Deron Williams dunks, Nets throttle limping Bulls

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Deron Williams made a pair of free throws as the Barclays Center fans chanted “M-V-P!” On the Bulls’ next possession, Williams stole the ball, sprinted down the court and – the same player who didn’t dunk until April – delivered a reverse slam.

More than we’ve realized, this is a different Deron Williams. Frankly, and perhaps more importantly at the moment, these are a different Chicago Bulls.

Williams is full of health of vigor. The Bulls – and, as a result, this series – are not.

Williams had 22 points and seven assists to lead the Nets to a resounding 106-89 Game 1 win over Chicago that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.  Brooklyn led by more than 15 for the game’s final 28 minutes and by as many as 28 points.

In the last 15 years, teams that win Game 1 by at least 17 points have won 41 of 44 series. As long as Williams keeps playing like this, it’s difficult to envision the Bulls turning this series into the fourth exception.

Including tonight (and excluding the season finale, when he sat out the fourth quarter), Williams is averaging 24.1 points and 8.4 assists per game since March 8. For perspective, only twice has a player averaged those marks for a full season since 1990-91 (LeBron James in 2009-10 and Gary Payton in 1999-00).

Early, Williams’ production was matched by Brook Lopez, who scored 19 of his 21 points in the first half. Over and over again, Williams and Noah got favorable position inside against a team that has a reputation for defending the paint much tougher than it did. But that reputation was built by two players who were limited tonight.

Joakim Noah, played just 13 minutes, and that seemed like 13 minutes too many. Taj Gibson got in foul trouble and had to sit.

Chicago was outscored by 13 points in the 12 minutes neither Noah, who’s losing his battle with plantar fasciitis, nor Gibson played, and that was the difference. When Noah is healthy, the Bulls don’t have to endure so much time without either of their top defenders.

The entire Bulls team didn’t pass Williams and Lopez alone in scoring until midway through the second quarter, as Chicago’s offensive troubles became the predominant story of the game.

For a long time, Carlos Boozer, who finished 25 points, was the Bulls’ only reliable scoring source.

Luol Deng made the Bulls first field goal, and then he didn’t make another shot until the third quarter was mostly over, finishing 3-for-11. Kirk Hinrich, who limped off late in the third quarter and didn’t return, and Richard Hamilton combined to shoot 0-for-5. Marco Belinelli shot 3-for-8, though he at least got to the line.

There’s no doubt Chicago, which scored just 35 first-half points, had offensive problems. But those issues were overstated.

The Bulls still had a higher offensive rating (102.7) than all four teams that played earlier in the day: Knicks (95.9), Nuggets (95.7), Warriors (91.7) and Celtics (95.9).

Nate Robinson scored 17 points on 12 shots, and Jimmy Butler went 5-for-8.

However, Robinson – likely because Tom Thibodeau didn’t trust the point guard’s defense – played just eight minutes before the fourth quarter, and Butler disappeared for nearly the entire first half. Butler’s issues are perhaps correctable, but it’s getting too late for Robinson to endear himself to Thibodeau, even though riding Robinson’s high-variance game might be the Bulls’ best chance as underdogs.

The Nets, on the other hand, never had problems getting going. In addition to Williams and Lopez, Joe Johnson (16 points), Gerald Wallace (14 points), C.J. Watson (14) and Andray Blatche (12 points) all had their moments in supporting roles.

As big as the gap looked between these teams tonight, the series isn’t over, and several Bulls (and two former Bulls who now play for the Nets, C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans) should know that. The last team to win Game 1 by at least 17 points and then lose the series was the Bulls, who beat the Miami Heat by 21 before losing the next four games.

Noah might not be able to give the Bulls much in this series, but they can look to his words after that big win over the Heat two years ago.

“It’s only one game,” Noah said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played.”

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

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Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.