NBA Playoffs: Saturday is the last stand

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G_Wallace.jpg8 teams play today, 4 in Game 3’ss, and 4 in Game 4’s. But for the underdog in each of these contests, this will be their last stand in the hopes of a competitive series. If these teams want to force a Game 7, forget about the elimination game, whenever it comes. Today is their last stand. Here’s a look at what they need to do if they don’t want to wind up like Custer.

Charlotte (hosting Orlando): The Bobcats have done everything to make this a competitive series, and still the Magic have held them at arm’s length. Playoff basketball returns to Charlotte for the first time in a long time today and there’s no way to anticipate what kind of crowd will be on hand for the Bobcats’ playoff debut. They need an emotional crowd, because this team has to surge behind it, play with intensity, and capture every loose ball.

 The Magic are in high gear right now, and burying the Cats at home would make a sweep very likely. As feisty as the Cats have been all season, they have also been known to mail in their fair share, as veterans are wont to do. Going down 3-0 would put the Cats in a hole they would probably be unmotivated to climb out of.

The key is going to be Raymond Felton. Felton was considered a wash against Jameer Nelson before the series started, and now it looks like a complete mismatch. Nelson has been efficient from three, proficient at point, and devastating on the drive. Felton not only has to contain Nelson, but figure out how to get a few buckets of his own. From there, it’s the luck of the three pointer behind a home crowd they need.

Portland (hosting Phoenix): And everything looked so good after Game 1, too. No series’ momentum has swung like this one, with the Suns looking unstoppable in the last two games once they switched Grant Hill on Andre Miller and started defending like they gave a crap. Portland hasn’t just seemed outmanned (and they are, with injuries to Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, and Nicolas Batum), but outclassed. They haven’t responded at all to a raucous home crowd, and have let the Suns dictate the tempo.

A loss tonight would mean three in a row, headed back to Phoenix for an elimination game, potentially coinciding with the announcement of an extension for Amar’e Stoudemire. That’s a lot that can go wrong for the Blazers in that situation, so they need a win today to even the series and force at least two more. They have to adjust to Jason Richardson who went off for 42 points last game and has torched them from the perimeter in transition. They’ve got to slow the ball down, and while they need to stop the ball in transition when Nash is leading the charge, he’s much deadlier when finding open three pointers. They’ve got to keep their heads on, or they might as well start packing up the Rose Garden.

Milwaukee (hosting Atlanta): Another potential sweep series. The Bucks haven’t played badly. That’s the killer. They’ve gotten Brandon Jennings to contribute consistently.They’ve had Ersan Ilyasova step up as a big man. And they’ve gotten good team play. And they just haven’t come close to scratching the Hawks. Milwaukee is going to have to get this done dirty if they want to win, otherwise, this will be a sweep.

The key is going to be turning this game into one of those ugly, slow affairs. While the Hawks run at a slow pace, they have the talent advantage, so more possessions favor them. The Bucks need to turn it into a low possession game and try and connect from the arc, something they’re not great at. John Salmons is going to need the game of his career. A game 4 with a chance to rest up before meeting Orlando is going to be a big carrot for the Hawks.

Thunder (hosting Lakers): Okay, OKC. You got the first playoff win in the first playoff game. And you were loud as hell. But now you have the Lakers’ attention. And while your crowd will likely be close to as loud as they were Thursday night, you’ve got to imagine the Lakers will probably come out with a little fire after facing defeat. The Lakers know a Game 4 win effectively ends this series, with three closeout games in a tight series left, two at home.

If the Thunder can take this game and put LA back on their heels a bit, they’ve got a three game series in which anything can happen. They’ve played well in LA, falling short both times but remaining competitive, so they’d have a lot of hope to pull the miracle. But first thing’s first, they’ve got to win today.

The key is going to be to follow the same formula as the last game. Attack inside, rely on Kevin Durant to have a hot night, have Russell Westbrook destroy whoever is “guarding” him, and swarm on defense. Most important is going to be the defense on Pau Gasol. Gasol has been killer in this series, with everything from off-ball movement leading to dunks, to that patented rainbow fader of his. Jeff Green can’t handle him, neither can Nenad Krstic.

The Thunder have to get Andrew Bynum in foul trouble so they can put Serge Ibaka on Gasol. Another option that may seem crazy would be to go to Etan Thomas, who hasn’t played much at all as the season wore on, to match Gasol’s length and range. Thomas can impact the boards, and might be a better defensive matchup. Then again, it’s Etan Thomas.

This game will say a lot about where both franchises are.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.