Nuggets win over Lakers should get Thunder’s attention

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With just 10 days of NBA games remaining, some first round playoff matchups are pretty much set. Out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder are almost certainly getting the Denver Nuggets in the first round.

Sunday Denver beat the Lakers by outworking them, being more scrappy, playing good defense and moving the ball on offense (95-90 was the final score). They have beaten the Celtics and Spurs the same way since the All-Star break.

The Thunder have more size and more talent, they are more athletic. But Nuggets are going to make it very tough to beat them four times out of seven. This is a good team. And if the Thunder don’t bring it and are looking ahead to the second round they will not get there.

What the Nuggets did to the Lakers was not a thing of beauty. The first half was ragged, with the Lakers length giving Denver some trouble, the Nuggets activity giving the Lakers some trouble, and both teams just missing a lot of good looks.

Denver shot 29.5 percent for the first half and the Lakers led 47-40 at the break despite having an offensive rating of just 95.9 (points per 100 possessions). Kobe Bryant hit 4-of-6 in the second quarter and had 19 points for the half (28 for the game). Danilo Gallinari had 18 in the first half for Denver and finished with 22.

The game remained close in the third but at the start of the fourth Denver’s bench executed better than the Lakers. And that better execution continued through the fourth quarter.

Denver was able to use 18 Laker turnovers for the game and a lot of missed shots to get out and run — the game had 97 possessions. That’s faster than the Lakers want to play, but just where the Nuggets like it.

The old Nuggets, when the game got tight, you could count on a Carmelo Anthony isolation and the Lakers would bring a big man over to the strong side early, a defense that usually allowed them to stop Denver late. But now Raymond Felton is hitting a cutting Kenyon Martin with a sharp pass and Denver is getting layups.

The Lakers played the end of the game without Andrew Bynum, who tweaked his knee and was kept out for what the team called “precautionary reasons.” (Both Bynum and Pau Gasol will have MRIs on their knees Monday after both had tweaks.)

The result was that with the Lakers down 3 and 11 seconds to go, Nene missed a free throw but Martin just outmuscled Lamar Odom, got the rebound and tipped it in. That was the dagger.

The Lakers had been sloppy in their previous game at Utah, the Jazz just don’t have the team that can make them pay. The loss ended the Lakers nine-game win streak. The loss, combined with a Spurs win over the Suns, makes it less likely the Lakers can catch the Spurs for the top seed in the West.

Denver was just the scrappier, hungrier team but they also are playing good team basketball right now. There are a lot of teams that, if they shared the ball like Denver is doing right now, if they were working as hard on defense, would be a lot better.

Denver is going to be a very tough out in the playoffs. They are capable of beating anyone. Oklahoma City is a better team on paper and will have the two best players in that series on their team. But if they don’t focus and execute, Denver will be the team moving on from that series.

LeBron James: Reporter warned me about question on Gregg Popovich’s wife before live TV interview

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In her on-court interview with LeBron James following the Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over the Pacers last night, TNT sideline reporter Allie LaForce asked him about the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife.

LeBron appeared emotional as he gathered his thoughts.

That prompted some to criticize LaForce for ambushing LeBron on a sensitive subject on live TV. But that’s not what happened.

Uninterrupted:

LeBron:

I’m not on social media right now, but I was made aware through some friends through texts that a question was asked to me postgame, and a lot of people feel I was blindsided. That is absolutely false. Allie LaForce told me that she was going to ask the question and if it was OK.

And once I started talking about it, once we were on air, actually my emotions kind of took over. And that was just my emotions coming straight from my heart about the late Erin Popovich.

It’s unfortunate. It’s a tragic loss. My thoughts, my prayers, once again goes out to the Popovich family, to Gregg, to the Spurs family, to the whole Spurs fan base.

And also guys, please get off Allie LaForce’ back, because she followed the proper protocol and she warned me. So, get off her back, man. She’s very professional, and she does a great job at her work.

Like I said, thoughts and prayers to the heavens above. We all know the man above never makes mistakes, even when we question it. But it’s a sad, tragic time right now for the NBA family, and we’re all praying and hoping for the best.

It would have been surprising if LaForce hadn’t done that. Somewhere between nearly nobody and absolutely nobody in her position is trying to embarrass players.

PBT Extra: If Portland is going to turn series around it starts with Damian Lillard

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This was the year the Trail Blazers were going to break through. They were defending better as a team. There was some depth on offense. And Damian Lillard was playing at a level that will get him on many voters’ MVP ballots.

Instead, they are down 0-2 to Anthony Davis and New Orleans, having dropped both games at home to open the series. Portland is on the verge of being bounced in the first round for the third time in four years.

If Portland is going to turn this series around, it starts with Lillard, something I discuss in this latest PBT Extra. C.J. McCollum needs to get more buckets, Jusuf Nurkic needs to contribute more on both ends, but for Portland it all begins and ends with Lillard and it’s on him to start the turnaround.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.