NBA Playoffs: Breaking down the second quarter

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After the first two games, it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers were getting ready to waltz into the NBA Finals. We all know the old saying that a playoff series doesn’t really start until one team loses at home, but Phoenix looked just plain outclassed throughout the first 96 minutes of the conference finals — the final two Laker wins seemed like a formality. Less than a week later, it’s a tie series again. 
There have been plenty of strategies, players, and shots behind Phoenix’s two consecutive victories. But for right now, let’s take a look at one of the high points of the playoffs so far: That insane 41-32 second quarter that featured frenetic action, momentum shifts, and stars and role players alike hitting shot after shot after shot. Here’s a rehashing of the quarter, with some commentary added:
-The Lakers start out the quarter with Kobe and Bynum out on the floor. The Suns go with their bench-only lineup of Dragic/Barbosa/Dudley/Frye/Amundson. Dragic starts the quarter out by setting Dudley up with a drive-and-kick three, which breaks the tie and puts Phoenix up 26-23. 
-Shannon Brown answers with a 20-footer to cut the lead to one. Random note: how many jumpers did the Lakers hit with their feet on the three-point line? It seems like they did it at least five times over the course of the game. In what turned out to be a close game, those things do matter. Watch those toes, Los Angeles. 
-Bynum hits a hook shot for the Lakers, but in the meantime Barbosa, Dragic, and Amundson all get layups. The Suns’ bench unit is doing to the Lakers what the Thunder did in round one — they’re beating them down the court, getting easy baskets, hustling all the time, and frustrating themselves with their athleticism. They don’t play defense as well as the Thunder do, but they make up for it by being much better shooters. 
-After Amundson dunks to put the Suns up six, Kobe finds a soft spot in the zone, spots up, and drains a catch-and-shoot jumper. 27 seconds later, Kobe answers a tough Barbosa jumper by hitting from the exact same spot he’d made from before. 
-With seven minutes to play in the quarter, Channing Frye hits a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot three. Before that shot, Frye had missed his previous 19 attempts from the field. The crowd goes absolutely crazy — huge momentum shift on that play, and all of a sudden Frye looked like he enjoyed basketball again. A minute later, Dudley hits a three to put the Suns up 10. Phil is forced to call timeout. 
-At this point, the Suns were up double-digits, they were making everything they looked at, and the crowd was in the game. The Lakers have yet to lose a home game in these playoffs, and the Suns have to beat them at home to win this series. In short, this was the point in the game where most teams could have folded. We’ve seen it plenty of times in these playoffs. 
But most teams don’t have Kobe Bryant. After the time-out, Kobe hit two tough threes in the span of 34 seconds to keep the Lakers in the game. The Suns kept answering with threes of their own, but Kobe wasn’t backing down either. Time after time Kobe would find a spot, wait for the pass, set up, and drain the jumper over whoever had the audacity to try and contest his shot. Kobe would end up tying the game in the third quarter by utilizing all aspects of his game, but his second-quarter performance was just as effective. He was taking the shots the Suns wanted him to take, and they were finding net every single time. 
Since the Lakers lost (and the Suns were able to take Kobe out of the game with some extreme double-teams in the fourth quarter), there’s no way this will be talked about as one of Kobe’s great games. In fact, this performance will probably be forgotten within 48 hours. But what Kobe did to keep his team in the game in the second and third quarters of game four was special nonetheless. If anybody but Kobe Bryant had been taking those shots, this would not have been a competitive game. 
-If this game had happened in Los Angeles, I don’t see how the Suns would have been able to survive this Kobe performance. Their threes would have been greeted by silence, and the “M-V-P” chants for Kobe may have reached other celestial bodies. But with the crowd behind them in Phoenix, the Suns were able to keep their composure, play with energy, and drain three after three to keep Kobe and Co. at bay. Channing Frye hit two more threes over the rest of the third quarter, Steve Nash hit a three of his own, J-Rich added a putback and a layup, and Amar’e was able to finish the quarter with an easy little pull-up. 
That second quarter wasn’t just one of the most entertaining 12 minutes of the postseason so far — it gave us a look at the blueprint the Suns need to follow to win this series. They need to hit their threes. They need to play with more energy and put the pressure on the older, bigger Lakers. Their bench needs to be a major advantage for them. They need to do whatever they can to keep the Lakers from beating them with their size in the paint and make them beat them from the perimeter, even if Kobe starts to get hot. Doing all those things in front of a hostile crowd will be very, very difficult. But if the Suns can do all of those things, they might just be able to pull off the upset and get themselves into the NBA Finals. 

Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

James Harden’s 12th triple-double helps Rockets end 2-game skid

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NEW YORK (AP) James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game.

Joel Embiid helps bring hundreds of fans to D.C. with ‘Bus the Process’

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Joel Embiid has fans all around the NBA. Some even came out to see him during the Philadelphia 76ers game against the Washington Wizards on Saturday despite the Cameroonian big man sitting out due to restrictions on playing in back-to-back games.

#BusTheProcess was the hashtag used to get 350 Sixers fans to the game in D.C. thanks to Embiid, coach Brett Brown, and the podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez.

Via Twitter and ESPN:

Fun stuff for some dedicated fans, even if they didn’t get to see Embiid play.

Unfortunately for the #BusTheProcess folks, the 76ers wound up losing to the Wizards, 109-93.

Ball ricochets off Robin Lopez’s face, Bulls score anyway (VIDEO)

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31:  Robin Lopez #8 of the Chicago Bulls look on against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on October 31, 2016 in New York City. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Michael Carter-Williams is still shaking the dust off after being inserted into the starting lineup, I guess. At least, that’s about what you can say when you pass the ball off your starting center’s face.

But there’s good news! The Chicago Bulls scored on this play.

Let’s take a look at the whole thing, shall we?

I think the more important question is whether Carter-Williams received a secondary or primary assists on the NBA.com tracking site.