NBA Playoffs: Utah looks to close out the series at home

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Up 3-2 in their series against the Denver Nuggets and coming back home to Salt Lake, the Utah Jazz have a great chance to close out their first-round series tonight. It’s not the time for them to rest on their laurels, however, as they don’t want to have to go back to Denver for a game seven. Here’s what the Jazz need to do to advance to the second round and avoid a game seven, and what Denver needs to do to stave off elimination:

Utah:

-Offensive Balance. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer both had great games for the Jazz in game five. That wasn’t enough. The Nuggets are going to put points on the board; if the Jazz want to win, they need to have more balance offensively and have everybody on the floor be a threat to score.
-Control the paint on both sides of the floor. Denver was having trouble getting frontcourt production before Nene went down, and they’ve struggled to prevent penetration all series. Even without Kirilienko and Okur, the Jazz have an advantage inside. They need to press it. 
-Win the first quarter. The Nuggets have panicked when forced to play from behind, especially on the road. If Utah makes an early run and opens up a lead, they could cruise to a game six victory. 
-Get to the line. The Jazz shot 35 free throws in both game three and game four. In their game five loss, they only shot 25 free throws. The Jazz are the more physical team — they need to exploit that by taking the ball right at Denver’s interior defenders. 
Denver:

Offensive execution. When they move the ball and work pick-and-rolls or low isolations, they’ve looked great. Their interior passing at the beginning of game five was a revelation. This team has a lot of talented scorers, but they won’t be able to put up enough points to win without playing team basketball on offense.
-Get J.R. Smith going. He’s had two good games in this series. The Nuggets won both of them. That’s not a coincidence. Getting something out of Lawson will be important as well.
-Stay calm. The Nuggets have looked bad when they’ve fallen behind in this series. If the Jazz get a lead, they need to stay patient and not try to get all their points back at once. 
-Crowd the paint. Deron Williams is going to get his regardless of what the Nuggets do against him. Outside of Deron, the Jazz would much rather rely on Paul Milsap and Carlos Boozer than C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews. The Nuggets obviously don’t have a ton of size. Still, they can make an effort to front Boozer and Milsap, bring doubles, and make them work for their points in the paint. 
-Play with confidence. The Nuggets were in a 3-1 hole, but now they have a chance to make Utah come to their house for a game seven. If they play 48 minutes of good ball, they can do it. But they have to believe that they can. 

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.

Improving Hornets G Walker has sights set on All-Star season

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 26:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets points to the bench during their game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 26, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kemba Walker wants to be an NBA All-Star.

But the Hornets’ steadily improving 6-foot point guard knows he has to get healthy first, which means resting his surgically repaired knee a little longer. Walker was limited to non-contract drills as the Hornets opened training camp on Tuesday at their downtown arena.

“I hate it. … You know how much of a competitor I am. But it’s the smart thing to do at this time (because) I don’t want to have any setbacks,” said Walker, adding that he hopes to be 100 percent for the start of the regular season.

The 26-year-old Walker is coming off the best season of his five-year NBA career, averaging a 20.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game in 2015-16 while shooting a career-best 42.7 percent from the field.

But the stat that pops out the most is his improved 3-point shooting. Walker made 37.1 percent from beyond the arc last season after making less than 33 percent his first four years in the league.

Walker finished second in the voting for Most Improved Player, battling through knee pain near the end of the season and leading the Hornets to a 48-win season that culminated in a Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Teammate Marvin Williams said Walker could have easily “shut it down” due to a torn meniscus in his left knee, but elected to keep on playing.

Walker has surgery in May to repair the problem.

“I feel like he was (an All-Star) last year,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “And that’s not taking anything away from any of the guys that made it in the East. They are very, very good. The guards are big time. But I feel like Kemba was right there. He was beat up and he continued to fight through it every night. If he is healthy and has a year like he did last year I think he will definitely be there in February.”

It’s that kind of dedication to the team that has made Walker a favorite in the locker room.

Nicolas Batum, the team’s highest-paid player, said he’s made it his personal goal to help get Walker into the All-Star game this season.

“He’s special. He’s really special,” Batum said. “People don’t understand how good he is. He had a breakout season last year. He’s a franchise guard.”

Walker is dramatically more confident in his shooting than this time a year ago when he working with shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer to tweak his mechanics, according to coach Steve Clifford.

There were times Walker contemplated scrapping the changes, but he stuck with it and the results followed. Now he doesn’t even think about the altered shooting motion anymore.

“If you go back to the last 21 games of the year, his 3-point shooting put him in a different place,” Clifford said.

Clifford said with Walker’s improved shooting and range it makes it more difficult for teams to defend him.

“His range takes away the under in the pick-and-roll,” Clifford said. “And he’s such a good pick-and-roll player anyway. I think he is really maturing as a player.”

Perhaps enough to be an All-Star.

“I was pretty close last year,” Walker said. “I’m getting the hang of things in this league and playing really well. I want to continue to play well and win. But in order for me to be an All-Star we have to win. That’s what it is going to take.”

NOTES: Along with Walker, Cody Zeller (shoulder) and Perry Ellis (sports hernia) weren’t able participate in contact drills during practice.