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

Associated Press
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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.

Anthony Davis scores 44, outduels Antetokounmpo (40) leading Lakers past Bucks

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Anthony Davis and LeBron James tore apart the NBA’s top-rated defense and gave Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham a triumphant return to Milwaukee.

Davis scored a season-high 44 points and James passed Magic Johnson on the NBA’s career assists list Friday night in the Lakers’ thrilling 133-129 victory over the Bucks.

It marked Ham’s first game in Milwaukee since taking over as Lakers coach after working as an assistant on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff from 2018-22.

Ham and Budenholzer shared a big hug before the game.

“It was a beautiful night,” said Ham, who also played for the Bucks from 1999-2002.

It also was quite a night for Davis, a Green Bay Packers fan who delivered his big performance with Aaron Rodgers in the stands. Davis spoke with the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback before and after the game.

“I saw him before the game and he said, `I need 30 tonight,”‘ Davis said. “I just saw him and he said, `I only said 30, not 40.’ It’s always good for him to come out and watch the Lakers play.”

James made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:22 left and finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. He upped his career assist total to 10,144 and moved into sixth place, ahead of Johnson’s 10,133.

“It means a lot, obviously,” James said. “The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious. His teammates loved playing with him because of the joy he played with and the ability to pass the ball and get other guys involved. He was always excited about seeing his teammates be great. I always admired that in him. What’s even more humbling and super duper cool is the fact that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform and knowing how much Magic means to the Laker franchise.”

The Lakers had the highest point total and field-goal percentage (.536) the Bucks had allowed all season. Milwaukee entered Friday with the NBA’s top defensive rating.

“It was too easy, too easy, too easy,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “They were living in the paint. That’s not who we are.”

Los Angeles withstood a 40-point performance from Antetokounmpo, who also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers also spoiled the 2022-23 debut of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who had 17 points and seven assists in his return from offseason wrist surgery.

Milwaukee missed two potential tying 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.

After Davis missed a fadeaway jumper, the Bucks called a timeout with 21.4 seconds left and then found an open Grayson Allen, whose 3-point attempt went off the side of the rim.

The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, but Jrue Holiday couldn’t connect on a 3-pointer with just over five seconds left. Davis made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left.

“Grayson got a good look,” Budenholzer said. “Good execution. Good screening. We’ll live with that shot all the time. And Jrue, similar. We got the kick ahead, playing against a defense that’s not set. Jrue, kind of a good rhythm shot for him. It was contested, but Jrue was 6 of 12 tonight (from 3-point range). He was feeling it.”

Holiday had 28 points for the Bucks, and Bobby Portis added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook had 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the Lakers.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.