Three Stars of the Night: Beard Power!

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I’m willing to give Paul George a pass for his slightly questionable beard growing abilities, primarily because he’s still only 22-years-old (scary, right?) and he’s still growing, uh, taller. George is listed at 6-foot-8, but some people are saying he’s now 6-foot-10, and even if that is a Bunyan-sized tall tale, we’ll let him finish growing up before we demand a better beard. It’s only fair, especially when he’s distracting us with offensive explosions against the Miami Heat. As for our other two stars? Those beards and those games require little introduction. It’s Three Stars:

Third Star: Reggie Evans – (2 points and 23 rebounds in 27 minutes)

Evans has been rebounding tirelessly for years, but tonight’s game was his masterpiece. His 23 rebounds marked a new career-high, but that only scratches the surface of his dominance on the glass. Evans pulled down 16 of those boards in the first half alone, and at one point about halfway through the third quarter, he had one more rebound than the entire 76ers team! The only way this could have been better is if Evans were allowed to play garbage time of the Nets’ 109-89 whooping of Philadelphia, or if he didn’t score two points, record two assists and grab one steal. How fun would a line with only 23 rebounds in it be? Instead, we’ll have to revel in the absurd rebounding percentages and rebound per minute stats from tonight — the same stats that for his career firmly place him among the greatest rebounders to ever play.

 

Second Star: James Harden – (31 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists)

Just another day at the office for Harden, who has now scored at least 25 points in his last 13 games. As the Rockets further define their style of play with each passing game, Harden looks like an even better fit. Houston plays at the lightning quick pace of 97 possessions per 48 minutes, a number not even the “7 seconds or less” Phoenix Suns teams played at. These guys push the ball off misses and let threes fly with zero restraint, but it’s Harden who bridges the gap when the primary break or the secondary break doesn’t yield anything. Against the shorthanded Lakers, Harden swept through the lane with his mean eurostep, he threaded the needle (and went in between the legs once) on passes to his roll men, he posted from the elbow occasionally, and when everything else broke down, he’d just stop and pop for a jumper. This offense has staying power, especially if Chandler Parsons keeps playing a mean smallball four.

 

First Star: Paul George – (29 points, 11 rebounds)

It’s awfully hard to keep Dwyane Wade and LeBron James down once you’ve got them there, but George’s second-half scoring outburst did the trick. With Indiana’s defense holding the Heat to a season-low 35 points in the second half, George took care of business on the other end with some huge momentum capturing 3-pointers and some tough finishes off the dribble. 22 of George’s 29 points came in the second half, which provided a much needed boost for one of the league’s worst offenses. It’s not often you see a team shoot 36 percent from the field and win by ten points, but Indiana’s 22 (!) offensive rebounds provided George with enough chances to fill it up. It’s funny, but a lot of people forget just how close Indiana was to defeating Miami in the playoffs last season, even with George giving them nothing offensively. The road to an NBA Finals will go through Miami for quite some time, so George netting a nice scoring night against LeBron and company is just another step in the maturation process for one of the league’s most tantalizing young talents.

Former Pacers’ star Danny Granger on Paul George: “you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana”

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There was a time when Paul George was an up-and-coming but raw young player on an Indiana team led by Danny Granger. It was when Granger went down injured that George was thrust into a larger role, where he thrived in the trial by fire.

Granger knows what it’s like to be the star player of the Pacers, and he knows George, so on Bill Reiter asked Granger his thoughts during an episode of CBS’ “Reiter Than You” and Granger’s answer was not what Pacers fans wanted to hear.

“You look at him in that press conference (after losing to Cleveland) and his face and the dejection on it – the guy wants to win. Money don’t make everybody happy, but winning and success and your craft, that does fill a void that a lot of these players have. So you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana, I’ll tell you that.”

Oh, Pacers fans will fault him. Even if he’s traded.

Pacers’ decision maker Larry Bird isn’t going to do anything until he sees if George makes an All-NBA Team, because if he does Indiana can offer him the new “designated player” contract this summer worth around $80 million more guaranteed than any other team can offer. George will not walk away from that.

However, if, as expected, George doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Bird is going to have to revisit the idea of trading George, who can be a free agent in 2018 — and the sense around the league is he will walk away at that point if the Pacers are not contenders. (There are a lot of Lakers’ rumors there, but whether George would leave a team where he is dragging lesser players to a low playoff seed and a first-round exit in Indiana for the same situation in his old hometown is up for debate.)

Bird isn’t going to deal George for pennies on the dollar at this point — think the Kings’ trading DeMarcus Cousins — but if some team comes through with a legitimate quality offer of young players that can help jump start the rebuild in Indiana, he may have to jump at it.

Either way, Granger is right that you can’t blame George for wanting to move on, but plenty of fans will anyway.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley keep trading insults in postgame press conferences

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley were having their war of words during Tuesday night’s close-out game that ended the Thunder season, and they both picked up technical fouls for it.

The two continued that postgame speaking to the media.

Westbrook was up first, and he was asked what happened between him and Beverley (see the video above).

“He was talking about he was first team all-defense, but I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about because I had 42 at the time, I don’t know, maybe he was dreaming or some s—.”

You know the media was going to ask Beverley about that.

“He said no can guard me I’ve got 40 points, I’m like, that’s nice but you took 34 shots to get it.”

So, no Christmas card exchange for those two.

For the record, Westbrook finished the game with 47 points on 15-of-34 shooting, but he was 2-of-11 in the fourth quarter as he started to wear down. The Thunder were +12 in the 41:52 that Westbrook played, but were -18 in the 6:07 he sat to get rest. The game was almost a Rorschach test for what you think of Westbrook on the season — he wasn’t terribly efficient, but he carried OKC as far as he could, that just wasn’t as far as James Harden could take a superior Rockets’ team. If you were in the Harden (or Kawhi Leonard) for MVP camp, you can point to the inefficiency and the end result. If you’re team Westbrook you can point to the raw numbers and what happened in the limited time he sat.

Also, Beverley is going to make an NBA All-Defensive team. If he doesn’t make the first team, that’s more about the time he missed due to injury (and a good field of guards who can defend) than his play.

Beverley has the advantage now of being able to turn his attention to how to defend Tony Parker (or maybe Mike Conley), as the Rockets are advancing to the next round.

 

Watch Gordon Hayward, Chris Paul get double technical fouls after wrestling for ball (VIDEO)

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I said earlier on Tuesday that the double technical foul handed out to Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley during Game 5 of the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder series was the weakest of the playoffs so far.

All I had to do was wait about two hours. The NBA fixed that right up for me.

Late in the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward got tied up on a jump ball. The two ended up on the floor, and neither wanted to let go of the ball.

Hayward and Paul wrestled for the ball, with Hayward eventually winning. Paul then gave him a little shove in the back. Both, somehow, wound up with a technical foul.

I … what?

Utah won an exciting game at the wire, 96-92, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

That ball movement — and again some key johnson buckets — led to a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night.

Historically, if the road team wins Game 5 of a 2-2 series it has gone on to win the series 63.8 percent of the time.Friday night, Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing much of Game 4 with food poisoning to play much of this one (despite saying postgame he didn’t have his legs). This time he made the Clippers sick, scoring 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson with just under three minutes left that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a smart passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing opportunities.

Utah took advantage of those opportunites early in the fourth to push the lead to 11 after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures. Paul had 28 for the Clippers, J.J. Redick had his best game of the series and added 26.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the real questions will begin.