NBA Playoffs: Incredible comeback has Dallas one game from the NBA Finals

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The Thunder had this.

They did just about everything they had to do from the opening tip to secure a series-evening victory against Dallas in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

OKC jumped out to a fast start, got a superstar-level performance from its best player, and played active team defense for the vast majority of the game. The team built a lead of 15 points with 5:06 to play after what seemed like a dagger of a three-pointer at the time from Kevin Durant.

But then, and so quickly, it all came crashing down. Dallas finished regulation on a blistering 17-2 run to send it into overtime, and finished the comeback it started by pulling off an incredible 112-105 victory to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

A slow start doomed the Thunder in Game 3, so they made sure to begin strong in this one. Oklahoma City came out firing, and made its first nine shots, on the way to an early double-digit lead. But Dallas was able to hang around thanks to 22 first-half points from Dirk Nowitzki, and after shooting almost 67 percent from the field in the second quarter, the Mavs trailed by just five at the break.

The Thunder continued to play well, however, all the way up until that fateful point in the fourth. They were aggressive defensively, and were absolute monsters on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, where they grabbed 20 rebounds compared to just five for Dallas.

But things fell apart late for Oklahoma City, seemingly right at the point when backup playmaker James Harden fouled out of the game. From 4:34 left in the fourth until the final overtime buzzer, the Mavericks outscored the Thunder 26-6.

All of a sudden, the ball movement stopped for the Thunder offensively. Shawn Marion forced Durant into difficult, heavily-contested shots. Russell Westbrook forced shots, but the blame for the collapse is far from his — there was plenty of standing around by his teammates, and the team defense of the Mavericks was simply outstanding.

And of course, there was the play of Nowitzki.

Dirk has been simply incredible this postseason, and he finished this one with his second performance of 40 points or more in this series. He had 11 of his team’s final 13 points in regulation to close the gap, scoring on a variety of ridiculously tough shots over the tight and largely solid defense of Nick Collison.

As good as Nowitzki and the Mavs were during that huge fourth quarter run, the Thunder had two chances at the end of regulation to seal it, but the execution on those possessions was just atrocious.

The first play came out of a timeout with Oklahoma City still leading by two. There was actually player movement on this possession as the team got into a set play, but the only shot the Thunder were able to get was a corner three-point attempt from Thabo Sefolosha.

The look was clean, and the pass from Durant was a good one in that situation. But it’s unconscionable with the game, and maybe the series on the line that coming out of a timeout, something can’t be drawn up to get the ball into your best player’s hands for something that resembles a decent shot.

On the Thunder’s following possession with the game tied and 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation, they got it to Durant this time, only they did so more than 30 feet from the basket. Durant panicked, and launched a contested three that Marion got a piece of, and to overtime we went.

Jason Kidd and Nowitzki finished things off once they got there, and will likely do the same to the Thunder on Wednesday in Game 5. Only this time, it will be for good, and the veterans will head to the NBA Finals, while the youngsters head home to try to learn from the experience.

Give all the credit in the world to Dallas, but really, it’s too bad for Oklahoma City. True, it’s a young and inexperienced team that has suffered from below average coaching in this series, especially on the offensive end of the floor. But with a 15-point lead, at home, with under five minutes remaining?

The Thunder had this.

Isaiah Thomas not happy to be benched in Denver, still working to find way back

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Isaiah Thomas is frustrated and nobody can blame him.

Just a couple of seasons back he was fifth in the MVP voting and was lined up for a “back up the Brink’s truck” payday, but he tried to play through a hip injury that eventually required surgery and nobody stepped up with a payday. This season in Denver, on a one-year minimum contract, he was given plenty of time to get his body right, but when he came back he wasn’t helping a team thinking deep playoff run. Thomas averaged 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Coach Mike Malone couldn’t keep Monte Morris — who is a Most Improved Player candidate with his play this year — on the bench while Thomas worked things out, and IT has been moved out of the rotation.

That doesn’t mean he took the news well. From Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

It’s very possible we’ve seen peak Thomas. That doesn’t mean most of the NBA is rooting to be proved wrong on that — I’m among many who want to see him succeed.

Hopefully next season he lands somewhere and really gets that chance. Denver became too good too fast to really be that place for him this season.

 

Celtics, Nuggets look ahead to playoffs, not to past meeting

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — November was a long time ago, so chances are the Boston Celtics have gotten over Jamal Murray‘s antics from the first time they played the Denver Nuggets.

Then again, NBA players have long memories.

Murray scored 48 points in the Nuggets’ 115-107 in Denver on Nov. 5 and jacked up a last-second 3-pointer to try to reach 50. Boston guard Kyrie Irving wasn’t happy and threw the basketball into the stands after the buzzer, drawing a fine.

After the game, Murray acknowledged he got caught up in the moment, and Irving said there would be no hangover.

“What kind of competitor wouldn’t it bother? I was (mad), but we’re not going to make a big thing about it,” he said that night.

Irving can prove there are no hard feelings when the teams meet in Boston on Monday night. In fact, the Celtics might be thanking the Nuggets for helping them in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Denver beat the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night while Boston was taking care of Atlanta, allowing the Celtics to move within a game of the Pacers for the fourth seed.

Boston (43-27) has two more games against Indiana but the Nuggets are the immediate priority. The Celtics have bigger concerns than payback for Murray, too. Center Al Horford left Saturday’s game after he banged his knee but was able to return, while forward Gordon Hayward left in the first half with a strained neck and didn’t return.

Horford appeared fine but Boston is trying to manage his minutes down the stretch. Hayward’s status for Monday is unknown after colliding with Atlanta forward John Collins. Coach Brad Stevens said after the game that Hayward was woozy at halftime.

“You could see right away that it was quite a hit,” Stevens said.

Denver has dealt with injuries all season but is finally fully healthy. Despite that, the Nuggets have struggled the past two-plus weeks, going 4-4 since Feb. 28 and needing late-game heroics to pull out two home wins.

All-Star Nikola Jokic hit a game-winner against Dallas on Thursday, and Saturday it was Paul Millsap saving the day. Denver (46-22) is securely in second place in the West as it starts a four-game trip through the Eastern Conference, thanks in part to a 12-3 record in games decided by three or fewer points.

“It’s great. Those are the moments that make the team,” Millsap said of the close victories. “It shows the type of character we have, it shows the type of team we have. Those situations can make or break a team and we’ve been able to thrive off of it.”

Jokic has been the catalyst, leading the team in scoring (20.3), rebounds (10.7) and assists (7.6). He showed his temper Saturday when he got ejected with 2:56 left and Denver leading by seven. Indiana rallied to tie it only to have Millsap hit the winning layup with seven seconds left.

“(We’re) talking about an All-Star guy who gets knocked around a lot, but through it all he (does) have to keep his composure, fight through it,” Millsap said. “Playoff atmosphere. Plays like that are going to happen, you’re not always going to get the call, you just have to fight through it.”

Monday’s game could be the first Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas plays at TD Garden since he was traded to Cleveland 18 months ago. Thomas led Boston to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals but was dealt for Irving in the offseason, and then to the Los Angeles Lakers during last season.

Hip surgery kept him out until just before the All-Star break. He played in nine games before being out of the rotation the last three heading into Boston.

Kevin Durant to return to Warriors vs. Spurs Monday, Bogut to make (another) debut

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Kevin Durant missed two games with a tweaked ankle, and the Warriors beat the Rockets and Thunder — maybe their two biggest threats in the West — anyway.

Now he is back, starting Monday night against the Spurs. Coach Steve Kerr confirmed the news, reports NBC Sports Bay Area, adding that Kerr said Durant could have played Saturday against Oklahoma City if it had been a playoff game, but the Warriors decided to be cautious.

“I’m excited to play again,” Durant said following Monday’s shootaround in San Antonio.

Golden State will be without DeMarcus Cousins for Monday’s game, but the team got good news about his ankle injury, he is listed as day-to-day and should return soon.

With Durant out, Andrew Bogut has been pressed into action sooner than the Warriors wanted. The plan had been to let him sit out until the Warriors return home from their current road trip, but now Bogut is in San Antonio and will play tonight, Kerr said to NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I’m going to play him,” Kerr said Monday. “Without DeMarcus, we’ve got to guard LaMarcus Aldridge, so [Kevon] Looney can guard LaMarcus, Draymond [Green] but Bogut will be out there at some point.”

Report: Former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg frontrunner at Nebraska

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After getting fired as Bulls coach, Fred Hoiberg was reportedly drawing consideration from the Timberwolves – for coaching or the front office. Minnesota could undergo a major overhaul post-Tom Thibodeau.

Hoiberg said he preferred to coach. The former Iowa State coach also said he’d weigh pro and college opportunities.

A college offer could come first.

Jeff Goodman of Stadium:

Frontrunner to get offered the job or frontrunner to fill the job? There’s a big difference.

I would’ve thought Hoiberg could get a better college gig. But I also don’t know much how much money Nebraska is offering or how Hoiberg values that position. He was born in Lincoln and grew up rooting for Nebraska football. His grandfather, Jerry Bush, coached the Cornhuskers basketball team.

Hoiberg shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for an NBA head-coaching job. He didn’t distinguish himself in three-plus seasons in Chicago. Maybe he would’ve looked better with better players, or even better-fitting players. But NBA coaches rarely get to pick their roster. They must adjust better to the personnel they have.

I also wouldn’t rule out Hoiberg getting another NBA head-coaching job. Few, if any coaches, would have won with those Bulls. Another NBA team could give him another chance – if he doesn’t take the Nebraska job first.