Nuggets survive late push from Blazers to even series, 2-2

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As we know with any playoff series, what adjustments the losing coach makes heading into the next game is really what makes or breaks any team’s chances to advance. To his credit, Nuggets coach Mike Malone fixated on something Portland wasn’t expecting.

When Portland wings got the ball near the sideline and with the shot clock halved, Malone sent double-teams diagonally across the formation to put extra pressure on Blazers passers. That forced Portland into 14 turnovers compared to Denver’s eight, and created low quality looks at the basket. The Blazers shot 10 fewer field goal attempts then the Nuggets, and Malone’s defensive strategy was a big reason why.

Thus, Denver beat the Blazers, 116-112, in Game 4.

Portland was hampered by foul trouble, particularly with regard to Zach Collins, Moe Harkless, and Enes Kanter. The Blazers were -5 in foul disparity, pushing them to adapt when trying to guard Denver’s most effective players.

Damian Lillard struggled again, particularly from 3-point range, scoring 28 points but with 15 of them coming in the fourth quarter. A 91 percent free-throw shooter this year, Lillard missed two separate free throws in the fourth quarter, including one with 20 seconds to go that would have put Portland down by just two points and with the opportunity to foul.

Alternatively, Denver’s Jamal Murray was ice cold down the stretch, hitting six free throws in the final 13 seconds to seal the game against Portland. Murray finished with 34 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Paul Millsap played masterfully, scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds and two blocks. Nikola Jokic added a triple-double of 24 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.

Denver churned out a win against Blazers team that didn’t have an answer for their defensive strategy. But at their core, the Nuggets didn’t instill a lot of confidence in how they played outside of their star players. For all its good play from their top players, Denver didn’t get much out of its supporting cast. Only one bench player scored in double figures, and even though he contributed some big 3-pointers, former Trail Blazer Will Barton shot 28.5 percent from the field.

Portland’s coaching staff won’t lay down, and with things all square heading back to Colorado, we should expect that this series could get even more interesting as the Blazers find solutions to Malone’s defensive counter.

Terry Stotts’ team continues to survive on the good play of injured players, including Kanter and Harkless. That will be something to watch as well, as the amount of punishment their aching soft tissues can take could eventually reach a limit. But really, the Blazers aren’t in that much of a disadvantaged position.

Portland will head back to the drawing board, and likely find they need two things. First, a strategy to counter the sideline and high traps Denver threw at them on Sunday. Second, a tactical shift in how they rebound the ball. The Blazers have been in jumping matches for loose rebounds with the Nuggets all series long, and some late examples in Game 4 suggest that simply boxing out instead of playing volleyball would help them greatly between 2-8 feet.

The Nuggets looked shaky often times during their seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs. Things have not changed for Denver despite their intestinal fortitude against Portland on Sunday. Murray’s big night and Jokic’s triple-double belie the fact that, save for a missed rebound here or there, and one of the NBA’s best free-throw takers missing a couple late, they could be down 3-1 instead of tied.

The Blazers were almost able to undeservedly steal Game 4. Malone and his staff should be happy their big plan worked, but they’ll be in the gym tomorrow working to make sure the rest of the Nuggets team can contribute more next week.

Game 5 is on Tuesday back in Denver at 7:30 pm.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.