NBA Playoffs: Utah beats Denver at their own game

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The first game of the Utah-Denver series was a clash of styles. The Jazz used flex sets in the half-court to get points, while the Nuggets were able to prevail by utilizing organized chaos. On Monday night, the Jazz tried to be more aggressive offensively. With no Okur or Kirilenko, the Jazz were forced to push the ball and look for early offense. Against Denver’s iffy defense, the strategy worked beautifully. 
Deron Williams was an absolute monster for the Jazz. He finished with 33 points and 14 assists, and hurt the Nuggets from every spot on the floor. When he put the ball on the floor, he got to the hoop or drew the foul, going to the line a total of 18 times. When the Nuggets gave him space, Williams stepped back and stroked the outside shot. Williams was the difference in the game on Monday night.
Boozer and Milsap also had plenty of success against Denver, scoring a combined 38 points on only 25 attempts from the field. The Jazz looked for them early in the clock, and were often able to set them up with home-run passes for layups or free throws before the Denver defense was able to react. When the Nuggets did get between Boozer and the basket, he was able to turn around and drain his patented shoulder-mounted fadeaway. They both needed to step up with Kirilenko and Okur out, and that’s exactly what they did. 
Both teams looked to score early in the clock, either by driving to the rim, finding their bigs down low, or firing the first open shot they could find. Of the 215 points scored in this contest, 103 came from behind the arc or from the free-throw line. Both teams were aggressive taking the ball to the hole, and were more than happy to take a quick three when it was available to them. Early in the game, Denver actually looked to slow the action down to exploit Fesenko (who did look out of place), but later on they went right back to playing up-tempo and taking the first shot available. What resulted was a crazy game with lead changes, fast-breaking, and lots and lots of free throws. 
The Nuggets’ reliance on guard play may have hurt them in this game. The Nuggets’ bigs were effective all game; Nene, K-Mart, Birdman, and Petro combined to go 17-24 from the field while Anthony, Billups, Smith, and Afflalo combined to go 18-51. Billups and Anthony were able to get to the line, but the Jazz were able to hide their own lack of bigs by exploiting Denver’s over-reliance on their ball-handlers to create points. 
Denver’s soft interior defense ended up costing them the game. The only field goal Utah made from outside the paint in the fourth quarter was the go-ahead three by Kyle Korver; everything else was a shot inside the paint or a free throw. Deron Williams cut the lead to one with an unforgivably easy basket off a UCLA cut with 2:32 remaining. 
After Chauncey Billups missed a three, Kyle Korver hit his first three of the night to put the Jazz up two with 1:28 to play. After Chauncey Billups split (!) a pair of key free throws, the Nuggets were able to deny Deron Williams the ball and bait Kyle Korver into a drive that led to a charge. Korver was able to acquit himself on the very next possession, drawing a key charge of his own on Carmelo Anthony to put Denver in desperation mode. Utah made its free throws, Chauncey Billups missed both of his three-point heaves, and Utah was able to steal one in Denver. 
On Monday night, Utah decided to change up their tactics and embrace Denver’s philosophy of organized chaos. The difference in the game ended up being that Utah remembered the part about organization. Denver has the firepower to beat any team in the West, but they’ll need to be more disciplined at both ends of the floor if they want to make any kind of a playoff run. 
 

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.