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How the Utah Jazz became the team nobody in the West playoffs wants to face

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LOS ANGELES — On Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500 and five games out of the playoffs, they were without injured big man Rudy Gobert, not to mention the Jazz were still trying to figure out their offense in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s summer departure. A lot of teams would have mentally folded at that point (if management didn’t decide for them to tank and focus on getting a high draft pick).

Since then the Jazz are 31-7, and their defense — anchored by likely Defensive Player of the Year Gobert — is allowing less than a point per possession.

That run has vaulted them into the playoffs, and with a win Wednesday night in Portland, the No. 3 seed.

Ask around other top teams in the West about what teams they’d like to avoid in the first round and Utah’s name is quick to come up — because of that defense. Even the teams sure they could knock off Utah know it would be a physical series against a resilient team that will not quit. Utah will enter the playoffs as anywhere from the three to five seed and there is no team in the West thinking the Jazz would be an easy out.

Which is amazing to say coming off a weird season for the Jazz.

“Weird is an understatement,” Utah’s coach Quin Snyder said. “Starting with the uncertainty around what our team would look like (without Hayward), aside from the standpoint we knew we wanted to be grounded defensively. Then we lost Rudy (Gobert, to two different knee injuries). It’s harder to do that without him….

Then you get into December where you know you’ve got the toughest schedule of any month for any team in the league. Then around December 18 [Note: it was Dec. 15 when Gobert suffered a second knee injury], you can forget that because you’re struggling without Rudy. We had a lot of challenges. There was a point that this group, the guys that are here, continued not to think about it and do the best with what we have. It started out with just maintaining our competitive spirit and being unselfish, and then see where it goes.”

It went to the playoffs.

“You’ve seen teams that lose their star player… they fall back to a lottery team. They fall to being a team where we don’t expect much,” Jazz star rookie Donovan Mitchell said of Utah’s attitude coming into camp without Gordon. “We never had that mindset, you didn’t feel that. Me, coming in, it wasn’t talked about, it just felt like ‘we’re here to play.’ People overlooked the fact that ya, we lost our main scoring option, but we still had Rudy, and him being defensive player of the year.”

Two things defined this Jazz season, and it’s those two things that make them a real playoff threat: their defense and rookie Donovan Mitchell.

Since Gobert’s Jan. 19 return from a second knee injury, Utah has allowed just 97.4 points per 100 possessions defensively — far and away the best in the league (second in that stretch is Philadelphia at 101.4). With Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz are the best defensive rebounding team in the league — it helps to have Derrick Favors on the front line with Gobert for that — and the Jazz shut down easy buckets for the other team, allowing just 9.8 fast break points per game (best in the NBA). For the season (which includes the 26 games without Gobert) Utah allows the fifth lowest percentage of opponent shots at the rim — with many of those drives becoming pull-ups because of Gobert’s presence inside had players not wanting to challenge him. Plus, because they have Gobert as a backstop, Utah perimeter defenders can be aggressive chasing guys off the three-point line — Utah allowed the fourth fewest percent of opponent shots from three (stats via cleaning the glass).

With Gobert back healthy and anchoring that defense, Utah had THE defining stretch of their season — from January 24 through Valentine’s Day Feb. 14 the Jazz did not lose. It was 11 straight wins, vaulting them back up into the playoff picture.

“After the win streak we expected to win,” Mitchell said. “We saw what we can do, so why not continue it? A lot of teams get the win streak and are like ‘we have it’ and put it in their back pocket and save it for later. We were like ‘let’s do this for the rest of the year.’ Why not continue to win and play the way we have been?”

They did — from March 2-17 Utah rattled off another nine straight wins.

While the lockdown defense anchored this team and put them in position to win games, they still needed to score. That’s where rookie Donovan Mitchell came in.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to a serious Rookie of the Year candidate averaging 20.5 points per night as the focal point of Utah’s offense.

When the season tipped off, Mitchell looked like a lot of other rookie guards, overwhelmed by the speed and athleticism of the NBA game — in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. However, Mitchell is an avid watcher of film and he caught on fast. By December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1 (those numbers came back to earth a little as defenses adjusted to him, but his efficiency has remained strong).

“When the season started it really took off real quick for me, and it took seven or eight games to catch up (to the speed)…” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “Then this season, just taking it game-by-game, getting a better understanding of what they needed from me, how to approach games, how to approach certain matchups, how to approach reads and coverages.”

Snyder saw what he had in Mitchell and by the second month of the season put the ball in his hands — but didn’t let up on the rookie.

“He’s been stern,” Mitchell said of Snyder. “He’s been real firm on how he wants me to develop. He says he’s going to let me make mistakes, but he’s going to let me know…. The way he’s coaching me, I don’t think I can make a lot of mistakes most rookies make. That’s my mindset. I don’t look at myself as a rookie anymore, and just being able to understand that this is a lot different than October. He’s been great, he’s been very understanding. He tells me he trusts me all the time. So you have that backing.”

It’s not October anymore — it’s about to be the playoffs. The intensity of play is about to go up a couple more notches.

“Now (in the playoffs), teams have three or four days to scout you,” Mitchell said. “They play you over and over and over again, so shot you have there in Game 1 is not going to be there in Game 2, the same shot you take in Game 2 is not going to be there in Game 3 and you’re going to have to understand that, you’re going to have to find different ways to get involved, whether it’s offensively or defensively, find other ways to get guys open, and to find the right open guys because now they have so much film to watch from the season… just being able to take it step by step and be able to read and study film and where the openings are.”

Mitchell still is a relentless attacker on offense — he averaged 13.2 drives per game, 11th most in the league, and since the All-Star break he averages the eighth most drives per game. He shoots and efficient 51 percent on those, and more importantly, he’s becoming a better passer on those plays, finding spot-up specialist Joe Ingles or other Jazz shooters for assists on 9.9 percent of them.

“Earlier in the season, a lot of those passes I would probably take to the rim or throw up a crazy shot,” Mitchell said of the passes he made in recent games. “It slowed down, it allows me to find guys when they’re open. It goes back to watching a lot of film and just knowing where my teammates are going to be.”

Starting this weekend, Mitchell is going to have to connect on those passes through even tighter windows. Joe Ingles is going to have to keep knocking down threes. Ricky Rubio is going to need to keep making smart passes in transition, plus hit a few jumpers. Derrick Favors needs to own the glass and get some buckets. And Rudy Gobert needs to continue being Rudy Gobert.

Do that, and they are the exact kind of team nobody wants to face in the first round. A team built for playoff basketball that will welcome the physical play. A team that has already proved they will not quit.

A team that is dangerous.

 

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Dates, times, matchups for all games

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And there were four.

The NBA is down to the conference finals — and the bubble has provided us with upsets galore. There are some unexpected teams in the NBA’s Final Four, but of course LeBron James is still there. The Lakers are the heavy favorites at this point.

Here are a few notes on the NBA playoffs schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing to push the pace with games every other day — except in the East, when ESPN wants a break not to clash with the NFL, and to let the West catch up. The fast pace of games will return with the NBA Finals.
Families for the players, and with the final four now the coaches, are in the bubble.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams and their target is still a Sept. 30 Game 1. If either conference finals goes seven games that date will need to be pushed back.

Here is the NBA playoffs schedule 2020 (all times are Eastern):

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

Game 1: Heat 117, Celtics 114, OT
Game 2: Heat 106, Celtics 101
Game 3: Celtics 117, Heat 106 (Miami leads series 2-1)
Game 4: Sept. 23, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 5: Sept. 25, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 6: Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 7: TBD (ESPN)*
*If necessary

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets

Game 1: Lakers 126, Nuggets 114
Game 2: Lakers 105, Nuggets 103 (Lakers lead series 2-0)
Game 3: Sept. 22, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Sept. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Sept. 26, 9 p.m. (TNT)*
Game 6: Sept. 28, TBD (TNT)*
Game 7: Sept. 30, TBD (TNT)*
*If necessary

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Second Round results

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Boston beat No. 2 Toronto 4-3

No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Milwaukee 4-1

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat Houston 4-1

No. 3 Denver beat No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First Round results

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat No. 8 Portland 4-1

No. 2 L.A. Clippers beat No. 7 Dallas 4-2

No. 3 Denver beat No. 6 Utah 4-3

No. 4 Houston beat No. 5 Oklahoma City 4-3

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee beat No. 8 Orlando 4-1

No. 2 Toronto beat No. 7 Brooklyn 4-0

No. 3 Boston beat No. 6 Philadelphia 4-0

No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana 4-0

Anthony Davis drains game-winner at buzzer to put Lakers up 2-0

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It looked like Nikola Jokic, the All-NBA Second Team center, was going to be the star of the game — he scored Denver’s last 11 points and had them up with 2.7 seconds to go.

Then Anthony Davis — the All-NBA First Team center — drained this game-winner, a three over Jokic at the buzzer to win the game.

This is why the Lakers got Anthony Davis (and gave up a lot to get him).

That shot gave the Lakers the 105-103 win to put them up 2-0 in the series. Game 3 is Tuesday night.

Davis carried the Lakers at the end of the game, hitting a couple of clutch threes, and finished with 31 points and nine rebounds. He has been the best Laker in this series, with 68 points and 19 rebounds through two games.

For the Lakers, it was a dramatic win in a game where they were sloppy with 23 turnovers, and where their defense came apart for stretches of the game. Good teams win ugly games, that’s how the Lakers have to view it.

Denver supporters may want to spin this as “look how much better we played” — and they did, slowing the pace down (97 possessions, via NBA.com) and getting inside more, taking advantage of switches — but the reality is the Lakers are only going to have bad outings once or twice a series and the Nuggets needed to take advantage. They didn’t, and this loss stings.

“This is the Western Conference Finals. No moral victories, no silver linings,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame.

Davis’ good look to win the game came on the kind of defensive breakdown Denver has at times that other teams have not exploited these playoffs. Mason Plumlee was inserted for his size and defense, and he was on Davis, who simply runs across the top of the arc. Plumlee doesn’t stick with him, instead running over by LeBron James, who is just hanging out at the elbow (but Denver fears), and acts like there should be a switch. Torrey Craig can’t switch, if he does that LeBron has a free lane to the rim and an easy two. If it was an X-out style switch then Plumlee needed to trail Davis all the way to Jokic, he didn’t, leaving Jokic a ridiculously long closeout. Plumlee blew it. Jokic read the play and got there to contest, but Davis had gotten a clean look.

Jokic had 30 points and nine rebounds for Denver, taking over the game when it mattered most and looking like an elite playoff performer. Jamal Murray had 25 points on 8-of-19 shooting and (as The Athletic’s John Hollinger noted on Twitter) was +16 in 44:14 minutes, meaning Denver was -18 in the 3:46 he was on the bench getting some rest. Denver got 15 points from Michael Porter Jr. and good minutes out of P.J. Dozier (although his five missed free throws in six attempts came back to bite the team).

Los Angeles got 26 points and 11 boards from LeBron and 11 points each from Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Lakers came out flat in this game except for LeBron, who had the team’s first 12 points. It looked like a close game until the Lakers went on an 18-3 run in the second quarter, with 8-0 of that coming with LeBron on the bench. The highlight of that was an Alex Caruso dunk that had the Lakers bench up and yelling.

Los Angeles stretched the lead out to as many as 16, but the Nuggets never quit.

Anthony Davis had to shut the door on them.

Watch Alex Caruso monster dunk, LeBron and Laker bench reaction

Alex Caruso dunk
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Alex Caruso has sneaky hops. Fans relate to him because he doesn’t look like an NBA player — he doesn’t really give off the vibe of one when you see him hanging out in the Lakers’ locker room either — but watch him on the court and he is more athletic than people realize. Alex Caruso can sky and throw down a dunk.

Just ask the Denver Nuggets.

The best part of this? The reaction of LeBron James and the Lakers bench.

The Alex Caruso dunk was part of an 8-0 Laker run right as LeBron went to get some rest. Denver had done a good job early being right with the Lakers by controlling the pace and limiting the Lakers in transition. That fell apart in the second quarter, fueled by Denver’s seven second-quarter turnovers (13 for the half), which allowed the Lakers to get out and run.

And Caruso to dunk, firing up the team.

Kevin Durant: ‘Knick fans, those Knicks media, they bothered me the whole year’

Kevin Durant Knicks
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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No, I never planned on it — going to the Knicks. That was just the media putting that out there… So around February, as I was thinking, I didn’t want to be the savior of the Knicks or New York. I didn’t care about being the King of New York, that never really moved me. I didn’t care about being on Broadway or that s***.”

“I’ve seen the Knicks in the Finals, but kids coming up after me didn’t see that. So that whole brand of the Knicks is not as cool as let’s say the Golden State Warriors, or even the Lakers or the Nets now. You know what I’m saying; the cool thing now is not the Knicks.”

Kevin Durant has not held back from taking shots at the Knicks since signing with Brooklyn. Saturday, Durant turned his attention to Knicks fans and media.

Durant appeared on rapper Joe Budden’s podcast Saturday and, among other things, fired shots when asked if he could “leave the Knicks alone.” (Hat tip Nets Daily.)

“What you mean? They bothered me for a whole year! I was just trying to chill and just play and worry about my season. All the Knick fans, those Knicks media. They bothered me the whole year. But when it’s my time to talk about it, I gotta shut up now? I’ve been wanting to ask these questions for a year. Now that I’m available, it’s a problem?”

Before his free agency, the conventional wisdom around the league was that Durant was headed to the Knicks, possibly along with Irving or another star (there was a lot of smoke on the topic). Durant denied that after the fact. Either way, there certainly was anticipation in Manhattan, which means Durant was reading about it in the media and seeing it on social media. Durant pays attention to all that, and it doesn’t motivate him (it seems to have the opposite effect, actually).

Durant made his choice, and he went to the more stable organization right now, the one with the better foundation of players. Now he and Irving have to win, which will not be that easy with Durant coming off a torn Achilles.

That doesn’t mean he’s done taking shots at that team just over the bridge.