Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Physical Nuggets push Blazers to edge of elimination

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The NBA playoffs are in crunch time 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) Physical Nuggets push Trail Blazers to edge of elimination with blowout Game 5 win. Portland coach Terry Stotts tried to shake things up defensively at the start of Game 5, putting Al-Farouq Aminu on Nikola Jokic — to handle Jokic on the perimeter better and switch the pick-and-roll with Jamal Murray — and put Enes Kanter on Paul Millsap down on the block.

Like everything Portland did in Game 5, it didn’t work.

Millsap had his best game of the series scoring 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting, while Jokic battered Aminu and shot 8-of-10 within 8 feet of the rim on his way to 25 points and 19 rebounds.

Denver routed Portland 124-98 to take a commanding 3-2 series lead. Game 6 is Thursday night in Portland and it’s win or go home for the Blazers.

“We’ve played our best basketball with our backs against the wall,” Damian Lillard said postgame, searching for a bright spot.

This has been an all-offense series, but the Trail Blazers could not knock down shots on Tuesday night. Credit the Denver defense a little, but this was just more of an off night for a Portland team that had an offensive rating of just 85.5 through the first three quarters of this game, the only competitive part. Here is Portland’s shot chart through three:

There’s not a lot for Portland to take away from this game, other than maybe going back to their original defensive matchups. It was just one of those nights.

Portland fans just need to hope Lillard is right about the Blazers with their backs against the wall. They can also hope Denver plays another terrible Game 6 — they were overwhelmed by the closeout moment against San Antonio and lost by 17 (despite 43 from Jokic).

If not Portland’s season will end with a lot of “what if we just had Jusuf Nurkic” thoughts running through their heads.

2) Toronto dominates Philadelphia, and it wasn’t even Kawhi Leonard that had to do the heavy lifting. We could go into detail about how Toronto dismantled Philadelphia in Game 5, or, you could just let Sixer coach Brett Brown’s face tell the tale.

Or, you could watch Drake and Raptors fans troll Joel Embiid with the airplane celebration Embiid used during the Sixers’ Game 3 win.

Embiid, who was a game-time decision with an upper respiratory issue, clearly was not well and not himself on the court, finishing with 13 points and 8 turnovers, Plus this happened to him on defense.

Toronto won 125-89 in a game that was not in doubt after halftime. Game 6 is in Philadelphia Thursday.

It wasn’t just a bad night for Embiid. Ben Simmons was a non-factor and had 7 points on the night. J.J. Redick had 3 points and only six shot attempts. Jimmy Butler was the best player for Philly and finished with 22 points on 16 shots, but when he went to the bench the team fell apart.

Toronto got a team effort. Pascal Siakam had 25 points and was back to his healthy self. Kyle Lowry had 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Danny Green had 17 points and was 5-of-7 from three. Off the bench, Fred Van Vleet had his best game of the series. And Leonard pitched in 21.

When Embiid isn’t right, the Sixers are not the same. Philadelphia needs to hope he is healthy and things look different Thursday night, or the off-season questions about this roster — and how a once asset-rich team traded all of them to get this group and win now — and what it will look like next season will start.

3) Denver coach Mike Malone speaks on horrific school shooting near Denver. One 18-year-old is dead and eight others were wounded in the latest school shooting to hit our nation, this time at a STEM school in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch.

Before Game 5, Nuggets coach Mike Malone spoke for a frustrated nation saying “thoughts and prayers are never enough” and wanting to see action.

Our thoughts are with the victims and their families, even as we know that is not enough. We all know that more needs to be done, not to arm the schools but to get to the root of the problems that have made these kinds of shootings a national epidemic. There is no one, simple answer that solves everything, but we need a serious, genuine national discussion of how we stop this from happening. Not just deterrence, but an honest and unflinching look at the causes and solutions.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG


NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee


A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it


It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.