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.