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Nets hold off late Raptors rally in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the series

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NEW YORK — The second half regular season surge that the Nets put together entering the playoffs has the players believing that a championship run is a distinct possibility.

But it won’t happen if Brooklyn closes games in the postseason the way it did on Friday, before scraping by with a 102-98 Game 3 victory over the Raptors that gave them a 2-1 lead in the series.

The Nets went up by 15 points with five minutes remaining, on a possession that showcased the strength of this team, and why it should dispose of the Raptors eventually. The ball movement was exquisite between Paul Pierce and Deron Williams, before it eventually landed in the hands of Joe Johnson for a contested three that splashed home, and appeared to be the dagger that should have sent the Raptors away.

But Toronto battled back, and Brooklyn, at least for a stretch, collapsed under the pressure. Missed shots, turnovers, and a series of fouls put the game in jeopardy once again, and it was a strong effort by the Raptors to put together a 13-2 run to get within four points with 1:07 to play.

It was a two-point game with 20 seconds left, with Patrick Patterson heading to the line to try to tie it after a loose ball foul committed on a missed free throw attempt, something which the referees seemed to find objectionable multiple times throughout the game’s final period.

Patterson missed them both, however, and the Nets held on. But given the aspirations the team has, they know that the way the fourth quarter unfolded was far from acceptable.

“When you go out there, you search for perfection,” Pierce said afterward. “No game is perfect, but you want to come as close to it as possible. By no means did we close the game out like we wanted to. Even though we won the game, you want to do a better job because as the rounds go, as the games go on, teams figure out what you’re trying to do and teams get better. And if you go to the next round, you can’t afford to make those mistakes.”

Pierce referencing the next round is telling, since it would mean a matchup with the defending champion Miami Heat — a team the Nets beat in all four of their regular season meetings.

But they’ve got to get there first.

“We’ve got to understand, everything’s on the line right now,” Pierce said. “We can’t have these silly turnovers. We can’t have these silly fouls at the end of the game. It all comes down to inches.”

Last season’s Nets know all about that, after being eliminated in seven games in the first round by a Bulls team ravaged by injury, but that played with an insane amount of heart. Williams believes this year’s Nets team are capable of so much more.

“We’ve brought in guys that have championship experience,” he said. “We’ve brought in guys that have leadership, and it’s rubbing off on everybody. It’s contagious, and we enjoy playing with each other. Not to say we weren’t last year, but we’re enjoying the run. We had some struggles early on in the season, but we’ve righted that ship a little bit. Like I said, we’re trying to make a run.”

DeMar DeRozan went for 30 just as he did in Game 2, with a very similar statistical line that saw him shoot 8-of-22 from the field, but get to the line where he converted 13-of-15 free throw attempts. Kyle Lowry banged knees with someone early on and was clearly hobbling out there, but battled like crazy and managed to keep his team in it late with a couple of dazzling and-1 finishes before fouling out with 15 points in almost 38 minutes.

The lead was built to such a wide margin by the Nets because their three best players all had it going at the same time. Johnson, Williams and Pierce finished with 29, 22 and 18 points respectively, with each shooting better than 50 percent.

It was almost all for nothing after a series of late-game mishaps, a fourth quarter full of events that may have taken some of the luster off of what should have been a more positive victory. But that might ultimately work out in Brooklyn’s favor if it causes them to focus on all that’s ultimately at stake.

“It feels good to win, but at the same time, I know we can be a lot better,” Pierce said. “I’m looking down the road, when it’s like that Game 6 or 7, wherever we’re in that situation — [even] with this team. It’s going to come down to those little things and we need can’t afford those little small mistakes.”

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” The type of surgery and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. With that, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not. We don’t yet know. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

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