Remember just a week or so ago when the Denver Nuggets had lost seven in a row and looked like a team destined to fall far out of the playoff picture in the West?
Now the Nuggets have turned it around with four straight wins, and while they are not in a playoff spot yet they are back in the picture.
The latest of those wins came over a sleepy, uninspired Thunder team on Thursday night, 101-88. It wasn’t that Denver was particularly brilliant, their offensive rating on the night was a tic below their season average — although Randy Foye was hot on his way to 24 points and Denver knocked down 14-of-31 three point attempts.
It’s just that Denver was solid and that was much better than whatever the Thunder were doing out there. (Insert your own “marijuana is legal in Colorado” joke here… or just find the copies of Kevin Durant’s deleted tweets from after the game Thursday night.)
Durant had 30 points on 18 shots, but without Russell Westbrook that is not going to get it done. That’s not meant as a dig at Durant, it’s just a night when the Thunder bench shot 28.6 percent, led by Jeremy Lamb going 1-of-12, Durant is going to have to have a monster scoring night to keep the Thunder in it. And he didn’t. Durant was good but just 1-of-7 from three.
By comparison the Nuggets looked as composed, like the team that has tripped up so many visitors to altitude over the years. Denver had a 9 point lead at the half then opened the third quarter on a 10-2 run, and that was pretty much your ballgame.
Ty Lawson was in great form, using his quickness to get 16 points for himself and create open looks for others. Randy Foye was 6-of-9 from three, which really opened up the entire Nuggets offense, and je finished the night with a team-high 24 points. Evan Fournier had 19 points and the kind of game that demands more minutes soon.
This isn’t a game you read anything into — the Thunder miss Westbrook terribly but we knew that already, and Denver is a team that gets hot and is pretty much right now. They just need to stay hot if they want to make the playoffs. The Nuggets will take the win just the same.
The battle has, stupidly, raged on between supporters of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Both sides seem to believe their preference is irrefutably the choice for the best player in NBA history.
And because they did not play in the same era, the question will never be answered. No doubt in 50 years they will write columns about Jordan vs. LeBron, just like their fathers, and their father’s fathers before them.
James has certainly seemed to take a bit of a leap in the eyes of the NBA community this season, likely because of his wonderful performance at age 33. He’s also single-handedly won two playoff series this year. It’s been incredible.
But LeBron rising above Jordan has also brought out some more reasonable takes. Former Chicago Bulls legend and Jordan running mate Scottie Pippen spoke up recently about the debate, giving a measured analysis that I think is pretty strong.
In short, Pippen basically said you can’t compare the two because of the eras, the style, and the fact they just don’t play the same position (if LeBron even has a position, that is).
That sounds right to me.
Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.
Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.
After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).
That’s vintage Perkins.
Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.
Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:
“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.
Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”
Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.
From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.
Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.
When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.
Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.
Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?
That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.