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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.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results:

 

 

Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year for second straight season

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Rudy Gobert owns the paint for the Utah Jazz.

And he owns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert won his second straight DPOY award Monday night, beating out the other 2019 finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George.

The Jazz had the second best defense in the regular season and it is completely built around Gobert and his abilities in the paint, which is what separated him for this award. Utah’s defense was 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert was on the court and gave up less than a point per possession with him as the anchor.

This was a deep field with players such as Myles Turner of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and others getting votes as well.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer named NBA Coach of the Year

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Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and from the start that made him the Coach of the Year favorite (and maybe Antetokounmpo MVP).

It was a wire-to-wire win for Budenholzer, who was the frontrunner for this award from early on and was named the NBA Coach of the Year Monday night, the second time he has won this award (Atlanta in 2015).

Budenholzer was the favorite with good reason. The Bucks won 16 more games than the season before and had the best record in the NBA, they improved their net rating by +10.1, and became a top-five team on both ends of the floor. To be fair, part of Budenholzer’s success was a contrast to how poorly the previous coach handled this roster, but give Budenholzer credit for utilizing players well.

He beat out Doc Rivers of the Clippers and Mike Malone of the Nuggets in what was a very deep field for this award.