Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Portland wins ‘weird game’ to tie series with Denver

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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) In weird game Denver can’t buy a bucket, Portland escapes with a win to tie series 1-1. Nikola Jokic summed it up well:

“It was a weird game for us. They didn’t even play that good, to be honest. They can play better than that. Weird game, weird day.”

Weird in that Denver just could not buy a bucket. Not just weird in the Nuggets shooting 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) from three and going 0-of-10 in the second quarter. Rather, weird as in Denver grabbing 23 offensive rebounds (38.6 percent of their missed shots) but shooting just 6-of-17 on chip-shot putback attempts. Weird in that Nuggets guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris were 2-of-13 from three and combined to shoot 33.3 percent overall on the night. Weird in that the Nuggets shot 14-of-45 (31.1 percent) on uncontested shots (via NBA.com). Weird in that Portland had an offensive rating of just 102.1 for the game, but that was enough to have them comfortably ahead most of the night as Denver scored less than a point per possession.

Weird, physical, whatever you want to call it, the Trail Blazers will take it. Portland was the more aggressive team, earned the 97-90 win and evened the series at 1-1 heading back to Portland for Game 3.

The game certainly was physical. Nobody got that worse than Denver’s Torry Craig, who suffered a “nasal contusion” when diving for a loose rebound and his face hit the back of teammate Monte Morris’ leg. Craig returned to play with a mask (something he had fitted back in the preseason), and he ended up on the ground late in the game, which sparked a confrontation (see item two).

It was a weird game in that Portland’s Enes Kanter may have had a better game than Nikola Jokic. At least he did in terms of what their respective teams need out of them. Jokic had 16 points on 7-of-17 shooting, he had seven assists (he assisted on 38.9 percent of his teammate’s buckets when on the court, still an impressive percentage), but would have had a lot more if guys had just made shots. Jokic was still making passes like this.

Kanter had 15 points on 10-of-15 shooting and played solid, physical defense down low with Jokic. Kanter came into these playoffs with the Billy Donovan “can’t play Kanter” reputation because of his pick-and-roll defense and what happened to him in previous playoffs, but give the man credit, he has stepped up and performed well in the absence of Jusuf Nurkic this postseason.

CJ McCollum had 20 points for Portland, even if it took 20 shots to get there.

This game felt like a one-off for the series. There were adjustments, but both teams struggled just to make shots they usually hit that it’s tough to tell what worked and what didn’t. Denver needs to attack earlier when the threes aren’t falling, but aside that this was more about missed opportunities than anything else.

Portland does not care. It’s a win. The series is tied and the Trail Blazers are heading home.

2) Late game scuffle could lead to suspensions for Nuggets, Trail Blazers. With 43.5 seconds remaining in Game 2, Damian Lillard sank a free throw that put Portland up seven. That’s when a weird game had it’s “fight.”

Denver called a time out after the free throw, but before that was really heard players started to move back down to the end of the court. Nikola Jokic shoves Enes Kanter, who is off-balance and collides with the already-injured Torrey Craig and knocks the masked man down. Then Jamal Murray and Gary Harris confront Kanter for knocking down Craig and there is a typical NBA “fight” at mid-court with a lot of pushing and posing but no actual punches.

Portland’s Evan Turner sprinted from the bench area to get in the scuffle. Denver’s Jarred Vanderbilt (who made contact with Kanter) and Trey Lyles also left the bench area (and to a lesser extent Brandon Goodwin, Juan Hernangomez, Isaiah Thomas, and Thomas Welsh did as well), but the incident was closer to the Nugget bench and play had been stopped.

The NBA rule is clear: Leave a bench during a fight and the player gets a one-game suspension.

However, there had been a timeout called, and when that happens players often leave the bench to greet teammates coming off the court. Plus, there was no game action.

Will the league suspend players, or just fine them saying there was a time out in the action? My guess is the latter, nobody misses time, but the league is unpredictable on these matters.

There is more riding on this for Portland because the only player who came off the bench for either team that is in the playoff rotation is Turner. His loss would be felt if he misses a game, especially if Maurice Harkless remains out with the ankle sprain he suffered back in the first quarter.

3) Minnesota finds its man in Gersson Rosas to head up their basketball operations. The Timberwolves did things backwards: owner Glen Taylor wanted to keep coach Ryan Saunders and general manager Scott Layden, but wanted to hire their new boss. Whoever was going to head basketball operations in Minnesota was not going to get to hire his own team under him, he was inheriting one.

That person is Gersson Rosas, the right-hand man to Daryl Morey in Houston, according to multiple reports out of Minnesota.

This is a milestone. Rosas will be the first Latino to lead a basketball operations department in the NBA (Rosas was born in Bogata, Columbia). Rosas has earned his shot.

Rosas technically has been a GM before. He was hired by Dallas back in 2013 for that role, but walked away from it three months later. Rosas thought he would have decision-making power in Dallas, but the hammer still belonged to Mavs president Donnie Nelson (not to mention owner Mark Cuban).

This time Rosas has the hammer… and a lot of work to do.

On the bright side, the Timberwolves have an elite center and franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns. That level of player is the hardest to get, and Towns seemed to connect with Saunders as coach (now Saunders just needs to get Towns to play consistent defense.

Building an elite team around Towns will be the challenge. Mostly because of a couple anchor contracts — Andrew Wiggins (four years, $122 million remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33.5 million remaining). Minnesota also has to pay Jeff Teague $19 million next season after he opted in, although at least he contributes a lot on the court. Those guys, however, make it very difficult to maneuver under the cap and bring in more talent.

There are other assets. Robert Covington was mostly hurt after coming over from Philly in a trade but he can be the kind of wing defender the Timberwolves need. Josh Okogie showed promise as a rookie, and they have Dario Saric, who is a solid rotation player and developing. If Teague plays well and everyone stays healthy this could be a playoff team next season. That would be a start.

But Rosas has a lot of work ahead of him to take advantage of Towns’ prime.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.

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.