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Three things to watch: Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Clippers have owned the Jazz the past few years (won 18 of the last 20), but with the Jazz healthy will this series be different? Let’s break it down.

Which team controls the tempo? The Utah Jazz are deliberate, playing at the slowest pace in the NBA last season (93.62 possessions per game, according to NBA.com). It’s a good strategy — if you have a great defense led by Rudy Gobert, limit the other team’s chances with the ball and keep the scoring low. The Clippers are a middle-of-the-pack pace team, and we’re used to seeing Chris Paul casually walk the ball up the court — or, often, “walk the dog” letting the ball roll for as long as he can before picking it up — and not rushing into sets.

Except when the Clippers play the Jazz, then CP3 pushes the tempo. You will see Paul run off missed shots and try to get shots early in the clock — this is an elite Utah defense when it gets set, so why let it get comfortable before attacking? The Clippers starters can put up points — the starting lineup of Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan — was the third most used lineup in the league and outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions. However, against the Jazz this season the Clippers got fewer assists than normal thanks to that Utah defense. Get offense early in the clock and the Clipper ball movement should open more things up. If the Clippers pull away in games, look at the tempo while that happens.

Can Derrick Favors — or another Jazz power forward — have a monster series? For Utah to have a real chance in this series, Derrick Favors needs to show he is healthy and have a big impact. That matters when he is on the court next to Gobert, but also when he plays as a backup center and maybe can space the floor and pull Jordan away from the basket.

When Favors was out injured Boris Diaw started at the four for Utah, and he has played well offensively, but he is a big problem defensively where a healthy, active Favors can help limit Griffin. The Clippers will likely run a lot of Chris Paul/Griffin pick-and-roll, with Jordan lurking off ball and cutting to the rim from the baseline if Gobert has to help (although Gobert can recover on that thanks to his length) — if Favors isn’t healthy and Diaw has to be out there, the Clippers will have a lot more success with that play.

Due to injury we just haven’t seen a lot of Utah’s preferred starting five, but when Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Gobert have played in a game together the Jazz are 20-5. However, add Favors to that mix and they have only played 159 minutes together all season. Compare that to the Clippers starting five which is over 800 minutes.

There is a Clippers’ corollary to Favors here — Marreese Speights. If Gobert is having a strong game (or series) expect to see more of the veteran Clipper big man because he can shoot the three and pull Gobert away from the basket. The risk there for Doc Rivers is that Speights is a weak defender and the Jazz will exploit him in the pick-and-roll at the other end.

Ultimately, where will Utah’s points come from? Utah plays a lot in the half court, and they have strong ball movement there, but the Clippers have the defenders to challenge what the Jazz do well.

Mbah a Moute has done a good job this season holding Hayward in check and not letting him dominate in the half court. CP3 is a good defender who can limit the damage Hill can do. Los Angeles is strong against the pick-and-roll with Paul and Jordan. Points are not going to come easily for Utah in this series and some guys are going to have to step. Hayward is one of them. Joe Johnson coming off the bench needs to have a big series.

Utah is going to need to knock down its threes. The Jazz were top 10 in three-point percentage in the league but middle of the pack in attempts — they are going to need those extra points. Utah needs at least 10 and even more made threes per game this series (they averaged 9.6 per game in the regular season)

Prediction: Clippers in six. I’m tempted to say in five here. Yes, the Jazz are an up and coming team, the problem is this is not a good matchup for them — there’s a reason the Clippers have won 18 of the last 20 head-to-head meetings.

Owner: Hawks will ‘make every effort imaginable’ to re-sign Paul Millsap

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Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox called re-signing Paul Millsap this summer the team’s “priority.”

Hawks owner Tony Ressler went a step further.

Ressler, via Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“We love Paul Millsap,” Ressler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “We are trying to re-sign him. We want him to stay here. We think he is a really special player and a special person that we want on our team and in our locker room and we are going to make every effort imaginable to keep him.”

There’s certainly one effort I can imagine: Offer Millsap a max contract, which projects to be worth $205 million over five years.

That’s not necessarily a wise investment. As excellent and underrated as Millsap is now, he’s 32. He’ll be hard-pressed to maintain anywhere near this level of production over the next five years. And what’s the upside for Atlanta enduring such risk, especially late in his contract? A chance at a playoff-series victory each of the next couple years? The trade-off would make more sense for a team that can accomplish something more meaningful now.

The Hawks seem conflicted about their direction. In the last year, they’ve traded Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver but also signed Dwight Howard. Atlanta’s starting lineup is split by a glaring age divider – Millsap (32) and Howard (31) on one side, Tim Hardaway Jr. (25), Dennis Schroder (23) and Taurean Prince (23) on the other.

Do the Hawks want to rebuild or win now? It almost depends when you ask, and by the offseason, there might be a different answer. But the owner so strongly endorsing re-signing Millsap speaks volumes. Everyone in the organization, including president/coach Mike Budenholzer, answers to Ressler.

Of course, Millsap will hold the cards as an unrestricted free agent. He might prefer to leave Atlanta for a team closer to title contention or any other reason.

But the Hawks can make offer that would be darned hard to refuse.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on LeBron James’ heavy workload: ‘Next, he might play 48 minutes’

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) Except for his backpedaling hairline, LeBron James shows no visible signs of age.

At 32, still in his prime, and still at the top of his game, he’s defying time.

“Benjamin Button,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue called him, referring to the fictional character who ages backward.

LeBenjamin?

Following a regular season in which he averaged more minutes per game (37.8) than any player, James logged 43.7 per game during Cleveland’s tougher-than-it-looked sweep over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. And as James and the defending champions await either Toronto or Milwaukee in the second round, James is taking advantage of the down time.

Not that he might need it.

Lue spent much of the season defending his use of James, who in all honesty is really the one in control of when he sits or doesn’t. At this point, Lue has given up worrying about resting the superstar.

“I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of his minutes,” Lue said Wednesday. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games and then he had a week off again. So next he might play 48 minutes. … Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play.”

James wasn’t available for interviews as the team gathered for the first time in two days at Cleveland Clinic Courts, and it’s likely that he won’t speak to the media until the Cavs have a second-round opponent.

But as has been the case for months, James’ playing time was one of the prime topics presented to Lue, who believes that the four-time MVP’s heavy workload during the regular season is what enables him to play at such high levels in the postseason.

Consider that James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists, shot 54 percent from the field, went 9 of 20 on 3-pointers and led the Cavaliers to the biggest second-half comeback in league history during the series against Indiana, and it’s easy to see why Lue wants to move past the minutes chatter.

“With him playing the minutes he played during the course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs,” Lue said. “Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

Unlike the regular season, when brutal travel schedules, back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights can wear players down, the postseason allows for recovery. Lue also thinks too many teams are allowing outside pressures to influence how they use players.

“Teams are suffering,” he said, “because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes” and “some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different (playoff) series.”

James has ramped up his minutes nearly every postseason. Now in his 12th playoffs, he averaged 39.1 minutes last year and has only twice averaged less than 40 per game.

Lue trusts that the three-time champion knows how far to push himself without reaching his breaking point.

“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “He said he feels great and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”

As for the rest of the Cavaliers, Wednesday included some competition in the team’s weight room on an aerobic conditioning machine while the team’s in-house DJ from Quicken Loans Arena spun music. After the vigorous workouts, yoga mats were dragged onto the court and the facility’s lights were dimmed for some stretching and decompression.

Namaste, NBA-style.

The Cavs had a similar, one-week break between the first and second rounds last season. Kyrie Irving said it’s imperative to make the most of it.

“The mental preparation and physical preparation starts now and hasn’t stopped,” he said. “Took a brief day off or two and now just get back to work and get ready for whichever team we’re getting ready for. The work never stops.”

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

NBA fines Rockets owner Leslie Alexander $100,000 for confronting referee

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Rockets owner Leslie Alexander got up from his courtside seat, walked down the sideline and talked to referee Bill Kennedy during Houston’s Game 5 win over the Thunder.

It took less than a day for an investigation to yield the predictable result.

NBA release:

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has been fined $100,000 for confronting a referee during live game action, it was announced today by Byron Spruell, President, NBA League Operations.

The interaction occurred with 0:13 remaining in the first quarter of the Rockets’ 105-99 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 25 at Toyota Center.

Per Patricia Bender’s database, this is the NBA’s largest fine in nearly two years. The NBA fined the Clippers $250,000 in 2015 for setting up DeAndre Jordan with an endorsement deal while trying to lure him back in free agency.

The NBA rightfully keeps owners on a tight leash. Unlike players, coaches and referees, who have their own unions, the league office represents the owners. So when one crosses the line – Alexander trampled over it – the hammer comes down hard. It’s an example to keep everyone else in line, and owners know they come out way ahead in this arrangement. Alexander might not like the punishment, but he benefits from owning a share of a league that so strongly dissuades such behavior.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.