Heat open title defense with blowout Game 1 win over Bucks

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The one-eight matchup between the Heat and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference playoffs seemed to be the biggest mismatch of them all, for a variety of reasons. Nothing took place during Miami’s 110-87 blowout victory on Sunday to change those perceptions.

Miami came into the postseason on an insane run, winning 37 of its final 39 regular season games. The Bucks, meanwhile, stumbled to the playoffs by dropping seven of their last nine.

Despite the lackluster pairing, or maybe because of it, Brandon Jennings tried to breathe some life into the series by going on record as saying the Bucks would take care of the Heat in six.

While that’s obviously not likely to happen, you can’t fault Jennings for the false bravado, and at least he backed up his words on the court, if only in the first half.

Jennings was fun to watch in the first two quarters, scoring 18 points (albeit on 14 shots) while temporarily keeping the game close. He scored on array of difficult shots, both inside and from three-point distance, and his Bucks were down by only seven points at the break after trailing by as many as 13 early.

Monta Ellis took on the scoring for Milwaukee in the third, getting going for 11 points in the period. The Bucks battled from 15 points down to close to within eight once again, but just like the Spurs did to the Lakers earlier on Sunday, Miami closed the quarter with a furious, momentum-seizing rally that all but sealed it.

It all started with LeBron James, who drove through traffic in the half court set to finish with a left-handed dunk at the rim that seemed to ignite his teammates. Chris Andersen got loose for dunks on consecutive possessions, and a free throw from James capped the 7-0 run that took just over two minutes of game time and had the Heat back up by 15 entering the fourth.

James finished with a near triple-double line of 27 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists, but got his points on just 11 shots — and all but two of those came at the rim. Take a look at his shot chart:

source:

That’s ridiculous. If James has the discipline to attack the rim in this way with these results, no one is stopping the Heat.

Jennings and Ellis finished with 26 and 22 points respectively, but no other Milwaukee player finished in double figures. The Bucks’ main rim protector, Larry Sanders, played only 18 minutes and was completely ineffective in stopping anything Miami wanted to do inside.

Look, there’s no getting around it: It’s going to be a short series for Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs. The games will seem long due to the way Miami will do what they want when they want against the undermanned Bucks, but there will be short spurts of success in keeping the games close.

And really, that’s the best the Bucks can hope for under the circumstances.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?

 

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

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Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.