Blazers have no answers for Denver as Nuggets take 3-2 series lead

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It seemed like the answer for the Portland Trail Blazers was fairly straightforward. They needed to find a way to release pressure from the Denver Nuggets’ sideline traps, and get a few offensive rebounds.

On Tuesday night, Denver didn’t allow the visiting Blazers to do either.

The Nuggets jumped out to an early lead, and Portland’s defense wasn’t as sharp as they should have been coming off an embarrassing loss on their home court just a couple of days earlier. A team that was once led by its steely leader, neither Damian Lillard nor his teammates on the Blazers roster appeared as though they had psyched themselves up for Tuesday’s contest back in the Mile High City.

As a result, the Trail Blazers scored 25 points in the first quarter and descended from there. Despite trailing at the half, 65-47, Portland recorded a low of 18 points in the third quarter, the entire time their stars not able to get out of the traps Denver laid for them in Game 4.

That, and Portland just would not box out.

Nikola Jokic, who led all scorers with 25 points, also grabbed 19 rebounds to go along with six assists. Denver out-rebounded the Blazers, 62-44, and again it appeared that Portland simply couldn’t grab anything inside of eight feet. Just as had been the case in the prior games, the Blazers didn’t seem to be able to grab a basketball as much as they would tip it until a Nugget eventually got their hands on it. Much of that was due to Jokic and his stature.

It was impressive stat line for the Denver center, but the real star of the game for the Nuggets was Paul Millsap. The veteran NBA forward has put on a bit of a show against the Blazers in the second round, a renaissance of contested turn around jumpers that has glided gently into the net. Millsap finished with 24 points and eight rebounds, going 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

The play of Jokic and Millsap allowed for the slow start of Jamal Murray, who had 34 points in Game 4. Murray finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, and five assists, but was integral in helping to build the lead the Nuggets eventually used to coast to victory.

Denver beat the Blazers, 124-98, in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead back to Portland on Thursday.

Now the question is what we can we expect from here?

The Nuggets should feel confident in the way they played so far, not just with how their coaching staff has adjusted to Portland but also in the fortitude of their young players. After an uneven series with the San Antonio Spurs in round one, it wasn’t clear if Denver was going to be able to withstand a barrage from an opponent like Portland.

The fact that the Nuggets have come from down 2-1 to take a series lead is a testament to their character

For the Blazers, suddenly the series has become a question of faith. Several key players, including Evan Turner and even Lillard, have had minimal impact recently compared to their regular season. With as much as I’ve watched this team this year, and having seen every minute of this playoff series, it’s not really clear why the Blazers are playing so poorly.

Yes, the Nuggets have confidence. But Portland is also playing remarkably poorly — missing open shots, clanging 3-pointers they would normally make, and getting into volleyball contests with Jokic rather than putting a body on him as a means to stop the rebounding onslaught.

That’s without mentioning that Lillard has looked uncharacteristically timid. He even shot 40 percent from the free-throw line in Game 5. Lillard is one of the best free-throw shooters in the game, but his odd jitters from the charity stripe from the end of Game 4 continued into Tuesday night. Portland’s star point guard scored 22 points but went 2-of-9 from the 3-point line.

Equally disappointing for Portland was the contribution it got from three of its starters in Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, and Moe Harkless. They combined for 15 points on 25 percent shooting.

The series heads back to Moda Center on the east bank of the Willamette river on Thursday. Michael Malone has made better coaching adaptations then Terry Stotts over the past couple of games, and the Blazers suddenly look like a team that can no longer rely on either of its most valuable assets in Lillard or its bench.

The Nuggets have a chance to close out the series and head to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2008-09. For Portland, Thursday will be a chance to prove to themselves they’re still the team they were all season long.

Or at least, the team they were at the end of April.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.