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.

James Harden struggles, Rockets still beat Jazz 104-101 for 3-0 series lead

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — James Harden never worried.

In fact, he didn’t know he had missed his first 15 shots.

Through it all, he never changed the attacking style that made him the NBA’s leading scorer.

Harden overcame a poor shooting performance and scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Houston Rockets to a 104-101 win Saturday over the Utah Jazz for a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.

“Keep shooting. Keep being aggressive,” Harden said of his only thoughts. “My job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes.”

Not much has worked against Harden for the Jazz, and even when they thought they had him trapped, they weren’t able to control The Beard for a full game.

“You’re going to give something up. The best thing you can do with him is just try to make it hard on him. Even when you do that, there’s times where he’s going to make plays,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

The Jazz didn’t take it easy on Harden, and took every opportunity to knock him down, even when it sent him to the line. For one of the rare times this season, Harden passed up some shots. But he did take them – and make them – when they counted most.

Though the victory was hardly a thing of beauty, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was grateful for the way it went down.

“Sooner or later we have to win games on defense. We did this time,” D’Antoni said of his team which is known for Harden’s lethal 3-point attack but has drastically improved on the defensive end since mid-season.

Harden made a 3-pointer and added two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to give the Rockets a 101-97 lead. After Donovan Mitchell made two free throws, Harden missed another 3-point attempt, but P.J. Tucker, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, grabbed the rebound, was fouled, making one of two free throws.

Chris Paul said: “You trust (Tucker) to make those plays. … He’s going to do anything and everything to help the team win.”

Mitchell had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but like so many of his shots in the hard-fought contest, it was off the mark.

Game 4 of the best-of-seven Western Conference series is Monday night in Utah.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and we still won. That just gives us more confidence,” said Harden, who was 3-for-20 shooting with 10 assists. He was 14 for 16 from the line.

Paul scored 18 points and Clint Capela had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Rockets, who shot 38.4 percent from the field and 67.6 percent from the line.

Mitchell scored 34 points, but struggled shooting, too, making just 9 of his 27 attempts. Derrick Favors had 13 for the Jazz.

Royce O'Neale, who played tenacious defense on Harden, made a 3-pointer for Utah’s last lead at 89-88. In fact, the Jazz led most of the game, but never by more than eight.

The Rockets made their move in the fourth quarter.

Gerald Green made back-to-back 3-pointers and Harden added a pair of free throws with 8:33 remaining put the Rockets up 84-80.

After two slow starts in Houston, the Jazz came out energized with a deafening crowd hanging on every basket. Utah led 11-3 and Harden picked up two fouls in the first 94 seconds, but stayed on the court. He couldn’t find his rhythm until the stretch run.

The Rockets have made no secret they are keying on Mitchell and Ingles to take away their playmaking and make other Utah players beat them. So far, no one else has made them pay.

Mitchell vowed to be more aggressive and apologized for being a “no show” early in the series. He re-introduced himself to the series in an exuberant show of shot-making and open emotion after big plays. But it didn’t last.

“I just started missing shots,” Mitchell said. “I can’t miss 16 shots (after the first quarter). That’s my role and I can’t miss makeable shots.”

Prior to Saturday’s big game, Mitchell was shooting 32.6% and had more turnovers (nine) than assists (six). After his hot start, Mitchell missed 11 straight field goal attempts but never stopped attacking.

Harden was missing 3-pointers and floaters, including two that were rejected by Rudy Gobert early in the game, and didn’t convert one until his emphatic fast-break dunk with 7:34 to play. But then he made a step-back 3-pointer to give Houston its largest lead at 89-83.

The leading MVP candidate did get to the line – something the Jazz have tried desperately to avoid.

Gobert had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.

 

Deep and dominant Bucks give Pistons longest playoff-game losing streak of all-time

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo finished dressing, sat in front of his locker and looked up.

Usually, that’s the signal a player is ready to begin his postgame interview.

The swarm of reporters in the visiting locker room barely even turned his direction.

“No media?” Antetokounmpo asked rhetorically as he feigned leaving. “OK.”

That the MVP favorite was an afterthought in the Bucks’ 119-103 Game 3 win over the Pistons on Saturday is a tribute to Milwaukee’s strength as a team. Four Bucks outscored Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee again crushed Detroit to take a 3-0 series lead.

All 132 teams up 3-0 in a best-of-seven series have won the series – most of them by sweep. The Bucks – who haven’t won a playoff series in the previous 17 years – can close this one in Game 4 Monday.

“It’s going to be a nice feeling, winning my first playoff series,” Antetokounmpo said after sitting back down. “And it’s going to be a nice feeling, the team getting out of the first round. And it’s going to be keep going. Whoever we play in the second round, I know it’s far away from here – six, seven days away – but whoever we play, we’re going to try to win.”

Forgive Antetokounmpo for looking ahead. Even for a team up 3-0, Milwaukee has looked particularly dominant.

The Bucks have outscored Detroit by 72 points so far – the second-largest margin through three games of a best-of-seven series. Here are the biggest combined margins through three games of all series (game scores in parentheses):

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Antetokounmpo (14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, five fouls, four turnovers,) just never got got in a groove. The Bucks even got outscored by seven points with Antetokounmpo on the floor.

But Khris Middleton (20 points), Brook Lopez (19 points), Eric Bledsoe (19 points), Ersan Ilyasova (15 points), Nikola Mirotic (12 points) and George Hill (11 points) stepped up. The Bucks were +23 without Antetokounmpo – one of their best-ever marks while the superstar sat.

“It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said.

For the Pistons, it wasn’t all about Blake Griffin.

Detroit’s best and most important player surprisingly played through knee pain that sidelined him the first two games. Griffin (27 points and six assists) had his moments, but he was clearly hobbled. Though the Pistons’ offense flowed far better with Griffin, their defense remains no match for the Bucks’ elite attack. Especially with Griffin slowed.

In a skid dating back to 2008, the Pistons have now tied the Knicks (2001-2012) for longest playoff-game losing streak at 13 games.

Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are the only current Pistons who played in a 2016 sweep to the Cavaliers. Nearly everything – arena, ownership, front office coaching staff, players – has changed since a 2009 sweep to Cleveland, which was preceded by dropping the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals the year prior against the Celtics.

But this record now falls on the franchise.

Here are the longest playoff-game losing streaks of all time:

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With a deep supporting cast he truly seems to enjoy and a win, it was easy for Antetokounmpo to brush off his lackluster game.

“Hey, there’s going to be nights like this,” Antetokounmpo said.

For Detroit, a lot of them.

Nuggets beat Spurs 117-103 to tie series at 2-2

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 29 points and 12 rebounds, Jamal Murray added 24 points and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 117-103 on Saturday night, rebounding from a flat performance tie the first-round series at two games apiece.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 24 points and nine rebounds for San Antonio. DeMar DeRozan added 19 points before he was ejected with five minutes remaining after arguing with an official over an offensive foul.

Game 5 is Tuesday night in Denver.

The Nuggets were more aggressive and physical after a deflating Game 3 loss, just as Denver coach Michael Malone had hoped.

“I want to see some emotion. I want to see some fire. I want to see some passion,” Malone said prior to the game.

Malone was able to stir that fire with a couple of changes after Derrick White‘s 36-point outing in San Antonio’s Game 3 victory.

Torrey Craig started over a struggling Will Barton and was charged with defending White to open the game, with Murray switching to Forbes. The moves proved beneficial, if not at first.

White was limited to eight points on 3-for-8 shooting after going 15 for 21 on Thursday. Craig finished with 18 points, going 5 for 7 on 3-pointers. Barton finished with 12 points and made all three of his 3-point attempts.

Down by 12 points in the first quarter, Denver outscored San Antonio 69-45 in the second and third.

Aldridge had 13 points in the opening quarter, shooting 5 for 9. His final points of the quarter came when he grabbed a miss by Marco Belineli and slammed it back in. Denver rallied in the second, with Jokic and Murray combining for 15 points as the Nuggets outscored 34-22.

The Spurs stopped driving to the basket and the Nuggets began making their 3-pointers.

Denver finished 15-for-31 on 3-pointers.

 

Trail Blazers’ Maurice Harkless fined $15,000 for throwing headband into stands

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Nobody wants your sweat.

I guess that’s the message the league was trying to send Portland’s Maurice Harkless, who was fined $15,000 by the league office for “throwing” his Ninja-style headband into the crowd near the end of Portland’s Friday night loss to Oklahoma City.

“Throwing” is a strong word for the light toss he made, not that the officials cared, Harkless was given a technical and ejected at the time for the move.

Harkless was fired up as he and Russell Westbrook had been jawing at each other before the ejection.