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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Sixers’ defensive adjustments rock Raptors, even series

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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) Brett Brown made his adjustments, Toronto’s offense sputtered, and Philadelphia evens series with a win. It was just a handful of moves, but it changed everything — at least for a game.

Joel Embiid was now guarding Pascal Siakam, a guy who took 71 percent of his shots this season within 10 feet of the rim. That threw off Siakam, who shot 9-of-25 on the night, but more importantly, it let Joel Embiid stay closer to the basket and be a disruptive force.

Part of that disruption was a bigger focus by Embiid and all the Sixers in shading their defense toward Kawhi Leonard, who still scored 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting, but it wasn’t the same impact as he didn’t get to his spots on the floor as easily. Ben Simmons continues to do a respectable job on Leonard, who is going to get his anyway.

Embiid had been on Marc Gasol, who now had the smaller Tobias Harris guarding him, but Gasol shot just 1-of-6 on the night and struggled for a while to figure out how to be a better playmaker despite the size advantage.

Combine all that with a 30-point game from Jimmy Butler and it was enough for Philly to win another defensive slugfest, 94-89. The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Thursday.

It still felt near the end like Toronto has advantages in this series, it just couldn’t hit the shots to exploit them, for example knocking down just 19-of-37 from three (27 percent). Toronto seemed to figure out what it needed to do to beat the Sixers’ adjustments, it just couldn’t finish the play — the Raptors were 19-of-54 (35.2 percent) on uncontested looks in this game (stat via NBA.com… not the best judge of what is uncontested, but the point is valid).

But now the series heads back to Philadelphia where the Sixers role players may be more comfortable and step up. They also should get more out of Embiid, who was battling a stomach… oh, let’s just let him describe it.

Game 3 is going to tell us a lot in this series. Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse didn’t change is rotations at all heading into this series, and after a Game 1 win didn’t feel the need. He should now, doing things like matching Gasol with Embiid (for defensive reasons). He stuck with Fred VanVleet despite an off night, expect the hook to come quicker from now on. This is a tight series, and if the Raptors are going to break out of their historic mold this is where they need to adjust and step up. As a team. We’ll see if they have that in them.

2) Nikola Jokic leads Denver offense to Game 1 win, but who will play defense in this series? The Spurs and Trail Blazers have this in common: Neither team has any idea how to slow down the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll.

Usually Jokic set the pick for Murray, but they reversed that a few times, and anything they did seemed to work. Jokic carved up the Portland defense when he was on the floor on his way to 37 points, nine rebounds, six assists.

Both teams scored at will in Game 1, but Jokic — and the Nuggets defense forcing 18 turnovers that became 23 points — was enough to get the 121-113 win. Game 2 is Wednesday night.

Portland did get 39 points from Damian Lillard in this game.

However, the story of this series is on the other end. Portland defended the predictable offense of Oklahoma City well in the first round, but Denver does not have Russell Westbrook dominating the ball and missing jumpers. Denver moves the ball, moves players off the ball, and has shooters everywhere. And you better guard that Nuggets’ center out at the arc, too.

That becomes the real question in this series — which team is going to defend the best? Which team is going to get enough stops that their offense can win it?

Portland tried Enes Kanter on Jokic (credit Kanter for a good game despite playing with basically one arm, he separated his left shoulder in Game 5 against OKC a week ago and is still not right, but he was out there). Thing is, that may still be their best option. There are not good ones, Zach Collins? With Jusuf Nurkic out Terry Stotts will have to get creative.

This is a “bet the over” kind of series, but if one team can figure out how to defend a little better, it will have a significant advantage. In Game 1, that was the Nuggets forcing turnovers.

3) Houston released an audit, Steve Kerr flopped in a press conference, now can we focus on the game, not the referees? This happens in every playoff series. Some more than others, but it’s a tradition that goes back decades — Phil Jackson was a master of it with the Bulls and Lakers.

The losing team in a playoff game has the coach/players complain about a specific kind of call, trying to influence the next set of officials to call that thing more their way.

Ultimately, that’s all that is going on here. Houston relies on James Harden getting to the free throw line a lot in their offense, and he wasn’t getting calls when the Warriors defenders crowded him in Game 1. There were times fouls should have been called — in the first half Klay Thompson absolutely fouled Harden and took away his landing spots. However, Harden sells every call — he goes to the ground on jumpers, he throws his head back and flails on drives — and so he doesn’t always get the benefit of the doubt. There’s a boy who cried wolf thing here. On Harden’s final three of the game he leaped forward and jackknifed his body to draw contact, then laid on the ground to sell the call. The referee rightly didn’t give it.

The Warriors responded with Draymond Green sounding rational (“Refereeing is an inexact science. So it is what it is.”) and Steve Kerr was flopping in press conferences. Tom Ziller of SB Nation had the best line, saying he can’t wait to go to the Rockets “2018 champions by audit” banner raising.

The question is did Daryl Morey and Harden complaining get them what they wanted. Will they get more calls and will that change how Game 2 is officiated, and with that the outcome? Or, have the Rockets become so lost in their own mythology that they will not be ready for Game 2, where it’s a safe bet the Warriors will be better rested, will have adjustments, and will just flat-out be better.

Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins reportedly may talk new contract next summer

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Sunday, the Lakers waived DeMarcus Cousins to clear out a roster space for Markieff Morris. Cousins was signed last July to be the team’s starting center, but he tore his ACL in training and has not stepped on the court this season. It wasn’t personal, it was business, and under the terms of the CBA Cousins can continue his rehab in the Lakers’ practice facilities.

Cousins may be officially gone, but he could return next season to the Lakers, reports Joe Varden at The Athletic.

But the Lakers could re-sign him this summer, something both sides have expressed interest in pursuing, sources said.

This would be another one-year minimum contract deal, and it makes sense for both sides. Dwight Howard is a free agent and, after a resurgent (but not elite) season in Los Angeles, likely will get offers for more than the Lakers can pay him. JaVale McGee has a $4.2 million player option. Whatever McGee decides, the Lakers will be looking for another big man (and maybe two). Cousins could step right in.

What he can offer on the court coming off a torn Achilles and ACL remains to be seen, but the Lakers will not ask a lot of their centers. Cousins is a two-time All-NBA, four-time All-Star player who should still be able to give the Lakers some solid minutes in the paint.

The Lakers will keep their options open, but don’t be surprised if the two sides reunite.

Vanessa Bryant suing helicopter company after crash that killed Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Bryant and Gianna Bryant
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Ever since Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant died in a helicopter crash last month, we’ve been seeking answers about what went wrong during the flight piloted by Ara Zobayan. After all, Kobe Bryant had made helicopter rides such a normal part of his life.

Now, Vanessa Bryant – Kobe’s wife and Gianna’s mother – is suing the company that operated the helicopter for wrongful death.

Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times:

The complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. alleged that pilot Ara Zobayan, who also died in the crash, failed “to use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft” and was “negligent.”

“Defendant Island Express Helicopters’ breach of its duty and negligence caused the injuries and damages complained of herein and Plaintiffs’ deceased, Kobe Bryant, was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan for which Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable in all respects,” the lawsuit said.

Report: Ben Simmons back injury “isn’t a day-to-day thing”

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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the back injury for Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Ben Simmons “isn’t a day-to-day thing”.

Simmons missed the Sixers first game following the All-Star break on Thursday. He then left Saturday’s game in Milwaukee after playing just 4:44.

Over the weekend, Philadelphia ruled Simmons out for Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks and said he would undergo further evaluation. Per Wojnarowski’s report, that evaluation is ongoing and a course of treatment is yet to be decided upon.

Expect Philadelphia to lean on Raul Neto, Alec Burks and Shake Milton as primary ballhandlers while Simmons is out. None possess the size and skill combination of Simmons, but all have had moments throughout their careers. Neto drew the start in place of Simmons on Thursday. Burks was acquired at the trade deadline to give the team much-needed bench depth. Milton has flashed at time in his second season, after beginning his NBA career on a Two-Way contract.

Philadelphia loses Simmons while in a battle with the Miami Heat for homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The fifth-place 76ers are 1.5 games behind the Heat for the fourth seed, and two games ahead of the sixth-place Indiana Pacers.

Pacers: Jeremy Lamb suffers torn ACL, torn meniscus, fracture

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Kobe Bryant making two free throws after tearing his Achilles was one of the greatest moments of his legendary career.

On a day Bryant was honored, we learned Pacers guard Jeremy Lamb made a similarly gutsy pair of free throws during Indiana’s loss to the Raptors yesterday.

Pacers release:

During the second quarter of the Pacers game at Toronto on Sunday, Indiana Pacers forward Jeremy Lamb sustained a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, a torn lateral meniscus and a lateral femoral condylar fracture.

He will undergo surgery on a date to be determined. He will be out the remainder of the season. Any further updates will be provided after surgery.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamb misses all of next season. This is just a devastating set of calamities.

At least Lamb has a guaranteed $10.5 million salary each of the next two seasons.

Indiana (sixth place, 33-24) will have an even tougher time winning a playoff series now. The Pacers could challenge in the first round, but they’ll almost certainly be significant underdogs.

They have depth at shooting guard, for what that’s worth. Victor Oladipo just returned. Justin Holiday is a solid reserve. Finding his lane at point guard, Malcolm Brogdon can move off the ball when T.J. McConnell or Aaron Holiday plays point guard.