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. 
 

Cavaliers still look to trade, waive J.R. Smith before Sunday; He may ultimately be a Laker

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The math is simple: J.R. Smith is set to make $15.7 million next season, however, if he is waived before Sunday, the Cavaliers team — or whatever team he is a member of — only has to pay $3.9 million of that. For a team looking for salary cap savings in this fiscal year, that’s about as good a deal as can be found.

Which is why the Cavaliers listened to trade offers for Smith on draft night, but they didn’t jump at anything reports Chris Fodor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Thursday night hoping to trade JR Smith, but turned down a few offers that would have returned a first-round pick, league sources tell cleveland.com…

As of now, the Cavs are still trying to make a deal, according to sources familiar with those conversations, but it’s complicated and it has to be the right move, as general manager Koby Altman laid out when recapping the NBA Draft late Thursday night.

“We’re definitely going to investigate what we can do there,” Altman said. “There’s a pain threshold of doing it, going into the tax, which we would have to do in terms of taking back money and the rest of the NBA knowing that we’re in the tax and my job would be getting us out of the tax.”

Those savings are why the Cavaliers may choose to just waive Smith themselves (in a trade they need to bring back $15 million or so in salary, so to pay the tax they need to get a player they really want). Cleveland understandably built a team on expensive, shorter contracts for veteran players around LeBron James — it helped bring them the 2016 title. Now they are still paying a price for that as they want to rebuild around youth, and Dan Gilbert doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax for a team that won 19 games last season.

One way or another, J.R. Smith is going to be a free agent.

Expect him to land with his old friend LeBron James and the Lakers, reports Chris Haynes at Yahoo sports.

That makes sense. However they go about filling out the roster, the Lakers are going to have a number of minimum contract players on the bench and they will want veterans who can play with LeBron. J.R. Smith may be in decline (he shot 30.8 percent from three last season), but he fits that bill and can still make a few plays. Kyle Korver is in that same mold, someone Haynes points to as a fit with the Lakers.

Still, the guys taking the minimum are doing it for a reason, which means the Lakers can’t miss on other players they spend real money on this July. GM Rob Pelinka doesn’t have a

Masai Ujiri: DeMar DeRozan and I put aside differences and embraced in February

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Still bitter about being traded (to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard), DeMar DeRozan said in January he had no reason to speak to Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

DeRozan’s stance apparently softened when San Antonio played in Toronto in February.

Ujiri:

When San Antonio came here, I’ve never said this to anybody, but something unbelievable happened. DeMar came into our locker room, and to show you the class human being he is, he came up to me, and he hugged me, and he asked me how my family was doing.

It meant a lot for him to come and give me a hug. At the end of the day, this is life. Time heals things. And one day – I know I’m confident that one day, we’ll both sit down and talk about this.

Time heals nearly all wounds. Winning heals most wounds.

Ujiri has both on his side, and he didn’t even need the Raptors’ championship to get embraced by DeRozan. Ditto with Kyle Lowry, who rebelled in solidarity with his friend DeRozan but ultimately reconnected with Ujiri.

I always thought those days would come, and I share Ujiri’s optimism he and DeRozan will eventually have lengthier conversations. They’ve been through much together. Toronto’s title makes it even more difficult for DeRozan to hold a grudge. At some point, he will get on an even-better page with Ujiri.

As expected, Dallas reportedly set to offer Kristaps Porzingis max contract extension

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At his introductory press conference in Dallas, Kristaps Porzingis was asked if he planned to stay with the team as a free agent (there had been rumors he would take the one year, $4.5 million qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent, a rumor met with eye rolls around the NBA). Mark Cuban jumped in before Porzingis could answer the question:

“I can answer that for you. Yeah, he does.”

Dallas is about to put its money where Cuban’s mouth is and offer Porzingis a five-year max contract, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This was expected the day they traded for him. Dallas is betting big that Porzingis, coming off a torn ACL that cost him a season, can return to the form of an All-NBA level big man who plays 70+ games a season. The hope is in Porzingis and Luka Doncic the Mavs have their core for the future, their next Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki pairing.

Expect Dallas to be aggressive chasing free agents this summer as well, they have been linked to Kemba Walker and Kevin Durant, although as long shots. Patrick Beverley and some other mid-level role players could be in Dallas future, and turn them into a dangerous team.

Report: Celtics to pursue Kemba Walker in free agency

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The Celtics appear set to lose Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in free agency.

That’ll open a lot of cap space and create needs at point guard and center.

A possibility at starting point guard: Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics project to have about $34 million in cap space. That’s enough to offer Walker a max contract that projects to be worth $141 million over four years.

But the Hornets can offer Walker a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years. Charlotte and Walker have described each other as the priority.

The Lakers and Mavericks are also reportedly interested in the point guard.

Boston will face plenty of competition. Walker’s stellar player has earned him multiple good options.

The Celtics – with talented young wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and plenty of draft capital – look like one. They still have a reasonably bright future, and Walker would elevate their present.

But the same could be said of the Mavericks with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Lakers look even better immediately with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And the Hornets can offer all that money and the comfort of home.

There will be plenty for Walker to consider this summer.