NBA Playoffs: Howard, Magic hold off Charlotte's comeback attempt

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I had the Bobcats pegged as a potential first-round spoiler because of the way they play defense and how good they are on their home floor, but the Magic represent some fairly significant matchup problems for them on both offense and defense.
When the Bobcats have the ball, they don’t have any way to consistently score on the league’s best defensive player. They don’t have anyone fast or powerful enough with his dribble-drives to beat Howard to the hoop or challenge him and get free throws. They don’t have a post threat consistent enough to initiate the offense from the block and limit Howard’s ability to roam. They don’t have enough outside shooting to put points on the board without having to go the paint at all. Other than that, though, they’re fine. 
What the Bobcats do have is as good a defense as exists in the league. Unfortunately for them, the Magic are so unorthodox offensively that they defend themselves as much as their opponent does. That can get the Magic into trouble at times, but against a team as offensively challenged as the Bobcats, it shouldn’t kill them. Here are my notes from Sunday night’s contest between the Bobcats and the Magic, in chronological order:
-Early in the game, Theo Ratliff tries to take it strong at Howard and gets rejected for his efforts. On the ensuing semi-transition possession, Jameer Nelson pulls up for a three and nails it. As Kevin McHale noted, that’s Magic basketball.
-Jameer Nelson is a dynamo early. When he decides to drive, he’s going all the way to the cup and making the Charlotte bigs pay for staying at home on Howard. When the Bobcats give Nelson space, he’s pulling up and hitting everything he looks at. Nelson was absolutely unstoppable in the first half. He scored 24 points, only missed two shots from the field, and hit a pull-up 35 footer as time expired in the half. A jaw-dropping performance.
-Brown goes to Diaw in the post twice early, and it works both times. Posting up Lewis is generally a good idea if you have the personnel to do so, because it prevents Howard from coming over to get the block. Diaw’s two hooks accounted for the Bobcats’ only points in the paint up to that time.
-The Magic get their third basket in the paint by feeding Ratliff in the post against Howard. Still no layups, dunks or free throws from a drive to the basket or cut up to this point for the Bobcats.
-The Bobcats are getting their points by using screens and lateral passing to free up their bigs for mid-range jumpers, and are doing a pretty good job of it. The Magic are getting the ball, making 0-2 passes, and going for the drive or the first good look they can find from the perimeter. The Bobcats’ offense may look more under control, but layups and threes will almost invariably be better than mid-range jumpers over the course of a game.
-The Bobcats finally complete their first successful drive to the basket when Stephen Jackson gets a layup with 44 seconds to play in the quarter. Before they were able to do that, Dwight Howard had recorded five blocks. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Howard dominated the paint when he was in the game. 
-With Howard resting in the second quarter, the Bobcats quickly cut the lead to four. Then the Magic summon Mickael Pietrus, who hits three straight threes in the span of a minute and a half. In between two of the threes he made, Pietrus bricked a pair of free throws. I have given up trying to figure out Mickael Pietrus. Nelson and Redick drain threes of their own, and it’s back up to a 14-point Magic lead. When the Magic get hot, watch out. 
-With 1:50 left to play in the half, Larry Hughes tries to drive on Howard. In the most predictable outcome ever, Howard swats his shot away, giving him eight blocks. That put him one away from his playoff career high and two away from an NBA playoff record. (Remember, no recorded blocks when Russell and Chamberlain played.)
-Thanks in part to two ticky-tack fouls, Howard picks up his fourth infraction with eight minutes to play in the third quarter. At this point, the Magic were up 19. When he re-enters the game in the fourth, the Magic are up by 10 points. The Magic go completely cold with Howard on the bench; without him in the lane, Charlotte is free to rotate against the drive and contest shots on the perimeter instead of sagging back into the lane. Orlando can’t get anything going, and is settling for deep jumper after deep jumper. 
-Howard picks up his fifth foul just over a minute into the quarter. The Magic hold the fort this time, and don’t lose a point off their lead in the five minutes Howard sits. The Bobcats begin to creep back into the game by hitting threes and getting to the line, and cut the lead to five with 1:39 remaining. 
-That was when Pietrus came to the rescue again. Pietrus caught a pass in the corner and got his man in the air with an up-fake. Pietrus jumped to try and draw the foul, but didn’t get the contact. While falling over his defender, Pietrus threw up the three…and it went in. There were some free throws after that, but that was the shot that effectively ended Charlotte’s comeback hopes. 
General Notes:
-Howard was on the floor for 28 minutes of Sunday’s game. He was on the bench for the other 20 minutes of it. When Howard was off the floor, the Bobcats played the Magic dead even. When he played, the Magic were +9 over the Bobcats. Howard completely dominated the game while scoring five points. One of the most amazing defensive performances I’ve ever -seen.
-One more illustration that Orlando is tough to guard: they put up 98 points against one of the best defensive teams in the league with Howard and Carter combining to go 6-23 from the field. Scary.
-Rashard Lewis made just about everything he looked at, whether it was a catch-and-shoot three or a pull-up from midrange. Huge games for Lewis, Redick, Pietrus, and of course Nelson. 
-Stephen Jackson was one of the only Bobcats who wasn’t afraid to take it at Howard. This is strange, as he hyper-extended his knee in the first half. Jackson says he will play in game 2, but will reportedly undergo an MRI on his injured knee. 
-Great game for Gerald Wallace, who had a line 25/17 and had just about every aspect of his game going. If Charlotte got some shooters to give Wallace space to operate, he could be scary. 
That’s about the story for game one. Like they generally do when they’re on their game, the Magic survived their cold stretches and absolutely rained sulfur when their shots were falling. If they can keep Howard on the court, the Magic could have a relatively easy time putting Larry Brown’s squad away. 

Poor defense, Patty Mills game-winner keep LeBron James, Lakers winless

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LOS ANGELES — This loss stung. More than the first two. Because the win was in LeBron James‘ hands and…

The Lakers are 0-3 to start the season.

For much of the first 47 minutes Monday night, the Spurs out-executed the Lakers and exposed their porous defense. The Lakers ran enough, and got hot from three for a stretch, to keep themselves close, but then a LaMarcus Aldridge jumper had the Spurs up 128-120 with 1:10 left in regulation. Frustrated fans headed for the exits. The game looked over.

Then a JaVale McGee dunk and a Kyle Kuzma three (he had 37 points on the night) set up LeBron James forcing overtime in a classic LeBron fashion.

Overtime was the reverse of regulation — it was the young Lakers’ turn to make plays and dominate. A LeBron James driving and-1 had the Lakers up by six, 142-136, with just :55 seconds left. LeBron was on the doorstep of his first win as a Laker… then Bryn Forbes hit a driving layup, and after a Kuzma miss the Lakers gave up the one thing they couldn’t — a three. To Rudy Gay. Uncontested in any meaningful way. That made it a one-point game with 12 seconds left. LeBron was fouled instantly on the inbound pass but then missed two straight free throws, setting up Patty Mills for the heroics.

LeBron had one last chance to get his first win as a Laker… and nothing.

“I got to my spot, I got the shot I wanted, it just didn’t go down,” LeBron said.

For the third game in a row another team executed better than the Lakers when it mattered most, this time it was the Spurs, who pick up a 143-142 win. LeBron and the Lakers fall to 0-3 to start the season.

The same problems from the first two games remained for the Lakers — on defense they allowed 125.7 points per 100 possessions (it’s very early, but the Lakers are bottom six in defense so far). They struggled to slow LaMarcus Aldridge (37 points on 22 shots) and DeMar DeRozan (32 points), which happens to a lot of teams, but Laker defenders lost guys on back cuts and struggled with the Spurs ball movement. Offensively the Lakers were impressive in transition and got their buckets in the paint, but shot 4-of-10 between the paint and the arc, and were 9-of-32 on above-the-break threes (L.A. hit 5-of-7 from the corners, a definite improvement).

“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going it,” LeBron said. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now, but it’s such a long process. We had our chances…

“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, we’re just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”

It was a game all about pace (which ties to the Laker defense). In first quarter Spurs put up 40 points and shot 72.7 percent, and with that made the Lakers take the ball out of the basket time after time. Los Angeles couldn’t run and trailed by as many as 16 in the quarter. In the second quarter the Spurs shots didn’t fall, and the Lakers were off and running getting 34 points. For the game the Lakers had 41 fast break points.

It just wasn’t enough.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton earned himself a fine after the game with his frustration with the referees, something that has been a running theme with the Lakers for a couple of games now.

“It’s 70-something points in the paint to 50-something (74 to 50), again they outshoot us from the free throw line, 38 free throws (the Lakers had 26),” Walton ranted after the game. “Watch the play — watch the play where I got a technical, watch what happens to LeBron James’ arm. It’s the same thing that James Harden and Chris Paul shot 30 free throws on us the night before. Then LeBron pulls up on a screen and somebody’s trying to fight over it, same thing they shot free throws on. Same thing.

“We are scoring 70 points a night in the paint. We’re putting pressure on. Josh Hart, watch how plays the game, played 40 minutes tonight, all he does is attack the rim — zero free throws tonight. Zero. I know they’re young, but if we’re going to play a certain way then let’s not reward people for flopping 30 feet from the hole on plays that have nothing to do with that possession. They’re just flopping to see if they can get a foul call. And then not reward players who are physically going to the basket and getting hit. That’s not right.”

We’ll see if Walton gets his money’s worth with that rant when we see the calls Los Angeles gets in Phoenix on Wednesday.

Boston offense stumbles, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic scores 24 in Magic upset win

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BOSTON (AP) — Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 12 rebounds while the Orlando Magic survived two 3-point attempts by Boston in the closing seconds to beat the Celtics 93-90 on Monday night.

Jonathan Isaac added 18 points and 12 boards for the Magic (2-2).

Kyrie Irving led the Celtics (2-2) with 22 points. Al Horford had 15 and Gordon Hayward 11. Irving and Hayward each missed a 3 in the final seconds. Boston shot 9-of-40 from three on the night and 40.7 percent overall, looking out of sync as they have much of the season (and preseason).

The Celtics, who never led in the game, trailed by at least five points from the midway point of the final quarter until Jaylen Brown nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner, closing it to 89-86 with 71 seconds left.

But Isaac answered with a foul-line jumper on the next possession.

Horford and Irving then had consecutive baskets 32 seconds apart, slicing it to 91-90 with 14.2 seconds to play.

With Boston forced to foul Evan Fournier after Orlando inbounded the ball after a timeout, he stepped to the line and made both free throws with 7.8 seconds left.

Irving then missed his 3 from the right corner, and after Horford grabbed the rebound and fed it out – Hayward’s rimmed out just before the buzzer sounded.

Orlando had pulled ahead by 13 points twice late in the third quarter before Boston closed the period by scoring 10 of the final 12 points to slice it to 75-70 at the break.

 

Watch Stephen Curry get the volleyball set assist from his mom during warmups

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Wherever the Warriors are, home or road, fans are filling the building long before tip-off just to watch Stephen Curry warm up. With good reason, he’s a show even before the ball goes up.

Curry’s mother, Sonya, was courtside for his warmups before the Warriors hosting the Suns. Curry played a little volleyball with her, got a good set, and hit the corner three.

Pretty sure rules prohibit him from doing that during the game, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Warriors say DeMarcus Cousins making “good progress,” will participate in part of practice soon

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Don’t confuse this with “DeMarcus Cousins is almost back on the court.” The Warriors are going to be CSPAN call-in show host patient in bringing Cousins back, and a return date is still well down the schedule. There is no official timetable.

Cousins is, however, making progress and will be part of some segments of team practice shortly, the Warriors announced Monday.

“DeMarcus continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation program. After spending the last few weeks doing various individual on-court activities and drills, he will, in the near future, be integrated into controlled aspects of team practices, although not scrimmages at this point. Additionally, he will continue with his off-court strength and conditioning program.”

The Warriors want to keep Cousins happy but also know they don’t fully need him yet — they need him in the playoffs as another option to punish switches. Golden State needs Cousins healthy, back in shape, rust off and ready to go in April, but he doesn’t need to be on the court in October, or even by Christmas, to get there. Cousins wants to play, but as a guy looking to get paid next summer, he needs to come back right and show what he can do, not come back too early and damage his stock. It’s a fine line.

The Warriors and Cousins are moving closer to that line, but there is still a long way to go.