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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Mike Malone trusts Jamal Murray, that earns Denver win

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Mike Malone trusts Jamal Murray and it pays off with Denver victory. For Denver, these playoffs — the team’s first with this roster — is about more than just wins and losses, it is the next step in the evolution of this team. For the young Nuggets, the playoffs are about growth and development — the level of intensity steps up, the defensive focus steps up, the pressure steps up, and it takes experience to handle that well.

Jamal Murray was not handling any of it well. He struggled in Game 1 going 8-of-23 shooting, 0-of-6 from three, he had zero assists, and he clanked the game-winner off the rim. It was the same for three quarters in Game 2, with Derrick White constantly in his face, Murray was 0-of-8 shooting and -18. Midway through the third San Antonio led by 19.

There were calls on Twitter from Denver faithful to sit Murray — he (and Will Barton) were shooting them out of this series. Mike Malone was thinking bigger picture than this game, and there is no way Murray is going to grow if he’s benched when he struggles. He is the second best player on the Nuggets this season, they need him.

Malone’s trust was rewarded.

In the fourth, Murray exploded: He had 21 of his 24 points in the frame and hit the dagger that gave the Nuggets the comeback win.

The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to San Antonio.

It wasn’t just Murray that won the game. Paul Millsap was fantastic all night. Gary Harris dropped 23 points and was nailing threes in the clutch. Nikola Jokic had 21 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists.

There are positives for San Antonio, beyond that they got the split on the road to open the series. The Spurs were able to establish a presence inside and get points in the paint. Derrick White continues to play fantastically at the guard and had 17 points and played strong defense (but even he could not stop Murray in the fourth).

Most importantly, Denver struggled in Game 2 to contain LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, who drained midrange jumpers on their way to 55 combined points.

In Game 3 Thursday night, the Nuggets will experience what a playoff game on the road is like — it’s a level of hostility not experienced in the regular season (insert your own Utah joke here). Can Denver bring the defense we saw in the fourth quarter on the road? Will Murray, Jokic, Millsap, and Harris thrive away from the Rocky Mountains?

Malone has to trust that they will. That’s part of this process.

2) It’s this simple: Portland has shooters, Oklahoma City does not, Portland leads 2-0. We can talk about Paul George’s shoulder or Russell Westbrook’s inefficiency or anything else you want, but the reason this series sees Portland up 2-0 is simple:

Shooting matters.

The Thunder are 10-of-61 from three (16.4 percent) through two games from beyond the arc. Look at it this way: Oklahoma City has 32 turnovers and 10 made threes through two games. George is 6-of-22 from deep, and he may be their best shooter this series. Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant are a combined 0-of-16 from three. Russell Westbrook has shot 13-of-37 (35.1 percent) overall and 1-of-10 from three. These aren’t all contested looks, OKC is just clanking them off the rims.

Portland, on the other hand, is 24-of-57 (42.1 percent) from beyond the arc through two games. Damian Lillard is 9-of-19 (47.4 percent), CJ McCollum is 6-of-14, 42.9 percent, and Seth Curry has hit 5-of-7 off the bench.

The Trail Blazers have a true shooting percentage of 55.3 through two games (close to the league average for the season), the Thunder are at 47.9.

The entire goal of the game is to put the leather ball through the metal rim. Portland is doing that, the Thunder are not.

Portland won Game 2 114-94 to take a 2-0 series lead as the series shifts back to Oklahoma City.

With the shots not falling, OKC tried to get easier baskets in Game 2 by getting out in transition and attacking the rim. And it worked for a while, the Thunder had 31 points in the first quarter and George just looked more comfortable. Portland cranked up their defense and made things difficult on Lillard to get his looks.

But if a team isn’t hitting shots, the momentum won’t last. It didn’t. Then Lillard got going — and to his credit has played pesky defense on Westbrook. McCollum led the way with 33 points on the night.

Maybe back in the friendly confines of Chesapeake Arena the Thunder will feel more comfortable, their attacks will have more success. Perhaps at home the Thunder defense will return to form.

But mostly, the Thunder just need to hit some shots.

3) Toronto finds a rhythm, looks like itself in Game 2 win. It seemed unlikely that Orlando would shoot 48.3 percent from three again in Game 2, or that D.J. Augustin would go 9-of-13 again. The Magic were due to come back to earth a little.

However, the bigger question was whether Kyle Lowry and the Raptors would get back in a groove?

In the first minute of the game, Lowry took a dribble handoff from Marc Gasol and drove right into the body of Orlando center Nikola Vucevic. Lowry drew a foul, hit a free throw — his first point of the series — and set a tone. Lowry was aggressive and finished the night with 22 points. Thunder coach Nick Nurse loved what he saw.

“That is [Lowry] at his finest. Tonight he was charging up the floor and pushing the ball, passing, shooting, driving, kicking, made steals, hands on everything, rebounded. He was doing it all.”

Kawhi Leonard also returned to form, scoring 37, owning Orlando’s Aaron Gordon along the way, and sparking a blowout 111-82 win to even the series at 1-1.

This was who the Raptors expected to be in the playoffs, not the vulnerable version from Game 1. Leonard and Lowry were leading the way, Pascal Siakam adding 19 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday, Marc Gasol orchestrating the offense at points while playing good defense on Vucevic.

Orlando has a lot of promise, with their length and athleticism, but if these Raptors show up in Orlando there is nothing the Magic can do about it.

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.

Ty Lawson dropped by team, reportedly banned from Chinese league after social media posts

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Ty Lawson’s off the court challenges were among the reasons he was playing in China and not the NBA this season. He signed for good money in China instead.

That era of his career after some social media posts, apparently of him at a strip club in China, has him dropped by his team and rumored to be banned from the league.

Lawson’s team, the Fujian Sturgeons, apparently gave this statement to Chinese news agency Xinhua:

“His inappropriate words are inconsistent with the social responsibilities and values abided by our club and have brought serious adverse social impacts to the club and the league. We will not sign him for the new season.”

Emiliano Carchia, the CEO of Sportando, reports that Lawson is out of the Chinese Basketball Association for good.

Lawson’s quickness and ability to create space and score could help some NBA teams, but incidents like this make it less likely an NBA team would roll the dice on the 32-year-old point guard. Lawson spent eight seasons in the NBA then the last two in China.