NBA Playoffs: Magic defense edges out Hawks in Game 2

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The Orlando Magic still haven’t figured out how to get consistent offensive production out of their perimeter players, but they made one drastic improvement from Game 1 to Game 2: the Magic defense is now in full effect. Atlanta played a competitive game by putting up a strong defensive front of their own and hitting some tough shots along the way, but top-notch production from Dwight Howard and the return of Orlando’s elite defense were enough to seal the win, 88-82.

The structure of the Hawks’ offense isn’t the soundest — any team that relies too heavily on contested jumpers is destined for some hiccups — but the onus was still on the Magic to impact to enforce their will on that end of the court. The common rhetoric states that Orlando’s defense “starts with Dwight Howard,” but that particular phrasing couldn’t be further from the truth. Howard is the finisher. He contests almost every shot in the paint, and collects defensive rebounds at an amazing rate. The Magic defense starts with the efficacy of perimeter defenders; when Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, and Hedo Turkoglu are scrambling to rotate and cover the open man, Dwight Howard is better positioned to defend the rim and alter shots. Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson deserve credit as well for their work in rotation, as Orlando unleashed a team-wide defensive effort to limit Atlanta to 93.2 points per 100 possessions.

This is closer to the potent D the Magic boasted during the regular season, and could be the key to besting opponents who employ a strategy of defending Dwight Howard one-on-one — as the Hawks have done in this series thus far. Howard again piled up the turnovers, but his seven giveaways were eclipsed by hyper-efficient shooting (9-of-12 from the field, and a fantastic 15-of-19 from the line) and incredible production (33 points, 19 rebounds, eight offensive boards). Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia deserve credit for their defensive effort against Howard, but clearly their efforts weren’t enough to seriously curtail Howard’s output.

Howard aside, the Magic shot just 27.3 percent from the field. That’s horrific, and Atlanta’s team defense deserves a lot of the credit. Yet Orlando still managed to take their first win of the series, in no small part due to the Magic’s terrific offensive rebounding, a failure of a different kind for Atlanta’s team D. In addition to Howard’s eight rebounds on the offensive end, Bass and Anderson combined to grab eight of their own, pushing Orlando’s offensive rebounding rate up to a game-saving 43.5 percent.

The Hawks provide a very different story; Atlanta shot a superior (relative to Orlando’s miserable marks) but still subpar 39.5 percent overall, but even a nice defensive performance couldn’t secure a win in Game 2. Even with a fine showing the Hawks’ defense isn’t quite potent enough to win in spite of their offense in this context, just as their offense would so rarely win in spite of their defense; Atlanta has to be on their game on both sides of the ball to be more than merely competitive against Orlando, and that just wasn’t the case tonight. Jamal Crawford (25 points, 8-17 FG) had it going and Josh Smith (17 points, 8-14 FG, six rebounds) provided some nice supplementary scoring, but otherwise the Hawks’ offense just couldn’t get much of a spark. They did a great job of weathering runs with periodic bursts, but Joe Johnson was too inefficient and Al Horford too unproductive. I’m not sure either of those problems are easily remedied, either; most of Johnson’s problems were issues of shot selection that have plagued him for years, and Horford’s opportunities were limited by Orlando’s scrambling. Larry Drew will have his work cut out for him in jump-starting the Hawks’ offense to acceptable levels, but he’s been faced with the same inefficiency all season and has made little progress on that front. Atlanta ranked 20th in offensive efficiency in the regular season, and one shouldn’t expect that standing to change overnight just because the postseason is in swing.

The Hawks are right there. They were perhaps within a handful of offensive rebounds of taking a 2-0 series lead in spite of all of their weaknesses, and they’re competitive enough that the Magic can take nothing for granted. Defensive might must be proven and maintained on a game-by-game basis. Howard must continue to be aggressive, and do his best to slash those turnovers. Orlando’s shooters have to keep working to get open, even as their quality attempts become fewer and fewer. Otherwise, Atlanta has the potential to make this series far too long and far too interesting for Stan Van Gundy’s liking, exponentially increasing their likelihood of taking the series with each win along the way.

Buckle up — there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.