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How the Utah Jazz became the team nobody in the West playoffs wants to face

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LOS ANGELES — On Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500 and five games out of the playoffs, they were without injured big man Rudy Gobert, not to mention the Jazz were still trying to figure out their offense in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s summer departure. A lot of teams would have mentally folded at that point (if management didn’t decide for them to tank and focus on getting a high draft pick).

Since then the Jazz are 31-7, and their defense — anchored by likely Defensive Player of the Year Gobert — is allowing less than a point per possession.

That run has vaulted them into the playoffs, and with a win Wednesday night in Portland, the No. 3 seed.

Ask around other top teams in the West about what teams they’d like to avoid in the first round and Utah’s name is quick to come up — because of that defense. Even the teams sure they could knock off Utah know it would be a physical series against a resilient team that will not quit. Utah will enter the playoffs as anywhere from the three to five seed and there is no team in the West thinking the Jazz would be an easy out.

Which is amazing to say coming off a weird season for the Jazz.

“Weird is an understatement,” Utah’s coach Quin Snyder said. “Starting with the uncertainty around what our team would look like (without Hayward), aside from the standpoint we knew we wanted to be grounded defensively. Then we lost Rudy (Gobert, to two different knee injuries). It’s harder to do that without him….

Then you get into December where you know you’ve got the toughest schedule of any month for any team in the league. Then around December 18 [Note: it was Dec. 15 when Gobert suffered a second knee injury], you can forget that because you’re struggling without Rudy. We had a lot of challenges. There was a point that this group, the guys that are here, continued not to think about it and do the best with what we have. It started out with just maintaining our competitive spirit and being unselfish, and then see where it goes.”

It went to the playoffs.

“You’ve seen teams that lose their star player… they fall back to a lottery team. They fall to being a team where we don’t expect much,” Jazz star rookie Donovan Mitchell said of Utah’s attitude coming into camp without Gordon. “We never had that mindset, you didn’t feel that. Me, coming in, it wasn’t talked about, it just felt like ‘we’re here to play.’ People overlooked the fact that ya, we lost our main scoring option, but we still had Rudy, and him being defensive player of the year.”

Two things defined this Jazz season, and it’s those two things that make them a real playoff threat: their defense and rookie Donovan Mitchell.

Since Gobert’s Jan. 19 return from a second knee injury, Utah has allowed just 97.4 points per 100 possessions defensively — far and away the best in the league (second in that stretch is Philadelphia at 101.4). With Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz are the best defensive rebounding team in the league — it helps to have Derrick Favors on the front line with Gobert for that — and the Jazz shut down easy buckets for the other team, allowing just 9.8 fast break points per game (best in the NBA). For the season (which includes the 26 games without Gobert) Utah allows the fifth lowest percentage of opponent shots at the rim — with many of those drives becoming pull-ups because of Gobert’s presence inside had players not wanting to challenge him. Plus, because they have Gobert as a backstop, Utah perimeter defenders can be aggressive chasing guys off the three-point line — Utah allowed the fourth fewest percent of opponent shots from three (stats via cleaning the glass).

With Gobert back healthy and anchoring that defense, Utah had THE defining stretch of their season — from January 24 through Valentine’s Day Feb. 14 the Jazz did not lose. It was 11 straight wins, vaulting them back up into the playoff picture.

“After the win streak we expected to win,” Mitchell said. “We saw what we can do, so why not continue it? A lot of teams get the win streak and are like ‘we have it’ and put it in their back pocket and save it for later. We were like ‘let’s do this for the rest of the year.’ Why not continue to win and play the way we have been?”

They did — from March 2-17 Utah rattled off another nine straight wins.

While the lockdown defense anchored this team and put them in position to win games, they still needed to score. That’s where rookie Donovan Mitchell came in.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to a serious Rookie of the Year candidate averaging 20.5 points per night as the focal point of Utah’s offense.

When the season tipped off, Mitchell looked like a lot of other rookie guards, overwhelmed by the speed and athleticism of the NBA game — in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. However, Mitchell is an avid watcher of film and he caught on fast. By December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1 (those numbers came back to earth a little as defenses adjusted to him, but his efficiency has remained strong).

“When the season started it really took off real quick for me, and it took seven or eight games to catch up (to the speed)…” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “Then this season, just taking it game-by-game, getting a better understanding of what they needed from me, how to approach games, how to approach certain matchups, how to approach reads and coverages.”

Snyder saw what he had in Mitchell and by the second month of the season put the ball in his hands — but didn’t let up on the rookie.

“He’s been stern,” Mitchell said of Snyder. “He’s been real firm on how he wants me to develop. He says he’s going to let me make mistakes, but he’s going to let me know…. The way he’s coaching me, I don’t think I can make a lot of mistakes most rookies make. That’s my mindset. I don’t look at myself as a rookie anymore, and just being able to understand that this is a lot different than October. He’s been great, he’s been very understanding. He tells me he trusts me all the time. So you have that backing.”

It’s not October anymore — it’s about to be the playoffs. The intensity of play is about to go up a couple more notches.

“Now (in the playoffs), teams have three or four days to scout you,” Mitchell said. “They play you over and over and over again, so shot you have there in Game 1 is not going to be there in Game 2, the same shot you take in Game 2 is not going to be there in Game 3 and you’re going to have to understand that, you’re going to have to find different ways to get involved, whether it’s offensively or defensively, find other ways to get guys open, and to find the right open guys because now they have so much film to watch from the season… just being able to take it step by step and be able to read and study film and where the openings are.”

Mitchell still is a relentless attacker on offense — he averaged 13.2 drives per game, 11th most in the league, and since the All-Star break he averages the eighth most drives per game. He shoots and efficient 51 percent on those, and more importantly, he’s becoming a better passer on those plays, finding spot-up specialist Joe Ingles or other Jazz shooters for assists on 9.9 percent of them.

“Earlier in the season, a lot of those passes I would probably take to the rim or throw up a crazy shot,” Mitchell said of the passes he made in recent games. “It slowed down, it allows me to find guys when they’re open. It goes back to watching a lot of film and just knowing where my teammates are going to be.”

Starting this weekend, Mitchell is going to have to connect on those passes through even tighter windows. Joe Ingles is going to have to keep knocking down threes. Ricky Rubio is going to need to keep making smart passes in transition, plus hit a few jumpers. Derrick Favors needs to own the glass and get some buckets. And Rudy Gobert needs to continue being Rudy Gobert.

Do that, and they are the exact kind of team nobody wants to face in the first round. A team built for playoff basketball that will welcome the physical play. A team that has already proved they will not quit.

A team that is dangerous.

 

Now, Dwyane Wade must decide if this was the end

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade‘s first NBA game was in Philadelphia.

His last NBA game may have been there as well.

Retirement is a very real option for Wade, who has been not-so-quietly saying for weeks that he isn’t sure if he’ll be back next season. The offseason is here now, after the Miami Heat were ousted by the 76ers on Tuesday night in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round series, and the face of the franchise may have taken his jersey off for the final time.

He has not decided.

But some of his closest friends believe this could really be the end.

“I appreciate y’all concern,” Wade said in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. “But we’ll worry about that later.”

Of course, his fans want him to come back. One prominent fan — his wife — cast her vote before he even left the floor after Game 5.

No one, not even Wade, knows how long this process will take. He’s going to talk to his wife. He’s going to talk to his kids. He’s going to talk to the Heat, and he’s going to talk to the people within his inner circle that are trusted most.

Wade isn’t a starter, but it could be argued the three-time NBA champion is still Miami’s best player. Wade carried the Heat to victory in Game 2 and got them on the brink of a win in Game 4. He doesn’t run as fast or jump as high as the version of himself known as Flash did, but he’s still capable of delivering big moments.

If Wade is done, the last visions fans will have of his career will be with him in a Heat uniform, still doing his thing. That matters to him. He isn’t Michael Jordan going out in a Washington jersey, or Patrick Ewing playing his last game with Orlando, or Shaquille O’Neal limping away from his NBA finale in Boston colors.

He wouldn’t be going out on top, but he’d be going out in the right uniform and still playing at a high level.

One way or another, his career always was going to end in Heat colors anyway. He wasn’t going out in a Chicago jersey, nor a Cleveland jersey. He had to wear “Heat” across his chest again, and when the Cavaliers traded him to Miami in February, it immediately became obvious that Wade was changing franchises for the final time.

Resume-wise, he’s more than good. He’s got three NBA championships. He’s got an Olympic gold medal. He’s going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s going to go down as one of the best two or three shooting guards in the history of the game. The only guys with as many points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots in their regular season and playoff careers as Wade? Jordan is one, LeBron James is the other.

Here’s something else to consider: Wade has never wanted a farewell tour. He watched Kobe Bryant go through it, noted how much of a grind it was for the Lakers star, and doesn’t want to hear the same questions in every road stop next season.

What’s the motivation to return?

That’s the unknown.

Wade is set financially. So this decision won’t primarily be about money. Even after a brutal divorce and custody battle a few years ago, Wade will never worry about cash. He’s well-invested, has deals that will continue working for him well after his playing days end, and will make millions next year whether he’s wearing sneakers or suits.

The Heat have serious cap challenges and won’t have a bank-breaking deal to offer Wade this summer. He won’t play for the minimum. He won’t get anywhere near the maximum. For him to return, it’ll have to be worth his while. He spends a ton of money to keep his body right. And if Wade can make more off the court than on it next year, it might make sense for him to retire.

Plus, put simply, Wade wants more time with his family.

His oldest son, 16-year-old Zaire, is finishing his sophomore year of high school. Zaire can play. He gets attention because of his father’s name, but his game is real. The next couple years will be critical to his development as a ballplayer, and his dad wants to have the time to share as much wisdom as he can.

So clearly, there are good reasons for Wade to retire.

But he can still play. And that might be the reason to come back, one more time.

 

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.