Al Horford, Derrick Rose, Marvin Williams

NBA Playoffs: Bulls shut down Hawks in the fourth

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The Atlanta Hawks gave the Bulls all they could handle for the first three quarters of Game 5. They had a surprising amount of success moving the ball against Chicago’s top-ranked defense, penetrating at will and scoring tough baskets under the rim. They continued to make the league MVP work for everything he got — Rose finished with 33 points and 9 assists while only making two jump shots, but he had surprisingly few easy layups against Atlanta’s defense. But in the end, the team with the best regular-season record in the league and the league MVP was able to overwhelm the Hawks in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls came away with a 95-83 victory and a 3-2 series lead. 

The big worry for Chicago in this game going forward was the ineffectiveness of their starting frontcourt — Joakim Noah was held scoreless, finished with only one offensive rebound, and was benched in the decisive fourth quarter for Omer Asik. Carlos Boozer’s playoff struggles continued — Boozer was active on the glass and put in a few mid-range jumpers, but he missed a ton of the “ugly baskets” between the free throw line and the rim that are usually his bread-and-butter, and he was benched in the fourth for Taj Gibson, who gave the Bulls a critical boost by scoring 11 points on 5-5 shooting in the fourth quarter.

The ineffectiveness of Noah and Boozer and Atlanta’s revelatory ball movement, and the spectacular play of Jeff Teague gave the Hawks a chance to steal home-court advantage and put the Bulls on the brink of elimination, but they failed to do the two things any team must do to have a chance against the Bulls: make shots from the outside and keep Derrick Rose away from the rim.

Atlanta couldn’t buy a jump shot all night long. They shot only 1-12 from beyond the three-point line, and Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford combined to shoot 7-24 from the field. Even with Jeff Teague flying into the paint at will and making every crazy floater he threw up, Chicago’s defense is too good to be broken without getting a few outside shots to fall.

Then there was Derrick Rose. As I mentioned, Rose only made two jump shots in Game 5, but the Bulls had no answer for his relentless drives to the rim. Rose put on an MVP performance, slithering through traps, absorbing contact, getting himself to the line, finding teammates when the Hawks were forced to collapse three or four defenders on him, and he was consistently able to sneak through the tiniest possible slivers of space for layups. Eventually, the Hawks simply succumbed to the pressure Rose put on their defense, and now they find themselves having to win two games in a row to avoid elimination.

The Bulls haven’t looked like juggernauts over the first two rounds, but they still do some things as well as any team in the league, and are just as much of a threat to come out of the East as they were at the beginning of the playoffs. Their deep bench gives them contingency plans when guys like Noah and Boozer have off nights. Rose can dominate a game without needing his outside shot to be on. The Bulls’ defense guarantees that any team who wants to get past them will have to be able to win an absolute war. The Bulls aren’t perfect, or close to it, but they’re gamers to the core, and that makes them just as dangerous as any team still alive in these playoffs.

Nikola Vucevic hits fade-away game winner for Magic against Hawks

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The Hawks almost came back and won this — Atlanta went on an 8-0 run in the final minutes to tie the game at 94-94 with Orlando. The Magic had one last chance with 2.2 seconds left.

Nikola Vucevic nailed it.

Can’t blame Al Horford‘s defense on this one, he pushed Vucevic out and contested the shot. But in a make-or-miss league Vucevic nailed the game winner, Orlando wins 96-94.

If that looks familiar, Vucevic knocked down pretty much the same shot against the Lakers earlier this season.

LeBron James on Super Bowl: “Got to go with the Carolina Panthers”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, right, embraces Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James after the Cavaliers defeated the Charlotte Hornets in an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 in Charlotte, N.C. The Cavaliers won 95-90. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
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We know Stephen Curry — who spent many of his formative years in Charlotte and still thinks of the city as his hometown — is all in on the Carolina Panthers today against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 30.

On this, he and LeBron James agree.

LeBron sounded like the politically cautious, image-conscious version of himself at the start of this quote from Uninterrupted on Facebook, but as he gets going, you can quickly see who he wants in this game (hat tip Eye on Basketball).

“I don’t know if I quite got a prediction but I definitely want to see a great Super Bowl,” James said in the video. “But if it was a life and death situation and I had to choose one team and one player, I got to go with Killah Cam. Got to go with the Carolina Panthers, they’ve been playing the most consistent football all year round. Both offensively, defensively and special teams. Got to go with Cam and one of my boys plays for them too as well, Ted Ginn Jr., that’s been showing out all year as well.

“No disrespect to the Broncos. I love their team. They got the legend at quarterback, they got that defense that’s out of control. They got some receivers that be balling out as well. They’re really well coached as well and that’s the reason they are in the Super Bowl. But I’m rolling with the Carolina Panthers today.”

A lot of NBA players like the way Cam Newton plays — with exuberance, wearing his heart on his sleeve, dancing and celebrating. That’s how Curry and LeBron and other NBA players want to play their game, and they feel reined in by the league. They relate to Cam Newton and the ridiculous role model/celebration debate.

We’ll see how much celebrating the Denver defense lets Newton do.

Kevin Durant on Warriors, Spurs: “We’re not scared of neither one of those teams”

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder while facing the Golden State Warriors on February 6, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. 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 Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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We’d seen this movie before. Against the San Antonio Spurs. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Golden State Warriors offensive machine got cranked up, dropped 73 on Oklahoma City in the first half, led by 14 at the break, and it was about to turn into another rout, and another statement win for the Warriors.

Except the Thunder came back. OKC held Golden State to just 18 third quarter points and got the lead down to two points — the Thunder pushed the Warriors away from the things they like to do (Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll) and made life difficult for them. It was a fantastic performance for OKC, even if Golden State still prevailed with a 116-108 win.

After the game Durant would have none of any moral victory talk — even though it was — and he said the Thunder were not intimidated by the Warriors or anyone else, via Royce Young of Oklahoma City.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Durant said of the comeback. “When we get down, we’re supposed to tie the game up. No moral victories in here…

“Man, we’re not scared of neither one of those teams,” Durant said, including the Spurs. “We’re going to play our game. Nobody in this locker room is scared. We gotta play ’em. If we want to get to where we want to get to, we gotta play ’em. We’re not ducking nobody.”

The NBA isn’t professional boxing; nobody gets to duck anybody.

But a Thunder team searching for respect gained a measure Saturday night. The Thunder picture themselves contenders and for much of the season listened to talking heads (myself included) say the Warriors and Spurs are in a different class. Saturday night was a step in showing that they belonged. There are still questions about how Golden State or San Antonio could exploit players such as Dion Waiters or Enes Kanter is a seven-game series, but the Thunder have two of the league’s top five players — they can beat and hang with anyone.

They have a shot at a title.

If Durant believes that, it would impact his decision this summer, but that is another discussion.

Watch Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant trade shots Saturday night

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Kevin Durant won the one-on-one battle — he dropped 40 points on the Golden State Warriors, while Stephen Curry had “just” 26 and needed 26 shots to get there (but did add 10 assists).

But the Warriors built up a lead thanks to their depth and were able to withstand a late Thunder run to get the win.

Enjoy watching Curry and Durant putting on a show Saturday night in the Bay Area.