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.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.