Three Stars of the Night: An Odd Scoring Battle

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With 22 teams in action, you’d expect the usual suspects to be the big scorers of the night. Guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. The guys battling Kobe Bryant for the scoring title. Those guys.

Nope! Saturday was a little bit wild and crazy, and as a result we had Luis Scola balling out and dropping 33 and 10 on the Timberwolves while Nikola Pekovic smashed his way to 28. We saw David West (29 points) continue to do his share of the scoring while Roy Hibbert (21 minutes, zero points) went missing yet again. The Jrue Holiday show raged on with 29 points and a near triple-double, but actually, Holiday’s 7 turnovers almost gave him the rare quadruple-double-trouble, which really would have set the evening off nicely.

Instead, it seems like we’ll have to settle for a scoring battle between an awkward 7-footer who loves comic books and shoots a set-shot and a reserve forward who averages 8.5 points a game on his career. It’s weird, it’s hard to explain, and it’s Three Stars:

Third Star: C.J. Miles – (33 points, 8-for-10 from 3-point land)

Look, guys, I don’t know either. C.J. Miles is a career 41 percent shooter from the field and a career 33 percent shooter from behind the arc. This should not be happening, but Miles has a really weird habit of getting hot and then suddenly morphing into this unstoppable offensive force. You either believe in the hot hand theory or you don’t, but everyone watching tonight knew Miles was hot. He was catching passes and firing away like he was Ray Allen whenever he had a look at the basket, never hesitating once to think, “I’m C.J. Miles.” It got to the point where the announcers were preaching the importance of keeping the ball out of the hands of C.J. Miles, which feels absurd to even type. Whatever it was, Miles and his 33-point explosion kept the shorthanded Cavs in it, even with Luke Walton on the floor for 30 minutes. While this may come as surprise to exactly no one, eight 3-pointers is indeed a career high for Miles. He was stupid good tonight.

Second Star: Russell Westbrook – (28 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists)

Ah, a nice return to normalcy, both for Westbrook and for Three Stars. With Kevin Durant unable to get it going early on, Westbrook took the scoring load on his shoulders and blew past Houston’s defense all night. Westbrook may get criticized for taking an inordinate amount of jumpers off his own dribble, but when he’s scoring at the rim and those jumpers are falling, he instantly morphs into one of the more unstoppable players in all of basketball. Westbrook’s jumper has sort of abandoned him to start the season, but it was certainly falling tonight.

First Star: Brook Lopez – (35 points, 11 rebounds)

Lopez was an absolute monster against the Varejao-less Cavs, as he scored a whopping 11 field goals in the paint and went to the free-throw line 11 times as well. While Lopez may not be considered fleet of foot, he’s a load on the low block and around the rim, especially against a rail-thin big man like rookie center Tyler Zeller. That’s not to take anything away from Lopez — he showed his usual soft touch and he gobbled up some offensive rebounds, something he doesn’t always do. Perhaps it’s because of the time he missed due to injury this year or because of the other distractions in Brooklyn right now, but Lopez has been posting some pretty incredible numbers with very little fanfare. His rebounding percentages are back to respectable levels, his PER is really solid at 24.5, and he’s averaging 22 points per 36 minutes on 51 percent shooting. Lopez probably isn’t regarded as a player you would build an offense around, but he’s a better option for that than Deron Williams is right now. That’s something to keep in mind, especially if post-oriented coaches like Phil Jackson or Mike Dunleavy do end up in Brooklyn. Lopez, even with that hideously effective set-shot off the glass from 18-feet, is the best bet for consistent offensive production the Nets have.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.