NBA Playoffs: Denver executes on offense, stays alive against Utah

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JRSmith_dunk.jpgThe Nuggets aren’t going to win this series on the strength of their defense. That much is clear. In order to make that strategy work, they need to play a near-perfect offensive game for a full 48 minutes. On Wednesday night, they did just that to stave off elimination. 

The Nuggets started the game out making the extra pass and looking to get baskets in the paint. They scored 25 points in the first quarter; of those 25 points, 20 came on shots in the paint or free throws. They started their offense from the high post and made cuts into the paint. When someone got open off those cuts, the Nuggets rewarded them with the extra pass. The Nuggets recorded 13 assists in game four. They got seven assists in the first quarter of Wednesday night’s game. Clearly, the Nuggets figured out that they can’t out-score playoff teams without a clear game plan when they have the ball. Well, hopefully they’ve figured that out.  
The Nuggets stuck to their gameplan in the second quarter. Only one of their field goals in the period was an unassisted mid-range jump shot — the rest were shots at the rim or jumpers set up by passes. The Jazz were able to go into halftime with a two-point lead, but that was only because Carlos Boozer was making everything he looked at, both from the top of the key and the baseline. (How he hits the mid-range jumper that well with that release I’ll never know.) All of a sudden, it was the Nuggets who were running quality sets and the Jazz who were hoping their superstars would bail them out. Even though the Jazz led at halftime, it was the Nuggets who were getting points in a more sustainable fashion.  
The Nuggets broke through in the third. Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony both got it going after halftime, scoring 21 combined points in the third period alone. Not only were Anthony and Billups being aggressive and hitting shots, but their teammates weren’t just watching the show. The Nuggets supporting players added 15 points of their own in the quarter, and the Jazz went into the fourth with a five-point lead.
The Nuggets were able to pull away in the fourth quarter. J.R. Smith drained two quick-trigger threes to put the Nuggets up nine and get the building going. It was all downhill from there for the Nuggets, who ended up winning by a final score of 116-102. 
There’s no real way to keep up with the Nuggets when they play like this. They managed to hit their shots and play with discipline on offense. With the talent the Nuggets have, that virtually guarantees a win. Anthony found ways to score despite struggling with his jumper; he only made three shots outside the paint, but got to the line 15 times en route to 26 points. Billups added 21 points of his own on only 13 field goal attempts. After his infamous post-game tweet on Sunday, J.R. Smith was brilliant off the bench. He drained four of his five threes, and his makes came at key points in the game for Denver. Maybe he should tweet about how Carmelo’s tattoos are distracting before game six in Utah. 
Boozer and Williams were both brilliant for Utah. They just didn’t get enough help. Wesley Matthews was the only other Utah who finished in double-figures, and Paul Milsap was the only Utah bench player to score a point. Utah’s offense relies on movement and balance, not their superstars making tough jumpers time and time again. 
This game was a promising sign for the Nuggets. Whether or not they can play this well in Utah is an open question. With the threat of elimination looming, no head coach, and Utah fans screaming every time they have the ball, it’s easy to imagine Denver returning to their bad habits and letting the series slip away. But if they can remember they’re 48 minutes away from going back to Denver with a chance to clinch the series themselves, they have the talent to get a win in Salt Lake. A lot of people had written off the Nuggets before Wednesday night. I wouldn’t count them out just yet. 

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.