Baseline-to-baseline recaps: Knicks win 12th straight, Clippers clinch first division title

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while watching the two-hour season premiere of Mad Men

Knicks 125, Thunder 120: When the Knicks are knocking down threes they can beat anyone — and they hit 10 threes in the first half as they pulled away. But more impressive was the late 11-2 run to take the game behind Carmelo Anthony, who had 36 points and nine offensive rebounds. He and the Knicks bullied the Thunder and we broke it down in more detail here.

Clippers 109, Lakers 95: The Clips used a killer combination of depth and athleticism to dismantle the Lakers on Sunday, and we broke down their division-title clinching victory in greater detail here.

Pistons 99, Bulls 85: Chicago had beating the Pistons 18 straight times but that streak came to end Sunday night as the Bulls just didn’t have the defensive energy. After the first half the Pistons led 50-46 and that was in part due to Charlie Villanueva coming in off the bench and knocking down a couple of threes (he finished with 13 points). Noah was back but the Bulls transition defense wasn’t good and the Pistons took advantage.

In the third quarter Brandon Knight came out and just started taking Nate Robinson to the hole and smothering him on defense. Knight had a dozen of his 20 for the game in the third and was key to the Pistons snapping the streak.
—Kurt Helin

Celtics 107, Wizards 96: Kevin Garnett returned to the Boston lineup after missing his team’s last eight games, and finished with 12 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes of action. A 14-3 Celtics run over the first half of the third quarter sealed this one for Boston, and the Jordan Crawford revenge effort was uneventful at best, as Crawford finished with just six points, two assists, and two steals in 16 minutes of action off the bench.

Cavaliers 91, Magic 85: It doesn’t do either of these teams any good to come away with a victory at this point in the season, but Cleveland finished strong despite a dismal 3-15 shooting performance from Kyrie Irving, who finished with just nine points and 10 assists in 36 minutes of action.

The Magic, meanwhile, remain competitive to close out the season, even if they seem to know precisely when to fold the effort to secure the loss. A 26 point, 12 rebound performance from Mo Harkless, along with 21 points and 21 rebounds from Nik Vucevic were bright spots for Orlando as they ride out the regular season.

Mavericks 96, Trail Blazers 91: Mavs scored on 12 of first 18 trips down the court, raced out to a 15-3 lead. That lead grew to 26 at one point. Chris Kaman was the first half key with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Dallas was the aggressor, they played loose and looked like they were on their way to a romp. But Dirk Nowitzki was out for the fourth quarter with a minor foot injury, the Mavs scored just 15 points, and a 19-2 run late we had a ballgame. But a Shawn Marion fast break layup (he had 20 points on the night) proved to be the dagger for Dallas.

Once again the beards are in jeopardy — if Dallas can beat the Suns Wednesday in Big D they will be a .500 team and razors will be passed out around the locker room.
—Kurt Helin

Grizzlies 89, Kings 87: This was the kind of win that playoff teams obtain, on the road against an inferior opponent who has packed it in for the remainder of the season. Mike Conley led the way with a game-high 25 points, while Quincy Pondexter posted 17 for the Grizzlies off the bench.

Hornets 95, Suns 92:  The Suns have proven to be able to compete at times with its end-of-season lineup, but against New Orleans on Sunday, a third quarter in which Phoenix was outscored 35-19 doomed its chances. The Suns closed the gap a bit in the fourth, but didn’t ever threaten the game’s final outcome. This was lottery team basketball at its finest, and New Orleans wanted the win more than Phoenix did, plain and simple.

Jazz 97, Warriors 90: A couple weeks ago it looked like the Jazz were going to stumble right out of the playoffs, but the scheduled softened up and they have taken advantage — even over a not soft opponent in Golden State. Utah played like a team desperate (and with the win and the Lakers loss they move half a game ahead of Los Angeles for the eight spot). Golden State played like a team that would live to another day — and they will, they can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Lakers Tuesday.

Utah took control of the game with a 24-3 run in the second quarter. Golden State wouldn’t go away and it took 25 points from Mo Williams including a dagger three late to get them win. Al Jefferson added 19 points and 12 boards; Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 22.
—Kurt Helin

NBA playoffs mired in worst pre-Finals competitive-game drought ever

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Exciting games. Clutch plays. Close finishes.

Remember those?

The NBA playoffs have hit a lull. It has been 11 days since the last game decided by fewer than 10 points.

Longer competitive-game droughts have occurred – though not many, and never before the NBA Finals. The most common route for going so long without a competitive game is decisive victories to end the conference finals, a lengthy break before the Finals then decisive victories to start the Finals.

But we’re not to the Finals yet.

In this case, every second-round series ended in five or fewer games – culminating with the Celtics’ 114-112 win over the 76ers on May 9, the last single-digit game. Three league-wide off days followed. The Celtics routed the Cavaliers twice in Boston, and the Warriors and Rockets traded lopsided wins in Houston. Two more league-wide off days, Cleveland winning by 30 Saturday, Golden State winning by 41 last night, and we’re at 11 straight days without a competitive game.

Here are the longest-ever streaks of days between single-digit playoff games before the conference finals ended:

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Both conference finals are as close as possible, 2-1 (favoring the Warriors and Celtics). But the individual games just haven’t matched the tightness.

Why is this happening?

The peculiar overlapping three off days for each conference finals certainly factored.

Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers – who’ve met in the last three NBA Finals – are that much better than the rest of their conferences when locked in. Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers know that, leaving them prone to bad losses the teams know they can rally from. Maybe the Celtics are just that good at home and that bad on the road. Maybe it’s just a random occurrence.

No matter the reason, the result is certain: We’ve gone a long time without seeing a competitive game.

Hopefully, Cleveland and Boston change that tonight.

Andre Iguodala doubtful for Warriors-Rockets Game 4

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Andre Iguodala hurt his knee during the fourth quarter of the Warriors’ win over the Rockets last night. Golden State coach Steve Kerr brushed off concern about the injury and praised his starting small forward in these Western Conference finals.

“When we’re right, when we’re playing how we are supposed to play, Andre’s right in the middle of it,” Kerr said. “His defense and being smart, making good decisions. Andre is one of the guys who seems to set the tone for that for us.”

The Warriors might have to set that tone without Iguodala in Game 4 Tuesday.

Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

Replacing Iguodala in the lineup won’t be easy. He boosts the Warriors offensively and defensively, and they’re short on wings.

Will Golden State just spread Iguodala’s minutes between Nick Young, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson? Durant and Thompson already play so much. Young is a defensive liability.

Will the Warriors go big more often with Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and/or David West – shifting Draymond Green from center to power forward and Durant from power forward to small forward? Looney already has a relatively large role in this series, and it’s imperative he plays with full effort whenever on the court. More minutes could harm him. Kerr doesn’t appear to trust Bell, and West might be too slow to keep up with the Rockets.

There’s no good answer here, just different cracks Houston can exploit if Iguodala is out or even just slowed tomorrow.

New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: ‘I think I’m in the best place in the league’

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Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly finish fourth in Most Valuable Player voting this year, his age-23 season.

The last coach to take over a team with a player who already accomplished so much at such a young age – Del Harris (a familiar name in Milwaukee), who inherited reigning MVP Moses Malone with the Rockets in 1979. It’s just so rare for jobs coaching such a promising player top come open.

“I think I’m in the best place in the league,” new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said at his introductory press conference today.

Budenholzer had his pick of Milwaukee and Toronto, another highly successful team, especially for one seeking a new coach. But the Bucks offer Antetokounmpo and more modest expectations.

Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years. Budenholzer was asked today as much about delivering a division title as an NBA title.

Topping the Cavaliers, Pacers, Pistons and Bulls sounds much easier than surpassing the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and 76ers in coming years.

Not that Budenholzer, who reached the conference finals with the Hawks, is completely ducking big talk.

“We’re lucky to have a Giannis, who will do anything to win, and a Khris Middleton that will do anything to win,” Budenholzer said. “When you have your best players that are true competitors and that are truly unselfish and care more about the team than they do themselves, those are a couple of big, foundational blocks to winning championships and doing things that are special.”

The Bucks held the press conference at their still-under-construction new arena, the media wearing hard hats and orange vests:

But this isn’t a complete rebuild for Budenholzer.

Milwaukee has made the playoffs the last two seasons, including winning 44 games this year. Antetokounmpo is a superstar. Middleton is a borderline All-Star. Eric Bledsoe is a solid starter. Restricted free agent-to-be Jabari Parker is talented. The rotation is somewhat deep.

The Bucks just underachieved under former coach Jason Kidd (and never capitalized before him for more than a decade for other reasons).

Citing the potential of current players, Budenholzer said Milwaukee could become “elite” defensively. The Bucks are full of long and athletic players, and Budenholzer coached sound defenses in Atlanta. There’s only one reason to doubt him: Milwaukee finished just 17th in points allowed per possession this season.

But that’s a feature of this job, not a bug. The Bucks aren’t stuck with an inevitably bad defenders. They just underperformed. Budenholzer can nudge them ahead – and is positioned to receive outsized credit if he does.

“Working with the entire with the entire roster, with the front office, with ownership,” Budenholzer said, “I can’t wait to take us to the next level in Milwaukee.”

That next level isn’t that high, which is why Budenholzer is right.

Milwaukee is a great place for a coach to be.

Mike D’Antoni: Rockets ‘played soft’

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni:

We didn’t switch up into people, we didn’t box off. It’s just one thing led to another. Played soft, actually.

His stars agreed.

James Harden:

He’s right. We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be. We started off the game pretty solid, and then we let them gain some confidence to end the first quarter. You know, but just defensively they didn’t feel us and it showed tonight.

Chis Paul:

Coach is right. We’ve got to be better. I think, you know, we’ve got to come out more aggressive. We were letting them hit first, you know what I mean? They were running their screens and all that stuff like that. I mean, we know that we’re at our best when we’re in transition and not taking the ball out the net. And tonight we were taking the ball out the net. We had 19 turnovers. That’s uncharacteristic of us. We knew we were going to get a great game from them being back here at home, but we’ve got to be better Game 4.

That’s a harsh assessment – but at least somewhat warranted. The Rockets applied far too little defensive pressure, and they missed shots inside and committed turnovers as if they were rattled.

I don’t think the Rockets are soft. But they looked soft in the face of Golden State’s elite ability.

The Warriors pressure teams into mistakes and then exploit many of them. Play that doesn’t look soft against other opponents suddenly does against Golden State.

Houston can toughen up before Game 4 Tuesday. Acclimating to the Warriors’ high level of play, especially at home, could help. The Rockets are good enough to hang at this level.

But it certainly won’t be easy.