NBA Playoffs: Magic complete the sweep

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The Magic still didn’t put together a dominant single-game performance against the Charlotte Bobcats, but their combination of defense and timely three-point shooting was enough to get them a first-round sweep. 

Charlotte once again did all the right things. They outscored the Magic 34-16 in the painted area. They matched the Magic in offensive rebounding. They only turned the ball over three more times than their opponent. They held Dwight Howard to six points in 23 minutes of floor time, and even managed to slow down Jameer Nelson to some degree. 
In the end, though, Charlotte couldn’t find enough scoring to get a win in this series. Stephen Jackson, Raymond Felton, and D.J. Augustin couldn’t make the Magic pay for packing the paint, combining to go 6-26 from the floor. 
Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw gave the Bobcats some offense by slashing and hitting open jumpers. But as has been the story all series long for Charlotte, neither of them were able to carry the offense when the game was on the line. Ty Thomas led the team with 21 points off the bench, with most of those coming on baseline jumpers. Like I said regarding Larry Hughes in game three, there is a serious problem when Ty Thomas jumpers are your most reliable source of offensive production. 
Orlando had their usual peaks and valleys offensively, following up three-point barrages with prolonged droughts. Normally Howard gives the Magic offense stability when their threes aren’t falling. In game four, however, he was once again rendered completely ineffective by foul trouble and Charlotte’s interior defense. I’m also perplexed as to why Larry Brown didn’t go to hack-a-Howard earlier in the forth quarter. The Bobcats were a few fouls away from the bonus, but the Magic were starting to make baskets and Howard has no idea which way is up on the foul line right now. 
Just how streaky is Orlando’s offense? They started the game off by hitting four three-pointers en route to scoring 21 points in the first eight minutes of the game. They then went on to score four points in the next seven minutes of play. Orlando continued to trust the three-ball all game long; eventually, it worked out for them. As the Bobcats made their final push of the series, Mickael Pietrus hit two quick threes to stretch the lead from one to seven and put the Magic in control. After one more three by Jameer Nelson to put the Magic up double-digits, they were able to hold onto the lead without needing a field goal for the last five minutes of the game. 
Give Charlotte credit for competing for the full 48 minutes. But in the end, the Magic were too much for them to handle in this series. Sometimes, grit and good coaching aren’t enough against a team as deep and talented as the Magic are. 
Going forward, the best news in this game for Magic fans may be that Vince Carter finally got it going. He continued to struggle with his jumper early, but made some hard drives to the basket to put himself on the board. In the second half, Carter finally hit his first three of the series. He was able to splash in some mid-range jumpers after that, and ended up leading the Magic with a 21-point night.
There’s a glass half-empty/half-full way to look at this series for the Magic. On the one hand, they were able to sweep a pretty good team with their franchise player on the bench half the time and giving them nothing offensively. Their second-leading scorer struggled mightily as well. If the Magic can play this well without solid contributions from Howard and Carter, imagine what they can do if both of them play like they’re capable of playing. And don’t forget that not every team defends the paint like Charlotte does. 
On the other hand, it is a little troubling that Howard is capable of playing so badly over four straight games. The free throws are particularly disturbing; if he’s not going to make 40% of his attempts from the stripe, teams are going to wrap him up every time he makes a move. The Magic were talented enough to get through the Bobcats with Howard playing like this, but they won’t make it very much further if he doesn’t start playing like the best center in the league. 
Only time will tell if the optimistic or pessimistic view of the Magic after the first round is the correct one. As bad as the Magic looked offensively in this series, it’s clear that teams will have to do three things to knock the Magic out of the playoffs: Defend Howard, find a way to score in the paint consistently, and stop the Magic from raining threes. When Howard can’t score inside, the Magic can get quick points by hitting quick-trigger threes. When the threes aren’t falling, the Magic can dump it into Howard. When neither of those options are working, the Magic can weather the drought thanks to their defense. All of those things are going to make the Magic an extremely tough opponent for any team that faces them this postseason. 

Report: Hornets’ center Cody Zeller out six weeks following knee surgery

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Charlotte just cannot get over the injury bug this season, and we found out last week it had struck again.

Now we know how severe the damage is, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Ouch.

Zeller has been solid off the bench behind Dwight Howard this season, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a night. He plays around the basket, 75 percent of his shots come at the rim, but his efficiency has dipped a little this season and he is shooting just 50 percent inside the restricted area.

The Hornets had to start the season without Nicolas Batum, and Michael Carter-Williams has missed time as well. On top of that, coach Steve Clifford had to take a leave of absence from the team for personal health reasons. Stephen Silas has stepped in to replace him.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Matt Barnes announces retirement from NBA after 15 seasons

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When too many fans think of Matt Barnes, they think of the guy who tried to fight Derek Fisher, the nightclub incident in New York, the guy who was a pest on the court and racked up more than his share of technicals and fines in a 15-year NBA career.

Ask Barnes former teammates about him, and they loved him — off the court and on. He was the quintessential guy you wanted on your team and hated to play against.

Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well for the team after signing in Golden State — Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes stepped up his role and play. He earned that ring. However, this season there seemed to be no fit for him in the league.

Barnes was drafted in the second round out of UCLA by the Memphis Grizzlies and went on to play for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

I’m going to miss him. While he had a rough exterior and was plenty chippy on the court, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off. I wish him the best and know he’ll enjoy life after basketball.

Shaq on free throws: ‘I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand’

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Rick Barry famously made 90% of his free throws while shooting underhand.

Shaquille O’Neal infamously shot just 53% on his free throws, inspiring hack-a-Shaq.

Why didn’t Shaq use Barry’s technique?

Shaq, via Emmanuel Ocbazghi, Noah Friedman and Graham Flanagan of Business Insider:

Shaquille O’Neal: Because it’s boring.

Business Insider: But it’s been proven to be somewhat effective.

O’Neal: No, it’s not. It’s not proven. Just ’cause a couple guys did it doesn’t mean anybody can do it.

I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand. I’m too cool for that.

O’Neal is somewhat trying to protect his larger-than-life, jokester image. But he’s also speaking to truth.

Barry would have been a good free-throw shooter overhand, too. Shooting underhand wasn’t necessarily going to fix Shaq’s problems at the line. Just because it worked for Barry doesn’t make it a “proven” technique.

Yet, every poor free-throw shooter – from Shaq to Andre Drummond to Andre Roberson – has been pestered about shooting underhand. It might be the right form for some players, but it’s no silver bullet.