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. 

Spurs honor Kobe Bryant in his last game in San Antonio (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on March 30, 2006 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Spurs won 96-85. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.

So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 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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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.