Phoenix’s Goran Dragic runs away with Most Improved Player

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There were a lot of different directions voters could go with the Most Improved player award. Blake Griffin raised his game from “freak athlete” to “elite power forward” if you want to go that route. Guys like Gerald Green in Phoenix finally had his game mature and he flourished in Phoenix. There were a whole lot of other options.

But the one thing everyone seemed to agree on is Goran Dragic should be on the list.

The Phoenix point guard ran away with the Most Improved Player award. He easily outdistanced second place Lance Stephenson of Indiana and third place’s Anthony Davis of New Orleans in the voting.

For his career Dragic averaged 9.5 points a game and there were questions about how he would blend with Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt.

The answer was very well — those two were a force together that propelled Phoenix to 48 wins (which left them a game out of the playoffs in the Western Conference, but would have been tied for third best in the East).

Dragic finished the season averaging a career-best 20.3 points per game, plus averaged 5.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds a night.

Dragic becomes the third Suns player to win the award, joining Kevin Johnson (1988-89) and Boris Diaw (2005-06).

While I think you can make a good case for a lot of guys to get votes, there were some interesting choices out there from the 125 media members who voted for the award. LeBron James did improve parts of his game, but was he really the second most improved? Robin Lopez? Sean Livingston might have won this award if it was still the “comeback player of the year” but he’s doing what he’s done for a couple years, just on a bigger stage. Mike Conley has been very good for a couple years.

Here is a voting breakdown. The media member votes are public so if you want to see who voted for whom follow this link.

Player (team) total points (first place votes, if any)

Goran Dragic (Phoenix) 408 (65)
Lance Stephenson (Indiana) 158 (13)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans) 155 (16)
Gerald Green (Phoenix) 117 (16)
DeAndre Jordan (L.A. Clippers) 66 (4)
Kyle Lowry (Toronto) 43 (2)
Blake Griffin (L.A. Clippers) 39 (6)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto) 28 (1)
Patty Mills (San Antonio) 14
Markieff Morris (Phoenix) 13 (1)
Isaiah Thomas (Sacramento) 13
Shaun Livingston (Brooklyn) 11
D.J. Augustin (Chicago) 9 (1)
Reggie Jackson (Oklahoma City) 8
Robin Lopez (Portland) 6
Klay Thompson (Golden Stat2) 6
DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento) 5
Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City) 5 (1)
Al Jefferson (Charlotte) 4
Bradley Beal (Washington) 3
Mike Conley (Memphis) 3
Andre Drummond (Detroit) 3
Taj Gibson (Chicago) 3
LeBron James (Miami) 3
Terrence Jones (Houston) 3
Jodie Meeks (L.A. Lakers) 3
LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland) 1
Alec Burks (Utah) 1
Paul Millsap (Atlanta) 1
Chandler Parsons (Houston) 1
John Wall (Washington) 1

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.