentum has swung like this one, with the Suns looking unstoppable in the last two games once they switched Grant Hill on Andre Miller and started defending like they gave a crap. Portland hasn’t just seemed outmanned (and they are, with injuries to Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, and Nicolas Batum), but outclassed. They haven’t responded at all to a raucous home crowd, and have let the Suns dictate the tempo.

A loss tonight would mean three in a row, headed back to Phoenix for an elimination game, potentially coinciding with the announcement of an extension for Amar’e Stoudemire. That’s a lot that can go wrong for the Blazers in that situation, so they need a win today to even the series and force at least two more. They have to adjust to Jason Richardson who went off for 42 points last game and has torched them from the perimeter in transition. They’ve got to slow the ball down, and while they need to stop the ball in transition when Nash is leading the charge, he’s much deadlier when finding open three pointers. They’ve got to keep their heads on, or they might as well start packing up the Rose Garden.

Milwaukee (hosting Atlanta): Another potential sweep series. The Bucks haven’t played badly. That’s the killer. They’ve gotten Brandon Jennings to contribute consistently.They’ve had Ersan Ilyasova step up as a big man. And they’ve gotten good team play. And they just haven’t come close to scratching the Hawks. Milwaukee is going to have to get this done dirty if they want to win, otherwise, this will be a sweep.

The key is going to be turning this game into one of those ugly, slow affairs. While the Hawks run at a slow pace, they have the talent advantage, so more possessions favor them. The Bucks need to turn it into a low possession game and try and connect from the arc, something they’re not great at. John Salmons is going to need the game of his career. A game 4 with a chance to rest up before meeting Orlando is going to be a big carrot for the Hawks.

Thunder (hosting Lakers): Okay, OKC. You got the first playoff win in the first playoff game. And you were loud as hell. But now you have the Lakers’ attention. And while your crowd will likely be close to as loud as they were Thursday night, you’ve got to imagine the Lakers will probably come out with a little fire after facing defeat. The Lakers know a Game 4 win effectively ends this series, with three closeout games in a tight series left, two at home.

If the Thunder can take this game and put LA back on their heels a bit, they’ve got a three game series in which anything can happen. They’ve played well in LA, falling short both times but remaining competitive, so they’d have a lot of hope to pull the miracle. But first thing’s first, they’ve got to win today.

The key is going to be to follow the same formula as the last game. Attack inside, rely on Kevin Durant to have a hot night, have Russell Westbrook destroy whoever is “guarding” him, and swarm on defense. Most important is going to be the defense on Pau Gasol. Gasol has been killer in this series, with everything from off-ball movement leading to dunks, to that patented rainbow fader of his. Jeff Green can’t handle him, neither can Nenad Krstic.

The Thunder have to get Andrew Bynum in foul trouble so they can put Serge Ibaka on Gasol. Another option that may seem crazy would be to go to Etan Thomas, who hasn’t played much at all as the season wore on, to match Gasol’s length and range. Thomas can impact the boards, and might be a better defensive matchup. Then again, it’s Etan Thomas.

This game will say a lot about where both franchises are.

Watch all 25 threes from Cleveland in Game 2 win

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Apparently, all it takes is a little public discussion of LeBron James‘ “broken” jump shot to get him back on balance and knocking down the three ball — he was 4-of-6 from deep Wednesday.

Then again J.R. Smith was 7-of-13, Kyrie Irving 4-of-5, and as a team the Cavaliers knocked down a record 25 threes — while shooting 55.6 percent — as they wiped the floor with the Hawks in Game 2.

In case you’re curious where the Cavs were hitting from, here’s the team’s shot chart.

Cavaliers threes shotchart

Report: Rockets to interview Mike D’Antoni, Frank Vogel for coaching vacancy

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers gestures during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on February 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Lakers won 126-122.   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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Houston Rockets aren’t in any rush to hire a new head coach, preferring to interview a wide range of candidates to find the right one. Jeff Van Gundy has been widely believed to be at the top of their list, now that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks are off the market, but ESPN.com’s Marc Stein is reporting another name that has entered the mix: Mike D’Antoni, who last held a head coaching job from 2012 to 2014 with the Lakers and currently serves as the Sixers’ lead assistant.

The Pacers, meanwhile, haven’t made a final decision on Frank Vogel’s future with the team, but all signs seem to point to him getting let go in the next few days. And if that happens, Stein reports that Vogel will also be on Houston’s list of candidates.

Given the Rockets’ massive drop-off on the defensive end this season, Vogel would seem to be a better fit than D’Antoni. But it sounds like the Rockets aren’t close to finding a replacement for J.B. Bickerstaff, although it would make sense to have a new coach in place by next month’s draft.

Cavs set single-game three-point record in blowout win over Hawks

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On Monday, the Hawks played the Cavaliers close and even led in the fourth quarter, leading plenty of optimism that Game 2 would be equally competitive, that the Hawks had something to build on.

Nope.

The Cavs dominated from the start on Wednesday, with a 123-98 final score that was far closer than the game actually was — the Cavs led 74-36 at the half and led by as much as 38 at one point in the second half.

The Cavs also hit 25 three-pointers, which is the all-time record for a single game — regular season or playoffs. J.R. Smith hit seven of them, along with four each from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and three for Kevin Love.

18 of Cleveland’s threes came in the first half, also a playoff record, and this was all Atlanta could do:

That’s the kind of night it was for the Hawks, who now trail 2-0 in the series as it heads back to Atlanta.

LeBron James whips one-handed pass, leads to open Kevin Love three (VIDEO)

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 2: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers fights for a loose ball against Al Horford #15 and Kyle Korver #26 of the Atlanta Hawks during the second half of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena on May 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Hawks 104-93. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has always been an incredible passer. In the midst of the Cavs’ Game 2 beatdown of the Hawks, he zipped this one-handed beauty into the paint to Kyrie Irving, who kicked it out to Kevin Love for a corner three:

The three was just one of the 18 Cleveland hit in the first half, which set an NBA playoff record.