NBA Playoff Preview: Chicago vs. Indiana

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SEASON RECORDS
Bulls: 62-20 (No. 1 seed in East)
Pacers: 37-45 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Bulls 3-1, with the Pacers winning the most recent when Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough just took over.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Bulls: Off. 105.4 (12th in NBA); Def. 97.4 (1st in NBA)
Pacers: Off. 101.8 (23rd in NBA)’ Def. 103.5 (12th in NBA)

THREE KEY BULLS:

Derrick Rose: The soon-to-be MVP is pretty much everything to the Bulls offense — he is the guy they run off screens to get shots, he is the guy they give the ball to in isolation. What will be interesting in this series, and particularly as the playoffs move on, is how the Bulls adjust when teams make it a priority to get the ball out of Rose’s hands.

Luol Deng: He is key in two ways: 1) He will get the defensive matchups on Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy Jr., the two guys the Bulls will key on stopping; 2) He is the difference between the Bulls having an average offense and a good one. Rose will get his, as will Carlos Boozer most nights, but when Deng gets going with them the Bulls offense is infinitely harder to stop.

Taj Gibson: The Bulls depth — and the ability of that depth to control Mike Dunleavy and Josh McRoberts off the Pacers bench — will be one of their keys in this series. Gibson (or whoever the Pacers put on Dunleavy) needs to make him work on defense as well. Which means attack the rim, when Gibson spots up he is far less dangerous. He needs to use his athleticism and attack.

THREE KEY PACERS

Danny Granger: Indiana has got to find a way to score on the Bulls stout defense, and Granger is the guy most capable of creating his own shot and knocking it down. His game has taken a step back this season — he is not shooting at as high a percentage, he is turning over the ball more — but simply put he must have a monster series for the Pacers to have any chance.

Darren Collison: No one man can stop Derrick Rose, it takes a team effort. But Collison is the first line of defense. He has to guide Rose to help, he has to create turnovers and make life hard for Rose, and when the Pacers decide to trap or take other steps to get the ball out of Rose’s hands, he cannot let Rose just split the double and waltz inside. The other key for Collison — holding on to the ball. Collison can be a turnover machine, particularly when he is handling the ball on the pick-and-roll. The Bulls are one of the best pick-and-roll defending teams in the league. If he turns the ball over and the Bulls get easy points in transition, the Pacers will not be able to keep up.

Mike Dunleavy Jr.: The Pacers take a lot of jump shots and Dunleavy is their best guy curling off screens and on catch-and-shoots — the things the Bulls are going to make very hard but the Pacers have to execute to have a chance. He has to get looks and he is going to have to knock down some contested shots for the Pacers to have any chance. And he should put the ball on the floor too (which he is better at than people think, he’s got a pretty rounded game).

OUTLOOK

The Bulls are the league’s best defensive team; the Pacers are a pretty good defensive team. So rule one, bet the under. The key here is the Pacers are not a good offensive team either and what strengths they do have play right into the hands of the Bulls defense. That showed in the regular season meetings when the Pacers mostly struggled to score.

Indiana likes to run guys off screens, have them pop out to open spaces for quick shots or to get room to attack — you can bet the Bulls will bump guys off those lines in this series. Chicago will grind it out, take Pacers players off their preferred lines. Also, the Bulls close out hard on shooters, taking away clean looks. Indiana needs to find a way to get some easy buckets.

The best way to attack the Bulls is to get out in transition — the Bulls are not a great transition defense team. Once you let them get set in the half court they are a wall. Problem is, Pacers do not like to get out and run, and they’re not good at it when they do.

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls are going to do what they do, which is run Rose off a series of screens and put him in isolation and get enough points. The Pacers will have some success slowing this, they are a good defensive squad. But will it matter?

Indiana did beat the Bulls once this past season — the Bulls had one of their worst interior defensive games of the season and Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert combined for 44 and 19. Want to bet on them being able to do that four times in seven games?

PREDICTION

The Pacers just do not have the offensive firepower to hang in this series. It’s going to be a low scoring series. Also expect some ugly games. But the Bulls are the better grinders.

Bulls sweep, 4-0.

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.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.

Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, dies

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The Spurs may be in the playoffs, but all of that takes a backseat now for Gregg Popovich.

Spurs:

With deep regret the San Antonio Spurs announce that Erin Popovich, wife of Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, passed away earlier today. Erin and Gregg were married for four decades and were blessed with two children and two grandchildren.

“We mourn the loss of Erin,” said Spurs General Manager RC Buford. “She was a strong, wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who provided love, support and humor to all of us.”

The organization asks media to respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

What devastating news. Hopefully, Popovich had time to make peace with this eventuality, but that doesn’t make it easy to handle.