Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Wave goodbye, Damian Lillard eliminates Thunder

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are in full swing 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) Wave goodbye, Damian Lillard drops 50, game-winning three to eliminate Thunder. Paul George — the best perimeter defender in the NBA this past season, a guy who likely lands top three in Defensive Player of the Year voting — was on him. Didn’t matter. On a night when Oklahoma City was playing with a sense of desperation because their playoff lives were on the line, a night when George and Russell Westbrook combined for 65 points on 51 shots, plus 20 rebounds and 17 assists, it didn’t matter.

Because Lillard. Words do not do him or the moment justice. Just watch the game winner, which got him to 50 points on the night.

Lillard waved goodbye to the Thunder. That shot gave Portland the 4-1 series win.

It wasn’t one “bad” shot which did in the Thunder, it was OKC’s bad shooting.

The other hero of the night — and in this series — for Portland was big man Enes Kanter, who played through a separated shoulder Tuesday to have 13 points and 13 rebounds. More impressively, he played solid defense for much of the series (even if OKC didn’t drag him into enough pick-and-rolls).

Portland advances to the second round, where they will likely face…

2) The Denver Nuggets look like a team that has figured out Spurs, playoffs, take command for 3-2 series lead. Denver has won the last two games against San Antonio by a combined 42 points, and that makes it sound closer than it has actually felt.

Denver is the more talented team on paper in this series, but the question was would their lack of experience allow them to show it against a franchise that considers deep playoff runs part of its birthright. It took a few games for the Nuggets to get the confidence they needed that they could win this series, but now that they have it — now that they have figured this series out — Denver has taken command.

Tuesday was a 109-90 rout of the Spurs that has the Nuggets up 3-2 in the series. San Antonio is going home to try to force a Game 7, but they are going to have to dramatically step up their level of play.

Two things have helped Denver separate from San Antonio.

One is Nikola Jokic, who is impacting every aspect of this game and had 16 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists as the fulcrum of the Nuggets offense.

“There’s really nothing he can’t do — other than jump,” Jamal Murray joked after the game.

The other difference was the coaching move of this series (maybe of the playoffs thus far): Mike Malone moved Torrey Craig into the starting lineup and moving Will Barton to the bench. It changed the Denver defense: Craig is doing a solid job on DeMar DeRozan, it shifted Gary Harris onto the young Derrick White and Craig has won that battle, while Murray can now hide on Bryn Forbes. Craig has not been a drag on the Denver offense as predicted, Barton was not happy about the move to the sixth man but has played well and handled it like a pro, and Denver has overwhelmed San Antonio for two straight games.

Gregg Popovich will have adjustments, but what he and the Spurs need more to force a Game 7 is a role player to break out and change the momentum of this series.

3) Toronto, Philadelphia both advance to face off next round after blowout Game 5 wins. The Eastern Conference playoffs were always really going to start in the second round, with a rock/paper/scissors battle of four teams — Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston — all of whom can make a claim they can come out of the conference.

Tuesday night Toronto and Philadelphia closed out their series with easy wins to set up a second-round showdown between the teams.

Toronto dropped Game 1 of this series then took command the rest of the way, winning 115-96 on Tuesday in a game that was never close.

Kawhi Leonard had 27 to lead the way.

Sixers fans enjoyed letting Jared Dudley have it.

Philly got up 21 in the first quarter and cruised to a 122-100 victory. The Sixers got pushed some by the Nets, which is a good thing because Toronto is going to push a lot harder.

Report: Celtics reach out to former assistant Larranaga about joining Mazzulla’s staff

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The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to put on the bench next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man thrust into the head coach’s chair for a title contender in the wake of Ime Udoka’s suspension.

Who better than a guy who spent nine years on the Celtics’ bench? Boston reached out to Jay Larranaga, currently on the Clippers bench, about returning to the East Coast, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Clippers had no turnover on Tyronn Lue’s staff heading into this season. Mazzulla has become a trusted member of the Clippers staff, working a lot with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back up the Brink’s Truck, the Clippers will not stand in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a question of comfort level, lifestyle, and of course money for Larranaga.

The Celtics made Mazzulla their interim head coach after an investigation found a “volume of violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an improper relationship with a team staff member. So far the Celtics and Udoka have been able to keep the details of what happened under wraps, but league sources described the situation to NBC Sports as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details do find their way to the public.

For Celtics players, just getting back on the court, practicing Tuesday and focusing on basketball — not the turmoil around the franchise — was a good thing.

“Once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back out the court and review our defense and to talk about offense and doing what we do,” Al Horford told the Associated Press. “It’s a good thing to just play basketball. That’s what we’re here for. It’s important to just start this thing back up again.”

Getting another coach on the bench will be important for the Celtics as well.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.