Nuggets, motivated by Bynum’s words, avoid elimination with Game 5 win over Lakers

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The Nuggets were facing elimination heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 at Staples Center, and as if seeing their season come to an end wasn’t motivation enough, Lakers center Andrew Bynum provided them with a little something extra, courtesy of comments he made at one of the team’s practice sessions before this one.

“Closeout games are actually kind of easy,” Bynum said. “Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning.”

Nothing was easy for the Lakers, and we’ll never know what might have been had L.A. actually played hard from the start. They did not, and now the series will head back to Denver for a Game 6 after the Nuggets played with a sustained fire and energy for 48 minutes that earned them a 102-99 victory.

Andre Miller was masterful with the way he ran Denver’s offense, finishing with 24 points and eight assists in 28 minutes off the bench. JaVale McGee was an absolute monster, getting loose around the rim seemingly at will while finishing with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, to go along with 14 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.

Denver held the lead for most of the night, and ran it up to 15 points — its largest of the game — with six-and-a-half minutes left. L.A. made a furious rally at that point behind four largely ridiculous three-pointers from Kobe Bryant, but ultimately couldn’t make it all the way back.

Bryant finished with 43 points, Bynum had a quiet 16 points and 11 rebounds, and no other Laker was able to impact this game on either end of the floor.

The Lakers, to a man, didn’t have an explanation for not coming out with enough energy and focus to match that of their opponent and close this series out. The Nuggets, however, were unified in detailing their motivation. And they agreed that Bynum’s comments provided just that.

“His feeling on closeouts is a little different than my history of being in them,” George Karl said afterward. “So I told my players that. ”

Mike Brown admitted what his All-Star center said could be construed as “bulletin-board material,” but didn’t necessarily have a problem with Bynum’s comments.

“It is bulletin board material,” he said. “If a guy wants to say that, in my opinion, he’s got to back it up. But we all have to get his back and try to help him back it up. We did not as a team.”

McGee admitted Bynum’s comments were motivational, but being in the playoffs for the first time in his career was likely a bigger reason for the way he came out and dominated in a potential elimination game.

“Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” he said, referencing the fact that he played the past three and a half seasons for the dismal Washington Wizards, before the mid-season trade that brought him to Denver in March.

“My last game is usually, if it’s a regular season, in April,” he added. “I definitely didn’t want tonight to be my last game.”

He played like it. And so did his teammates, especially defensively. Denver stuck to its principles, sending hard double teams at Bynum all night long, doing the same against Pau Gasol, and daring the Lakers to be efficient with their ball movement before knocking down mid-range or three-point shots.

Until Bryant’s barrage late in the fourth, L.A. couldn’t hit anything from outside, so Denver was able to continue to pack the paint, making life miserable offensively for the Lakers’ bigs.

Kobe, as you might imagine, didn’t have a problem with Bynum’s comments that wound up being that last thing the Nuggets saw in their pregame film session. But ultimately, he knows that his team can’t pull a no-show in the playoffs, no matter where the other team’s motivation is coming from.

“That’s true, closeout games can be easy sometimes,” Bryant said, in temporary defense of his teammate. “But tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Bryant said. “Did it pump them up? Probably. Were they going to come out and play with that kind of energy anyway? Probably. We didn’t execute and they obviously played harder than we did, so it’s a lesson to learn. You never want to give anybody bulletin material to begin with, but if you’re going to be a champion, you’ve got to play through that type of stuff.”

Bryant also didn’t believe that as a team, their energy magically appeared at some point late in the fourth quarter. He’s had performances like that too many times, and he’s been the one who’s had to personally drag his team back from the dead many more times than that.

“I wouldn’t say our energy kicked in in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I almost bailed us out. That’s what happened. It wasn’t an energy switch, I started making shots left and right and got us back in the ballgame. That’s not something that we can use to rely on to get us to a championship. It can’t be that. We all have to step up and we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that kind of energy and a sense of urgency.”

It’s better for the Lakers to get a grip on this now, in the first round, while they still hold a 3-2 lead in the series with two more chances to close out the Nuggets if absolutely necessary. Bryant pointed to the inexperience on his team as a possible reason for Tuesday’s poor showing, while mentioning the opportunity to gain that experience on the road in Game 6 in the very next breath.

“I’ve been in this position before, but a lot of guys on the team haven’t been in that position before,” he said. “It’s important to remind them that yeah, this sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to go up there in a tough environment, gain some experience, and earn your stripes.”

The Nuggets know they’ve competed in all but one of the first five games of this series, and coming off a huge road win to save themselves from elimination — while having the opportunity in front of them to force a Game 7, where anything can happen — will likely be more than enough to get them going for Thursday’s Game 6 back in Denver.

Andrew Bynum and the rest of the Lakers would be wise not to give the Nuggets any additional motivation.

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Josh Jackson a better prospect than Lonzo Ball?

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Josh Jackson, at this point, seems to be the consensus best prospect not named Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.

He’s 6-foot-8. He’s super-athletic. He’s competitive as hell. He’s skilled enough to play the point in a pinch and tough enough that he played the four at Kansas. On paper, he’s Andrew Wiggins physically with all the intangibles that we wish Wiggins had.

Then there’s the other side of it.

Jackson’s jump shot, which went in at a 37.8 percent clip from beyond the arc last season, has enough of a hitch in it that there is legitimate concern about just how good of a shooter he’ll end up being without a complete overhaul of his stroke. There’s also the mental side of the game: Jackson’s an instinctual playmaker that has a bad habit of being a space cadet defensively.

I’m not here to tell you those red flags don’t exist. They do. He has room to grow there.

But I am here to tell you that Josh Jackson is closer to being the best prospect in this draft than the third-best, and by the time I’m done here, you’ll be agreeing with me.

Height: 6’8″
Weight: 207
Wingspan: 6’10”
2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 7.4 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 37.8% 3PT

STRENGTHS: The reason that Jackson is so coveted as a prospect are the things that he does that you cannot teach.

It starts with his competitiveness. Jackson is a fiery, he’s intense and it manifests itself in the way that he plays, almost to a fault; Jackson picked up four fouls in 11 of 35 games as a freshman and picked up a handful of technical fouls after interactions with officials. There’s also a toughness to him that outweighs his 207 pound frame. He’s not afraid to get into tangles for loose balls, he’s not going to get backed down easily and he’s more than willing to put his body on the line to take a charge. Simply put: I’d rather try to keep the reins on a player that may care just a little too much than have to find a way to fire up an apathetic talent.

Then there are the physical tools. Athletically, he’s a bouncy, quick-twitch player that can move laterally with terrific body control and the ability to changes speeds on the move. He’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards and explosive enough to block shots, catch lobs and throw down tip-dunks, and his 6-foot-8 size allows him to be a versatile, multi-positional defender. I hesitate on saying he has a elite physical tools due to his wingspan and frame, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Lastly, there are his instincts. He’s a read-and-react player, a guy that can make plays defensively by jumping passing lanes, getting weak-side blocks and taking charges. He has a knack for getting easy buckets cutting to the rim and is aggressive on the glass on both ends of the floor.

Those are things that cannot be taught. You either have it in you or you don’t, and Jackson has it.

He also has some skills. We’ll get into the issues with his jump shot in a minute, but Jackson did make 37.8 percent of his threes as a freshman, including a 25-for-52 stretch to close the season. He utilizes ball-fakes and has a good enough first step to attack close outs, and while he isn’t the best or most creative finisher at the rim, he is capable of using both hands and has shown that he can make a floater.

Josh Jackson (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

What’s more promising, however, is that Jackson has the potential to be a secondary ball-handler and creator. He has above-average vision and is an unselfish player and willing passer, averaging 3.0 assists as a freshman. He can operate in pick-and-rolls and is capable of bringing the ball up against pressure.

He’s still raw offensively — he makes some bad decisions, commits some turnovers — and, at times, looks like he hasn’t been coached all that much defensively, but the skills he does have combined with the things he does that cannot be taught are a fantastic foundation for an NBA organization to work with.

In a sport that is becoming increasingly positionless, Jackson provides starpower potential with versatility on both ends of the floor.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest issue with Jackson as a prospect is his jump shot. Yes, he shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, but it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s just the result of Jackson getting hot in a small sample of catch-and-shoot jumpers.

According to Synergy, Jackson shot just 57 percent from the free throw line, 35.9 percent on all jump shots, 32.3 percent on jumpers off the dribble and just 20.8 percent on two-point jumpers. The main concern is that Jackson has a hitch in his release that creates a lot of moving parts in his stroke, resulting in different release points. You can see it in the video below, there is a slingshot action in his release:

The question marks surrounding Jackson’s jumper sink his stock because, despite his height, he doesn’t project as a guy that can play the small-ball four role in the NBA the way that he did at Kansas. Jackson’s 6-foot-10 wingspan is relatively short — for comparison’s sake, Draymond Green has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and Kawhi Leonard has a 7-foot-3 wingspan — and his slender frame makes it hard to project just how much more muscle mass his body can hold.

Put another way, Jackson can guard twos and threes — and potentially ones — at the next level, but he’s not guarding fours. He’s going to be playing a position where he either needs to be an knockdown shooter or capable of creating in isolation in the half court, and Jackson scored just 0.609 points per possession in isolation as a freshman, the 23rd percentile, despite being guarded predominantly by college four-men on a team with three three-point snipers around him.

It begs the question: Is he ever going to be great at anything on the offensive end of the floor?

And that’s before you factor in that he turned 20 years old in February; he’s older than one-and-done freshmen drafted in 2016.

The other issue you’ll hear mentioned with Jackson is that he has bad habits defensively and he gets beaten on the dribble more easily than you would expect from someone with his athleticism. The bad habits — specifically, the tendency to lose focus on who he is guarding — seems to me to be a result of Jackson trying a little too hard to be a playmaker off the ball, and getting beaten off the dribble has a lot to do with his overactive, choppy feet.

Neither are all that concerning to me, particularly when you factor in his intangibles on that end of the floor. Those issues can be coached away, and there’s not better place for that to happen than in the NBA.

NBA COMPARISON: The easy — and lazy — comparison to make is Andrew Wiggins, who is another 6-foot-8, freakishly-athletic small forward to come out of Kansas, and it’s not the worst comparison I’ve ever seen. The two have similar physical tools and question marks about their jump shots. The problem with that comparison, however, is that the things that make Jackson so intriguing are precisely the skills that Wiggins struggles with.

Jackson is a tough, versatile defender and a fiery competitor that is well-rounded offensively: unselfish with promising court vision and a knack for making instinctual, read-and-react plays. His ceiling is as a player that can average more than 20 points, act as a secondary ball-handler and play maker while potentially being a shutdown defender for twos and threes. Andre Igoudala, before he landed with Golden State and turned into a role player in the twilight of his career, had a seven-year stretch where he averaged 12 points, five boards, five assists and 1.5 steals, scoring more than 17 points per game in four of those seasons.

OUTLOOK: The way I see it, Josh Jackson is the the second-best prospect in this draft. I’d draft him over Lonzo Ball, and I think the gap between Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson is smaller than the gap between Josh Jackson and Ball, who would be third on my draft board.

Jackson has some issues that need fixing — his jump shot, his tendency to be a space cadet defensively — and there are some valid concerns about his age and the fact that his slender frame may not be able to hold all that much more weight, but those issues are coachable. What isn’t coachable, however, is his competitiveness, his intensity, his unselfishness, his instincts and his ability to read the game and be a playmaker, both offensively and defensively.

He’s a gifted athlete that is going to fight — quite possibly in the literal sense — for the team that he’s on. If he puts in the time to develop his jumper, his body and his focus on the defensive side of the ball, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could average 25 points, five boards and five assists as a shutdown wing defender.

Warriors, Cavaliers meeting in most star-studded NBA Finals ever

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Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson – the 2017 NBA Finals will be oozing with stars.

Seven All-Stars appearing in the Finals the same year is tied for the most ever with 1983 (76ers: Andrew Toney, Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks; Lakers: Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and 1962 (Celtics: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn; Lakers: Elgin Baylor, Frank Selvy, Jerry West).

But there were 24 All-Stars and 23 teams in 1983 and 24 All-Stars and nine teams in 1962. This year, there were 25 All-Stars and 30 teams – a ratio that makes this year’s feat more impressive.

To account for these differences, I’ve used All-Stars above average – the number of All-Stars in the Finals relative to the number of All-Stars for two average teams that year. For example, the average team had 0.83 All-Stars this year. So, an average matchup of two teams would feature 1.67 All-Stars. The 2017 Finals have seven All-Stars – a difference of 5.33.

Here are the All-Stars above average for every Finals since the NBA instituted an All-Star game:

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Here are breakdowns of the Finals with the most All-Stars above average:

2017: Warriors-Cavaliers

All-Stars: 7

All-Stars per team: 0.83

All-Stars above average: 5.33

Warriors

Stephen Curry

Kevin Durant

Draymond Green

Klay Thompson

Cavaliers

LeBron James

Kyrie Irving

Kevin Love

1983 76ers 4, Lakers 0

All-Stars: 7

All-Stars per team: 1.04

All-Stars above average: 4.91

76ers

Andrew Toney

Moses Malone

Julius Erving

Maurice Cheeks

Lakers

Magic Johnson

Jamaal Wilkes

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

1987 Lakers 4, Celtics 2

All-Stars: 6

All-Stars per team: 1.09

All-Stars above average: 3.83

Lakers

Magic Johnson

James Worthy

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Celtics

Larry Bird

Kevin McHale

Robert Parish

2013 Heat 4, Spurs 3

All-Stars: 5

All-Stars per team: 0.83

All-Stars above average: 3.33

Heat

Chris Bosh

LeBron James

Dwyane Wade

Spurs

Tony Parker

Tim Duncan

2012 Heat 4, Thunder 1

All-Stars: 5

All-Stars per team: 0.83

All-Stars above average: 3.33

Heat

LeBron James

Dwyane Wade

Chris Bosh

Thunder

Russell Westbrook

Kevin Durant

2009 Lakers 4, Magic 1

All-Stars: 5

All-Stars per team: 0.87

All-Stars above average: 3.27

Lakers

Kobe Bryant

Pau Gasol

Magic

Jameer Nelson

Rashard Lewis

Dwight Howard

2010 Lakers 4, Celtics 3

All-Stars: 5

All-Stars per team: 0.93

All-Stars above average: 3.13

Lakers

Kobe Bryant

Pau Gasol

Celtics

Paul Pierce

Rajon Rondo

Kevin Garnett

If you’re wondering about the below-average outliers:

Washington Bullets forward Elvin Hayes was the only All-Star in the Bullets’ 4-3 win over the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978, when there were 23 All-Stars and 22 teams.

There were four All-Stars in the 1965 Finals: Sam Jones, Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn for the victorious Celtics and Jerry West for the Lakers, who lost in five. Yet, that was still below average in a league with nine teams and 21 All-Stars.

That’s why it’s important to consider the NBA’s changing landscape – which leads to even more appreciation for the caliber of players in this year’s Finals.

Of course, current All-Star status is not the only measure of stardom. The NBA’s best player should count more than the league’s 12th-best player in the lesser conference.

But these Finals would hold up by any measure. They feature winners of the last five MVPs (Curry, Durant, LeBron) and the consensus best player in the world (LeBron).

Cavaliers-Warriors III will truly feature a special collection of talent.

Adrian Wojnarowski: Clippers, not Spurs, ‘pretty overwhelming favorite’ for Chris Paul

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Both the Clippers and Spurs are reportedly taking seriously the idea that Chris Paul could sign with San Antonio this summer.

Is Paul bolting L.A. for the Spurs realistic?

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports on CBS Sports Radio:

Not that I see. I don’t know where that came from, and I’ve spent a lot of time around the Spurs this spring. They would have to just tear up that entire payroll. It’s almost unlike anything the Spurs would have done or would do to. To even have a chance at him, they’d have to really gut the roster. And to do that for a 30-plus-year-old point guard, who has a couple great years left, there’s no question – I think there’s more pressure on the Clippers to have to re-sign him than for the Spurs to turn their whole franchise over to make a run at him. Listen, Chris Paul, financially, the difference with him being able to stay in L.A. and get paid, I’d still have a hard time imaging him leaving there. There’s so much money for him to be made. And in that Los Angeles market, in terms of his marketing endorsements, I still think they’re a pretty overwhelming favorite to re-sign him.

The Clippers can offer Paul a projected $205 million over five years. Because they have his Bird Rights, they don’t need cap space to re-sign him.

The Spurs’ max offer to Paul projects to be $152 million over four years, but they’d need major moves to clear enough cap room to do that. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, they’d still need to dump two of those players.

It’s obviously a lot for San Antonio to overcome.

But it’s not so far outside the Spurs’ norm. To sign LaMarcus Aldridge two years ago, they traded Tiago Splitter (to Hawks) and let Cory Joseph (Raptors), Aron Baynes (Pistons), Marco Belinelli (Kings) walk in free agency.

Paul is probably more valuable than the players San Antonio would have to shed this time around, though his age and the Spurs’ loyalty to Parker raise questions. Would they rather dump an injured and declining Parker or a productive player like Green or Aldridge? (Gasol, who has spent only one year in San Antonio and might even be convinced to opt out, is the most likely to go.)

The Clippers should be favored to sign Paul. But I wouldn’t completely rule out the Spurs.

LeBron James admits Warriors pose one of biggest challenges he’s faced in Finals

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LeBron James is used to being the underdog in the NBA Finals. It started with the first time he got a team there, the 2007 team where after LeBron the two leading scorers were Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden — that team was not really Finals worthy and the Spurs showed that with a sweep.

Entering his seventh straight NBA Finals in 2017, the Cavaliers are again heavy underdogs. When asked about the challenge these Warriors — now with Kevin Durant — pose LeBron was nothing but complimentary, speaking to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It’s probably up there,” James said after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ practice. “I mean, it’s up there. Obviously, I’ve played against four Hall of Famers as well too, with Manu [Ginobili], Kawhi [Leonard], Tony [Parker] and Timmy D [Tim Duncan] on the same team. And if you add Pop [Gregg Popovich] in there, that’s five Hall of Famers.

“So it’s going to be very challenging. Those guys are going to challenge me. They’re going to challenge our ballclub. This is a high-powered team, and I’ve played against some other [stiff competition]. I’ve played against Ray [Allen], KG [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], [Rajon] Rondo and Doc [Rivers]. So it’s going to be very challenging not only on me mentally, but on our ballclub and on our franchise.”

The Warriors bring four of the top 15-20 guys in the NBA (depending on where you want to rank Klay Thompson), with two of then in the top five with Durant and Stephen Curry. However, what makes the Warriors more dangerous is the way they buy into the offensive system, move the ball and set screens/move off it, all of which makes them greater than just the sum of their parts. Well, that and the fact they had the second best defense in the NBA this year.

Cleveland, however, is probably the team best suited to beat them. Nobody has a good answer for guarding the 1/3 LeBron/Kyrie Irving pick-and-roll, Kevin Love is one of the best power forwards in the game, they are strong on the glass and can be impressive on defense (the challenge will be doing it consistently this series, they haven’t had to up to this point). Ultimately, LeBron is the great equalizer, he is the best player in the game.

All that said, Las Vegas oddsmakers have Golden State the heavy favorites (those odds are a reflection of what the betting public thinks). If LeBron and the Cavaliers pull this off, it will be one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.