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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.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant make top 10 of Forbes highest-paid athletes list

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LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant make more money off the court in endorsements than they do in salary from their teams. Which is not a surprise.

It’s enough money to vault them into the top 10 of FORBES Magazine’s list of highest-paid athletes for the last year.

LeBron is fifth at $88.2 million, of which $37.4 million is salary (although Forbes lists it as much less). Stephen Curry is sixth at $74.4 million, and Durant is seventh at $69.3 million.

Rounding out basketball players in the top 20 are Russell Westbrook at 12th ($56 million), James Harden at 17th $47.8 million, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at $47.6 million. Overall, 34 NBA players are in the top 100, including rookie Zion Williamson at 57th ($27.3 million).

Tennis legend Roger Federer topped the list at $106.3 million, and he was followed by soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, before we got to LeBron.

Despite all the work that goes into them, these Forbes estimates have a reputation for being off the mark. That said, it makes for a fun debate and ranking, and we could all use that right now.