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With four straight wins on road, Knicks believe they are a team figuring it out

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LOS ANGELES — If the playoffs started today, the Knicks wouldn’t just be a playoff team, they’d have home court in the first round.

More importantly, after winning five-of-six and four in a row on the road, they believe they are that good, that they are figuring it out. Together.

“I love the camaraderie of this team,” Joakim Noah said Sunday night. “From the beginning, no matter what’s thrown at us, no matter what people are saying, I think it’s really important, especially in New York, that the camaraderie stays tight. Because, when you win it’s like they put you on a pedestal, and when you lose it’s the end of the world, they try to find anything to make a headline out of, and it’s just the nature of playing for the Knicks. It’s not like that anywhere else.”

The Knicks will be on a pedestal, at least a small one, after a 118-112 win over the Lakers Sunday night. The win improved them to 14-10 on the season, and they are the current four seed in the East. It’s too early to celebrate, but the Knicks feel optimistic that they are on the right track.

The right track would mean getting the ball to their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, more often. Porzingis had a monster night — 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots — and he got help from a hot shooting Derrick Rose, who started the game 8-of-8 from the floor and finished with 25 points on 12-of-15 shooting.

“I was just taking what the defense was giving me, and they were giving me the lane,” Rose said.

To a man after the game, the Knicks talked about this latest run being a function of team chemistry.

“We want to build a culture of winning, and I think we’re taking baby steps toward that,” Porzingis said.

“Trusting, just trusting one another, just believing in what we’re doing, our schemes offensively and defensively, guys feeling comfortable,” Carmelo Anthony said.

“In the first half, they were doubling Carmelo,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We did a good job of passing the ball and he had about five or six assists at halftime (it was five). That’s how you know you have a good team, when a guy gets doubled, kicks out of there and you get easy shots and easy looks.”

“I figured out the double team early, we were spacing out… just kind of making the right play,” Anthony said.

Have the Knicks figured it out? Time will tell, but there is still one big reason for concern that these Knicks are not as good as their record: Defense.

The Knicks are winning in spite of their defense, and that could ultimately be their undoing. It almost was against the Lakers, except Los Angeles’ defense was worse.

“Well, you know I think we really stopped them in the fourth quarter…” Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek tried to say with a straight face. Then he laughed. “We gave up 37 points in the fourth quarter. Good thing we had a couple of guys — Derrick (Rose) was great, Brandon (Jennings) got hot there and hit a couple threes, Courtney (Lee) hit some big threes for us in the fourth quarter.”

The Knicks have the 26th ranked defense in the NBA this season, and it has been two points per 100 possessions worse during this six-game streak. The Knicks are running and shooting their way to wins in spite of the defense, but that only works for so long.

“We have to stop fouling…” Rose said. “The way the NBA is, if you go down big, the first thing you do is start shooting threes. We just have to contest the shots a little bit harder and communicate while we’re out there.”

Rose — who returned after missing two games with back spasms — was impressive, pushing the pace in transition, and he was fearless going at the Lakers bigs knowing that there was no shot blocking to slow him.

“He’s been moving really well all year,” Noah said. “He’s getting more and more confident in his game, the way he’s moving, his floater is coming back — his floater game was really on tonight.”

The Lakers got D’Angelo Russell back on the court Sunday (in limited minutes), as well as Nick Young. Lou Williams continues to look like a sixth man of the year candidate, he comes in and not only gets buckets by attacking, but does little things such as getting in Derrick Rose’s way the second he got the outlet pass to prevent a break and force the Knicks to come up and run a half court. He finished with 24 points.

The Lakers can get credit for coming from behind in the second half to make the game close for a stretch, but as bad as the Knicks’ defense can be the Lakers defense makes it look like the 2004 Pistons. The Knicks had the players to make the Lakers pay for that, even on a night ‘Melo was off (4-of-15 shooting). The Knicks have depth and can score a variety of ways.

Whether they are a four seed — or for that matter, are even in the playoffs — come late April will be about the other end of the floor. They need to find some defense.

At least they’ve found some chemistry. It’s a start.

Steve Kerr says he’s not ready to coach in NBA Finals, at least not yet

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Steve Kerr has been a regular presence at Warriors practices, he’s traveled with the team to playoff games, he’s been part of the planning/strategizing sessions for the team — basically, he’s been everywhere but the sidelines.

He’s not ready to return there. Yet.

Interim Warriors’ coach Mike Brown was knocked down by the flu on Monday, so Kerr ran the Warriors practice then spoke to the media, but said he still is battling issues from his back surgery and is not ready yet to return to the sidelines. Via Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

The Warriors brought in Mike Brown last summer just for this type of situation — he’s a veteran NBA coach who has led a team to the Finals (the Cavaliers, with LeBron James), and the Warriors thought it possible Kerr could miss time. With Luke Walton in Los Angeles, Golden State wanted a veteran on the bench. Brown is that.

He’s not as creative as Kerr is addressing matchups and challenges, but if Kerr is in the film sessions and practices, then his influence is still there. That may be enough for a more talented and more rested Warriors team (than a year ago) heading into the Finals starting Thursday night.

Stephen A. Smith, who has incorrectly predicted last six NBA Finals, picks Warriors

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ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has incorrectly predicted the last six NBA Finals – an incredible streak even if he were trying to guess wrong. But at least his picks led to the fun video above.

His prediction this year? Warriors in 7:

Congratulations, Cavaliers!

Warriors, Cavaliers reached NBA Finals with unprecedented combined playoff dominance

AP Photo/Peter J. Carroll
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The Warriors cruised into the NBA Finals in historic fashion, going 12-0 in the first three rounds and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game. The Cavaliers (12-1, +13.6) weren’t too far behind.

But, at 24-1, they don’t have the best combined playoff win percentage by NBA Finalists.

In 1957, the Celtics (3-0) and St. Louis Hawks (5-0) were undefeated entering a series Boston won in seven.

The Hawks, Minneapolis Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons all went 34-48 in the regular season to tie for the Eastern Division crown. St. Louis won a tiebreaker against each team and advanced to the Western Division finals, beating Minneapolis, 3-0.

Meanwhile, the Celtics won the Eastern Division outright and received a bye to the divisions finals. They swept the Syracuse Nationals to reach the NBA Finals.

Obviously, three rounds present a much bigger hill to climb than a single series (even with a couple tiebreaker games). Golden State and Cleveland are unmatched in modern times.

Here’s every NBA Finals sorted by combined playoff record entering Finals:

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Combined point difference per playoff game really shows how much Golden State and Cleveland overwhelmed their conference foes.

The Warriors and Cavs have averaged a +15.0 point difference per game in the playoffs (averaging both teams’ point difference per game equally, so as not to weigh the lesser team more). In the next-best Finals, 1986, neither the Celtics (+12.4) nor Rockets (+8.1) hit that mark alone – let alone averaged.

Here’s every NBA Finals, sorted by the teams’ average point difference per game in previous playoff games:

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Finals Point differences Combined
2017: GSW-CLE GSW (+16.3), CLE (+13.6) +15.0
1986: BOS 4, HOU 2 BOS (+12.4), HOU (+8.1) +10.3
1971: MIL 4, BAL 0 MIL (+15.4), BAL (+4.6) +10.0
1950: MNL 4, SYR 2 MNL (+12.1), SYR (+7.6) +9.9
1974: BOS 4, MIL 3 BOS (+6.2), MIL (+13.6) +9.9
2013: MIA 4, SAS 3 MIA (+9.6), SAS (+10.1) +9.9
2016: CLE 4, GSW 3 CLE (+12.6), GSW (+6.4) +9.5
1957: BOS 4, STL 3 BOS (+12.0), STL (+6.8) +9.4
1985: LAL 4, BOS 2 LAL (+13.6), BOS (+4.8) +9.2
1958: STL 4, BOS 2 STL (+10.8), BOS (+7.0) +8.9
1967: PHI 4, SFW 2 PHI (+11.1), SFW (+6.4) +8.8
1996: CHI 4, SEA 2 CHI (+13.9), SEA (+3.5) +8.7
1991: CHI 4, LAL 1 CHI (+12.5), LAL (+4.9) +8.7
2001: LAL 4, PHI 1 LAL (+15.5), PHI (+1.8) +8.6
1989: DET 4, LAL 0 DET (+8.0), LAL (+8.9) +8.5
2015: GSW 4, CLE 2 GSW (+8.1), CLE (+8.8) +8.4
1954: MNL 4, SYR 3 MNL (+8.8), SYR (+7.8) +8.3
1949: MNL 4, WSC 2 MNL (+9.0), WSC (+7.2) +8.1
1984: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+7.0), LAL (+9.1) +8.1
1948: BLB 4, PHW 2 BLB (+4.5), PHW (+11.0) +7.8
2014: SAS 4, MIA 1 SAS (+8.0), MIA (+7.0) +7.5
1987: LAL 4, BOS 2 LAL (+15.0), BOS (0.0) +7.5
2012: MIA 4, OKC 1 MIA (+7.9), OKC (+6.7) +7.3
1956: PHW 4, FTW 1 PHW (+8.4), FTW (+5.2) +6.8
1992: CHI 4, POR 2 CHI (+5.8), POR (+7.6) +6.7
1953: MNL 4, NYK 1 MNL (+6.4), NYK (+6.8) +6.6
1964: BOS 4, SFW 1 BOS (+8.4), SFW (+4.9) +6.6
1973: NYK 4, LAL 1 NYK (+5.6), LAL (+7.6) +6.6
1998: CHI 4, UTA 2 CHI (+6.7), UTA (+6.4) +6.5
2005: SAS 4, DET 3 SAS (+7.1), DET (+5.8) +6.4
1997: CHI 4, UTA 2 CHI (+7.8), UTA (+5.0) +6.4
2003: SAS 4, NJN 2 SAS (+5.4), NJN (+7.3) +6.3
1969: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+5.4), LAL (+7.3) +6.3
1962: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+5.6), LAL (+7.0) +6.3
1999: SAS 4, NYK 1 SAS (+8.2), NYK (+4.3) +6.3
1982: LAL 4, PHI 2 LAL (+10.8), PHI (+1.7) +6.2
1968: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+3.8), LAL (+8.6) +6.2
1970: NYK 4, LAL 3 NYK (+5.3), LAL (+7.0) +6.1
1955: SYR 4, FTW 3 SYR (+7.3), FTW (+4.8) +6.0
2011: DAL 4, MIA 2 DAL (+7.1), MIA (+4.7) +5.9
1972: LAL 4, NYK 1 LAL (+2.6), NYK (+8.8) +5.7
2009: LAL 4, ORL 1 LAL (+6.6), ORL (+4.8) +5.7
1966: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+7.1), LAL (+4.3) +5.7
1947: PHW 4, CHS 1 PHW (+6.0), CHS (+5.0) +5.5
1951: ROC 4, NYK 3 ROC (+8.9), NYK (+2.0) +5.4
1961: BOS 4, STL 1 BOS (+10.8), STL (0.0) +5.4
2008: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+4.3), LAL (+6.4) +5.4
2006: MIA 4, DAL 2 MIA (+4.8), DAL (+5.9) +5.3
1975: GSW 4, WSB 0 GSW (+5.7), WSB (+4.7) +5.2
1988: LAL 4, DET 3 LAL (+4.6), DET (+5.4) +5.0
1980: LAL 4, PHI 2 LAL (+3.7), PHI (+6.0) +4.9
1993: CHI 4, PHO 2 CHI (+8.5), PHO (+1.1) +4.8
2004: DET 4, LAL 1 DET (+5.7), LAL (+3.8) +4.7
2010: LAL 4, BOS 3 LAL (+4.0), BOS (+5.3) +4.6
1983: PHI 4, LAL 0 PHI (+4.9), LAL (+4.4) +4.6
1963: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+5.6), LAL (+3.0) +4.3
1960: BOS 4, STL 3 BOS (+3.3), STL (+4.7) +4.0
2007: SAS 4, CLE 0 SAS (+3.4), CLE (+4.2) +3.8
1981: BOS 4, HOU 2 BOS (+4.0), HOU (+3.3) +3.7
1977: POR 4, PHI 2 POR (+3.9), PHI (+3.2) +3.6
2000: LAL 4, IND 2 LAL (+3.8), IND (+2.9) +3.4
1990: DET 4, POR 1 DET (+7.7), POR (-1.4) +3.1
1994: HOU 4, NYK 3 HOU (+4.8), NYK (+1.2) +3.0
1978: WSB 4, SEA 3 WSB (+2.4), SEA (+3.5) +2.9
1995: HOU 4, ORL 0 HOU (+1.8), ORL (+3.2) +2.5
2002: LAL 4, NJN 0 LAL (+2.3), NJN (+2.3) +2.3
1965: BOS 4, LAL 1 BOS (+2.9), LAL (+1.7) +2.3
1952: MNL 4, NYK 3 MNL (+3.7), NYK (0.0) +1.8
1959: BOS 4, MNL 0 BOS (+6.3), MNL (-3.0) +1.6
1976: BOS 4, PHO 2 BOS (+2.3), PHO (+0.5) +1.4
1979: SEA 4, WSB 1 SEA (+1.6), WSB (-0.1) +0.8

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Josh Jackson a better prospect than Lonzo Ball?

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Josh Jackson, at this point, seems to be the consensus best prospect not named Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.

He’s 6-foot-8. He’s super-athletic. He’s competitive as hell. He’s skilled enough to play the point in a pinch and tough enough that he played the four at Kansas. On paper, he’s Andrew Wiggins physically with all the intangibles that we wish Wiggins had.

Then there’s the other side of it.

Jackson’s jump shot, which went in at a 37.8 percent clip from beyond the arc last season, has enough of a hitch in it that there is legitimate concern about just how good of a shooter he’ll end up being without a complete overhaul of his stroke. There’s also the mental side of the game: Jackson’s an instinctual playmaker that has a bad habit of being a space cadet defensively.

I’m not here to tell you those red flags don’t exist. They do. He has room to grow there.

But I am here to tell you that Josh Jackson is closer to being the best prospect in this draft than the third-best, and by the time I’m done here, you’ll be agreeing with me.

Height: 6’8″
Weight: 207
Wingspan: 6’10”
2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 7.4 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 37.8% 3PT

STRENGTHS: The reason that Jackson is so coveted as a prospect are the things that he does that you cannot teach.

It starts with his competitiveness. Jackson is a fiery, he’s intense and it manifests itself in the way that he plays, almost to a fault; Jackson picked up four fouls in 11 of 35 games as a freshman and picked up a handful of technical fouls after interactions with officials. There’s also a toughness to him that outweighs his 207 pound frame. He’s not afraid to get into tangles for loose balls, he’s not going to get backed down easily and he’s more than willing to put his body on the line to take a charge. Simply put: I’d rather try to keep the reins on a player that may care just a little too much than have to find a way to fire up an apathetic talent.

Then there are the physical tools. Athletically, he’s a bouncy, quick-twitch player that can move laterally with terrific body control and the ability to changes speeds on the move. He’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards and explosive enough to block shots, catch lobs and throw down tip-dunks, and his 6-foot-8 size allows him to be a versatile, multi-positional defender. I hesitate on saying he has a elite physical tools due to his wingspan and frame, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Lastly, there are his instincts. He’s a read-and-react player, a guy that can make plays defensively by jumping passing lanes, getting weak-side blocks and taking charges. He has a knack for getting easy buckets cutting to the rim and is aggressive on the glass on both ends of the floor.

Those are things that cannot be taught. You either have it in you or you don’t, and Jackson has it.

He also has some skills. We’ll get into the issues with his jump shot in a minute, but Jackson did make 37.8 percent of his threes as a freshman, including a 25-for-52 stretch to close the season. He utilizes ball-fakes and has a good enough first step to attack close outs, and while he isn’t the best or most creative finisher at the rim, he is capable of using both hands and has shown that he can make a floater.

Josh Jackson (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

What’s more promising, however, is that Jackson has the potential to be a secondary ball-handler and creator. He has above-average vision and is an unselfish player and willing passer, averaging 3.0 assists as a freshman. He can operate in pick-and-rolls and is capable of bringing the ball up against pressure.

He’s still raw offensively — he makes some bad decisions, commits some turnovers — and, at times, looks like he hasn’t been coached all that much defensively, but the skills he does have combined with the things he does that cannot be taught are a fantastic foundation for an NBA organization to work with.

In a sport that is becoming increasingly positionless, Jackson provides starpower potential with versatility on both ends of the floor.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest issue with Jackson as a prospect is his jump shot. Yes, he shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, but it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s just the result of Jackson getting hot in a small sample of catch-and-shoot jumpers.

According to Synergy, Jackson shot just 57 percent from the free throw line, 35.9 percent on all jump shots, 32.3 percent on jumpers off the dribble and just 20.8 percent on two-point jumpers. The main concern is that Jackson has a hitch in his release that creates a lot of moving parts in his stroke, resulting in different release points. You can see it in the video below, there is a slingshot action in his release:

The question marks surrounding Jackson’s jumper sink his stock because, despite his height, he doesn’t project as a guy that can play the small-ball four role in the NBA the way that he did at Kansas. Jackson’s 6-foot-10 wingspan is relatively short — for comparison’s sake, Draymond Green has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and Kawhi Leonard has a 7-foot-3 wingspan — and his slender frame makes it hard to project just how much more muscle mass his body can hold.

Put another way, Jackson can guard twos and threes — and potentially ones — at the next level, but he’s not guarding fours. He’s going to be playing a position where he either needs to be an knockdown shooter or capable of creating in isolation in the half court, and Jackson scored just 0.609 points per possession in isolation as a freshman, the 23rd percentile, despite being guarded predominantly by college four-men on a team with three three-point snipers around him.

It begs the question: Is he ever going to be great at anything on the offensive end of the floor?

And that’s before you factor in that he turned 20 years old in February; he’s older than one-and-done freshmen drafted in 2016.

The other issue you’ll hear mentioned with Jackson is that he has bad habits defensively and he gets beaten on the dribble more easily than you would expect from someone with his athleticism. The bad habits — specifically, the tendency to lose focus on who he is guarding — seems to me to be a result of Jackson trying a little too hard to be a playmaker off the ball, and getting beaten off the dribble has a lot to do with his overactive, choppy feet.

Neither are all that concerning to me, particularly when you factor in his intangibles on that end of the floor. Those issues can be coached away, and there’s not better place for that to happen than in the NBA.

NBA COMPARISON: The easy — and lazy — comparison to make is Andrew Wiggins, who is another 6-foot-8, freakishly-athletic small forward to come out of Kansas, and it’s not the worst comparison I’ve ever seen. The two have similar physical tools and question marks about their jump shots. The problem with that comparison, however, is that the things that make Jackson so intriguing are precisely the skills that Wiggins struggles with.

Jackson is a tough, versatile defender and a fiery competitor that is well-rounded offensively: unselfish with promising court vision and a knack for making instinctual, read-and-react plays. His ceiling is as a player that can average more than 20 points, act as a secondary ball-handler and play maker while potentially being a shutdown defender for twos and threes. Andre Igoudala, before he landed with Golden State and turned into a role player in the twilight of his career, had a seven-year stretch where he averaged 12 points, five boards, five assists and 1.5 steals, scoring more than 17 points per game in four of those seasons.

OUTLOOK: The way I see it, Josh Jackson is the the second-best prospect in this draft. I’d draft him over Lonzo Ball, and I think the gap between Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson is smaller than the gap between Josh Jackson and Ball, who would be third on my draft board.

Jackson has some issues that need fixing — his jump shot, his tendency to be a space cadet defensively — and there are some valid concerns about his age and the fact that his slender frame may not be able to hold all that much more weight, but those issues are coachable. What isn’t coachable, however, is his competitiveness, his intensity, his unselfishness, his instincts and his ability to read the game and be a playmaker, both offensively and defensively.

He’s a gifted athlete that is going to fight — quite possibly in the literal sense — for the team that he’s on. If he puts in the time to develop his jumper, his body and his focus on the defensive side of the ball, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could average 25 points, five boards and five assists as a shutdown wing defender.