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. 

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.