Bulls, Nets make Nets’ offense stink

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Joakim Noah scored his first point and on the next possession, in his 27th minute, he closed hard to marginally, if at all, bother a wide-open corner 3-point attempt.

Tonight, that was plenty.

The Bulls – with lots of help from Brooklyn – crippled the Nets’ offense and watched one more airball as time expired, preserving a 79-76 Game 3 win. Chicago surrendered a late 12-0 Brooklyn run, but the Bulls are still the only lower-seeded Eastern Conference team to win a playoff game, and they now have a 2-1 series lead.

Those positives, of course, mean plenty of negatives for the Nets, who are the NBA’s only higher-seeded team losing its series.

The Nets’ final numbers, 82.2 offensive rating and 34.6 field-goal percentage, don’t show how anemic their offense was for most of the game. Until Marshon Brooks entered the game in the fourth quarter, Brooklyn shot 27.9 percent from the field.

The Nets’ three offensive centerpieces – Brook Lopez (22 points), Deron Williams (18 points) and Joe Johnson (15 points) – weren’t terrible, at least in the context of this game. Their combined field-goal percentage (43) was much higher than their teammates’ (24).

But absent other reliable scoring options on the court, Tom Thibodeau used his strong-side-flooding defense to smother Lopez, Williams and Johnson. Without space to operate, the trio couldn’t do much.

Blatche was the Nets’ only reliable complementary offensive threat during the regular season, but in a physical playoff series, they can’t count on him. Blatche has done a lot to overcome his reputation for being a mentally weak player, but he made that progress against teams other than the hard-nosed Bulls. In the second quarter, Blatche took a fairly typical playoff foul from Nazr Mohammed and responded by elbowing Mohammed and getting a technical. In this tough series, Blatche showed his true colors, and that bodes poorly for the Nets.

If the Nets don’t get supplementary scoring from Blatche, who shot 3-for-9, who can they get it from? Down the line, the answers are uninspiring.

Finally, P.J. Carlesimo turned to Brooks. Brooks didn’t play particularly well, scoring two points on 1-of-3 shooting, but the threat of him scoring opened the offense. When playing Brooks with its Big Three, Brooklyn’s offensive rating surged to 121.5. That was in just five minutes, so small-sample caveats apply, but alternative lineups have a longer track record in this series of not working offensively.

The Bulls’ offense wasn’t pretty, either – their final offensive rating was 84.7 – but their gameplan was a bit better suited to this type of defensive struggle. Like the Nets did with Lopez, Williams and Johnson, the Bulls funneled their offense through their top offensive players. Carlos Boozer (22 points) and Luol Deng (21 points) combined to take nearly half Chicago’s shots.

Even though Boozer and Deng aren’t as gifted scorers as Lopez, Williams and Johnson, the Chicago duo shot more efficiently. That’s because Boozer and Deng play with Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler, two above-average 3-point shooters, and Noah, a plus passer and finisher – three players who help space the floor.

The marginally positive help tonight was based mostly on reputation, though. Hinrich and Butler combined to shoot 1-for-6 on 3-pointers, and Noah went 0-for-7 with as many turnovers as assists (two). Like I said, it wasn’t pretty.

But as C.J. Watson’s final shot, his seventh miss in eight tries, sailed by the rim, it proved good enough.

PBT Podcast: NBA first round playoff series breakdowns

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LeBron James‘ Cavaliers looks to be in a battle royal in the first round — and they could lose to Victor Oladipo‘s Pacers.

Miami’s defense and versatility is challenging the Sixers and shaking the faith of all those that just jumped on the bandwagon.

Utah stole a game in Oklahoma City showing great grit and resolve, not to mention a lot of Donovan Mitchell.

Anthony Davis has done everything but walk on water for the Pelicans.

The first round of the NBA playoffs has been filled with fascinating storylines — and we are just two games into each series. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all eight first-round series in this podcast, starting in the East and the tight races there, then move into the West. There’s even some “who wants to pay Jabari Parker this summer?” talk thrown in.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

James Dolan says Knicks must build around ‘great’ Kristaps Porzingis, offers fair rebuke of meddling charges

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Phil Jackson received a standing ovation in his first game at Madison Square Garden as Knicks president. Don’t forget how excited New York was for Jackson, who coached the Bulls and Lakers to 11 championships and played for the Knicks’ last title team. He was welcomed as a potential savior.

The common refrain: Jackson would have a chance to succeed if Knicks owner James Dolan didn’t meddle.

Immediately, Dolan said he would cede control to Jackson “willingly and gratefully.” Dolan later pledged to honor Jackson’s full five-year contract.

But fans turned on Jackson as he did an awful job and the Knicks struggled. Dolan opted into the final two years of Jackson’s contract, anyway, as he said he would all along. Fans got angrier. When Jackson publicly flaunted Kristaps Porzingis trade talks, outrage reached a fever pitch. Finally, Dolan stepped in to fire Jackson.

Dolan, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

“A great player in hockey is the difference, but a great player in basketball is the team.

“And I think we have a great player in Porzingis. We just have to build around him.”

“Everybody who wants to talk about the Knicks wants to ask me about Phil Jackson,” Dolan said, smiling and shaking his head. “The entire market wanted to me to hire him and when I did, the entire market said it was a great move. The only thing was, everyone said that I shouldn’t interfere with him.

“Three years later, everyone wanted to know when I was going to do something about Phil. The same people who told me not to interfere wanted me to interfere. But that’s OK. I just think that Phil underestimated the job.”

Dolan makes a salient point about how people perceive his involvement. The problem isn’t that Dolan meddles. It’s that he makes poor decisions.

Hiring Jackson – an out-of-touch former coach with no front-office experience – was a poor decision. I’m not enthused about Steve Mills as Jackson’s replacement, either, though we’ll see how that plays out.

Building around Porzingis is a better decision. He’s an extremely talented 22-year-old.

But it’s hardly a foolproof plan. Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL. Dolan said Porzingis could return in December – or miss next season entirely.

Either way, the Knicks must surround Porzingis with better teammates. Dolan will and should be a part of that process. Whether he’ll positively affect it is another matter.

76ers: Joel Embiid doubtful for Game 3 against Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Joel Embiid remains listed as doubtful by Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference playoff series at Miami on Thursday night.

Embiid was on the floor with the 76ers for their morning shootaround practice, but coach Brett Brown says there’s no change in the All-Star center’s status.

Embiid has missed Philadelphia’s last 10 games while recovering from a concussion and surgery that repaired a fractural orbital bone around his left eye. He’s no longer in the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He took to social media after the 76ers lost Game 2 of this series to the Heat, saying he’s tired of being “babied.”

Embiid has averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games for the 76ers during the regular season.

Rumor: Lakers, Kawhi Leonard share mutual interest

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The Spurs seem like they won’t trade Kawhi Leonard.

That won’t stop teams from trying.

There’s a clear disconnect between Leonard and San Antonio. Even the potential of a player as good as Leonard becoming available has teams salivating.

The Clippers are reportedly assembling a trade offer for the L.A. native. Los Angeles’ other team – the Lakers – are also apparently expected to factor prominently.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” one executive told Sporting News. “(Leonard) wants to go to LA. There probably won’t be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent (in 2019). He’s an LA guy and he can just let teams know he won’t re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”

But make no mistake, the Lakers are the favorite here.

“I would say that’s the most likely thing,” another general manager told Sporting News. “He’s going to be their target any way you look at it, this summer or next summer. There’s not many other ways to explain what’s been going on with that situation other than him trying to get out of San Antonio.”

Of course, every team wants Leonard. He’s an elite two-way player when healthy. But teams will go to differing lengths to pursue him. If the Lakers will “go hard for Leonard,” that means something beyond just desiring him.

Under Magic Johnson, the Lakers have made no secret of their plan to acquire stars. That has largely been centered on 2018 free agents, but with that well drying up, talk has turned to 2019 free agents. If the Lakers can get a top 2019 free agent – Leonard – sooner, why wouldn’t they?

One reason is the cost. Trading with San Antonio would require dealing at least some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Signing Leonard outright in 2019 would be simpler.

But a trade is the only surefire way of getting Leonard. If the Lakers don’t trade for him, another team could. With promising young players and cap space, the Lakers have the tools to make an intriguing offer for Leonard.

Or, more likely, the Spurs could keep him. Their relationship isn’t necessarily beyond repair, and they can offer him a super-max contract extension this summer.

They might not offer it. Even if they do, he might not take it. If he doesn’t, he could pledge to re-sign with only certain teams – like the Lakers – and steer trade talks that way. You can see how the thinking develops:

Leonard might be unhappy in San Antonio. He grew up in Southern California. Therefore, he’ll engineer his way to the Lakers?

Maybe, and maybe these anonymous executives know something to that effect. But this mostly sounds lazily speculative.