NBA Preview: Utah Jazz

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Last season: The Utah Jazz were what they have always seemed to be — solid. They moved on from the Deron Williams era to a team that tried to dominate with its front line of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, while hoping young guys like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors would develop. The result was 36-30, a good team that got the eight seed in the West then were swept out of the playoffs.

They also lost their high draft pick that the Warriors owed them when Golden State tanked their way all the way to the No. 7 pick (Harrison Barnes).

Key Departures: The Jazz didn’t lose much, unless you are a huge Devin Harris fan. Exactly. Not much.

Key Additions: Utah basically stood pat, they want to see how their young players develop and keep their cap space open for next summer.

But the Jazz did make moves. They tried to bolster their roster by adding veterans Mo Williams and Marvin Williams. Marvin will be a nice upgrade for them at the three, he’s not explosive but he is better than what they had. Mo Williams will give them some points and a midrange shooting threat out of the backcourt, but the Jazz struggled more on defense last season and he doesn’t help there. They also added Randy Foye.

Three keys to the Jazz season:

1) How big a step forward can Derrick Favors take? What about Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter? While the Jazz want all their young players to develop, Favors is the key. The Jazz struggled on defense last season — they were 19th in the league in points allowed per possession — but the second half of the season Favors started to look like a defensive beast. They need that, and they need him on the boards. But what really has to happen is his offensive game needs to continue to evolve so he can get some minutes up front with Millsap and Jefferson, who both were playing like All-Stars last season.

Hayward took steps forward last season on both ends of the floor but his jumper has to be more reliable. Kanter could use to develop (or show) his jumper more and find a way to fit into the offense. The Jazz are banking on growth from these guys.

2) How does coach Ty Corbin juggle all these big men and make it work? Utah has some real talent along the front line — it may be a tad undersized but only a couple teams in the league are better down low than the Jazz. (Unfortunately, two of them are in the West with the Lakers and Grizzlies.) The Jazz rely on their front line players for everything but they need to find a balance with their top players — Jefferson and Millsap — and the guys they are trying to groom with Favors and Kanter. They need to find a balance between points in the paint and defense (Favors can provide both as he develops).

With Jefferson and Millsap in the last year of their deals, they both could be on the trade block as well.

3) What is the big picture direction for the Jazz? They have some guys entering their peak with Jefferson and Millsap, they have some developing guys like Favors and Hayward and in some ways they can seem like a team on the rise. But they don’t have the one elite star who glues the whole thing together (unless you are higher on Favors than everyone else). They are a young team with a ton of cap space next summer.

The Jazz have a nice core and room to maneuver. The question is what is the long-term goal (besides “winning”)? What kind of team do they want to be and how do they want to build it. They have options. They can do it through the draft, they can make trades, they can go after free agents, give Favors a larger role, a whole lot of things.

In the next year is when the Jazz will define who they are for the following five years at least. The real pressure on this team is with the front office. The question is what kind of team are they trying to build.

What Jazz fans should fear: Life in the NBA’s middle ground. The Jazz are going to spend this season fighting for one of the lower seeds in the Western conference, and even if they miss their draft pick is still in the teens. It’s easy in the NBA to get trapped into being good without ever being great. The Jazz have that potential. They also have the cap room and players to avoid it, but if I were a Jazz fan my biggest concern is that they become just good.

How it likely works out: They may be one of the hardest teams to predict in the NBA because they are counting on development of young players and they are in position to move key pieces in trades. Most likely they make smaller trades that look to the future, their young players develop some and they are in the hunt for the eighth playoff spot in the West with Dallas, Minnesota, Golden State and others.

Prediction: They finish 41-41 and that ends up being the eight seed. Or nine seed. Or 10 seed. They are good, maybe Millsap will get some All-Star recognition, but this year ends up being about what is to come in future years.

Andre Iguodala sits fourth quarter with “lower leg soreness,” to get MRI Sunday

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DaMarcus Cousins. Kevin Durant.

Now you might be able to add Andre Iguodala to the list of injured Warriors. He only played 18 minutes in Game 3 Saturday night, none after he was taken out with 7:49 left in the third quarter. Asked about that after the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr listed a hockey injury — lower leg soreness — and said an MRI was coming.

If he has to miss time, that would be another blow to the Warriors. Up 3-0 on Portland, Golden State can close this series out without him, but the Warriors are going to need Iguodala and Durant — and, ideally, Cousins — against the Bucks or Raptors in the NBA Finals starting on May 30.

Iguodala made friends and influenced people when he went back to the locker room late in the first quarter, deciding to flip off the hallway camera on his way.

We will see if the League has anything to say about that or lets it slide.

 

Jordan Bell spectacularly missed dunk, but Warriors reaction was perfect

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Golden State was starting to make its comeback, cutting the lead to eight midway through the third quarter when Draymond Green found Jordan Bell for the breakaway dunk and…

Ouch.

What was impressive though was the Warriors reaction. First, Steve Kerr didn’t take him out. Didn’t bench him, instead left him in and with that showed confidence.

Then there was Draymond Green, who was on ESPN’s Mic’d Up, and was heard encouraging Bell.

Then there was assistant coach Mike Brown, who tried to get Bell out of the moment, in a great story relayed by Ethan Straus of The Athletic.

“So Jordan played against my son Elijah,” Brown explained. “My oldest son played at Mater Dei High School in Orange County and Jordan played at Long Beach [Poly]. So they had a lot of games back in the day. So I went up to him and he thought I was serious, because we took the time out. He’s about to walk out of the huddle and I walk up to him and say, ‘Jordan, listen, don’t worry about the dunk. I saw about three or four of them back in the Long Beach days and you bounced back.’ He fell out laughing. He said, ‘Ah, MB, I didn’t do that back then!’ I said, ‘Yea you did! It’s all good, though!’”

It worked. Bell never lost confidence, never stopped playing the way he plays, and soon enough there was this.

With Portland going smaller and counting on their offense more, Bell is going to have a larger role in that matchup. This is exactly how you build up the confidence of a player so he will come through for you in those moments.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.