Three things to watch in Game 7s between Nuggets-Blazers, 76ers-Raptors

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It’s a high stakes Sunday for the NBA.

Two Game 7s with much more on the line than trips to the next round.

Toronto and Philadelphia both went all-in on winning this season, gambling on big time free agents to be who could put them over the top, and if they did then those stars may want to stay. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia has Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Plus, Sixers coach Brett Brown may need to win to hold on to his job.

Denver and Portland see themselves as the teams who have got next in the West, franchises poised to rise up as Golden State fades away. A trip to the Western Conference Finals would be validation, fall short and there will need to be some soul searching.

The NBA has got the drama on Mothers’ Day, but what is it going to take to win those games? Here are three things to keep an eye on.

1) Will the Raptors knock down their threes and give Kawhi Leonard some help? Leonard has been the best player in the East this postseason, a beast that justifies both the Raptors gamble on him and the way they managed his minutes — or, more accurately, let him manage his own minutes — during the regular season. Leonard has averaged 33.7 points with a 67.7 true shooting percentage, plus 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game against Philadelphia this series.

Toronto’s defense has more and more been to throw multiple defenders at Leonard, trying not to let him beat them.

Which puts the pressure on everyone around Leonard — Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol. Philly’s defense is willing to give up threes, and when Toronto has hit them it has won. The above foursome has shot 38.3 percent from three in Toronto’s wins and 26.2 percent in the losses (on almost the same number of attempts).

For all the crazy things that can happen in a Game 7, the goal is still simply to put the ball in the basket. If the Raptors can do that from three, they will win. If they miss, particularly early on, it could lead to….

2) Will Ben Simmons get some early transition buckets, start playing downhill, and be a force in Game 7? Joel Embiid is the lynchpin for everything in Philly — he is +80 through six games in a series where his team has been outscored by 17 points overall. Embiid is the Sixers’ rock. Jimmy Butler has been Philadelphia’s best player and their go-to pick-and-roll ball handler in this series, and he has been brilliant (and endeared himself to Sixers fans).

However, Ben Simmons may be the bellwether. He got early opportunities in Game 6 in transition where he is most dangerous, that got him confident and aggressive, and from there he went on to 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He led the blowout Game 6 win.

“We just missed so many shots early and they were just playing off the rebound so often,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6. “They were getting the rebound and pushing it out on us, and we didn’t do a great job in transition.”

Jared Dudley was not wrong, Simmons can fade into the background in the halfcourt. With Butler dominating the ball, Simmons slides into the dunker position and can see very few touches from there. Then he gets passive on offense, and it spirals.

If Simmons is getting out in transition early and being aggressive, it’s an excellent sign for Philadelphia.

3) Is Rodney Hood the third scorer Portland needs to win? Damian Lillard is going to get his, he’s one of the best scorers in the sport — and he’s clutch. He was made for Game 7s. Which is why Denver is going to work to get the ball out of his hands, and this is why C.J. McCollum has been so critical for Portland in this series.

However, Portland will need scoring from a third source to win on the road, and that may be Rodney Hood. He had 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6 and was the MVP of the night. He’s had a few games like that these playoffs, having found a role on this Portland team that eluded him in Cleveland and Utah last season.

If Hood gets going again, Portland has a chance.

Denver vs. Portland has been the tightest of second-round series and what separates the teams in this game — Paul Millsap having a good night, Nikola Jokic diming guys up, Lillard going off, Hood having a night — may come down to the slightest of things. This has been the most entertaining second-round series, in part because neither team can really stop the other, but if one side finds just a little defense that may be the deciding factor.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.

 

LeBron becomes oldest player with 39 points, 11 boards, seven 3-pointers (he’s also the youngest)

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The first question after LeBron James put up 21 and 8 to help the Lakers beat the Spurs Friday night was whether he would play in the back-to-back Saturday. He had just missed five games with a groin strain, after all.

Not only did LeBron play Saturday, he had a historic night.

LeBron had 39 points, 11 rebounds, and shot 7-of-12 from 3 — making him the oldest player in the history of the NBA with a 35+, 10+ with seven 3-pointer game.

The youngest player ever to put up that stat line? Also one LeBron James.

The 39 points were also the second most points ever scored by a player in his 20th NBA season, trailing only Kobe Bryant gunning his way to 60 in his final game.

The Lakers got the second straight win over the Spurs on Saturday behind LeBron, 143-138, a game more likely to be remembered for Zach Collins getting ejected for a foul that left Russell Westbrook bloody. The Lakers have won three straight and 5-of-6 but have done it against a very soft part of the schedule (three of the wins were over the tanking Spurs). Los Angeles beat the teams in front of it and started to show signs of life this season, but now they have to carry that over into a stretch against better teams, beginning Monday against the Pacers.

Watch Deandre Ayton put up 29 points, 21 rebounds, lead Suns past Jazz 113-112

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PHOENIX — There was much debate during the NBA offseason about whether Deandre Ayton was worth a max contract.

On nights like Saturday, the answer is a resounding yes.

Ayton notched season highs with 29 points and 21 rebounds, Devin Booker added 27 points and the Phoenix Suns held on for a hard-fought 113-112 win over the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz led 81-78 after three quarters, but the Suns pushed ahead 99-93 by midway through the fourth. The game remained tight through the final minutes, but Phoenix never lost the lead. On top of Ayton’s scoring and rebounding, he also had a crucial steal in the final minutes that helped thwart a final Jazz rally.

“I don’t know what he ate for Thanksgiving,” Booker said. “I should have been over there.”

Ayton grabbed his 21st rebound of the game on the final possession, securing Booker’s miss off a 3-pointer to keep the Jazz from a final possession. Ayton signed a four-year, $133 million deal during the offseason after the Suns matched an offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers.

“That young man has been coming to the gym at crazy hours, lifting with (coaches), so that he can be prepared for moments like this,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s just good to see the work pay off. It’s good to see him have monster games against really good teams on a back-to-back. That’s pretty impressive.”

Ayton was the first player to have at least 28 points and 20 rebounds in a game for the Suns since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007. He shot 11 of 19 from the field and added three assists and two blocks.

“I want to do more, I feel like I can do more,” Ayton said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to contribute to my team.”

Curiously, the Jazz didn’t foul the Suns on their final possession, essentially allowing them to run out the clock. Utah coach Will Hardy said the last play simply didn’t unfold like the team expected and there was some miscommunication.

“We wanted to get the ball out of Booker’s hands, and then foul,” Hardy said.

Ayton scored a season high for the second straight night. He poured in 28 points against the Pistons in a 108-102 win on Friday. Booker had a tough night shooting, making just 8 of 27 shots.

Utah was one of the NBA’s surprise teams in the first few weeks of the season, starting with a 10-3 record. The Jazz are just 3-7 since that point.

“One game, one stretch of the season doesn’t define your season,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “You’ve got to go through ups-and-downs. Adversity – learn from it and come out the other side better for it.”

The Suns have an 11-1 record at home this season and have won four straight games.

Jordan Clarkson scored 22 points for the Jazz. Collin Sexton added 20 while Lauri Markkanen had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The Jazz had a 54-51 lead at halftime. Clarkson led the Jazz with 12 points while Ayton had 11 points and seven rebounds.

Watch Spurs Collins bloody Russell Westbrook with a foul, get ejected

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs
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Jakob Poeltl was dominating the paint, scoring 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting with nine rebounds in 10 minutes, and giving the Lakers serious trouble. Then he had to leave the game with a sore quad, meaning Zach Collins would get more run.

Collins was ejected for a flagrant foul 2 on Russell Westbrook that left the Lakers guard bloodied. Westbrook bounced back up and LeBron James had to hold him back from going after Collins.

Collins plans to appeal the ejection he said after the game.

Collins will face a fine or suspension from the league, although he doesn’t have a history of this kind of foul, something the league takes into consideration. Westbrook also got a technical for going after Collins.

The Lakers went on to beat the Spurs 143-138, behind 39 points from LeBron James. It’s the second time the Lakers have defeated the Spurs in three days, the kind of wins over tanking teams the Lakers need if they are going to turn their season around.