NBA Playoffs: Bynum, Lakers win an ugly one

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Los Angeles Lakers were able to even up their series against the New Orleans Hornets with relative ease.

The Hornets were able to shock the Lakers in Game 1 because Los Angeles failed in two fundamental areas: they didn’t establish their big men on offense, and they didn’t contain Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls. On Wednesday, Phil Jackson showed why he has more rings as a head coach than he has fingers; he knows how to make adjustments.

Before the game, Jackson said that the Lakers defended “more than half” of the 70 screen-rolls the Hornets ran on Sunday incorrectly, which allowed Chris Paul to run amok. In Game 2, the Lakers were able to keep Paul in check by putting bigger defenders on him (Kobe Bryant started the game on Paul, and Ron Artest even guarded him for a few possessions), putting the quicker Steve Blake on him for a stretch, and trapping him effectively to make him give up the ball:

“They tried to shrink the floor on me,” Paul said after the game. “They didn’t want me to wiggle and dance with the ball as much. It worked for them to a certain extent.” Paul was indeed somewhat limited on Wednesday. He still recorded 20 points and 9 assists, but most of his shots were contested jumpers (six of his points came on buzzer-beating threes), and only two of his assists led to a dunk or a layup.

When the ball wasn’t in Paul’s hands, the Hornets weren’t able to generate anything resembling offense. Carl Landry tried to take the ball to the basket, but he was stifled time and time again by the hulking Laker frontline. Marco Belinelli couldn’t buy a jumper. Emeka Okafor was invisible on offense for the second straight game. Willie Green and Aaron Gray, who were both instrumental in New Orleans’ Game 1 win, turned back into pumpkins. Trevor Ariza was active and managed to hit shots, but the Hornets had almost no offensive cohesion whatsoever in Game 2.

When the Lakers had the ball, they showed tremendous discipline. Kobe Bryant finished the game with one of the worst box score lines of his career (11 points on 3-10 shooting, three rebounds, two assists), but he was more passive than ineffective. Bryant didn’t look for his own shot until late in the fourth quarter, when the game had essentially already been decided.

Instead of  having Kobe look to shoot or drive to the basket, the Lakers stayed in their triangle offense all game long, and tossed the ball into the post on nearly every possession and playing their offense from there. Pau Gasol, who was the goat after Game 1, didn’t do much better in Game 2. Even though the Staples Center crowd practically begged Gasol to be aggressive every time he caught the ball, Gasol wasn’t able to get into any kind of a groove. He struggled to get position, he never got his defender off-balance, his shooting touch was off, and he ended up shooting 2-10 from the field with one assist and three turnovers.

The Lakers’ first and second offensive options didn’t do much on Wednesday, something that Phil Jackson attributed to the Hornets’ defensive strategy, saying that”Their philosophy is to take the two main scorers out of the mix and make the other people beat us.”

Fortunately for Jackson, the Lakers’ third and fourth offensive options stepped up in a major way. The Lakers fed Andrew Bynum in the post time and time again, and he was able to punish the Hornets. By not bringing doubles on Bynum very much, New Orleans dared the Lakers to beat them with Bynum as their primary offensive option, and that’s exactly what they did.He bullied his defender under the basket, showed great touch at the rim, and was even able to step out and hit a few mid-range jumpers. He finished the game with 17 points on only 11 shots, was just as much of a force defensively as he was offensively, and was almost certainly the single biggest reason for the Lakers’ success.

“We know that [Bynum] is the one that plays well against this team because of his size,” Phil Jackson said after the game. “He really carries things pretty well, so we’re confident in him having a good game…we think he can play at an even higher level than this.” That last sentence is a scary thought for Laker opponents, considering how good Bynum looked tonight and that the Lakers have won the last two championships with Bynum playing a much more limited role than he has this season.

Newly minted Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom was no slouch either, and poured in 16 points off the bench on a variety of mid-range jumpers and drives to the rim. With Matt Barnes making all four of his shots and Steve Blake and Shannon Brown providing some quality energy off the bench, the Lakers looked infinitely deeper than they did in Game 1.

What does this game mean for both teams? For the Lakers, it means that they can beat the Hornets as long as they stick to their fundamentals on both ends of the floor. The Hornets can’t stop the Lakers consistently if they continue to pound it inside, and the Lakers can stop the Hornets if they contain Chris Paul and force the other Hornets to make plays. For those reasons, the Lakers should feel very good about their chances in this series, even though they need to win in New Orleans to stave off elimination.

Even though the Lakers can generate a good amount of offense by simply pounding the Hornets inside, they haven’t been able to roll on all cylinders offensively against the Hornets. As Monty Williams said after the game “We held them to 87 points. If you told us ‘the Lakers are going to score 87 points against your defense, would you take that?’ If you asked me that question, I would say yes.”

The Hornets’ defense does give New Orleans a chance in this series if they figure out how to score. It might take three more superhero performances from Chris Paul, or it might take the Hornets figuring out some way to generate good offense when the ball isn’t in Paul’s hands. I’m not sure which one is more unlikely at this point, but the Hornets will definitely need to do one of those things to pull off a series upset.

Are the Clippers, Knicks really equal threats to sign Kevin Durant?

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Is Kevin Durant going to stay with the Golden State Warriors? Is he going to sign with the New York Knicks? How about the Los Angeles Clippers? We just don’t know whether Durant will stay with the best team ever assembled, or strike it out on his own with several championships under his belt.

Durant is not currently playing for the Warriors, having injured his calf and missed the entirety of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. However, a new report says that there are rumblings that the Los Angeles Clippers are a serious destination for Durant should he decide to opt out of his contract and leave Golden State.

The only caveat? According to Mark Stein, all of the aforementioned teams have been rumored as the “favorite” for Durant by people he trusts.

Via NY Times Newsletter:

Within the last month, very smart and plugged-in people I have consulted say that the Los Angeles Clippers have emerged as an equally dangerous threat to the Knicks to sign Durant away from Golden State. And I believe it.

Problem is, at various points during the season, I have heard trusted insiders state with conviction that Durant is already planning to join the Knicks … and then that he is likely to consider the Nets as well … and now that he is eyeing the Clippers just as intently as New York.

It leads one to conclude that maybe the best forecast, at least for the moment, is that nobody but Durant and his business manager Rich Kleiman know.

Durant is one of the more tiring personalities in the NBA, and his constant need for ego-stroking has worn thin despite the Warriors’ success. If he decides to leave — and it just sort of feels like he will at this point — no doubt it won’t be the last we hear of this story.

Tim Connelly eager to finish what he started with Nuggets

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DENVER (AP) The prospects of a return home to Washington were undeniably appealing to Tim Connelly.

Not nearly as alluring as this: Finishing what he’s started.

The Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations elected to stay in town even with the Wizards calling. Things are booming these days with a Nuggets team that boasts a young nucleus led by big man Nikola Jokic and that won 54 games in the regular season. They were the No. 2 seed in the West before losing to Portland in Game 7 at home during the second round of the playoffs.

There was just too much work left to be done in Denver to consider taking Washington’s front office job even if it would’ve been with the organization where Connelly got his start and in the area where he and his wife are from.

“It’s safe to assume, and maybe it’s me being overly optimistic, that we’re going to see a better version of us next year,” Connelly said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that means more wins. I don’t know if we’re going to win a playoff series and advance, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think there will be any regression next season.”

A Baltimore native, Connelly appreciated the audience with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. He said he was flattered by their recent “exchange of ideas” as the Wizards look to fill the role of team president after Ernie Grunfeld was fired in April.

“The relationships that have been built up here and the hard times we’ve been through – it was very hard to envision leaving something that has been so hard and so long coming in its build,” said Connelly, who broke into the NBA with the Wizards as an intern in the basketball operations department, then as an assistant video coordinator and as a scout.

Connelly was hired as Denver’s general manager in July 2013 and it took a while for the team to take off. Team President Josh Kroenke stayed patient with him. Connelly brought in coach Michael Malone before the 2015-16 season and they’ve steadily progressed since – from 33 wins in Malone’s first year to 40 wins in ’16-17 to 46 in ’17-18 and finally to 54 this season, including a league-leading 34-7 home mark.

“We did not get off to a good start by any stretch, and (Kroenke) doubled down on what easily could have been perceived as an initial mistake because he liked the processes and liked how we attacked our job day to day,” said Connelly, who was promoted to president of basketball operations in 2017. “Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that’s here in spades. So those things matter to me.”

Connelly and his staff have struck it rich in the draft, taking Jokic with the 41st pick of the second round in 2014. They’ve also selected Jamal Murray, along with up-and-comers Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Michael Porter Jr., who sat out this season as he recovered from back surgery.

The biggest offseason decision remains this: What to do with veteran leader Paul Millsap. The team holds a $30 million option, which could be restructured.

“I fully expect Paul to be back in a Nuggets uniform,” Connelly said.

On the free agency front, Denver hasn’t exactly been an attractive landing spot in recent summers. But Connelly sees that starting to change and believes the unselfish play of Jokic could be an enticing selling point. Denver could be in the market for another shooter and a power forward in order to take the next step.

“It will be fascinating to make those calls” in free agency, Connelly said. “If they say it’s about winning and the answer is about winning and they don’t talk to us, then I think it’s a disingenuous answer.”

The Nuggets definitely turned some heads throughout the regular season as they challenged Golden State down to the wire for the best mark in the West. They beat San Antonio in seven games in the first round before falling to the Trail Blazers.

“We sent a pretty loud message,” Malone said. “I think there were questions about our team all year long, for whatever reason: How legitimate are they? Are they really a No. 2 seed? Can they take their game into the playoffs with so many young guys that’ve never been there before?

“We answered so many questions about our team in the best way possible.”

NOTES: Malone said Jokic’s race horse, Dream Catcher, recently won a race in Serbia. “He made sure I knew about it, because the last race he won I was at,” Malone said. “I thought I was a good-luck charm but obviously I’m not.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took Game 4 against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, 120-102.

Things started off okay for Milwaukee but started to peter off as the hometown Toronto crowd got behind their Raptors. The bench continued to show up for Leonard’s squad, and it was Kyle Lowry dueling it out with Antetokounmpo in the first quarter.

Leonard scored 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four steals, and perhaps his most impressive play of the night came early in the third quarter. Running a little two-man game with Marc Gasol, Leonard cut to the basket and wound up dunking all over the Milwaukee star.

Via Twitter:

Leonard appeared to hobble a little bit after his dunk, but he should be ready to go for Game 5 on a Thursday night. Meanwhile, the series heads back to Wisconsin all tied up at 2-2.

The victor of this series will get to take on the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala says Stephen Curry is the second-best PG ever

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The Golden State Warriors are moving on to the NBA Finals yet again, thanks in large part to the efforts of Stephen Curry. Golden State’s point guard is now heading to his fifth-straight finals, and without Kevin Durant he was a big reason why the Warriors were able to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in just four games.

Of course there is a real worry that Durant won’t be able to play in the NBA Finals, either partially or fully, thanks to a calf injury. If that’s the case, and the Warriors can take home another championship trophy, it could mean great things for Curry’s legacy.

Curry is currently chasing Magic Johnson as the best point guard ever in the eyes of many folks. What might help solidify Curry’s place in history would be an NBA Finals MVP, which he would likely wind up with if Durant is unable to impact the Finals the way he has.

At least for Andre Iguodala, Curry is already the second best point guard of all-time.

Via The Athletic:

“I think he’s the second best ever,” Iguodala said. “I always thought that about him. I knew but other people didn’t know. So I wasn’t surprised when he took over that series. But I always gave Tony Allen credit. Playing against him made you understand the grind of how hard it is to win. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to have to find another way. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He just embraced that. Just ingrained that into his system and it’s been there ever since.”

The real question is what Curry’s legacy will be after these Finals, particularly if they win without Durant. Some people aren’t keen to compare eras, and might never move off of Johnson for that spot. It seems reasonable to say that Curry is already the best shooter of all-time, but June could elevate him even further.