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Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

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To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.

Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.

• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).

Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.

We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.

It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.

If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.

Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)

Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.

• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?

However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.

LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).

It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.

• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.

The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.

Simmons lets the Sixers do that.

Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.

Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.

Put the brakes on all that.

Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.

Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?

Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.

If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.

• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.

However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.

In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.

How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.

Isaiah Thomas says after hip surgery “the problem is fixed,” not worried about free agency

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The Brinks truck is not backing up to Isaiah Thomas‘ door this summer. At least not like he had hoped.

It’s hard to come up with an NBA player whose value has fallen as fast in a calendar year as Thomas. Last year at this time he was on his way to finishing fifth in the MVP voting, being an All-NBA player, and leading the Celtics into the postseason as the No. 1 seed. Now — after a season where he played in just 32 games due to a hip injury that ultimately required surgery, a year where he was traded twice and came off as a malcontent in Cleveland — his stock is down. He helped it some with his play as a Laker, but the hip surgery will make teams cautious.

Thomas said the surgery fixed his hip issue, and he is not worried about free agency, he told Bill Oram of the Orange County Register.

“I just feel like it was the right decision to do this to fix the problem,” Thomas said, “which I never solely fixed. I just tried to let it heal on his own and I think I did the best I possibly could while doing that.

“Now the problem is fixed and (I’m on) the road back to 100 percent.”

“The results will show that the surgery only fixed it,” he said. “The world knew that I never got my labrum fixed when I was going through that and trying to heal on my own. … The decision that I made it felt like it was the best decision for me personally, individually, as a basketball player for the rest of my career.”

In what will be a very tight market for free agents, Thomas is not going to find a max contract, or anything in that ballpark. He will find teams offering shorter term deals — one or two years — because they want to see if Thomas after the surgery can play close to the Thomas before the surgery. If he takes a one-year deal (or one+one) with the Lakers or elsewhere and proves he is close to his former self — and it doesn’t need to be last year in Boston Thomas, just the Sacramento-level Thomas — he will get paid big in 2019 (when the market opens up).

A lot of teams calling Thomas are going to ask him about being a sixth man, playing the Lou Williams/Jamal Crawford gunner off the bench role. Thomas has resisted that. If he opens his mind, however, he also opens up his possibilities.

Jimmy Butler returns, Timberwolves pick up crucial win vs. Lakers 113-96

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jimmy Butler scored 18 points in his return from right knee surgery, Jeff Teague had 25 points and eight assists, and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-96 on Friday night.

Butler played 22 1/2 minutes and was 7 for 10 from the field in his first game since getting hurt against Houston on Feb. 23. He had surgery two days later for a cartilage injury and missed 17 games.

Minnesota moved into sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference with the win (half a game ahead of Denver, but the teams are tied in the loss column).

Taj Gibson also scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who were on the second night of a back-to-back. They lost to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday.

Julius Randle scored 20 points and added 10 rebounds for the Lakers, who have lost nine of their last 13. Brook Lopez had 18 points and six rebounds, while Josh Hart tallied 20 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.

The Timberwolves took a 96-76 lead on a jump shot by Jamal Crawford. Los Angeles cut its deficit to 13 with 4:42 remaining in the game, but Minnesota scored six straight points, then opened up a 21-point lead with 2:06 left.

Minnesota started the third quarter with a 16-6 run and took a 67-64 lead on a basket Butler. Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Towns all made 3-pointers to give the Timberwolves an eight-point lead with 3:25 remaining in the period.

Towns capped an 11-2 run with a put-back layup to give Minnesota a 78-68 advantage with 2:12 remaining in the third. Josh Hart made a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer and the Lakers trailed 80-73.

Los Angeles went on a 9-0 run after trailing 36-32 in the second quarter. An 11-0 run four minutes later gave the Lakers a 52-40 lead with 3:08 remaining in the first half.

Gibson’s basket cut Minnesota’s deficit to 56-50. The Timberwolves trailed 58-51 at halftime. Despite shooting only 29 percent from the field, the Lakers outscored the Timberwolves 32-21 in the second quarter.

Lopez scored the first 15 points for the Lakers, outscoring Minnesota by himself over the first six minutes of the game. The rest of the team, however, scored only 11 points the rest of the quarter.

 

Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn on shouting match with coach Jeff Hornacek: ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’

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Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek’s confrontation with Joakim Noah led to the center being sent away from the team.

During Friday’s loss to the Timberwolves, Hornacek got into it with another New York center – Kyle O'Quinn, who didn’t properly contest a Karl-Anthony Towns shot. After O’Quinn missed a couple shots and got roasted by Jamal Crawford, Hornacek and his player yelled at each other during a stoppage.

O’Quinn, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“I’ll be the first one to say my reaction was the wrong one,’’ O’Quinn said Sunday. “Someone yelled at me, I yelled back. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“I like that s–t,” he said. “It was heat of the moment, heat of the game. He’s a competitor, ex-player. I’m sure if he’s in that position, he would’ve done something different back in his day. I was fired up at the game. I felt it was a winnable game. They were going to let us dance a bit and we were going to be in it. It’s just a reaction. You know how I am on the floor — fiery.”

Hornacek, via Berman:

“We like guys who are fiery,’’ Hornacek said. “Kyle’s done a great job all year long with his activity and intensity.’’

Tempers sometimes flare like this, including on functional teams. People are just usually disciplined enough to avoid doing it in front of cameras. Wait until everyone is in a closed locker room or practice.

That Hornacek and O’Quinn didn’t speaks to how upset they were.

This could affect Hornacek’s reputation in particular. When the Suns fired him, they said players stopped responding to him. This is more circumstantial evidence his message wears thin on players over time.

Not that the Knicks will need that excuse. Hornacek’s dismal record – even though more a product of an underwhelming roster – will probably give president Steve Mills cover to fire the coach he inherited.

James Harden scores 34, Rockets hold off Timberwolves 129-120

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists, and Houston held off a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-120 on Sunday night for the Rockets’ 26th win in 28 games.

The West’s top team led by as many as 25 before the Timberwolves, holding on for dear life in a tightening playoff race, pulled within five in the fourth. The loss dropped the Wolves into the eighth playoff spot after they started the day in a three-way tie for fifth.

Harden had 11 points in the final 6:34, including a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left that effectively secured the win.

Chris Paul and Clint Capela each had 16 points for the Rockets.

Jeff Teague led Minnesota with 23 points, Andrew Wiggins had 21, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jamal Crawford each added 20.

The Wolves got a burst of energy after a fourth-quarter scuffle between Gorgui Dieng, Paul and Gerald Green. Green was ejected for coming to Paul’s defense after a frustrated Dieng pushed him down after a foul. With the pumped-up crowd chanting “Gor-Gui!,” Derek Rose had back-to-back layups to pull the Wolves to 109-102. But Paul hit a jumper with Crawford in his face, and Harden easily drove past Dieng for a layup to give the Rockets some breathing room.

Minnesota’s 19-6 run made it 115-110 with 3:58 to play before Trevor Ariza hit a 3, and the Rockets were able to answer every Wolves bucket to hold off the rally.

The game was seemingly over by halftime; Houston shot 63 percent, hit 11 3-pointers and led by as many as 24 in the first half while turning the ball over only three times. Harden had 10 assists in the first half, when the Wolves were as close as three before Houston reeled off a 12-0 run and didn’t allow Minnesota to recover.