NBA Playoffs: Denver executes on offense, stays alive against Utah

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JRSmith_dunk.jpgThe Nuggets aren’t going to win this series on the strength of their defense. That much is clear. In order to make that strategy work, they need to play a near-perfect offensive game for a full 48 minutes. On Wednesday night, they did just that to stave off elimination. 

The Nuggets started the game out making the extra pass and looking to get baskets in the paint. They scored 25 points in the first quarter; of those 25 points, 20 came on shots in the paint or free throws. They started their offense from the high post and made cuts into the paint. When someone got open off those cuts, the Nuggets rewarded them with the extra pass. The Nuggets recorded 13 assists in game four. They got seven assists in the first quarter of Wednesday night’s game. Clearly, the Nuggets figured out that they can’t out-score playoff teams without a clear game plan when they have the ball. Well, hopefully they’ve figured that out.  
The Nuggets stuck to their gameplan in the second quarter. Only one of their field goals in the period was an unassisted mid-range jump shot — the rest were shots at the rim or jumpers set up by passes. The Jazz were able to go into halftime with a two-point lead, but that was only because Carlos Boozer was making everything he looked at, both from the top of the key and the baseline. (How he hits the mid-range jumper that well with that release I’ll never know.) All of a sudden, it was the Nuggets who were running quality sets and the Jazz who were hoping their superstars would bail them out. Even though the Jazz led at halftime, it was the Nuggets who were getting points in a more sustainable fashion.  
The Nuggets broke through in the third. Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony both got it going after halftime, scoring 21 combined points in the third period alone. Not only were Anthony and Billups being aggressive and hitting shots, but their teammates weren’t just watching the show. The Nuggets supporting players added 15 points of their own in the quarter, and the Jazz went into the fourth with a five-point lead.
The Nuggets were able to pull away in the fourth quarter. J.R. Smith drained two quick-trigger threes to put the Nuggets up nine and get the building going. It was all downhill from there for the Nuggets, who ended up winning by a final score of 116-102. 
There’s no real way to keep up with the Nuggets when they play like this. They managed to hit their shots and play with discipline on offense. With the talent the Nuggets have, that virtually guarantees a win. Anthony found ways to score despite struggling with his jumper; he only made three shots outside the paint, but got to the line 15 times en route to 26 points. Billups added 21 points of his own on only 13 field goal attempts. After his infamous post-game tweet on Sunday, J.R. Smith was brilliant off the bench. He drained four of his five threes, and his makes came at key points in the game for Denver. Maybe he should tweet about how Carmelo’s tattoos are distracting before game six in Utah. 
Boozer and Williams were both brilliant for Utah. They just didn’t get enough help. Wesley Matthews was the only other Utah who finished in double-figures, and Paul Milsap was the only Utah bench player to score a point. Utah’s offense relies on movement and balance, not their superstars making tough jumpers time and time again. 
This game was a promising sign for the Nuggets. Whether or not they can play this well in Utah is an open question. With the threat of elimination looming, no head coach, and Utah fans screaming every time they have the ball, it’s easy to imagine Denver returning to their bad habits and letting the series slip away. But if they can remember they’re 48 minutes away from going back to Denver with a chance to clinch the series themselves, they have the talent to get a win in Salt Lake. A lot of people had written off the Nuggets before Wednesday night. I wouldn’t count them out just yet. 

Former Warriors coach Don Nelson on how he’s spending retirement: ‘I’ve been smoking some pot’

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Last night, the Warriors honored their “We Believe” team, which upset the No. 1-seeded Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Golden State’s coach that year, Don Nelson, and two of his players – Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson – were asked how they’re spending retirement.

Nelson:

I’ve been smoking some pot.

But I never smoked when I played or coached. So, it’s new to me. But, anyway, I’m doing that. And I’m having a pretty good time. It’s more legal now than it’s ever been, so I’m enjoying that.

The best part: Jackson – who previously admitted to playing high – raising his arms victoriously while Nelson answered.

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes incredible chase-down block on Jayson Tatum (video)

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Look at this!

Jayson Tatum is barely in the picture as he takes off for the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still at the free-throw line and looking at Terry Rozier.

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Yet, Antetokounmpo still caught Tatum for the awesome block in the Bucks’ 98-97 win over the Celtics last night.

James Harden: Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant,’ shouldn’t be allowed to ref Rockets games

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
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In the Rockets’ loss to the Lakers last night, referee Scott Foster called James Harden‘s third and fifth fouls – both offensive. The third came in the first quarter and sent Harden to the bench early. The fifth set up Harden to foul out a short time later.

Foster also called Chris Paul‘s sixth and disqualifying foul. Then, Foster gave Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni technical fouls.

In all, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. In the second half, he called 10 fouls on the Rockets and three on the Lakers.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” said Harden, who finished with 30 points to extend his streak of 30-point performances to 32 games, the second longest in NBA history. “I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [on the sixth foul]. It’s just who he is on that floor.

“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure,” Harden said. “For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It’s impossible to escape the timing of this. Former referee Tim Donaghy received renewed attention this week as more evidence emerged he fixed games. Donaghy and Foster frequently spoke by phone while Donaghy was still an NBA official, which only raised suspicions about Foster. But he explained the calls as simply friends conversing.

Fair or not, Foster isn’t particularly well-liked within the league. Paul also made pointed comments about him last year.

Does Foster have a personal vendetta against Harden, Paul and the Rockets? Were Foster’s calls last night erroneous? I’m not sure.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a referee let his emotions interfere with calling a game fairly. It’s probably worth the NBA taking Harden’s concerns seriously and assessing them.

Three Things to Know: Playoff Lakers activated, come from 19 down to upset Rockets

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers activated, come from 19 down to beat Rockets — now can they sustain it. Led by “playoff mode activated” LeBon James, Thursday night was exactly the kind of win the Lakers need if they are going to climb back into the postseason in the West.

But only if can they build on it. Remember that the Lakers’ biggest win of the season, on Christmas Day over the Warriors? That was followed up by losing 5-of-6. LeBon lifted up his teammates and his team on Thursday night — now he needs to do it again. And again. One good win is not enough at this point.

However, make no mistake: Thursday night was a good win for Los Angeles. Trailing by 19 midway through the third quarter, LeBron James (16 points in the game’s final 18 minutes, 29 for the game) and Kyle Kuzma (18 points on the night) sparked the comeback.

Los Angeles won 111-106, moved back to .500 (29-29), are just 2.5 games back of the Clippers, and it helps that the Kings lost, too (now just one game up on the Lakers).

James Harden kept his streak of 30-point games alive with a floater late in the fourth (32 in a row now at 30+), but he shot just 2-of-7 overall and 0-of-4 from three in the fourth quarter and fouled out late in the game. Harden was frustrated with the calls — and had a right to be. Harden picked up three offensive fouls late, one on a nothing contact at midcourt with Rajon Rondo that Rondo sold, and one on a charge call where Kuzma slid under Harden while he was in the air. The Rockets are convinced referee Scott Foster is out to get them (Chris Paul fouled out, too) and the game film from this one will fuel their paranoia for a while.

Of course, the referees didn’t force the Rockets to miss wide open shots down the stretch, either. The Rockets finally had their full team back — Clint Caplela and Chris Paul played — but looked like a team rusty after a week off.

LeBron and the Lakers got an aggressive, attacking game from Brandon Ingram — something else that has come and gone this season — on his way to 27 points. Reggie Bullock knocked down a key three and — in something incredibly rare for the Lakers — hit his free throws when it mattered on his way to 14 points. Josh Hart looked healthy and moved well, he had his best game in a while.

The Lakers’ next two games are winnable — at New Orleans and at Memphis — and if they are serious about making the postseason, those are games they have to pick up. For a night playoff mode was activated, but the real test for LeBron and company remains ahead of them.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks every bit the MVP — especially on defense — and the Bucks remind everyone they are for real. In an often-sloppy one-point game every play matters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo not giving up on this one and getting the chase down block on Jayson Tatum was one that mattered a lot.

That was an MVP-level play. Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 13 boards on the night and was just rock steady on a night little else was.

With the 98-97 win in a sloppy game, the Bucks improved to 8-3 this season against the other elite teams in the East (Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Boston). Milwaukee has won 15-of-17.

It’s fair to wonder what happens in the playoffs when the defensive pressure is cranked up on Eric Bledsoe (he’s struggled before), and will the Bucks’ shooters keep hitting through the smaller windows afforded them in the postseason. But don’t doubt this — they are capable of hitting those shots and playing under pressure. They are more than capable of winning. The Bucks are real contenders and want to show that on the biggest of stages.

Boston was frustrated not getting some calls, including thinking the Greek Freak fouled Tatum on that breakaway dunk above. Then on the final play, with Boston down one, Brad Stevens drew up something where Kyrie Irving set a backscreen and Marcus Morris cut to the rim and he was coming open — until Khris Middleton fouled him. The Bucks ended up just getting the ball to Irving, who drove and put up a wild shot that missed, but Morris was hot after the game about the no-call. He was right. However: 1) The Bucks had a foul to give so it still would have been ball out of bounds; 2) That one play was not why they lost the game — Irving was 9-of-27 shooting and the Celtics as a team shot just 38.2 percent on the night. The Celtics had their chances but just missed.

3) Stephen Curry dunks! Oh, and hit 10 threes in Warriors win. Stephen Curry had zero dunks this season (according to Basketball-Reference), but he ended the All-Star Game in Charlotte with a reverse throwdown, then on Thursday night he did this.

The bench’s reaction is the best.

Curry also did Curry things — 10-of-16 from three on his way to 36 points.

The Warriors won 125-123 and swept the season series from the Kings — but every game was close, every game hard-fought and the Kings made the Warriors work. It would make a fun first-round playoff series. Sacramento had a chance to steal this game but Buddy Hield passed up a three from a spot he’d hit one 12 seconds before to drive the lane and miss the floater to tie. If the Kings are going to get into the playoffs and face the Warriors in the first round they can’t hesitate — Hield has to take that shot.

The Kings are now 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the final playoff slot in the West, and LeBron and the Lakers are one game behind the Kings. It’s going to be a wild ride the rest of the way at the bottom of the West.