Three takeaways from Nuggets showing poise of champion, going up 3-0 on Lakers


LOS ANGELES — The Lakers hadn’t lost at home all postseason. They hadn’t lost three in a row since their roster was revamped at the All-Star break. Los Angeles was coming home desperate for a win to keep an impressive playoff run alive.

The Nuggets were the better team Saturday night.

The Nuggets are the better team. Flat out.

Denver’s defense was impressive, holding the Lakers — with LeBron James and Anthony Davis — to a 111.3 offensive rating (which would have been bottom five in the league for the season). Denver has shooters everywhere. They have continuity. They have trust. They execute.

With all that, the Nuggets are up 3-0 in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers after a 119-108 Game 3 win. The Nuggets can close the series out Monday night at Arena.

Here are three takeaways from Game 3.

1) The Nuggets showed the poise of a champion

On the road, in a game that the home-team Lakers had to win to keep their season and championship dreams alive, it was the Nuggets who came out playing with a sense of desperation.

That’s what champions do.

Maybe it was mostly Jamal Murray playing with that desperation early — he had a ridiculous first half (more on that in item No. 2) — but the Lakers couldn’t match it.

However, the real moment of championship poise — the time it became clear who was going to win this series — came in the third quarter. After a reviewed call, Nikola Jokić went to the bench with his fourth foul. There was 7:24 in the third and the Lakers, down five at that time, had had the chance to take control of the game (especially with Murray having cooled off, in part thanks to great defense from Dennis Schroder).

Instead, the Lakers were only +3 the rest of the quarter and the Nuggets still led by two heading into the fourth. While much of the fourth remained close, it was that stretch in the third where it became clear this was going to be the Nuggets’ series.

“I did see poise tonight,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Fourth foul and Nicola going out, there wasn’t a panic. It was, ‘Okay, he’s out. That means somebody else has to step up.’ And I think that’s something our team has done time and time again.”

They have, this is the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason. However, we tend to do something in all sports where we’re not convinced a player or team can perform at the highest level until they do it. We don’t think a quarterback is good enough to win the Super Bowl until they do (then we act like we knew they could). The Nuggets went through that this season. They were the best team in the West, were the No. 1 seed from December on, yet there was hesitation because we hadn’t seen them do it.

No more. This Nuggets team may or may not win the NBA Finals, but they are a championship-caliber team without question. No more hesitation.

2) Jamal Murray was cooking early, Jokić late

The Nuggets stars stepped up on the biggest stage of the season.

Jamal Murray came out on fire. At the end of the first quarter, the score was Lakers 20, Jamal Murray 17, with Murray shooting 8-of-10. (Add in the other Nuggets players and they were up a dozen.) Murray had 30 in the first half and 37 for the game.

From the fourth quarter of Game 2 through the first half of Game 3, Murray was hitting the kind of difficult, contested shots against the Lakers it felt like even Stephen Curry couldn’t hit last round. That’s because there is one key difference — the Lakers could double Steph with impunity because Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson didn’t make them pay. The Nuggets have shooters everywhere — remove Murray from the equation on Game 3 and Denver was still 12-of-30 from 3 (40%) on the night.

Murray was quiet in the third. Jokić was on the bench for much of it, but he saw something. When he and Murray were back on the court together in the fourth, the two started playing a two-man game that sealed the win.

“At the end of the game, [Jokić] and Jamal playing a two-man game — and I have to give credit where credit is due, that was Nikola’s call,” Malone said. “He said on the bench, ‘Let’s go to this play. Let me and Jamal play, whole side of the floor, and we’ll make the right reads.’ And we milked that down the stretch. So Coach Jokic did a great job tonight.”

Murray agreed that Jokić called for the sets “in his best English.”

Jokić scored 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the fourth, and that was the ballgame.

3) Lakers made their adjustments (which worked). Nuggets had counters.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham said pregame that D'Angelo Russell was a key part of the team’s attack, even though to most everyone else he has looked unplayable this series (after Game 3, the Lakers are -54 this series in his minutes, in a series where they are just -22 overall). There have been reports the Lakers were concerned about how Russell would respond to being benched, that they would “lose him.”

Russell started Game 3 (as did Jared Vanderbilt, Ham stuck with his Game 2 starting five). Finally, at the end of the second quarter, Ham leaned into the non-Russell lineup: Schroder, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers went on a 14-4 run to close out the half with that group and Los Angeles only trailed by three at the break (58-55).

It was a lineup frustrating Jokić because they could bring a double off Aaron Gordon and he was not spacing the floor or making them pay. It was maybe the best team defense anyone has played on Jokić all season.

Russell was back out on the court to start the second half (and played 11 minutes after the break), but with seven minutes left in the game Ham went back to his best lineup looking to save their season.

Malone had a counter ready — Gordon was out, Jeff Green was in. Green is a respectable 3-point shooter that the Lakers can’t leave alone in the corner. The Nuggets started running the Murray/Jokic two-man game with shooters everywhere else on the court.

“So that lineup was Bruce [Brown], Jamal, Joker, Mike [Michael Porter Jr.], and Jeff [Green]. Those are all interchangeable pieces,” Gordon explained. “You had Joker playing the one, you had Jamal setting the screen. You have Bruce, you have another guard out there. So everybody is interchangeable. And I think that’s a little too much for them.”

It was too much for the Lakers defense. They had no answer.

And now the Lakers don’t have much of their season left.

Phil Knight says he still wants to buy Trail Blazers, still waiting for team to be available

Phil Knight Legacy Tournament - Mens Championship: Duke v Purdue
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Phil Knight — not a man known for his patience — is waiting.

The Nike founder still wants the chance to buy the Portland Trail Blazers to ensure they stay in Portland, reports Rachel Bachman of the Wall Street Journal. However, the team remains unavailable. More than a year ago Knight and Dodgers co-owner Alan Smolinisky reportedly offered more than $2 billion to buy the Trail Blazers. Jody Allen, who currently runs the team on behalf of her late brother Paul Allen’s estate, said there is no plan to sell the team right now, and it could be years.

Knight continues to try and buy the team, the Journal reports.

So Knight and Smolinisky tried again, according to a person familiar with their plans. On numerous occasions, including earlier this year, they made it clear to Jody Allen that they still wanted to make a deal. They indicated that they realized the price had gone up and that they were willing to pay more than their initial offer, this person said. Again, Knight’s calls to Jody Allen were diverted to Kolde [Bert Kolde is the Executive Vice President of Sports Strategy at Vulcan Inc., which owns the Blazers and Seahawks], and nothing came of the brief discussions.

A few months ago, Smolinisky even sent a handwritten letter to Jody Allen seeking common ground and saying he and Knight would love to discuss the Blazers with her, according to a person familiar with the matter. In response, Smolinisky received an email from someone replying on Jody Allen’s behalf with a familiar message: Paul Allen’s sports teams aren’t on the market.

Paul Allen died of cancer in 2018 and some reports say his will requires the Trail Blazers — as well as the NFL’s Seahawks — must be sold within 10 years of that date, with the money from the sales going to a variety of charitable causes. We are halfway into that window.

In the case of the Trail Blazers, it would be wise to wait until the new national broadcast rights deal — which is expected to double, at least, the league’s television revenue — is locked in, raising the franchise value. Values have already gone up, with the Phoenix Suns being valued at $4 billion when Mat Ishbia bought them last December.

In the short term, the Trail Blazers and their fans are focused on the NBA Draft, where they have the No. 3 pick but are reportedly open to trading that for the right veteran to put next to Damian Lillard.

Coaching updates from around NBA: Stotts to Bucks, Young paid to stay with Suns

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets
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In the 24 hours since the last time we put together a list of coaching updates from around the NBA a lot of things transpired, some expected, some not.

Here’s an update on the NBA coaching carousel.

• As was rumored to be coming, former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts will join Adrian Griffin’s staff with the Milwaukee Bucks. This is a smart hire, putting an experienced coach known for creative offense next to the rookie coach on a contending team. With the Bucks getting older and more expensive quickly — 35-year-old Brook Lopez is a free agent this summer — the Bucks don’t have time for a rookie coach to figure things out on the job.

• Kevin Young will stay in Phoenix on Frank Vogel’s staff after new owner Mat Ishbia made him the highest-paid assistant in the league at $2 million a year, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Devin Booker reportedly backed Young to get the head coaching job, although how hard Booker pushed is up for debate. Keeping Young on staff — likely in an offensive coordinator role — next to the defensive-minded Vogel could be a good fit.

• Former Hornets coach James Borrego was in the mix for several jobs but has settled in New Orleans, where he will be on Willie Green’s staff. This team is stacked with offensive talent — Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum — if they can just stay on the court.

• There is now just one head coaching vacancy open around the league, the Toronto Raptors, and they are entering the final interview stages, reports Josh Lewenberg of TSN. Among the finalists for the job are Kings assistant coach Jordi Fernandez and highly-respected European coach Sergio Scariolo (the head coach of the Spanish national team and Virtus Bologna of the Italian league).

• The makeover of the Celtics coaching staff could go even deeper than expected because Ben Sullivan, Mike Moser and Garrett Jackson are all leaving Boston to join Ime Udoka‘s staff in Houston, reports Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

• Former Pacers player Shayne Whittington is now a part of Rick Carlisle’s coaching staff in Indiana.

Hawks’ Trae Young plans to shoot more 3s… is that a good thing?

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six
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Quin Snyder wants his teams to shoot 3-pointers. A lot of them. In his final season as coach of the Utah Jazz, they took 10 more 3-pointers a game than his new Atlanta Hawks team did last season after he took over.

Trae Young has heard his coach and is ready to get up more than the 6.3 attempts a game he took last season.

That’s a good thing… but only if they are “good shots.” It’s good only if Young hits more than the 33.5% he shot from 3 last season.

While he has a reputation as a 3-point marksman, Young is a career 35.1% shooter from 3 and has been below that 35% number in three of his five NBA seasons. (Also concerning for the Hawks and Young’s fit with Dejonte Murray, he shot just 20% on the less than one catch-and-shoot 3 he took a game last season.)

Young has had better years, he shot 38.2% in 2021-22 and he is an offensive force as a creator capable of doing that again. That is the Young Snyder needs.

He also needs Young to buy into his system of ball and player movement more. Last season, 45% of Young’s shots came after he had at least seven dribbles — he pounded the ball into the ground and jacked up a shot without getting teammates involved far too often (77.9% of his shots came after at least three dribbles). Young shot 33.3% on the 3s he took after those seven dribbles, and less than that percentage on 3-pointers taken after three dribbles or more, which were the majority of his attempts.

This coming season will be an important one for Young, who has proven he is an All-Star who can put up numbers and drive an offense — he’s made an All-NBA team for a reason. The question facing him is whether he will fit into a team system that balances multiple shot creators, off-ball movement, willing passers and selflessness — what you can see in the two teams playing in the NBA Finals. Snyder will call pick-and-rolls, he wants his team to hunt mismatches at times, but there has to be more of a flow to what is happening. There can’t be many shots after seven dribbles (and that’s not touching on the defensive concerns around Young).

The Hawks will evolve over the next couple of seasons under Snyder. Where Young fits in that will be something to watch.

But we will see more 3-pointers.

Three things to watch, plus betting tips, as Heat try to drag Nuggets into mud


DENVER — Game 1 was what Denver fans wanted after waiting 47 years for the NBA Finals to come to town: Nikola Jokić was dominating with a triple-double, Jamal Murray was attacking downhill, Denver played to its size advantage and got out to a lead that was up to 24 at one point, then coasted in for a 104-93 win and series lead.

It feels like Game 2 will be different.

The Heat had a rough Game 1 (at least for three quarters) and know they need to be more aggressive in Game 2. The Nuggets played what felt like an average game for them, although coach Michael Malone didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Malone said. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic.”

Here are two things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Can Miami force this game to be played in the mud?

As fans, we have been spoiled watching NBA Finals games over the last decade. There has been a lot of Stephen Curry and the Warriors with their off-ball movement, passing, shooting and beautiful game. There has been the GOAT-level brilliance of LeBron James (complete with his passing skills), the overwhelming athleticism of Giannis Antetokounmpo, There has been beautiful basketball played at the highest level.

If Game 2 is beautiful, the Heat are in trouble.

If Game 2 is free-flowing and up-tempo, it means Nikola Jokić is orchestrating another symphony. If the Nuggets’ off-ball-movement, transition game, passing and shooting run relatively unchecked, the Heat simply cannot keep pace.

The Heat need this to look like a 1990s rock-fight game against the Knicks. That is how Miami got here, by doing exactly that to Boston and Milwaukee, making those powerhouses play a grinding, defensive game. The Heat need to throw sand in the gears of the Nuggets’ offense and drag the game into the mud with their physicality and tenaciousness. Fewer jump shots, more shots at the rim and more trips to the free throw line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1).

Jokić only had to defend two shots at the rim in Game 1, the Heat can’t let that happen again.

“I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” Jimmy Butler said. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”

The challenge a more aggressive Heat team faces is part of what led to all the jumpers in Game 1 — Denver is just a physically bigger team. That size can deter trips to the rim. It can’t if the Heat are going to win this game and even the NBA Finals.

The Nuggets know what is coming. What appears to separate them from the teams the Heat beat before is Denver seems far less likely to get sucked into Miami’s game.

“You just can’t be complacent with this team. You can’t be lackadaisical,” Aaron Gordon said. “You can’t sleep on this team. This team has no quit. They will continue to fight through the entirety of the game. You’ve got to understand that about this team.”

2) Which team hits its 3s

. Much has been made of the Heat’s shooting struggles in Game 1` — Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin combined to shoot 2-of-23 from 3. As Malone noted, the Heat had 16 open 3-pointers in Game 1 (using NBA tracking data) and hit just five of them. Miami bounced back in the fourth and hit 6-of-12 3-point attempts, but finished shooting an unimpressive 13-of-39, 33.3% from beyond the arc.

That’s better than the Nuggets.

Denver was 8-of-27 from 3, 29.6% in Game 1. Michael Porter Jr. was a dreadful 2-of-11.

“I thought I had great looks,” Porter Jr. said. “Ball felt pretty good coming out of my hands, but yeah, I can’t worry too much about percentages. They were good looks. I’ve got to keep shooting those, work on my shots on these couple days off. Hopefully some more fall next game.”

It’s simplistic but true — whichever team can find its 3-point stroke will win Game 2. Miami is in the Finals partly because of spectacular shotmaking, particularly from their role players, throughout the postseason. A regression now dooms them.

Both coaches told their shooters not to hold back.

“Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters.”

3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Over 214.5: The Under hit in Game 1 thanks to a 96-point second-half, but more importantly, an NBA Finals record low two free-throw attempts from the Miami Heat. Dating back to 2002-03, Game 2’s are 43-25-1 (63.2%) to the over when Game 1 went under the total. With both teams struggling from three and Miami expected to be more aggressive, the over 214.5 is a good value play, especially since Game 1’s total was 219.5.

Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. props: With Denver having so many weapons, take a look at Nikola Jokic’s triple-double prop and Michael Porter Jr.’s three-point props. Jokic triple-doubled in Game 1, giving him a triple-double in six of the last seven games. With Jokic hunting for Finals MVP, take a look at Jokc’s triple-double prop yet again. Porter Jr. struggled from deep in Game 1, knocking down two three-pointers on 11 attempts. MPJ has now attempted at least 10 three-pointers in three-straight games and six or more in eight of the past nine. MPJ’s Over 2.5 made three-pointers also has value in Game 2.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)