Four Things to Watch in Playoffs Friday: Can LaMarcus Aldridge get some scoring help

Associated Press
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Kentucky Derby pick? I’ll take Outwork, I think the lack of early speed in this race will favor the frontrunners, who will hold off the Nyquist led charge. Oh, and here is some basketball stuff for Friday night.

1) LaMarcus Aldridge will get his, what about the rest of the Spurs? Oklahoma City’s defensive strategy in Game 2 started with more aggressive, more disruptive pick-and-roll coverage (the Thunder effort was much better than Game 1).  The Spurs responded by getting the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, both in the post and on the pop, and it worked to the tune of 41 points for the All-Star forward.

Oklahoma City can live with that. In leaning so heavily on Aldridge in an isolation set the Spurs ball movement went away, the spacing got off, and the Spurs weren’t getting the same open looks by making the extra pass. San Antonio played isolation basketball too often, not just with Aldridge. The Thunder would be happy with a repeat of that offensive outing, but Gregg Popovich was clearly, understandably less thrilled with the outcome. Expect a more balanced Spurs offense — if Aldridge is north of 35 points again Friday it’s not necessarily a good sign for them.

2) Oklahoma City needs to keep running — and take care of the ball this time. Game 2 was played at a faster pace than Game 1 — San Antonio’s early missed shots (2-of-15 to start the game) let the Thunder show off their superior athleticism in the open court. It happened a few times throughout the game, leading to Thunder scoring runs, and the Spurs would be back to digging out of a hole. The Thunder need to replicate that pace on Friday night — and turn the ball over less while doing so. OKC had 18 turnovers in Game 2 (18.5 percent of their possessions) and if they make those kinds of mistakes again the Spurs will make them pay for it.

3) Expect a better defensive effort from Atlanta. Clearly there was a snowball rolling down a mountain effect in Game 2, where the Cavaliers confidence grew as the three balls started to fall and pretty soon the momentum was nearly unstoppable. But there also was a lot of indifference from Hawk defenders about the arc in that game — rather than whine about all the threes the Cavs took after the game, go out there and stop them from shooting them. The Cavaliers are not likely to be that hot shooting from deep again, but also expect a much better defensive effort from the Hawks — they should be embarrassed and now will be in front of their home fans.

4) Can Al Horford and Paul Millsap get going at home? Millsap is 10-of-27 from two-point range through two games in this series (but hitting 40 percent of his threes). Horford is 7-of-20 from two and 5-of-16 from three. The Cavaliers have had those two struggling in the paint and daring them to beat them with jumpers, especially long twos. Millsap and Horford need to knock down these jumpers or the Hawks stand zero chance of a comeback this series.

Beyond those two, this applies to all the Hawks starters — they have been crushed by the Cavs starting five this series. The Hawks need for that to change back home.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.