Four teams that could head off a Lakers vs. Heat NBA final

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It’s the consensus of prognosticators (and me as well) — the NBA finals will be the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. You can already sense David Stern drooling like a Pavlovian dog thinking about the television ratings.

What teams could destroy David Stern’s dream?

There are four. While we could argue that each of these four need a little luck or for the Heat/Lakers to come back to them, we could say the same for the Heat and Lakers. Fact is you don’t win an NBA title without some breaks going your way.

So here are the four most likely teams to get in the way, two West and two East.

Oklahoma City Thunder. They remain the next best team in the West, even after the James Harden trade. (I think they take a step back after trading away a key playmaker, the Sixth Man of the Year and an Olympian and trying to fill his minutes with Kevin Martin. Long term with the picks and Jeremy Lamb we can debate the trade impacts, but the Thunder did not get instantly better Saturday night with this move.)

The Thunder have improved each year because their players have improved and gotten more experienced. That will happen again. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to take steps forward after their Olympic experience — and the Lakers will struggle to stop Durant, even with Dwight Howard in the paint. OKC gets Eric Maynor back and that gives them depth at the point guard spot and another playmaker. They have Kendrick Perkins to match up with Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka to slow Pau Gasol. Westbrook can hamper Steve Nash.

The Thunder are not as good a team without Harden, but they are still very good and still match up with the Lakers as well as anyone.

Los Angeles Clippers. You can argue the San Antonio Spurs should fit here, but the last couple seasons showed me that while they are awesome in the regular season you can scheme for their weaknesses come the playoffs. The Clippers are a team on the rise. They have the single best pure point guard in the game in Chris Paul, and he is in a contract year so expect big things. They added some depth with Jamal Crawford, and while I’m not his biggest fan he is an upgrade over what they had. Eric Bledsoe is coming into his own off the bench. They have solid veterans like Caron Butler and — once he gets in shape — Lamar Odom. Oh, an they have the force of nature that is Blake Griffin. Paul is just figuring out how to use all those pieces.

The key for the Clippers in the playoffs is DeAndre Jordan. Last season he got benched for Reggie Evans when the going got tough. That’s not good. The Clippers need Jordan to take a huge step forward because they need his athleticism to combat Howard if they face the Lakers. If Jordan is in foul trouble or just plain old ineffective, the Lakers would run them over without slowing. But Jordan and his growth — scoring and putting pressure on Howard on both ends of the floor — changes the dynamic. He makes it possible. But it’s asking a lot of him to make that leap.

Boston Celtics. They came within a game of getting the Heat last season, and while they racked up a 3-2 lead in the series with Chris Bosh out it still shows they were close. Then Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is better right now than Ray Allen. Not over their careers, maybe not now as a pure shooter, but Terry brings far more shot creation and versatility to the Celtics. Boston also gets Jeff Green back and he gives them real depth off the bench. Jared Sullinger should let Kevin Garnett rest more.

Boston must have a healthy and rested Garnett to have a shot at the Heat — he is the heart of their defense has to play as well or better than last year to have a shot. Rajon Rondo has to step up his game and get his squad more easy looks offensively against a swarming Heat defense. Boston cannot show their age. The good news for Celtics fans is Boston matches up well with Miami considering its defense, Paul Pierce and his ability to score, and now some punch off the bench. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have a puncher’s chance in a series with Miami.

Indiana Pacers. If you’re going to beat the Heat, the best way to do it is with size — Indiana has that in Roy Hibbert. One of the key turning points in the playoffs last season was when the Heat fell behind the Pacers because of the play of Hibbert and they had to adjust their style and step up their play. The Heat had that other gear.

To best the Heat Pacers need George Hill and Paul George to take steps forward with their game (both would be key in the finals, particularly on defense), David West to keep being himself, Granger to be steady in the big moments and Hibbert to become a dominating force. The Pacers lack the kind of superstar player the Heat have two (or three) of, but they have great balance, good depth and the size that could give the Heat fits. They just have to play nearly flawless basketball (and hope the Heat do not).

Warriors put up historic 45 in first quarter on way to 128-103 Game 4 rout, sweep of Blazers

Associated Press
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This game was never in doubt. Much like the entire first-round series.

Golden State had Kevin Durant back and he hit a pull-up three to open the game, and pretty soon the Warriors had stretched the lead to 12-0 on a Klay Thompson three (and eventually were up 14-0).

That led to the Warriors putting up a historic 45 points in the first quarter, tying for the most points in an NBA playoffs first quarter ever. The Warriors were up 23 after one, and never looked back on their way to a 128-103 Game 4 rout, completing the sweep of Blazers.

There’s not much to analyze here, this game is was similar to so many games over the past couple seasons where the Warriors overwhelmed their opponents. Portland fought, but this was not going to be their game or their series. Here are some highlights.

Stephen Curry had 37 points, Draymond Green 21, and Klay Thompson had 18.

Damian Lillard had 34 points for Portland.

It may have been a disappointing ending to the season for Portland, but the team found a center late this season in Jusuf Nurkic who balances out what Lillard and C.J. McCollum bring on the outside. The Blazers have to figure out how to become a better defensive team this summer, but they took a step forward after the All-Star break that they can build on.

The Warriors will get some rest before taking on the Jazz or Clippers in the next round.

Hawks battle back to knot series with Wizards, 2-2

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Paul Millsap shoved Markieff Morris out of the way, grabbed an offensive rebound in the middle of the paint and pushed through a shot while Marcin Gortat bumped him to the floor.

The Wizards knocked down Atlanta. They didn’t stop the Hawks.

Millsap and Atlanta showed plenty of fight, topping Washington 111-101 in Game 4 Monday to tie their first-round series 2-2 after falling behind 2-0.

Have the Hawks seized meaningful momentum? History says no.

Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home then lost the next two on the road have won 81% of the time. The Wizards’ regular-season superiority still speaks loudly, and up to two more home games – starting with Game  5 Wednesday – also help.

Still, credit Atlanta for making the series competitive after digging such a big hole.

Millsap (19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals) soundly outplayed Markieff Morris (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, -10) in the latest round of their personal feud. Millsap also got plenty of help with seven Hawks scoring double digits.

Kent Bazemore (16 points, seven assists and three steals) played meaningful defense and hit a couple big shots. Jose Calderon (10 points, five assists, +29 in 20 minutes) provided a huge spark. Dwight Howard (16 points and 15 rebounds) asserted himself for the first time this series. Taurean Prince (11 points on 5-of-7 shooting) picked his spots well. Dennis Schroder (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting) had his ups and downs. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points) at least offset some of his defensive shortcomings.

This was a total team win.

Washington, on the other hand, got little outside its starting backcourt. Bradley Beal (32 points) thrived, and John Wall (22 points and 10 assists) was still good in an off-by-his-standards performance. But the Wizards crumbled when either sat – especially with both on the bench in the late third/early fourth quarters. Erasing those few minutes with staggering would’ve helped, though it wouldn’t have been the answer tonight.

This has become a far less certain series than Washington hoped, but the Wizards don’t need a wild fix. They just need their top players to play better. Maybe going home will help.

Raptors break out best game of postseason, rout Bucks 118-93 to take 3-2 series lead

Associated Press
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Norman Powell was draining threes, throwing down dunks that would have won the contest All-Star weekend, and he finished with a career playoff-high 25 points on just 11 shots. Plus defensively he caused Khris Middleton trouble.

The Raptors finished with 28 assists, the most in a playoff game since Dwane Casey took over as coach.

Toronto shot 57.7 percent overall, a franchise playoff best.

The Raptors bench played well pitching in 27 points and growing the lead when they were in, part of an overall strong night from the role players in Toronto.

Combine that all with the expected good nights from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and you get the Raptors best game of the playoffs. It looked like a different team than the one in Milwaukee.

Toronto raced out to an early lead and went on to rout the Bucks 118-93, giving the Raptors a 3-2 series lead.

This was a game where the Bucks tried to force the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan as much as they could, using their length and athleticism. However, Lowry had 10 assists, and DeRozan would get the ball off pindown screens and feel the double coming, move the ball, and another quick pass or two later the role-playing player Raptors were getting good looks and knocking them down. Or throwing it down like this.

Or this.

Toronto just looked more comfortable against the Bucks pressure, having seen it for so many games in a row, than they have all series.

Powell had 25 points for Toronto, Serge Ibaka had 19 and three blocks, Lowry had 16 points and 10 assists, DeRozan had 18 points and six assists, even DeMarre Carroll had 12 points on six shots.

The question for the young Bucks team is how does it bounce back from this kind of loss in the biggest NBA game most of them have ever played? Can they get their defensive edge back?

“We’re going to miss some shots, and we can’t let our offense dictate our defense,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said postgame. “And also the turnovers, again. Right off the bat we had three…

“Our defense kind of got hit there in the first quarter, we knew that they were going to come after us, we had to expect that. And we just couldn’t respond.”

The Bucks had some runs in the second quarter and got the lead to nine at one point, but the Raptors always seemed to be in control.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had another strong game with 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and rookie Malcolm Brogdon pitched in 19 points on 11 shots, but for the most part the Bucks struggled with their offense in this game. As their coach noted — and as often happens to young teams — they let their offensive woes impact the other end of the court.

At home, the Bucks will likely feel more comfortable, and they will fight for their playoff lives.

The question is, can the Raptors be this sharp again and close them out? Or will the yo-yo nature of this team continue?

 

Kevin Durant will play in Game 4 for Warriors vs. Trail Blazers

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In case you were curious how serious Golden State was about closing out Portland in four…

After missing the last two games with a strained calf, both Warriors wins to put them up 3-0 in the series, the Warriors are bringing back Kevin Durant for Game 4.

Steve Kerr is also out tonight for Golden State, Mike Brown will coach the team.

There was buzz that Durant could have gone in Game 3 if needed, but the Warriors felt confident they would win without him and they don’t want this injury to linger. There’s no more holding him back now.

Durant averaged 25.1 points a game, and thanks to the space created by the other stars on the team had his most efficient season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.1. He also pulled down 8.3 rebounds a game, dished 4.9 assists, and had his best defensive season in a long time as well. If not for an injury after the All-Star break that had him missing games, he would have made a lot of voters’ All-NBA team.

He adds to Golden State’s size advantage against Portland. The Warriors would like to close out the series tonight and get additional rest before facing the Clippers or Jazz in the next round.