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. 

Report: D-League All-Star, Magic call-up Keith Appling arrested with loaded AK-47 in strip club

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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If you’re on the fringe of the NBA, trying to get teams to take a chance on you, this is the opposite of what you should do.

Former Michigan State star Keith Appling, who last season was a D-League All-Star for the Erie Bay Hawks and got a couple of 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic, has reportedly been arrested and is still in jail in Dearborn, Michigan, for allegedly taking a loaded assault rifle into an area strip club. (Dearborn police have not yet responded to NBC’s request for confirmation. Some Michigan outlets with sources in the area do have confirmation but few details.) This is how the story broke:

If true, Appling has much bigger problems then getting an invite to an NBA training camp next fall.

Byron Scott says he felt “a little” blindsided by Lakers’ firing

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott watches play against the Los Angeles Clippers 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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Lakers fans were demanding it. Logic dictated it — even the questionable talent did not fully explain why Byron Scott could not get the Lakers to defend, they had one of the two worst defenses in the NBA each of his two seasons as coach.

Still, Byron Scott said he was blindsided by his firing by the Los Angeles Lakers, something he said on the Dan Patrick Show this morning (video above).

Scott makes a couple of valid points. First, the Lakers did take their time after the season (letting good coaches get snapped up elsewhere) while making this call, giving the impression Scott might be safe.

Second, the Lakers did not give Scott much talent to work with. I don’t care if you resurrected Red Auerbach and John Wooden and had them tag team as the coach, these Lakers were not making the playoffs. Scott was brought in to both shepherd the Kobe farewell years — he did that exactly as management wanted — and start to develop the young talent on the team, building a foundation for the future. That is where he fell short, both in terms of building a defensive foundation or forming a strong relationship with the young Lakers, most notably D'Angelo Russell.

Scott discussed his relationship with Russell, too.

It’s far too early to say how good a coach Luke Walton will be for the Lakers, but it’s safe to say he’s an upgrade over Scott. In that way, the Lakers made the right move.

Barack Obama calls Wizards about coaching job in White House correspondents’ dinner video

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From practically the moment they fired Randy Wittman (and probably before that), the Wizards appeared locked in on Scott Brooks as their next coach. They pursued him hard and convinced him to accept the job.

But did they miss out on a better known candidate in the process?

President Barack Obama sure sounded interested.

Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to re-sign with Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) celebrates as he leaves the court during the final minute of the second half in an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, April 11, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Mavericks won 101-92. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Dirk Nowitzki will opt out of the final year of a contract that would’ve paid him $8,692,184.

The big question: Why?

Does Nowitzki want a higher salary? More years? A lower salary that enables the Mavericks to upgrade their supporting cast?

He could command whichever of those he desires.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN, transcribing Nowitzki’s interview on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas:

Nowitzki reiterated Monday that he is committed to remaining with the Mavs for the rest of his career, saying that decision was essentially made when Dallas won the championship in 2011.

“That would have been the only scenario where I go somewhere at the end to kind of hang on and maybe try to win one,” Nowitzki said, referring to if he didn’t have a ring. “But ever since I won a championship here and we did that, I want to finish my career here. I always said that. The only scenario where I’ll try to go somewhere is if we’re rebuilding, if we really say, ‘This is the end of the line. We tried every which way and we can’t go any further and we’re starting basically with five rookies.’

“Obviously, that’s not what I want my last couple of years. But knowing Mark and Donnie, they always want this to be a winning franchise, so there’s no reason for me to go anywhere.”

“We had one more year on the contract, but I think this is the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re going to sit with Mark [Cuban] and Donnie [Nelson] obviously over the next few weeks and figure out how to improve this franchise again.

“Ever since after the championship, we’ve been basically a first-round exit. We’ve been a seven, eight seed. We’ve only won a few playoff games, and obviously the goal was to compete at the highest level in my last couple of years. So there is some moving to do, some thinking, some putting our heads together the next few weeks heading into free agency, heading into the draft. So this is just one move that hopefully starts a chain reaction for us to get better again, to compete really at a high level. We’ll see how it goes.”

Usually, I’d say this would at least open the door to the player leaving. But it’d be difficult for the Mavericks to pivot into rebuilding now. They don’t have their own first-round pick, and Justin Anderson is their only young player of consequence.

With Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea signed long term and Nowitzki intent on returning, it makes far more sense to try to win now. Dallas might fail, but it’ll almost certainly be the goal.

The Mavericks project to have about $20 million in cap space accounting for cap holds for Chandler Parsons ($19,969,950), Nowitzki ($12,500,0001), Deron Williams ($6,454,769) and Dwight Powell ($1,180,431). If those players sign elsewhere or get renounced, Dallas would clear more room.

Nowitzki could accept a lower salary than his cap hold, and his first-year salary would become his cap number once signed. Essentially, he could monitor free agency and slide his salary requirement depending on the quality of free agent the Mavericks could sign with the available money. Land a star, and maybe Nowitzki would take far less to accommodate him. Strike out, and Nowitzki might want a raise.

He has leverage, though it seems he’s set on using it harmoniously with management.

Still, what if Dallas flops majorly in free agency? Could Nowitzki leave? I expect the Mavericks to land productive veterans, and I doubt Nowitzki would leave anyway. But by opting out, he has the ability to walk.

The Mavericks have an opportunity to improve this offseason. Two years ago, they leveraged Nowitzki’s commitment to the franchise into a below-market deal that helped them sign Parsons. The goal should be once again involving Nowitzki in the process and having him help.

The better Dallas does in free agency, the more likely Nowitzki will be to sacrifice for the team.