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.

Watch James Harden score 55, including 10 threes, to beat Cleveland

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CLEVELAND (AP) — James Harden scored 55 points – 20 in the fourth quarter – and Russell Westbrook added 23 points as the Houston Rockets withstood an unexpected scare from Cleveland and held on for a 116-110 win Wednesday night over the free-falling Cavaliers, who have lost eight straight and 14 of 15.

Harden matched Kyrie Irving‘s arena record for points in a game, and his fourth with 50 or more this season bailed out the Rockets, who allowed the Cavs to score 24 straight points in the second half.

Cleveland was still up 108-107 when Harden, who came in leading the NBA in scoring at 38 points per game, dropped a floater in the lane. After a turnover by Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson, P.J. Tucker hit a 3-pointer from the corner and Clint Capela had a dunk following another Cleveland miscue.

The inexperienced Cavs crumbled in the final minute, making three turnovers.

Capela added 13 rebounds for Houston, which figured to have an easy time with the Cavs, who are struggling under first-year coach John Beilein.

Cleveland, though, came to play and was led by rookie Kevin Porter Jr.‘s season-high 24 points. Collin Sexton added 18 and Kevin Love had 17 points and 11 boards.

Harden connected on a pair of 3-pointers during a 16-2 run in the third quarter when the Rockets, who were sleepwalking through long stretches of the first half, appeared to take control.

But Houston relaxed, and Cleveland went on a jaw-dropping 24-0 run – all without Love, who was on the bench with a head laceration – over a 4:43 stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters to a take a 99-88 lead on Porter’s bucket.

 

Grizzlies’ Ja Morant absolutely destroyed Aron Baynes with dunk (VIDEO)

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We may have a new Dunk of the Year.

Memphis rookie Ja Morant is an athletic freak, one confident enough in his skills to go right at a big switched onto him. Say Phoenix’s Aron Baynes. On a critical fourth-quarter possession.

RIP Aron Baynes.

Memphis won the game 115-108.

Victor Oladipo not near return to Pacers rotation

Associated Press
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“But he’s still a ways away.”

Those are not the words Pacers fans want to hear about Victor Oladipo. Their team is playing well — 15-9 with a top-10 defense — but they are not a real postseason threat without their best player, who is recovering from a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Before the season, Pacers president Kevin Pritchard said he was “hopeful” Oladipo would be back in December or January.

It looks like it’s going to be the back end of that timeline. At best. From J. Michael of the Indy Star, speaking to coach Nate McMillan.

Oladipo will have to be eased back in when he does return, he’s not going too hit the ground running at 40 minutes a night.

The Pacers look like a lock playoff team in the East even without Oladipo, they can afford to bring him along slowly. The hope would be to have the All-Star up to speed and integrated into the offense when the playoffs do start. If that happens, the Pacers become that team that the elite squads want to avoid early.

Lakers outscore Magic 26-9 in the first quarter. It got uglier after that.

Associated Press
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As has gotten a lot of publicity this season, the Lakers have one of the best defenses in the NBA, sixth in the league in defensive rating coming into Wednesday night. Their combination of length and activity has thrown teams off their games.

Less well publicized, the Orlando Magic have been bad on offense this season, fifth-worst in the NBA.

What happens when the immovable object met a very soft force on Wednesday night, well…

Orlando shot 4-of-21 in the first quarter, missing all six of their threes, plus turned the ball over four times just to make things a little worse. It’s not that the Lakers were exactly tearing it up, as a team they shot just 35.7 percent in the first quarter (Orlando is a good defensive squad), but Anthony Davis saved their bacon with seven points plus three assists (all for threes, so 16 points generated by him in the first).

The Lakers stretched that out to a 24-point lead in the second quarter before a combination of Orlando stepping up their play and the Lakers taking their foot off the gas a little led to an 18-3 Orlando run that cut the lead to 13 at the half. LeBron James had 16 points to lead the Lakers.

By the middle of the third, Orlando had made a game of it.