Jazz will try to slow James Harden, Chris Paul in Game 2

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HOUSTON (AP) — No one on the Utah Jazz is using the word “stop” when referring to what they’ll try to do to James Harden in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday night after the Houston Rockets’ star scored 41 points in a Game 1 rout.

They’re simply searching for ways to slow him down a bit after he’s averaged almost 36 points a game in five meetings this season.

“He is a (heck) of a player so it’s going to be tough, but we feel like we can just try to make it a bit tough on him for the whole (time) he’s out there,” Utah’s Joe Ingles said.

Harden made seven 3-pointers in Game 1, leaving the Jazz focused on limiting him from long range.

“Just make him a driver,” rookie Donovan Mitchell said. “He loves getting back to that 3. They got comfortable in the first half and they went up 30. So just being able to make them uncomfortable and not let them dictate what we do on defense. Make sure we dictate what they do.”

Coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t concerned about anything that the Jazz might throw at Harden on Wednesday and believes the only thing that can keep Harden from a big game is, well, Harden.

“There’s no answer. He’s seen it all,” D’Antoni said. “Now, he might play bad and that’s because he’s human. But there’s nothing that you can conceivably come up with that can stop one of the best offensive players ever.”

Harden led the NBA in scoring in the regular season by averaging a career-high 30.4 points a game and ranks second behind LeBron James this postseason with 31 points a game.

Houston’s Trevor Ariza, a player known for his defense, has the task of guarding Mitchell in this series. He was asked what he would try if he had to guard Harden. There was a long pause before Ariza let out a loud sigh and said with a laugh: “I’d figure out a way to slow him down.”

But the veteran is happy to be playing with Harden and not against him.

“I’m glad I don’t have that problem right now,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell them what I think. I would let them try to figure it out on their own.”

The top-seeded Rockets expect to see a different team than they did in Game 1 after the Jazz had only about 36 hours between the end of Game 6 against the Thunder and the start of this series.

“I think a couple days’ rest will help them and we’ll get the best they’ve got,” D’Antoni said.

The Jazz refused to use fatigue as an excuse for their poor performance in Game 1, but they did admit that they were feeling better about this game with a little bit of rest. Mitchell said having two days to break down film and work on their game plan has also been beneficial.

Despite trailing by double digits for most of Sunday’s game, the Jazz don’t seemed daunted or discouraged entering Game 2.

“A lot of people have been hitting me up saying: “Try to keep your head up. It’s only Game 1,”‘ Mitchell said. “And my head was never down. I don’t think any of our heads were ever down. It’s just one game out of a long series … I think being down 0-1 last series and seeing how we came back and responded definitely gives you a sense of more hope than if this would have been the opening round.”

The Jazz will try and even the series without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who sat out Game 1 and is out indefinitely with a strained left hamstring. The Rockets believe Rubio’s absence changed things for Mitchell. He scored a playoff-high 38 points in Game 6 to lead Utah to the win before scoring 21, which were his fewest of the postseason, on Sunday.

“It makes Donovan handle the ball more than they would like,” Ariza said of Rubio’s injury. “He’s their dominant scorer at this point so when he has to handle the ball and get everybody involved in the game it kind of takes away from him scoring the ball all the time or being aggressive all the time.”

 

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats 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).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

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).