Jrue Holiday torches Blazers as Pelicans take Game 2 in Rip City

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Jrue Holiday was on fire in the City of Roses on Tuesday night. The Pelicans guard, seemingly unstoppable and clearly the best player on the court for either team, scored 33 points and added nine assists as the New Orleans Pelicans topped the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-102, to win Game 2 in Oregon on Tuesday.

Now, the series shifts back to New Orleans as the Pelicans get a chance to close out the 3rd seed in the Western Conference on their home court.

Things started much they way they had in Game 1. Portland, whose stars struggled during the first two periods on Saturday, couldn’t find their address on offense, missing with clunky jumpers. Jusuf Nurkic was markedly more aggressive, something he told reporters between games that he needed to commit to. New Orleans didn’t fare much better, although they survived thanks to Anthony Davis and breakout play from Holiday.

Things turned around for Portland come the second period, with the Blazers guards becoming more aggressive to the rack, especially with Davis resting on the bench. Holiday continued to be New Orleans’ main offensive mainstay, although it was all he could do to resist the 3-point barrage from the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu and CJ McCollum. The half finished with Aminu going wild, scoring 12 points and adding nine rebounds while shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.

As the teams geared up to close the game, again both sides were sloppy on offense. Portland hit an unfortunate stretch midway through the third quarter when Nurkic left for the locker room with 8:31 to go. He was eventually cleared to return, but didn’t see action again. Evan Turner followed 90 seconds later with what the Blazers called a toe contusion. Both failed to return to action, limiting the dynamism of Portland on offense.

Still, the Blazers remained in the game thanks to Holiday picking up his fourth foul with seven minutes left in the third. With the best player on the court sidelined, Damian Lillard seemed reignited and the Blazers battled back.

Much like in Game 1, it was slippery fingers and a failure to return fire at Holiday that doomed Portland. The Pelicans guard was unconscious, able to attack the rack while snaking through the Blazers defense for longer jumpers. Then, in the final two minutes, the Blazers let several long rebounds escape them until finally it was an unlikely hero for New Orleans that sealed Portland’s fate.

Enter Rajon Rondo:

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was pretty dang pleased with Rondo’s effort, a near triple-double of 16 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. Speaking to reporters after the game, Gentry said he was happy to have a playoff veteran like Rondo take what was perhaps the biggest shot of the game, despite Rondo’s reputation as a poor 3-point shooter.

“In those situations I like his chances, because I know what a competitor he is,” said Gentry.

Meanwhile, Holiday appears to be having a breakout moment — the second or third of his career — as he has played top dog against Portland all series long. Holiday was again helpful against Lillard and McCollum on defense, although the pair of star Blazers guards fared better than they did to start Game 1.

“If you can tell me a better two-way player in the league right now, I’ll listen,” said Gentry.

It’ll be hard to pick against the Pelicans moving forward. Although they were more aggressive this time around, Portland’s guards still looks somewhat out of sorts on offense. Again, it seemed like Lillard and McCollum struggled on the open shots they did get.

Meanwhile, even with an offensive attack that was sometimes sloppy on Tuesday, the Pelicans still managed to post an offensive rating of 116. That’s significant for a team that’s as quick as New Orleans given they also scored just seven points off the break.

Game 3 is in New Orleans on Thursday night at 6:00 PM PST. Portland will be fighting for their confidence, which the Pelicans already have in spades.

Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Boban Marjanovic so tall he teases Anthony Davis with ball like child

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Please allow me a small personal aside: When you cover the NBA for a living and attend a lot of games in person, you become desensitized to height in that context. A 6’8″ guy, a full eight inches taller than me, doesn’t phase me. I don’t look twice at a 6’10” player, you just become numb to the height. But every once in a while a guy comes through the locker rooms and gyms where you double take and think “they make human’s that big?” Shaq is that way. Yao Ming had that effect.

Boban Marjanovic is one of those guys.

The Clippers 7’3″ Serbian center is not just tall but thick and with a long wingspan. How big is he? Watch him treat Anthony Davis like I treat my 9-year-old daughter when I don’t want her to get a piece of candy.

You have just watched the latest NBA meme be born.

The best part is the way Davis laughs at it, as do Rajon Rondo and the rest of the Pelican team.

Kris Dunn locks down point guards, but what about Bulls’ starting job?

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DETROIT – For the first time in his life, Kris Dunn lost his confidence.

Dunn expected to hit the ground running in the NBA. The Timberwolves drafted him No. 5 in 2016. After four years at Providence, he looked like one of the most polished rookies in his class.

But Dunn struggled last season. He didn’t play as much as he wanted. When he did, he wasn’t always at his natural position of point guard, spending time at shooting guard and even small forward. He was tentative and, despite being more selective in shooting, inefficient. His combination of usage percentage (14.2) and true shooting percentage (43.2) was ghastly and rare.

“My whole life, that’s all I did, attack and be aggressive,” Dunn said. “I play off of instincts, and last year, I really couldn’t do that.

“That’s the first time. I always play with that swagger, always play with confidence. Everywhere else I’ve been, because I go hard and I work hard, people liked it.”

The Bulls still did. They acquired Dunn in the Jimmy Butler trade, a deal Dunn called a “restart” for him. Dunn, whom Chicago shut down late, improved across the board this season.

In the last two years, Derrick Rose, Jerian Grant, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, Cameron Payne and now Dunn have been the Bulls’ point guard du jour. Can Dunn seize the starting role long-term?

“If I keep working hard and keep improving, I definitely think I can be that player,” Dunn said. “It’s not going to be easy. Just got to keep improving.”

The 24-year-old Dunn is still a low-end starting point guard – better than some even younger than him and stop-gaps, but few others. But his age and attitude give him a chance to stick.

His approach starts defensively. Dunn is tied for fourth in the NBA with 2.0 steals per game:

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Dunn gets those steals without gambling too often or losing track of his man. They’re a product of dogged defense and a 6-foot-9 wingspan on his 6-foot-4 frame.

Even in Minnesota, after a rough start on both ends and continued offensive struggles, Dunn settled in as a solid defender.

“Defense, you can control,” Dunn said. “It’s just about energy and effort. That ain’t never going to leave me. No matter what happened in Minnesota, I know I was always going to go out there and bring that. That’s one thing I was proud about.”

Dunn should also be proud of his strides as a scorer. His shooting has improved in all three phases:

  • 2-pointers: 40% to 46%
  • 3-pointers: 29% to 32%
  • Free throws: 61% to 73%

Yet, those marks all still fall below league average – 51% on 2-pointers, 36% on 3-pointers, 77% on free throws – let alone good rates for a starting point guard.

Chicago scored a dreadful 101.0 points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the floor. It’s hard on everyone when the lead ball-handler is such a limited scoring threat.

But he can continue to improve. The Bulls are only one season into rebuilding, and though they can always get impatient, there probably won’t be a worthwhile quick fix available. Dunn should get opportunities to grow.

He rediscovered his confidence this season and found a coach in Fred Hoiberg who believes in him.

“I love everything about Kris,” Hoiberg said. “And, again, I hope we’re around for a long time together.”

Anthony Davis on Pelicans if Cousins healthy: “We go to the Finals”

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On January 27, the Pelicans were 27-21 and had won seven-of-eight (including just beating the Houston Rockets), and they were solidly in as the six seed in the West. They looked like a solid playoff team in the West, and with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins they were going to be a tough matchup in the first round.

Jan. 27 was also the day it became official that Cousins had torn his Achilles and was done for the season.

It leads to a lot of “what ifs” in New Orleans. During All-Star weekend ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Anthony Davis about that and he was more optimistic than most.

“We could have gone through the playoffs. No one could really stop us as bigs. We go to the Finals if we went,” Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in an interview over All-Star weekend.

“[Teammate Rajon Rondo] reminds us of it: ‘You guys are the two best bigs. I know what it takes to win championships; we got it.'”

Two quick thoughts here. First, no the Pelicans were not contenders. Second, I want Davis to think like this, to say this if I’m a Pelicans fan or in Pelicans management. The best players always think they can find a way to win.

The big question around the Pelicans now is how the Cousins injury impacts the future of GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry. Those two were under a mandate to make the playoffs or a housecleaning was coming, and they were clearing that bar before a catastrophic injury. Are they both back now? Neither? There are rumors out of the Big Easy they are leaning toward keeping Demps but dumping Gentry, however, it’s still unclear.

Also unclear, how much do the Pelicans re-sign Cousins for (they will) and for how many years? It’s going to be a hot summer in New Orleans one way or another.