The Inbounds: Ellis and Jennings and the cliff of compromise

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Something’s gotta give in Milwaukee. (Check out our Bucks season preview here.)

The Bucks traded their often-injured-but-still-awesome-when-he-played center Andrew Bogut last season to Golden State and took on Monta Ellis. Ellis was a promising young star. Then he was the guy who got injured in the moped accident. Then he was a terrific player again. Then he was an inefficient, ball-dominant, high-usage player you couldn’t win with. So yeah, Monta’s been around. Thing is, there have been weeks, not months, certainly not years, but weeks, where the idea of Monta Ellis being an MVP candidate wasn’t completely insane over the past four years. It was kind of insane, but not really. And that’s a pretty good player.

But when the Bucks mixed Ellis with inefficient, ball-dominant, high-usage Brandon Jennings, the results were… not good. And usually you use that phrase to say things were bad. But they weren’t. They just weren’t good. The Bucks were 2.4 points worse than their opponent per 100 possessions with the two on the floor together. Overall, the Bucks were exactly even. The Bucks were exactly as good as their opponent last year, according to NBA.com. That in and of itself says something, but let’s get back to Jennings and Ellis.

The Bucks weren’t substantially worse with those two on the floor together, just a little bit. Maybe a more disturbing sign was that in their final 12 games of the season, they were significantly worse, over 6 points per 100 possessions worse than the opponent.

So what’s the answer? Is this something that can just work itself out with the team getting healthy and spending more time together? Will they improve with a deeper roster? Will this work itself out?

These things will help, but the Bucks also need to get one of them to make a compromise. Either Ellis is going to have to play off-ball, or Jennings is going to have to be more of a distributor and playmaker. The fact that neither seems likely or sustainable is a problem. Ellis feels more comfortable creating off the dribble, even if his numbers are better in the pick and roll and spot-up (he’s also a monster in the post, this has been the same over the last few years; Skiles needs to use him more there). And Jennings is much the same.

At some point, there has to be compromise by one of the players. We saw in Miami what happens when you try the “let’s take turns” offense. It results in a stagnant offense that always seems to be trying to figure it out every possession. There’s got to be an integration of both players. It’s not that a scoring point and a shooting guard can’t coexist, it just becomes difficult when they both feel they need the ball in their hands. This only gets trickier when you factor in, you know, the other three guys on the floor.

Ellis’ re-trade value may be the best thing the Bucks have going for them. A versatile scorer who can initiate the offense, he could be whipped at the trade deadline for a rebuilding package. But if they are in a position to need a replacement player to get them into the playoffs, are they going to be able to move for a better player than Bogut? That’s the trick.

So instead, the Bucks have to figure out how to negotiate the two. It’s not entirely different from what the Knicks have going on in New York with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. The two have been disastrous on the floor together, but they have too much invested in them to do anything about it. You have what you have, and they risk alienating one or both of the players by forcing adjustments they’re not comfortable with or that take away their numbers especially with Jennings in a contract year.

It’s not even so much that one player or the other refuses to make sacrifices. It’s that there’s no real clear answer as to how you would integrate these two. You can be successful with either player, but the combination of the two presents a conundrum that would really be best solved by the presence of a superior player down low. That would create a natural hierarchy. But without it, the two continue to be just kind of “there” with the talented and athletic frontcourt trying to pick up the slack.

This is where the Bucks’ season will be decided, and as a result, the future of the franchise.

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.