Raptors use fast start, strong finish to even the series with Game 4 win over Nets

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Through the first three games of the first round series between the Nets and the Raptors, Toronto had no answer for Joe Johnson, who was simply killing them offensively.

Johnson had scored 24, 18 and 29 points respectively in each of the first three games, while shooting better than 60 percent from the field whether the looks were from inside, outside, or somewhere in between.

But the Raptors adjusted in Game 4, sending hard double teams at Johnson whenever he received the ball in the post, and forced his teammates to beat them with ball movement, crisp passing, and high percentage shooting from anyone but the player Kevin Garnett nicknamed Joe Jesus earlier in the season.

The plan worked to perfection. Johnson was held to just seven points on 2-of-7 shooting in 42 minutes of action, and the Nets managed just 12 fourth quarter points as Toronto came away with an 87-79 victory that evened the series at two games apiece.

Johnson isn’t the only weapon the Nets possess, but his being taken completely out of the offensive attack wrecked the rhythm for the rest of his teammates. Brooklyn started off on its heels, allowing 35 first quarter points to its opponent before settling down a bit and really containing Toronto just fine the rest of the way, allowing only 52 points in total over the game’s final three periods.

But offense was a problem for a Nets team that, theoretically, should have plenty of options. Paul Pierce led the way with 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and Mirza Teletovic probably should have seen more than 16 minutes off the bench, considering he was 5-of-9 from the field with 12 points in that very short span. But Deron Williams wasn’t nearly the aggressor he was in Game 3, and finished just 4-of-12 from the field for 10 points in over 36 minutes of action, to go along with six assists against five turnovers.

DeMar DeRozan had 20 points by halftime, but was 0-for-7 from the field the rest of the way. Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez did the damage in the second half, but there wasn’t all that much needed considering the dismal output of the anemic Brooklyn offense.

All along this has felt like Brooklyn’s series to lose, and Game 4 was no exception, as the home team clawed back from an early 17-point deficit somewhat easily. But the Nets will have to find a way to get Johnson back on track offensively, or create some sets which take advantage of the double teams he’s seeing in order to get his teammates some easy, uncontested looks.

On the Raptors side, they’re feeling just fine after reclaiming homecourt advantage, with two of the remaining three games in the series being played in Toronto, if all seven are necessary in order to decide it. Sunday’s Game 4 more than any of the others showed the blueprint defensively for the Raptors — shut down two of the Nets’ three main threats, and the series can be theirs.

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.