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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.

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook focused on playoffs, not historic season

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Shortly after the Thunder wrapped up their regular-season finale, Russell Westbrook grew weary of talking about individual accolades.

The Thunder guard happily answered questions about Oscar Robertson’s MVP endorsement , and he answered a few questions about his record 42 triple-doubles in the regular season before his mood soured. When he was asked about winning his second scoring title in three years , he hesitated, then simply replied: “Next question.”

Westbrook understands none of that matters now.

He is squarely focused on what’s ahead: the Thunder’s playoff series with Houston that begins Sunday night – and postseason success.

“The group of guys that we have, especially going into the playoffs – we’ve got to make sure we come ready to play, because we know they’re (Houston) going to be ready,” he said.

Westbrook has gone into most of the high-stakes games in his career with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka at his side. But Durant left for Golden State in free agency last summer, and Ibaka, one of the league’s best defensive players for much of his career in Oklahoma City, now plays for Toronto.

Westbrook will have to help one of the youngest teams in the NBA get acclimated to playoff basketball. He said there won’t be any special conversations about what to expect.

“Just play, man,” Westbrook said. “Best thing you can do. It’s what I did. Just go out and compete at a high level, and the game will tell you what to do. Obviously, the stakes are higher, but at the same time, still got to put the ball in the hole. Still the same basketball, same court. I just go out and compete.”

Still, this journey will be much different for Westbrook.

“I think he’s excited from a leadership role to try to help guys that don’t have that kind of experience, haven’t been through it or are going through it for the first time, to try to help those guys,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think he’ll be the same as he always is. As the season’s gone on, I really haven’t seen a whole lot of change in Russell from the first day of training camp to now.”

Westbrook doesn’t want to talk about the triple-doubles, but they are a critical component for the Thunder. Oklahoma City went 33-9 this season when Westbrook registered a triple-double and 13-26 when he didn’t. The Thunder are 4-1 all-time in the playoffs when Westbrook gets a triple-double.

He’s facing another player who gets triple-doubles in bunches. James Harden, Westbrook’s former teammate in Oklahoma City, collected 22 this season.

It’s the most intriguing first-round series of the playoffs.

Westbrook said the fact that Oklahoma City is matching up Harden does add a little something to the matchup. They are the front-runners for the MVP award, and they last played together for the Thunder in 2011-12, when Oklahoma City lost to Miami in the NBA Finals.

“It’s definitely cool,” Westbrook said. “It’s a great experience. Something that we can talk about later on down the line. Definitely, it’s good.”

The Thunder have played relatively well against Harden this season, holding him to 20.5 points per game on 34 percent shooting in the four meetings. Westbrook said there are other threats for the Rockets, who set the NBA record for 3-pointers made this season. Harden, Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza each made at least 110 3-pointers this season.

“Obviously, they’re a great offensive team,” Westbrook said. “Transition, they do a great job of getting threes. You’ve got to protect the 3-point line.”

Westbrook has lit up the Rockets, averaging 36.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists in four meetings, but Houston has won three of the four games.

Westbrook averaged 34.6 minutes per game in the regular season and shouldered a large amount of the load for the team, especially late in close games. He isn’t sure how Donovan will manage his minutes in the playoffs.

“I just go out when my name is called,” he said. “I go on the floor and play.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Stan Van Gundy says Andre Drummond needs ‘sense of urgency’

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy has a reputation for candor, so when he was asked to evaluate the development of star center Andre Drummond, the Detroit coach’s matter-of-fact response was no surprise.

“I think that he needs to have a sense of urgency to elevate his game,” said Van Gundy, who is also the Pistons’ team president. “He’s been in the league five years now. He’s still young. He hasn’t turned 24. So he’s got time. He’s a very talented guy. He’s been one of the elite rebounders in the league. He’s got some great things to work with, but there’s more there. The sky is the limit for him.”

Van Gundy spoke for over a half-hour at a news conference Friday with general manager Jeff Bower. The Pistons just wrapped up a disappointing 37-45 season in which Drummond and point guard Reggie Jackson were unable to lead the team back to the playoffs after Detroit made it in 2016. Although Van Gundy is still expressing confidence in his team’s core, it’s clear the Pistons believe some of their top players need to provide more in 2017-18.

Drummond’s scoring slipped this season, and the Pistons weren’t as imposing on the offensive boards as they’d been in the past. Jackson also struggled after a preseason setback involving the health of his knee. Van Gundy says he’s hopeful that Jackson can return to form next season.

Van Gundy sounded content with merely tweaking the roster this offseason instead of making a major move.

“I don’t think we’re broken,” he said. “I think getting our point guard situation back to where it was, or even better, is more than feasible, and I think corrects a great deal of the problems that we’re talking about. And then I think our roster’s pretty good from there. I really do.”

Guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a restricted free agent, and Van Gundy called him an important part of the Pistons’ core. Backup big man Aron Baynes can opt out of his contract, and if the Pistons lose him, center Boban Marjanovic could play a bigger role.

Van Gundy was asked about his dual responsibilities as coach and president. He said Bower plays an important role handling front office duties during the season, so Van Gundy can focus on coaching.

“This idea that I’m doing both jobs is in most ways not true,” Van Gundy said.

Van Gundy said one concern with having the same person in charge of coaching and the front office is that a coach can have a tendency to overreact – but he says Bower acts as a check against that.

“After every loss, you want to trade everybody. I’ve felt that way several times. I’ve directed Jeff to do that several times,” Van Gundy joked, drawing a laugh. “But he’s smart enough not to do that.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Carmelo Anthony responds on Instagram to Phil Jackson with Great Gatsby reference. Seriously.

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“We have not been able to win with him on the court at this time, and I think that the direction of our team is that he is a player that would be better off somewhere else and using his talent somewhere where he can win or chase that championship.”

That was Phil Jackson’s comment on Carmelo Anthony heading into the off-season for the Knicks (which comes without a playoff trip for the fourth consecutive season). Everyone wondered if Anthony would respond, and he did on Instagram — but who saw the Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby reference coming? Anyone?

REALLY 😂😂 #StayMe7o

A post shared by Carmelo Anthony (@carmeloanthony) on

To rehash the obvious, Carmelo Anthony has a no-trade clause and can veto any deal Jackson tries to put together, so Jackson needs to work with Anthony and his agent Leon Rose to come up with a trade that works for everyone (maybe in Cleveland, maybe with the Clippers, maybe somewhere else, so much depends on what happens in the postseason). Maybe they are behind the scenes. Either way, Jackson doesn’t need to sell Anthony on leaving through a public forum, he just needs to help facilitate the deal quietly and privately.

Jackson was a master manipulator as a coach, sometimes using the media to get his message across, but it’s one thing to do that with players as a coach when you’re in the locker room and guys see you every day. It’s very different when it comes from an on-high ivory tower, as it will from a team president. Jackson has not mastered that media transition smoothly.

All that said, Anthony will get traded this summer.

Then Jackson can move on to smoothing over his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, which apparently needs some attention as well.

Report: Kristaps Porzingis, frustrated about “dysfunction, drama” skips Knicks exit meeting

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The Knicks are providing more drama than “Hamilton” on Broadway — and with cheaper ticket prices.

Phil Jackson vs. Carmelo Anthony war or words continued on Friday with Jackson saying ‘Melo would be better off on another team, and Anthony responding on Instagram with a Great Gatsby reference (seriously). Then there’s the triangle offense and Jackson stepping on Jeff Hornacek’s toes drama. It’s all rather ridiculous drama leading up to a ‘Melo trade this summer, but it could be having another impact.

The future star of the franchise Kristaps Porzingis is sick of all this, and he skipped his exit meeting with the team because of it, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

Kristaps Porzingis skipped exit meetings with New York Knicks management due to frustration over what he perceives as the dysfunction and drama surrounding the organization, team sources told ESPN.com….

Porzingis, according to team sources, is frustrated with the lack of direction with the team, which is headed by team president Phil Jackson.

So, he’s like every Knicks fan then.

The difference is Porzingis isn’t going anywhere — he’s still on his rookie contract, and he’s not going to walk away from the max extension the Knicks will undoubtedly offer him after next season. He’s going to be a Knicks for eight or nine years to start his career, most likely.

Which means he likely outlasts Jackson, who just had the last two years of his deal picked up by owner James Dolan. This move by Porzingis seems a message to Jackson and more importantly to Dolan that he is not happy. KP could threaten to leave after his rookie deal (which has a lot of risks), but that’s another level. This was a warning shot. Whatever move Porzingis makes, the Knicks fans will back him before Jackson, Dolan, or anyone else.

All this and the summer of drama in New York is just getting started.