Baseline-to-Baseline recaps: Jazz win keeps playoff dream alive

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while watching the news out of Boston with horror and yet were reminded of the heroism of both first responders and everyday Americans who did what they could to help….

Jazz 96, Timberwolves 80: Utah needed to win to keep its playoffs hopes alive, so it played with a level of energy (particularly defensively) the Timberwolves ultimately could not match.

This was a game where the Jazz would pull ahead then Minnesota would make a push to close the gap. It happened in the first half, but Utah stretched the lead up to nine at halftime. Then Minnesota started the second half shooting 1-of-10 and the Minny lead got up to 14. Again, the Timberwolves closed the gap, down tow 3 at 61-58. But then center Greg Stiemsma picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench, meaning the smaller and not as good defensively Dante Cunnungham and he could not contain Al Jefferson — Utah’s bug man had 22 on the night and led the charge as the Jazz pulled away.

Utah needs to beat Memphis Wednesday and hope the Rockets beat the Lakers that night for Utah to slip into the eight seed.

Nuggets 112, Bucks 111: Denver pulled out a victory that kept them in control of their own destiny in terms of securing the three seed for the playoffs, which would be monumental for the team with the best home record in the league in any first round matchup.

Ty Lawson hit the game-winner with 9.3 seconds remaining, a pull-up jumper in the lane that was an exceptionally wide open look given the circumstances.

The Bucks put up a fight, however, and Monta Ellis did all he could personally to try to get his team this win. Ellis finished with 38 points, and scored 19 of those in the fourth, including a four-point play on the possession before Lawson’s game-winner briefly gave his team the one-point lead.

Milwaukee is on a huge slide heading into the postseason, having won just three of its last 15 games, while currently riding a nine-game road losing streak.
—Brett Pollakoff

Suns 119, Rockets 112: The Rockets allowed the Suns to score season highs in the first quarter (39) and the first half (67), and also let P.J. Tucker score a career high 21 points in dropping this one in Phoenix, which also likely dropped Houston’s position in the playoff picture.

A loss to the Lakers on Wednesday would give the Rockets the eight seed in the West, based on L.A. owning the tie-breaker should the teams finish with identical records.

Houston would be the seven seed if they beat the Lakers and the Warriors win as expected in Portland, and could still get to sixth with a win and a Warriors loss.

James Harden finished with 16 points on 5-18 shooting, but had only four after his 12-point first quarter. Harden had a collision with Luis Scola that appeared to affect his right knee, which may have been the reason for the decline in production. Kevin McHale said afterward that Harden told him he was fine (which is why he played 34 minutes). Harden left without speaking to reporters.
—Brett Pollakoff

Bulls 102, Magic 84: Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson returned from injury, and though they played just 35 combined minutes, their presence could be very important against the Wizards on Wednesday. Chicago is just a half game back from the No. 5 seed behind the Hawks, who finish the season hosting the Raptors and playing at the Knicks. Carlos Boozer (22 points) and Luol Deng (18 points and eight assists) kept the Bulls within striking distance, but their defensive bigs might need to do a little more in the finale.
— Dan Feldman

Grizzlies 103, Mavericks 97: It was a tale of two halves for Memphis. In the first half they put up only 38 points, in the second half it was 65 and the Grizzlies came back to win (keeping alive their hopes of home court advantage in the first round.

Memphis wins with defense and that’s what they did in the second half — they forced 11 Dallas turnovers and used the easy points in transition to fuel their run. Jerryd Bayless led the way on that charge with 19 for the Grizzlies. It was a great win.

After the game, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle was clearly frustrated with another bad O.J. Mayo performance (1-of-6 shooting, with 4 turnovers) and said to Jeff Caplan of NBA.com about Mayp;s inco, “The good news is there’s only an opportunity for one more.”
—Bret Pollakoff

Thunder 104, Kings 95: While every other team seemed to Oklahoma City wasn’t resting its two big stars — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played. Well, Westbrook played until he got ejected in the second half, but he played.

Durant was his usual self — he scored 29 points on 10-for-16 shooting. Westbrook added 21 and the Thunder pulled away in the second quarter and got the lead as large as 24 before the end of the Kings’ bench outplayed the end of the Thunder bench to get the score down to something respectable when the final gun sounded.

The scary part for the Kings was Tyreke Evans having to leave the game after a fall in the first quarter. He did not return and the team described his injury as a strained quad muscle.

With the win Oklahoma City got its 60th win of the season and secured the No. 1 seed in the West. The Thunder have home court advantage up to the finals.

Warrriors 116, Spurs 106: San Antonio rested all its big names (Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw) and yet their reserves hung around with Golden State. San Antonio got 18 first-half points from Gary Neal, another 10 from Patty Mills, and they just hung around. That was, until the fourth quarter when Stephen Curry started doing Stephen Curry-like things — he scored 11 in the quarter and sparked a 19-0 Warriors run that gave them a comfortable winning margin. Curry finished with 35 points on the night.

Heat 96, Cavaliers 95: Everyone makes a big deal whenever LeBron James returns to Ohio, even when he’s sitting out, as he did last night. But what about Norris Cole, who’s from Dayton and attended Cleveland State? In his return to Cleveland, Cole nearly broke LeBron’s run of five straight Heat triple-doubles. Cole finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, but he compensated for the missing assist with a game-clinching block of Kyrie Irving on the game’s final possession.
— Dan Feldman

Bobcats 106, Knicks 95: Chris Copeland (47 minutes), James White (43 minutes), Pablo Prigioni (42 minutes) and Steve Novak (41 minutes) each received career-high playing time. Even Rasheed Wallace came back to play four minutes. The Bobcats didn’t take the game as a joke, and Gerald Henderson (27 points on 16 shots) and Kemba Walker (23 points, 13 assists and one turnover) have Charlotte one game from avoiding the league’s worst record.
— Dan Feldman

Nets 106, Wizards 101: With nothing to play for in terms of playoff seeding, Brooklyn sat four of its five starters and gave Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Reggie Evans, and Keith Bogans all the night off.

The Nets found a way to win anyway, thanks to 20 points apiece from Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche, and seeing seven players in total score in double figures.

Brooklyn trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half, and had to rally from an eight-point deficit with just under 10 minutes to play to get the win, behind 11 fourth quarter points from Tyshawn Taylor and eight in the final period from Mirza Teletovic — both of whom would be household names if they got meaningful minutes against this dreadful Wizards team on a regular basis.
—Brett Pollakoff

Pistons 109, 76ers 101: Doug Collins reportedly told the 76ers he’s on his way out. Lawrence Frank might be gone, too. In a game with so much pending upheaval, once constant remained: Greg Monroe (27 points, 16 rebounds and four assists) owning Philadelphia this season.
— Dan Feldman

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.