Al Harrington, J.R. Smith, Nene

NBA Playoffs: OKC takes Game 2 as Denver’s depth disappears

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Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder stood out as a highly entertaining contest in an opening weekend full of highly entertaining contests, but the reprise in Game 2 couldn’t quite measure up as a competitive spectacle. Blame the Thunder; OKC used a dominant first quarter as a catalyst for spectacular game-long performance, and endured Denver’s runs along the way to win 106-89.

However, the most interesting dynamic in Game 2 may have been the complete inversion of both teams’ offensive identities. Structurally, the Oklahoma City Thunder are as traditional as contenders come. They have two dynamic stars at their core, surrounded by a defensive specialist on the wing, an enforcer in the middle and an x-factor. They have some depth, but generally run about eight deep.

The Nuggets are a bit of a different beast. They rely on having a stable of versatile and capable contributors to overwhelm and outrun their opponents. Denver relies on a collective offensive effectiveness and an aggressive defensive philosophy, neither of which is exactly possible without contributions from one to eight (or sometimes nine or 10).

Yet in Game 2, it was the Thunder who benefited from a balanced attack while the Nuggets struggled to find competence among their regulars. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and James Harden scored a combined 40 points for OKC, providing a huge boost to the typically star-centric outfit. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still productive, but they were able to rely on the efficient production of their supporting cast and pick their spots to be aggressive.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were forced to lean heavily on Al Harrington, as only Ty Lawson, Nene, and Raymond Felton were otherwise able to contribute reliably. To be fair, Harrington played relatively well, but his sudden opportunity was more a testament to the failures of his teammates than any particularly outstanding element of his performance. Kenyon Martin didn’t make much of an impact on either end of the court. Danilo Gallinari couldn’t consistently create scoring opportunities. Wilson Chandler forced shots (and didn’t make a single one), all while putting in subpar defensive effort. J.R. Smith was effectively banished from the rotation after seven early minutes of play. Between widespread struggles and the absence of Arron Afflalo, Denver was surprisingly short-handed against an opponent playing excellent team basketball. Things went about as poorly as one would expect.

OKC looked like the best in the West on Wednesday and Denver something decidedly less than. The problem with the Nuggets doesn’t lie in their formula, but in their execution. Denver isn’t incapable of winning against quality opponents, but the odds are certainly stacked against them when they struggle this mightily on both ends of the court. The Nuggets just needed something more: scoring from the wings, stronger rebounding, better team defense overall, or even a superlative individual performance from one of many candidates. None of the above came, and the Thunder looked dominant as a result.

Denver’s defense and depth can typically throw opponents off-guard enough to allow some wiggle room, but Oklahoma City was simply clicking on another level on Wednesday, one on which a struggling Thunder team had no way of competing. Give OKC’s defense (and offense, for that matter) the appropriate credit, just don’t invoke the name of Carmelo Anthony; the Nuggets didn’t experience problems because they didn’t have a star player, but merely due to the fact that the typically effective players on their roster didn’t perform as they’re capable of performing.

Playoff Preview: Five question to answer in Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors

Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, left, looks to pass as Toronto Raptors' Corey Joseph (6) and Bismack Biyombo defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The last of the four second round — or, conference semi-finals if you prefer — will tip off Tuesday with two teams that had to go seven games in the first round. That means mentally tired players who had little time to prep for Game 1 — expect some sloppy play at points. Here are five things to watch that could decide the series.

1) With a series win that led to a sigh of relief throughout Canada, will the Raptors play more free and loose? Toronto was tight in its first round series, and it was obvious to everyone. Never was that more evident than the final seven minutes of Game 7, when the Raptors had a 16-point lead and got conservative with a time-killing “prevent offense” that almost squandered the entire lead and the game. Toronto hung on thanks to some slashing Kyle Lowry layups and some Pacers turnovers, but you could see how the pressure got to this team.

If the Raptors play anywhere near that tight in the next round, they are toast. Miami showed in the first round they have guys who know how to close out games — Dwyane Wade leads that charge, but those guys are up and down the roster. Miami will not wilt late in games; we don’t know if that is true of Toronto.

2) Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will have more room to operate, what will they do with it? After having Paul George (on DeRozan) and George Hill (on Lowry) draped all over them last series, the slower Heat defenders in the starting lineup will mean more room for the Raptors guards to operate. Wade, Goran Dragic, and Joe Johnson are not great defenders, the question is can the Raptors take advantage of that extra space? DeRozan will attack as he did in Game 7 against the Pacers, but he needs to be more efficient (he needed 32 shots to get 30 points in that final game). Lowry hasn’t been his All-Star level self for the last month of the season, whether due to a bad elbow (which has been drained) or something else we don’t know about. Whatever the reason, Toronto needs All-Star Lowry to win this series — and Miami did a good job making Kemba Walker work for his shots and be inefficient last round.

Two things to watch from Miami. First, how quickly will coach Erik Spoelstra go to Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson off the bench — those rookies are the best perimeter defenders the Heat have (along with Luol Deng, who will get time on DeRozan). Spoelstra will lean on them heavily in this series. Probably more and more each game. The second thing to watch is rim protection, which leads us to….

3) Can Hassan Whiteside stay out of foul trouble and on the floor protecting the rim? Lowry isn’t afraid to shoot the three and will make teams pay that give him space beyond the arc, but the core of his game is to drive and create. DeMar DeRozan avoids the three like he tries to avoid eating too much poutine in season — he wants to drive and attack. That is what the entire Raptors offense is based around.

Which is why Hassan Whiteside and his shot blocking is crucial to Miami’s chances this round — if Lowry and DeRozan drive and get shots erased or altered by Whiteside, an essential part of the Toronto attack becomes far less efficient. The challenge for Whiteside will be staying out of foul trouble — not only can DeRozan draw fouls with the best of them, but also the Raptors will post up Jonas Valanciunas and have him go at Whiteside, looking to tack on some fouls. If Whiteside can stay on the court it is a huge boost for Miami.

4) Conversely, how is Toronto going to protect the paint? Miami’s season took off after the All-Star break when Spoelstra’s hand was forced by the Chris Bosh injury and he went small with Luol Deng at the four. The result was an aggressive, attacking Heat team that gets a lot of points in the paint off drives (and in transition). When Charlotte was able to slow the pace and protect the paint with a big lineup that forced Miami to shoot jumpers, Miami struggled. Valanciunas gives the Raptors quality offense and a big body inside, but he’s not a rim protector. Miami is going to attack and the Raptors need to limit the Heat’s efficiency.

One way to do that may be more Bismack Biyombo off the bench.

5) How are Raptors going to defend Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic? The match-ups for Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey are not ideal. Expect Lowry to matchup on Dragic for much of the series, which may not go well for Miami defensively. But the bigger challenge is DeRozan needs to guard Wade, Johnson, or Deng (who had a strong offensive first round) — Miami can attack wherever he plays. Toronto’s guards also are smaller and we could see a lot of Heat post ups this series.

Prediction: Miami in six. This is not a prediction I feel strongly about, I’d say it’s about 60 percent this and 40 percent Toronto in seven — the Raptors have a real chance in this series. But I think the matcheups favor Miami slightly, Miami was the better team after the All-Star break with a better defense, and the Heat are the team I trust to close out tight games.

Your daily Kings coaching search update: Add Jeff Hornacek, Corliss Williamson to the list

PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 18:  Head coach Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns reacts on the bench during the second half of the NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 18, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Bulls defeated the Suns 103-97. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Give Vlade Divac and the Kings credit for this: They said they were going to cast a wide net and interview a lot of people for their head coaching position, and he is doing just that.

Two more names popped up as guys who will get interviews — former Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, and Corliss Williamson.

Hornacek and Williamson join Mark Jackson, Luke Walton, Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Sam Mitchell, Kevin McHale, Patrick Ewing, and David Blatt as guys that the Kings have at least reached out to, if not outright interviewed.

Who is the frontrunner? We’ll see when the second round of interviews start. Someday. Divac and the Kings are in no rush, and know they need to nail this hire.

Portland’s coach Terry Stotts has no contract after this season, but that will change soon

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 17: Head coach Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers follows the action against the Los Angeles Clippers during the second half in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center April 17, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Portland’s Terry Stotts came in second in the Coach of the Year voting after taking a Portland team expected to be in the bottom of the West to the second round of the playoffs (where they currently are facing Golden State). He’s earned a raise.

Which he will get. But once the Trail Blazers’ season ends Stotts will be a man without a contract, reports Sam Amick of the USA Today. Just don’t expect that situation to last long.

Speaking of paydays, Portland coach Terry Stotts should be due for one in the not-so-distant future. Yet Stotts, the former head coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee who came to the Blazers in 2012 after four years as a Dallas Mavericks assistant, has a team option on his contract for next season that has yet to be picked up. What’s more, according to a person with knowledge of his situation, he has yet to discuss a possible extension with Blazers management.

The person expressed optimism that a deal will eventually get done, but one never truly knows until it happens. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of that process.

As other reports have noted, just don’t expect this to last long.  For one thing, Trail Blazer players love him. Portland’s GM Neil Olshey is one of the smartest in the business, and it would be a pretty stupid move to let Stotts go, Olshey just doesn’t like to talk contracts during the season. Once it ends (likely to Golden State in the next couple weeks) a new deal will get worked out.

Stotts made $3 million this season, which was pretty close to average when he signed his deal but low now. Expect him to get a deal at around $5 million a year and maybe for five years — he has earned that security. And that raise.

Kyrie Irving had sensational block on Dennis Schroder (VIDEO)

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At this point the game was pretty much decided, the Cavaliers were up 11 with :50 to go, but the Hawks were not giving up. Not point guard Dennis Schroder,  who tried to use his speed to get a quick two with a layup.

Kyrie Irving shut him down.

Irving had 21 points on the night and hit some threes that the Cavaliers needed. He had a strong game.

And we may see more of this matchup, as Schroder scored 27 points and was the best Hawk player on the night, earning more run in Game 2.