NBA Playoffs: Determined Grizzlies won’t go quietly

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From Games 2 through 5, Oklahoma City had kept the force of nature that can be Zach Randolph in check. They had packed the lane, threw multiple long defenders at him and never let him get comfortable. He shot just 32 percent in those four games.

But it all changed Friday night, starting with Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins putting shooter O.J. Mayo with the starters to spread out the Thunder defense and give Randolph a little more room to operate. He got going early and was even stronger as the game went on. It was a masterful performance from one of the best offensive big men in the game.

Randolph finished with 30 points on 22 shots and the Grizzlies won 95-83 to force a deciding Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday.

It seems corny to talk about a game won by heart and grit, which can often be the crutch of bad analysis. But I’m at a loss for another phrase to describe the Grizzlies’ second half. When a lot of teams just roll over — we’re looking right at you, Lakers — Memphis fought back. They executed better under pressure, something the Thunder have struggled with at times.

The Thunder made their plays in the first half and were up 10 at halftime. The Grizzlies offense got stagnant in the second quarter and missed jumpers led to Russell Westbrook and James Harden getting out in transition. The Thunder took their lead with Kevin Durant having just seven points, and you expected this to become a rout like the second half of Game 5.

But Shane Battier hit a 3-pointer right before halftime, and the Grizzlies came out on an 11-2 run to start the third quarter. And that was about grit and heart. About refusing to die. Memphis won the third quarter 28-14 as their shooters got hotter and more confident.

Meanwhile, Durant never got going, finishing with 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Battier, who has struggled to slow Durant this series, had a fantastic game.

Outside of Randolph, the Grizzlies didn’t light it up on offense — as a team they shot just 43.4 percent and averaged one point per possession. For some perspective, over the course of the season only three teams averaged less offense than one point per possession (Washington, Cleveland and Milwaukee).

But the Thunder were at 0.87 points per possession. They were 4-of-16 from three and 5-of-13 from 16 feet out to the arc – the jump shots were not falling. Westbrook (27 points) and Harden (14) had good games, but after that the rest of the Thunder struggled to score.

So it is off to Oklahoma for a Game 7. A game where Durant is fully capable of bouncing back and taking over. Or Randolph’s confidence could carry over to another huge game. Or both. And someone unexpected will invariably rise up.

This series has been a lot of fun, complete with improbable comebacks and thrilling overtimes. And now it all comes down to one game. This is going to be one of the highlights of these playoffs. You can just feel it.

Luka Doncic says he’ll definitely play for Slovenia in Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Luka Doncic
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Slovenia won the last EuroBasket, in 2017.

But in a stacked European region, Slovenia hasn’t even qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Mavericks star Luka Doncic will try to change that.

Donatas Urbonas:

Slovenia got a tough draw, landing in host Lithuania’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Only one team from each OQT will reach the Olympics. Even Poland in the group stage will be no pushover.

But Doncic is obviously a difference-maker. Not only is he one of the world’s best players, he’s also comfortable with international style of play.

Slovenia needs him after Goran Dragic retired from the national team following the 2017 European basketball championship.

Slovenia’s first OQT game is June 24 against Angola. Dallas seems bound for a first-round loss. So, that should work. But if the Mavericks make a surprising run deep in the playoffs, Doncic could always reconsider – though he sounds quite certain now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on playing with brothers: ‘Milwaukee, L.A., wherever – that’d be awesome’

Giannis Antetokounmpo in Bucks-Lakers
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Giannis Antetokounmpo – on the elite Bucks and nearing his super-max decision – has the NBA by the tail.

Teams are trying to impress the family-oriented superstar. Milwaukee signed his brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo. The Lakers added another brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo. (The Knicks drafted Thanasis, but Thanasis’ tenure in New York reportedly left a sour taste in Giannis’ mouth.)

Now, Giannis – who once said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles – is singing a slightly different tune

USA Today:

Antetokounmpo:

I think that would be amazing. Obviously, we’d spend more time together, and I’m 100 percent sure my mom would love that. But if we could team up on a team – Milwaukee, L.A., wherever – that’d be awesome.

Maybe Antetokounmpo is just paying lip service to the Lakers, because they added Kostas. But at this point, that’s progress for Los Angeles.

Considering Giannis’ agent just said “everything is open,” it seems Giannis could be planting the seeds for leaving Milwaukee. He could definitely stay. But by at least mentioning other possibilities, he’d soften the blow if he chooses to depart.

Giannis’ views on loyalty have always been more complex than people realized. Tastes change. It sounds as if Giannis isn’t quite as averse to Los Angeles as he once was.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between that and actually joining the Lakers. Giannis hasn’t suddenly transformed into a totally different person.

But this quote will keep the candle of hope burning in Los Angeles.

Report: All-Star fourth quarter featured more than 15 minutes of gameplay

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One overlooked feature of the NBA’s new All-Star game format: It seemed designed to shorten the game.

Sure, the league wanted to add an interesting wrinkle to a game that had grown stale. The exact details were tweaked to honor Kobe Bryant.

But – in the era of load management – shaving a few minutes off the exhibition game should be taken as a feature, not a bug.

This year’s game ended when a team scored 24 more points than the leading team had entering the fourth quarter. The last time a team had scored 24 or fewer in All-Star quarter: 2010, when the East scored just 23 in the fourth quarter.  In the decade since – including the first three quarters Sunday – All-Star teams averaged 24 points every seven minutes.

But Sunday’s fourth quarter took a while longer than the standard 12 minutes for LeBron James‘ team to outscore Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s team, 33-22.

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Defenses really turned up in the fourth quarter. Here’s how the teams’ shooting percentages changed from the first three quarters to the fourth quarter:

  • 2-pointers: 73% to 46%
  • 3-pointers: 34% to 23%

More shots being contested also led to more fouls. After attempting just 13 free throws in the first three quarters, the teams took 26 free throws in the fourth quarter.

In The Basketball Tournament, which first introduced the Elam Ending, the target score is eight more points than the leading team has at the first whistle inside four minutes. By turning off the game clock later, there’s less room for variance in gameplay length.

I suspect the NBA would have also turned off the clock later if not using the target score to honor Bryant. Because Bryant wore No. 24 last, the league has generally used that – not his other number, No. 8 – in tributes, including the All-Star jerseys.

With All-Star MVP now named for Bryant – a perfectly fitting lasting tribute – the league can alter the ending format next year.

The concept is sound. The exact execution just needs tweaking.

Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn may be out for season with knee injury

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Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn missed the last four games before the All-Star break with a sprained knee.

He could miss a lot more — like the rest of the season.

From K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

But sources said there’s a growing belief that Dunn will miss the remainder of the season with the injury, which occurred when Thaddeus Young took a charge and inadvertently crashed into Dunn’s knee on the first possession of a Jan. 31 road game against the Nets. When Dunn suffered a similar injury last season, he missed 23 games…

“Dunn still has some swelling in that knee,” coach Jim Boylen said before the Bulls lost to the Wizards on Feb. 11 in Washington, their final game before the break. “Once his swelling goes down, he will get re-scanned and re-evaluated.  But he had a lot of swelling.”

That’s less than ideal for Dunn as he heads into restricted free agency. He has averaged 7.3 points and  3.6 rebounds per game, however, his most significant contribution has been quality defense for Chicago this season.

This is the latest in a string of injuries for the Bulls. Otto Porter has only played nine games due to a broken foot. Big men Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are currently sidelined due to injuries, although Carter could return after the All-Star break and Markkanen by early next month. Now Dunn.