Kurt Helin

at ORACLE Arena on March 3, 2016 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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Three Things to Watch in Playoffs Thursday: Don’t bet on a cold Durant, Westbrook again

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These have been the most lopsided NBA playoffs in history so far. Maybe tonight’s games will bring us some drama. Did you hear that Basketball Gods, we want a close game! What must we sacrifice to please you? Anyway, here’s what to keep an eye out for on Thursday.

1) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not going to go a combined 15-55 again. As Steve Clifford reminded the media — or as Terry Stotts would be happy to tell you as he watches Damian Lillard struggle — it’s a make-or-miss league. In Game 2 Durant and Westbrook missed a lot — missed early, missed good looks late, missed potential game winners. That’s not going to happen again. There’s more drama around if the Mavs will try to break up Westbrook’s pregame dance routine again than there is about whether KD will shoot better. For Westbrook, the bigger questions surround his disinterested and poor late-game defense in Game 2 — when his offensive game was off, he was unfocused (to put it kindly) on key plays down the stretch. Don’t expect that to happen again, either.

The series is 1-1 and going back to Dallas, but the Mavs are going to have to play better because you can be sure the Thunder will. It took a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by the Thunder for Dallas to win by one point — and now the Mavs could be without Dirk Nowitzki who is questionable with a knee injury (although he joked it’s not going to impact his game because he doesn’t move well anyway). Wesley Matthews and Raymond Felton will need to come up big (again). Expect a storm of energy from the Thunder early, but if Dallas can withstand it at home — or just come back on the Thunder in the fourth like everyone does — this series may get very interesting.

2) At home, with their backs against the wall, with maybe no Stephen Curry against them, can Houston play like they care? Through two games, it has felt like the Houston Rockets are treating their first-round playoff series against Golden State like I used to treat the last week of school before summer vacation. It’s a countdown. Nothing more. James Harden is putting up offensive numbers but serving as little more than a traffic cone for Warriors to dribble around on the other end. Dwight Howard is floating through contests and rarely getting touches. Defensive rotations are late to non-existent. Communication is non-existent. The Rockets have just been a mess.

Curry is officially questionable with his ankle injury, and what motivation do the Warriors have to rush him back? There were flashes this season — a half here, a game or two there — where the Rockets would play close to all the talent on their roster. They would look like the team we all thought preseason was a potential contender. That team likely still would not beat the Warriors, but they could challenge them, make them work for it. I would love to see those Rockets for a night. I just fear they have checked out for summer vacation.

3) Can Toronto get DeMar DeRozan going? The Indiana Pacers have a game plan to shut DeMar DeRozan down — put Paul George on him, have help when he drives, and be physical. It’s worked. Through two games DeRozan is shooting 27 percent, is hitting just 44 percent inside the restricted area, has attempted just six free throws, has one more assist than turnovers, and has a PER of 1.7. DeRozan’s lack of a three ball (0-of-5 in two games) invites some of this pressure. Through two games, the Raptors are 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. On the road, in a tough place to play like the Fieldhouse, the Raptors are going to need DeRozan to be better. Dwane Casey needs to come up with sets to get him some space going downhill (they had some success with staggered screens in Game 2).

The Pacers have a different defensive problem — how will they slow Jonas Valanciunas? He has averaged 17.5 points and 17 rebounds a game through the two contests, and the Pacers have no natural matchup to slow him. He’s getting a steady diet of easy shots at the rim because the Pacers’ bigs and help defenders are getting pulled farther and farther out on the floor. The Pacers have options, but each comes with potential consequences — play off screens, have the guard go under, and you better hope Kyle Lowry doesn’t start draining threes. Pre-rotate on plays just leaves another guy open to a smart pass. And on down the line. But the Pacers need to pick a strategy and execute it because JV is killing them inside.

Hornets’ coach Steve Clifford brilliantly, politely tells media they don’t know what they’re talking about

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Steve Clifford is right.

To use myself as an example, I watch a ridiculous amount of NBA games during the season, both in person and on television (or streaming). I talk to people around the league — players, scouts, other basketball junkies — about the NBA and its players and strategies. I keep up on stats (particularly advanced). I’m not ignorant of the game.

But I am no scout, no coach. Not even close. I do not pretend to be. I’m wrong with what I think is going on plenty. I don’t see so many important details. I will talk about adjustments during a playoff series, but coaches often play the importance of those down.

Steve Clifford said all of that brilliantly when asked about adjustments after his Hornets’ loss Tuesday. The video above is part of his speech, here are his full comments.

Teams do make adjustments that matter over the course of a playoff series. Sometimes those work out brilliantly — think Golden State accepting their true identity and going small starting Andre Iguodala in the Finals last season — but as Clifford said often the answer is far more straightforward. For example, Portland’s coach Terry Stotts admitted after his team’s Game 2 loss Tuesday that he did use Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum off the ball more to get them better looks against a trapping Clippers’ defense. And it worked, they got more and better looks — then they shot a combined 12-of-39.

Jeff Van Gundy would remind us it’s a make-or-miss league, and all the adjustments in the world don’t matter if you miss the shots. Van Gundy protegé Clifford reminded us of that, too.

Detroit Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson on LeBron: “I’m definitely in his head”

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Detroit Pistons' Stanley Johnson (3) in the first half in Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, April 20, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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You can see why never-holds-back Stan Van Gundy likes his rookie Stanley Johnson.

For chunks of the first two games of the series, the Pistons’ Johnson has had to guard LeBron James — and this has been turn-it-up-to-11 playoff LeBron. He was 12-of-18 shooting for 27 points in the Cavaliers’ Game 2 win Tuesday.

But Johnson thinks he’s done well and after this latest loss he was talking plenty of smack, via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m definitely in his head, that’s for sure,” Johnson said…. “That’s for sure….

“He jabbers,” Johnson said of James. “He moves his mouth sometimes. Their whole team does, kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They’re always saying something like they’re playing basketball, like they’re actually in the game. There’s only seven or eight players who play. I don’t see why the other players are talking. They might as well just be in the stands, in my opinion…

“I wish he would just talk when [the game] is 0-0, not when he’s up 16,” Johnson said. “I think that’s more — that means something. That means you’re confident in yourself. You believe what you’re about to do. Don’t talk after you made a couple shots. Anybody can do that.”

ESPN’s stats people tracked it, and LeBron was 6-of-6 shooting for 13 points with the rookie Johnson on him in Game 2. So sure kid, you’re in his head.

ESPN’s Friedell tweeted out the “I’m in his head” quote and Johnson retweeted it — you have to like that the rookie is so brash. Some day he’ll be able to back it up.

 

Blake Griffin is all the way back, throws down monster dunk

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LOS ANGELES — After missing half the season due to a quad injury/broken hand/suspension, Blake Griffin returned for the final five games of the regular season. But he did not look like his old self. His shot was off, he did not seem as aggressive, and he just looked rusty.

No longer.

For two playoff games against Portland he has been a beast — and his athleticism isn’t in question. Not with dunks like this one off a little elbow pick-and-roll with Chris Paul. Griffin had 12 points (on 12 shots) and nine rebounds in this game.

“Physically I feel good,” Griffin said after the 102-81 Clipper win. “Didn’t score well tonight, but Doc stresses a lot of times, especially during the playoffs, when you’re not doing one thing particularly well find other ways to impact. So that was kind of more my thought process tonight.”

Clippers bench propels team to 102-81 win against Trail Blazers

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LOS ANGELES — Terry Stotts’ adjustments worked.

Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were playing off the ball more, using cuts, pin-down screens, and other ways to get the ball in better positions, with that they were getting up shots they could not find space to take in Game 1. The Blazers shared the ball (Mason Plumlee threw a couple beautiful passes to backdoor cutters), guys got open looks (46 percent of Portland’s shots were uncontested), and Portland’s spacing was improved.

The Trail Blazers still lost by 21.

The reason was they couldn’t knock down those shots — Portland shot 34.1 percent overall and 19.2 percent from three. Lillard and McCollum were a combined 12-of-39 from the floor.

The Los Angeles Clippers pulled away in the fourth thanks to their bench for a 102-81 victory at Staples Center Wednesday. The Clippers are now up 2-0 in the first round series, which heads to Portland Saturday. Los Angeles has won the two games by a combined 41 points. The odds are stacked in the Clippers’ favor— teams that win the first two games at home in a seven-game playoff series win it 94 percent of the time.

“Actually, I was pretty pleased with (our execution),” Stotts said. “I thought we got some good looks, especially early. We struggled to shoot the ball all night, we were under 40 percent most of the night [they finished at 34 percent]. I thought we did a good job of changing things up, as far as changing things up as far as getting different looks and moving people around.”

According to NBA.com, 46 percent of the Blazers shots were uncontested (42-of-91), they hit just 31 percent of those.

The shooting woes started with the big guns of Lillard and McCollum. In Game 1 the pair wasn’t getting enough shots, in Game 2 the pair seemed rushed on the perimeter and bothered by DeAndre Jordan when they drove the lane.

“Especially at the start of the game, I got a lot of good looks,” Lillard said. “I missed a wide-open, point-blank layup. When you get those looks early in the game, you’ve got to knock them down….

“So I got a lot more clean looks tonight. The ball didn’t go in as much as I would have liked it to, especially with us being in the game. I think if I would have had it going, it would have come down to the last couple minutes. But they didn’t.”

It wasn’t just the stars. Stotts has said that players such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have to step up because the Clippers are willing to give them clean looks to trap and challenge Lillard and McCollum. Aminu and Harkless were a combined 9-of-26.

The Clippers starters were not sharp — 42.6 percent shooting on the night for the group, although Chris Paul did end up with 25 points — however in both the second and fourth quarter it was the Clipper bench that stretched out the lead to double digits.

“They just changed the game for us,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of his bench players. “They were spectacular tonight. I thought on both ends they saved the game for us. Our starters were up-and-down a little bit today. I thought we were sloppy in a lot of ways, but I thought our bench saved us.”

Despite having the newly minted Sixth Man of the Year in Jamal Crawford, the Clipper bench was maligned for much of the season. However, over the past few weeks that unit has come together with Cole Aldrich (8 points Wednesday), Jeff Green (10), and Crawford (11). More importantly, that unit has been strong defensively. The group was playing so well that Griffin and Paul were set to check back in during the fourth and decided to withdraw for a minute and went back to the bench to let second unit keep doing it’s thing.

“The biggest place we have had an impact is defensively,” Aldrich said. “That’s where we can leave our stamp on the game. Offensively, we just came out together and played with a lot of energy while we were on the floor.”

Lillard and Mason Plumlee each had 17 points to lead the Blazers.

Stotts will make a few more adjustments, and his role players will thrive better at the Moda Center in Portland. But there’s nothing he can adjust for if Lillard and McCollum are missing.