Associated Press

Three things we learned Monday: Nuggets serve Warriors slice of “humble cupcake”

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It’s Monday, and you have other important things to do — such as follow the exploits of the “Trumpagator” — so you may not have been focused on the NBA. We’ve got your back, here are the big takeaways from a night in the NBA.

1) Nuggets serve Warriors slice of “humble cupcake.” This is the NBA — if you don’t take an opponent seriously, you will get humbled. Everybody in the NBA can ball. As an example, let’s say you are the best team in the NBA — fresh off an emotional thrashing of a rival in Oklahoma City and wearing cupcake shirts — and you roll into Denver to take on a Nuggets team without Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay or just acquired Mason Plumlee. Easy win, right?

Wrong.

Denver could not miss from the outside Monday night, tying an NBA record with 24 made threes, on their way to thrashing the Warriors 132-110. Don’t come ready to play in the NBA, you get beat.

Denver’s star Nikola Jokic had his second career triple-double with 17 points, 21 rebounds, and 12 assists. Juan Hernangomez had a career-high 27 points including hitting six threes. When I say Denver couldn’t miss from the outside, look at their shot chart.

Nuggets shotchart

Let’s not be silly and say this could portend something if these two teams meet in the playoffs (as of now this would be the first-round matchup). This was a one-off. Golden State is the better team, Monday night Denver was the hotter one. The win also speaks to why Denver may be good enough to hold on to that final playoff slot, and serves as a reminder you can’t just roll the ball out there and expect to get a win in the NBA.

2) The model of consistency, Spurs win Monday secures 20th straight winning season. San Antonio has had its ugly losses this season, too (see Sunday against the Knicks), but there has been no better model of consistency in the NBA than the Spurs.

With a 110-106 win over the Pacers on Monday, the Spurs improved to 42-13, ensuring the franchise’s 20th straight winning season. The last time the Spurs had a losing season (1997) gas cost $1.22, a movie ticket was $5, Tiger Woods won his first Masters, and the Notorious B.I.G. was shot. And remember, they had seven winning seasons in a row before that one, they only fell off the map in 1996-97 due to injuries to David Robinson and others (the Spurs ended up with the No. 1 pick out of that terrible season and drafted Tim Duncan).

It’s amazing how consistent this franchise is, and while Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford deserve all the credit they get, that kind of consistency starts at the ownership level. There is not a better run organization in sports.

3) Charlotte loses again, this time to Sixers, and it’s stunning to see how far this team has fallen. When the calendar flipped to 2017, the Charlotte Hornets were 19-15, with a pedestrian offense carried by Kemba Walker and a top 10 NBA defense.

Since then the Hornets have gone 5-16, with a pedestrian defense overall and an offense that is bottom 10 – it Kemba Walker against the world.

Nicolas Batum tried to motivate the team by guaranteeing a win Monday night against the Sixers. It worked to motivate a team — Philadephia. The Sixers — playing without Joel Embiid (injury) or Jahlil Okafor (holding him out due to serious trade talks) — outworked the Hornets on the glass, and the Sixers won 105-99.

It must be something in the water in Charlotte, first the Panthers under perform and now the Hornets. Charlotte has a decent roster, a good coach, we thought the loss of Jeremy Lin and the depth might have this team take a small step back from last season, but not just drop off a cliff. This team simply should not be as bad as it has been the past couple months, even with the injury to Cody Zeller. Yet here we are. The Hornets are not physical enough, and while other teams — like the Sixers — are coming together the Hornets are not improving and seem to be pulling apart. It’s hard to picture this team making the playoffs at this point (they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed, but the way the Hornets are playing does not portend a turnaround).

GM Rich Cho, owner Michael Jordan, and coach Steve Clifford need to have a real tough postmortem after this season and figure out how to get this roster moving forward. There is too much talent in Charlotte for this team to be this bad.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.

Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, dies

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The Spurs may be in the playoffs, but all of that takes a backseat now for Gregg Popovich.

Spurs:

With deep regret the San Antonio Spurs announce that Erin Popovich, wife of Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, passed away earlier today. Erin and Gregg were married for four decades and were blessed with two children and two grandchildren.

“We mourn the loss of Erin,” said Spurs General Manager RC Buford. “She was a strong, wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who provided love, support and humor to all of us.”

The organization asks media to respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

What devastating news. Hopefully, Popovich had time to make peace with this eventuality, but that doesn’t make it easy to handle.