NBA Playoffs: Carmelo Anthony's success puts him in a strangely familiar place

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Anthony_game.jpgIn four games against the Utah Jazz in this year’s playoffs, Carmelo Anthony is averaging 34.5 points per game while shooting 52.6% from the field and grabbing seven rebounds a night. Yet his Denver Nuggets trail the Jazz 1-3 in the series after another loss last night, and Anthony’s 39-point, 11-rebound performance (though with nine turnovers, mind you) in a losing effort is an interesting indication of the path Carmelo’s career has taken. 

There was a point where Anthony himself was emblematic of all the Nuggets’ problems. They had talent — Andre Miller (and later Allen Iverson), Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Nene, and of course Anthony himself — but even in the rare instances when each member of Denver’s core was healthy at the same time, there were some serious question marks. Offensively, how could the team depend on a jumpshooter who had fallen in love with 20-footers? And on defense, why couldn’t a team of talented individual defenders establish themselves as an effective defensive unit?

Those types of questions seemed perpetual, and kept the Nuggets grounded. Anthony was a good player but hardly a great one, and his team was apparently ready to follow suit. In a lot of ways, Carmelo had no one to blame but himself. If he were only a more efficient scorer, a more focused defender, and a better leader, maybe the Denver Nuggets would have been a different team.

Then, in spite of worries that Anthony’s development may have stagnated, he’s done all of those things. He’s refined his offensive game and learned to exploit his incredible first step. He’s shown a willingness to defend the league’s elite scoring wings, and actually succeeded in doing so. He’s benefited from Chauncey Billups’ leadership, sure, but is also a huge part of why the Denver locker room is so confident — or laced with hubris, take your pick — at all times.

The only problem is that now, Anthony is so productive offensively that he’s not exactly the problem. His turnovers over the course of this series (he didn’t turn the ball over at all in Game 1, but has averaged six per game in the three subsequent losses) are absolutely painful, but they seem a bit more manageable given Carmelo’s touches and production. After all, Game 3 aside, the problem has not been the Nuggets lack of offense (Denver has averaged 111.95 points per 100 possessions for the series). Rather, it’s the team’s painfully ineffective defense (115.23 points per 100 possessions allowed) that could make Anthony’s volume scoring not long for this playoff world.

Anthony adapted, and he’s twice the individual player that he was earlier in his career. Okay, maybe more like 1.5 times the player he was. Yet the Nuggets again find themselves in more or less the same place; they’re talent-laden, but unable to work things out on the defensive end despite the number of talented individual defenders (Billups, Afflalo, Nene, Martin) on the team.

Should Denver drop Game 5 to Utah, it will be the fifth time in seven years that Carmelo and the Nuggets have lost the first round 1-4, with the only exceptions being last year’s run to the Conference Finals and their failure to win a single playoff game against the Lakers in 2008. Anthony has come so far in terms of his individual game, and on paper, the Nuggets have made serious strides in terms of their talent. Without any hope for a successful team defense, though, Denver is right back where they started in 2003.

  

 

Report: Paul George reached out to Damian Lillard to clear the air

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NBA players talk a lot of smack. The Clippers’ Patrick Beverley is a constant stream of it.

Both Beverley and Paul George got into it with Damian Lillard in the Clippers recent win over the Trail Blazers (when Lillard missed some clutch free throws). That spilled over to Instagram after the game when Lillard called out George for switching teams so often.

However, it got nasty when family and friends got involved. George’s girlfriend Daniela Rajic and Lillard’s sister, La’nae, went at each other on social media — La’nae Lillard called Rajic a stripper, Rajic called La’Nae a cow.

All that prompted George to call Lillard and clear the air, Chris Haynes of TNT said during the Blazers broadcast Tuesday.

Lillard and George have a history that goes back to last playoffs and what Lillard did to that Thunder. That beef is still around.

Players are generally pretty good about leaving the game on the court, and while it spills over to social media now and again it’s just an extension of the game. Family members tend to throw gas on those fires. That happened here.

Lillard used all that fuel — he has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) since that Clippers’ game. In doing so, he pushed Portland to two wins and the eighth seed in the West.

Three Things to Know: What you need to know about race for West play-in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What you need to know about race for West play-in

Four teams were alive in the chase for the final playoff spot in the West when they got out of bed Tuesday morning — Memphis, Portland, Phoenix, and San Antonio — and four were still alive when they went to bed Tuesday night.

But things looked very different by the end of the day. Portland — by virtue of a 61-point game by Damian Lillard, and helped by a Memphis loss — was the eighth seed and the team everyone else was chasing. The eighth seed has a huge advantage in the play-in series that is coming (it only has to win one of two games, the nine seed must sweep them both), and Portland had taken that away from Memphis. Still, nothing was secure yet.

Here are the play-in scenarios for each team (all four teams play Thursday).

Portland: Beat Brooklyn and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. They control their own fate. If the Trail Blazers lose they only keep the eighth seed if everyone else loses. If Portland loses but two of the other three teams also lose, then the Blazers are the nine seed.

Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — who likely will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis regains the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose, they need both the Suns and Spurs to stay in the playoffs.

Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks to go 8-0 in the bubble, or they are out. And even going 8-0 may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eight, just one and they finish ninth).

San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and they are out. Even with a win San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is a longshot).

2) Damian Lillard ties career-high 61 to will Portland to critical win

Paul George and Patrick Beverley talked smack from the bench, and it made Damian Lillard mad. You wouldn’t like Lillard when he’s mad…

If you’re an opponent. For the rest of us, it’s pure basketball joy. In the two games since the Clippers ran their mouths in a win, Lillard has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) and willing Portland to two wins and the eighth seed. On Tuesday, Lillard dropped 61 on Dallas.

You had better respect his f****** name and his game.

3) Devin Booker should be the bubble MVP, drops 35 to keep bubble Suns perfect

The NBA is giving out awards for the bubble — an NBA Player of the Seeding Games and NBA All-Seeding Games Team — and Devin Booker is going to pick up some hardware. Or should, at least.

The Suns remained perfect at 7-0 in the bubble on Tuesday beating what’s left of Philadelphia 130-117 behind 35 from Booker.

Booker has craved respect he feels he hasn’t gotten up to this point, mostly because the Suns’ teams he has been on are terrible (and the defensive issues of those teams fall partly on him, although there is much more at play as well). In the bubble, he has earned that respect.

Respect alone won’t get the Suns into the play-in series, another win won’t even do that (as noted above, the Suns still need help even with a win). But the respect is there, and that is something.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.