NBA Playoffs: Knicks compete early, but Heat roll late to take 3-0 series lead

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The Heat took command of their first round playoff series with the Knicks, winning Game 3 in New York 87-70 to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Matt Moore and I discussed.

Matt Moore: Ugly, ugly, grotesque basketball Thursday and it looked like the Knicks could do the improbable without Amar’e Stoudemire, relying on Landry Fields and Mike Bibby. Don’t know how that plan failed.

LeBron just shut it down in the fourth. And for once, it was the other team! Just closed them out since he had so much energy. Wade’s third quarter, James’ fourth quarter, and maybe biggest, Mike Miller couldn’t hit, Shane Battier couldn’t hit, but Mario Chalmers could and did. If the Heat find one shooter a game to do that, they’re pretty much unstoppable. The Knicks did everything you can do and it still wasn’t nearly enough.

Brett Pollakoff: You always like to talk about whether or not a way a team wins (or is winning) is sustainable. Well, when the Knicks were leading in the second quarter by 11 at 40-29, what was the plan to get there? Let Miami start off the game up 9, then watch the Heat get bored and start jacking ill-advised three-pointers while you attack the paint to get easy looks, and finally, make sure the Heat go without a field goal for a stretch lasting almost 12 minutes?!

Yeah, definitely not sustainable.

Also, it didn’t hurt that LeBron played less than five minutes in the third due to foul trouble, which allowed him to play all of the fourth and score 17 (!) in the final period to finish things off.

So, two things: First, this was NOT a good game, and was nothing like the tough games in the 90s, right? Low-scoring and close does not equal interesting or exciting hard-nosed playoff basketball.

And second, how easily does the Heat win Game 4, having taken the (admittedly shorthanded and depleted) Knicks’ best shot?

MM: Horrible, awful game. The worst game I’ve seen since Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. Just terrible play, a lack of focus, bad shooting, needless fouls, a mishmash of movement. Sluggish and bad. I think it was like the 90’s, but only because I don’t overromanticize  bad basketball at any level.

I think the Knicks probably win Game 4. The Heat have no reason to let the Knicks win, should be able to coast, just have to not have a complete letdown. So naturally, they’ll let up. Also, two days in New York, with that crew of magazine-interview’in’, fashion-show-appearin’, mega-party-goin’ jokesters? No way the Heat come in fresh. Gentleman’s Sweep for the Heat. Let them win one, you know, to be polite. Melo is LeBron’s friend, after all.

How big was James though, in just choking the life out of New York down the stretch?

BP: I think the Heat got the excessive partying out of their system before this one, especially as evidenced by that first-half scoring drought. Besides, even if they hit the NYC club scene hard before Game 4, are the Knicks really able to do anything about it? Carmelo Anthony was 7-for-23, J.R. Smith was 5-for-18, and Steve Novak only attempted one three-pointer all night. As currently constructed, they simply don’t have the offensive weapons to hang with Miami for 48 minutes, and they certainly don’t have a point guard who can create easy, wide-open looks for the rest of the team.

(Seriously, Baron Davis is still out of breath after that and-1 drive in the first half, and might not recover until the offseason.)

LeBron coming out and scoring 11 straight Miami points to start the fourth was huge. Wade’s run in the third was equally important. A team like New York can’t stop these guys for an entire game, and the way the rest of the top teams in the conference are seeing players go down, Miami is going to have a much easier path to the Finals than expected.

Since the Knicks appear to be done, what do they need to improve upon before next season to actually win a game in the playoffs? In addition to not having their starting, $100 million power forward rip up his hand punching inanimate objects, of course.

MM: I’m not sure there’s much the Knicks can do. They’re flawed at their core. Melo and Amar’e doesn’t work. It was a bad plan conceptually from the start, and they’ve wed themselves to the player it’s harder to find a star to fit around. I’m sure James Dolan will spend some money trying though.

BP: I agree that Melo and Amar’e doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Sure, it would require a complete re-design of the offense from the top down, but the Knicks have a lot of money invested in those two, and I don’t see them being able to (or even wanting to) cut ties with either of them over the summer.

What’s clear, though, is that when the Knicks have everyone back healthy, they’ll need a creative, offensively-minded coach to make all of the pieces fit. Someone like Mike D’Antoni might be just the person to … Oh. Right.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.