NBA Playoffs: Slow start dooms Thunder as Mavericks roll in Game 3

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After stealing home-court advantage from the Mavericks with a win in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, one would think the Thunder would have come out firing once the series shifted to Oklahoma City, ensuring that the victory they worked so hard to get on the road wouldn’t be immediately wasted. But it was Dallas who was the aggressor in Game 3, jumping out to a huge early lead that they would never relinquish.

The Mavericks led by as many as 17 in the first quarter, and 23 in the second, before hanging on for a 93-87 win that put them back ahead in the series.

“Tonight, we played championship-level defense for the first time in the series,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said afterward, in a news conference streamed live on NBA.com. “And now, the challenge is to sustain.”

Dallas jumped on the Thunder from the start, and made shots at a 51.2 percent clip in the first half while taking a 16-point lead into the break. Dirk Nowitzki had little to do with it, however, scoring just four points as Shawn Marion did the early damage offensively.

Nowitzki finished with 18, but he was hounded all night by the aggressive defensive play of Nick Collison, who was allowed to be overly-physical with little restrictions from the officials.

Carlisle was complimentary of Collison’s defense afterward, but did point out that it may have, at times, been more physical than the rules would normally allow.

“In terms of legal limits, I believe the line may be crossed at times,” Carlisle said. “But if so, then the league will see that.”

While Nowitzki was held in check, Dallas got productive performances from seven of its players. It was far too much for the Thunder to overcome, on a night when Kevin Durant was cold (missing 15 of 22 from the field), and no one on the team outside of he and Russell Westbrook were able to crack double figures.

Westbrook bounced back as expected in this one, after being benched for the entire fourth quarter of Game 2. Depending on who you believe, the relegation to the bench was either because of the reserves rolling at the time, or a blown play that pushed his coach over the edge.

In Game 3, there were no such issues. Westbrook was attacking hard all night, going to the basket again and again on his way to a game-high 30-point performance.

Oklahoma City made its run late, but the 23-point first-half deficit was too much to overcome. The Thunder pulled to within six with 3:20 to play, but missed two wide-open looks from 3-point range (one from Westbrook, one from Daequan Cook) that could of made things interesting. But on a night when the team finished 1-for-17 from beyond the arc, perhaps OKC should have tried a different approach.

It has to be disappointing for the Thunder that they missed so many shots early and dug themselves such a huge hole in such an important game. As we look ahead to Game 4, getting off to a strong start is just one of the things they’ll need to concern themselves with.

Containing Nowitzki again will be a tall task, especially if Carlisle’s (relatively tame) comments about the way Collison is being allowed to play him end up affecting the officiating. Durant will need to regain his scoring touch, and OKC will need a large helping of the “good” Westbrook if the team is to counter the depth of Dallas and the way the Mavs execute beautifully on the offensive end of the floor.

In short, the Thunder will need to be the aggressor from the very start Monday. Otherwise, this series could be over in five.

Jimmy Butler on Marcus Smart dustup: ‘He’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down’

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Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler had to be separated during the Celtics’ Game 4 win over the Bulls after Smart pushed Butler, who was hounding him defensively in the backcourt.

Butler:

As far as the Marcus Smart situation goes, he’s a great actor. Acting tough, that’s what he does. But I don’t think he’s about that, and I’m the wrong guy to get in my face. So, he needs to take it somewhere else because I’m not the one for that.

Was that their first run-in? Butler:

That’s the first time. Last time, too. We’re not going to sit here and get in each other’s faces like that. Like I said, he’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down.

The Bulls, who’ve lost two straight to allow Boston to tie the series 2-2, is angling for any edge. Butler tried to intimidate Smart on the court, and the Chicago wing might actually rattle the too easily shakable Smart with his postgame comments.

The irony: Some might say Butler, who did come up hard, lost touch with his roots as he entered stardom. I don’t buy that, at least not majorly.

But even if both – or neither – are posturing to any degree, this will be a matchup to watch in Game 5.

Remembering former NBA official Jess Kersey, who passed away Saturday

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Jess Kersey, who officiated more than 2,200 NBA games, including being part of 19 NBA Finals, passed away over the weekend, losing his battle with cancer at age 76.

Kersey was a well-respected official who feared nothing. Maybe the most remembered image of Kersey is him trying to break up a fight between Mitch Kupchak and Hakeem Olajuwon, essentially trying to tackle Olajuwon with his head in Olajuwon’s chest and his arms wrapped around him. Kersey got in the middle of everything if that was what was required.

Our thoughts go out to the Kersey family for their loss.

Bulls Fred Hoiberg complains Isaiah Thomas gets away with palming. Thomas shrugs.

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The Boston Celtics have evened their series with Chicago Bulls, and more than that seem to have been able to take the Bulls best punch and now are responding.

At the heart of that is Boston All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who had 33 points on Sunday. He was attacking and getting into the heart of the Bulls defense all night, telling Michael Carter-Williams “you can’t guard me” so many times Thomas got a technical. Thing is, Thomas was right. No Bull has been able to guard Thomas the past two games.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said the reason for that is the officials let him get away with a palming the ball when dribbling. Via Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com (video above).

“Let me say this: Isaiah Thomas is a hell of a player, an unbelievable competitor, a warrior, everything he’s going through right now. He had a hell of a game tonight,” Hoiberg said. “When you’re allowed to discontinue your dribble on every possession, he’s impossible to guard. Impossible to guard. When you’re able to put your hand underneath the ball, take two or three steps and put it back down. It’s impossible to guard him in those situations.”

I liked the follow-up comment from the reporter (not on the video), which was essentially “the league doesn’t call that on anyone, so that’s your complaint?” Thomas doesn’t get away with palming any more than any other ball handler in the league. If you want to define the rule by a 1950s standard then yes, he does carry, but so does pretty much every Bulls’ ball handler. So does 3/4 of the league by that measure.

Fortunately, Hoiberg never had to coach against Allen Iverson or he might have completely lost it watching him dribble.

This came off as a desperation ploy by Hoiberg. Or it was the worst attempt ever at a “take that for data” rant ever.

Thomas, for his part, basically shrugged when told about it.

When told about Hoiberg’s comments, Thomas said, “That’s not the reason. It is what it is. I guess (Hoiberg) is just going to continue to say it. I’ve been dribbling that way my whole life, I don’t know what to say to that.”

Joe Johnson dominates late, Jazz beat Clippers 105-98 to even series 2-2

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Rudy Gobert was back at center, giving the Jazz an emotional boost and someone who can match up with DeAndre Jordan (although Gobert wasn’t moving like his normal self).

Gordon Hayward had to leave the game with food poisoning.

It didn’t matter, the Jazz had Joe Johnson. The veteran forward who knows how to get buckets scored or assisted on 20 straight points for Utah in the fourth, sparking a run that got the Jazz a 105-98 come-from-behind win.

The series is now tied 2-2, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 5 Tuesday.

When people talk about Johnson, the first thing that seems to come up is the oversized contract Atlanta gave him, but they forget this is a seven-time All-Star. He was nicknamed “iso-joe” because of how Mike Woodson’s offense used him heavily in isolation for the Hawks, but that was playing to the strength of his skill set. He can get buckets. Just ask the Clippers, as Johnson finished with 28.

The return of Gobert, a quietly strong game from Derrick Favors, plus maybe something else (like the heavy load last game) seemed to wear on DeAndre Jordan, who was not as sharp as normal in this one. The Clippers again leaned on Chris Paul — 27 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds — and Jamal Crawford who had 25 points off the bench. However, take those two out of the equation and the rest of the Clippers shot just 34.2 percent against that elite Jazz defense. In the fourth quarter, the entire Clippers’ team shot 31.4 percent total.

Utah got good performances from their role players, who stepped up with Hayward out. Rodney Hood had 18 points and some key buckets in the fourth. Then there was Joe Ingles, who defended CP3 for stretches, was a force getting where he wanted on the pick-and-roll leading to 11 assists, plus he had two key threes down the stretch.

The Clippers clearly missed Blake Griffin in some of these matchups, but Los Angeles is going to have to adjust to that in this series because he’s not returning.

This series is even and feels like it may well go seven. The Clippers have two out of the remaining three at home, and they have the best player in the series in Chris Paul. All that may not be enough if the Jazz role players keep stepping up.