Monte Morris

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Portland wins ‘weird game’ to tie series with Denver

Leave a comment

The NBA playoffs are in full swing 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) In weird game Denver can’t buy a bucket, Portland escapes with a win to tie series 1-1. Nikola Jokic summed it up well:

“It was a weird game for us. They didn’t even play that good, to be honest. They can play better than that. Weird game, weird day.”

Weird in that Denver just could not buy a bucket. Not just weird in the Nuggets shooting 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) from three and going 0-of-10 in the second quarter. Rather, weird as in Denver grabbing 23 offensive rebounds (38.6 percent of their missed shots) but shooting just 6-of-17 on chip-shot putback attempts. Weird in that Nuggets guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris were 2-of-13 from three and combined to shoot 33.3 percent overall on the night. Weird in that the Nuggets shot 14-of-45 (31.1 percent) on uncontested shots (via NBA.com). Weird in that Portland had an offensive rating of just 102.1 for the game, but that was enough to have them comfortably ahead most of the night as Denver scored less than a point per possession.

Weird, physical, whatever you want to call it, the Trail Blazers will take it. Portland was the more aggressive team, earned the 97-90 win and evened the series at 1-1 heading back to Portland for Game 3.

The game certainly was physical. Nobody got that worse than Denver’s Torry Craig, who suffered a “nasal contusion” when diving for a loose rebound and his face hit the back of teammate Monte Morris’ leg. Craig returned to play with a mask (something he had fitted back in the preseason), and he ended up on the ground late in the game, which sparked a confrontation (see item two).

It was a weird game in that Portland’s Enes Kanter may have had a better game than Nikola Jokic. At least he did in terms of what their respective teams need out of them. Jokic had 16 points on 7-of-17 shooting, he had seven assists (he assisted on 38.9 percent of his teammate’s buckets when on the court, still an impressive percentage), but would have had a lot more if guys had just made shots. Jokic was still making passes like this.

Kanter had 15 points on 10-of-15 shooting and played solid, physical defense down low with Jokic. Kanter came into these playoffs with the Billy Donovan “can’t play Kanter” reputation because of his pick-and-roll defense and what happened to him in previous playoffs, but give the man credit, he has stepped up and performed well in the absence of Jusuf Nurkic this postseason.

CJ McCollum had 20 points for Portland, even if it took 20 shots to get there.

This game felt like a one-off for the series. There were adjustments, but both teams struggled just to make shots they usually hit that it’s tough to tell what worked and what didn’t. Denver needs to attack earlier when the threes aren’t falling, but aside that this was more about missed opportunities than anything else.

Portland does not care. It’s a win. The series is tied and the Trail Blazers are heading home.

2) Late game scuffle could lead to suspensions for Nuggets, Trail Blazers. With 43.5 seconds remaining in Game 2, Damian Lillard sank a free throw that put Portland up seven. That’s when a weird game had it’s “fight.”

Denver called a time out after the free throw, but before that was really heard players started to move back down to the end of the court. Nikola Jokic shoves Enes Kanter, who is off-balance and collides with the already-injured Torrey Craig and knocks the masked man down. Then Jamal Murray and Gary Harris confront Kanter for knocking down Craig and there is a typical NBA “fight” at mid-court with a lot of pushing and posing but no actual punches.

Portland’s Evan Turner sprinted from the bench area to get in the scuffle. Denver’s Jarred Vanderbilt (who made contact with Kanter) and Trey Lyles also left the bench area (and to a lesser extent Brandon Goodwin, Juan Hernangomez, Isaiah Thomas, and Thomas Welsh did as well), but the incident was closer to the Nugget bench and play had been stopped.

The NBA rule is clear: Leave a bench during a fight and the player gets a one-game suspension.

However, there had been a timeout called, and when that happens players often leave the bench to greet teammates coming off the court. Plus, there was no game action.

Will the league suspend players, or just fine them saying there was a time out in the action? My guess is the latter, nobody misses time, but the league is unpredictable on these matters.

There is more riding on this for Portland because the only player who came off the bench for either team that is in the playoff rotation is Turner. His loss would be felt if he misses a game, especially if Maurice Harkless remains out with the ankle sprain he suffered back in the first quarter.

3) Minnesota finds its man in Gersson Rosas to head up their basketball operations. The Timberwolves did things backwards: owner Glen Taylor wanted to keep coach Ryan Saunders and general manager Scott Layden, but wanted to hire their new boss. Whoever was going to head basketball operations in Minnesota was not going to get to hire his own team under him, he was inheriting one.

That person is Gersson Rosas, the right-hand man to Daryl Morey in Houston, according to multiple reports out of Minnesota.

This is a milestone. Rosas will be the first Latino to lead a basketball operations department in the NBA (Rosas was born in Bogata, Columbia). Rosas has earned his shot.

Rosas technically has been a GM before. He was hired by Dallas back in 2013 for that role, but walked away from it three months later. Rosas thought he would have decision-making power in Dallas, but the hammer still belonged to Mavs president Donnie Nelson (not to mention owner Mark Cuban).

This time Rosas has the hammer… and a lot of work to do.

On the bright side, the Timberwolves have an elite center and franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns. That level of player is the hardest to get, and Towns seemed to connect with Saunders as coach (now Saunders just needs to get Towns to play consistent defense.

Building an elite team around Towns will be the challenge. Mostly because of a couple anchor contracts — Andrew Wiggins (four years, $122 million remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33.5 million remaining). Minnesota also has to pay Jeff Teague $19 million next season after he opted in, although at least he contributes a lot on the court. Those guys, however, make it very difficult to maneuver under the cap and bring in more talent.

There are other assets. Robert Covington was mostly hurt after coming over from Philly in a trade but he can be the kind of wing defender the Timberwolves need. Josh Okogie showed promise as a rookie, and they have Dario Saric, who is a solid rotation player and developing. If Teague plays well and everyone stays healthy this could be a playoff team next season. That would be a start.

But Rosas has a lot of work ahead of him to take advantage of Towns’ prime.

Nuggets must overcome extreme playoff-experience deficit against Spurs

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
2 Comments

In Game 1 of their first-round series, the Nuggets outscored the Spurs by six points in seven minutes while both teams’ starters were on the floor. The game got away from Denver the other 41 minutes, when San Antonio gained an 11-point advantage.

“They’re coming off the bench with Patty Mills, Belinelli and Rudy Gay,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We’re coming off the bench with guys that were in the G League last year.

“We understand who we are, where we’re at.”

I don’t take Malone’s remark as a slam of his own team. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of how far and how quickly Denver has risen. Monte Morris did climb from the minor league to a key NBA role. The Nuggets did end a five-year playoff drought. They are playing the Spurs, who’ve made the postseason 22 straight years.

It’s not criticism to acknowledge the disparity of experience in this matchup.

Everyone who played for San Antonio in Game 1 had prior playoff experience. Only 35% of Denver’s minutes went to players with prior playoff experience.

Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee are the only rotation Nuggets to appear in a previous postseason. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig never have.

In these 2019 playoffs, Denver has – by far – given the small share of minutes to players with prior playoff experience:

image

The last team with such little playoff experience by this measure: 2016 Pistons, who had what we’ll call a Playoff-Experience Level (PEL) of just 30%. That Detroit got swept by the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the first round. Cleveland exclusively used playoff-experienced players that postseason, save four minutes for rookie Jordan McRae.

The 70-point PEL gap between those teams is also one of the highest in recent years, higher even than the 65-point PEL gap between the Nuggets and Spurs.

But the Cavs were the No. 1 seed, the Pistons the No. 8 seed. That’s usually how it goes, the more-experienced team the higher seed.

That’s not true with the second-seeded Nuggets and seventh-seeded Spurs, though. Denver outperformed San Antonio throughout the season.

Does the Spurs’ experience give them an edge now?

Here are the series with PEL gaps above 60% (using full postseason minutes) since the NBA-ABA merger. When the higher seed has a higher PEL, that series is in white. When the lower seed has a higher PEL, that series is in silver. Denver-Antonio is in gold. All teams are listed with their seed first.

image

Of the few times the team with the big PEL advantage was the lower seed, the experienced team pulled the upset. That doesn’t bode well for Denver.

The largest PEL gap overcome by a higher seed since the merger? It was 59.6% by the third-seeded Celtics, who beat the sixth-seeded 76ers in the 2002 first round.

So, if the Nuggets win as a higher seed despite a 65% PEL deficit, they’ll make history.

And maybe they will.

Denver is already heading up faster than its experience level would suggest.

Knicks’ fans chant ‘free IT’ as Isaiah Thomas sits on Nuggets bench

Getty Images
3 Comments

Well played, Knicks fans.

Denver went into Madison Square Garden Friday night to be the latest team to defeat the Knicks. Isaiah Thomas, out of the rotation in Denver, was the only dressed player not to play for the Nuggets. That did not sit well with Knicks fans.

Denver has better on court options than IT — Monte Morris should get Most Improved Player votes — but I hope he gets fully healthy and lands somewhere next season where he gets a chance to show what he can still do.

Isaiah Thomas not happy to be benched in Denver, still working to find way back

Associated Press
2 Comments

Isaiah Thomas is frustrated and nobody can blame him.

Just a couple of seasons back he was fifth in the MVP voting and was lined up for a “back up the Brink’s truck” payday, but he tried to play through a hip injury that eventually required surgery and nobody stepped up with a payday. This season in Denver, on a one-year minimum contract, he was given plenty of time to get his body right, but when he came back he wasn’t helping a team thinking deep playoff run. Thomas averaged 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Coach Mike Malone couldn’t keep Monte Morris — who is a Most Improved Player candidate with his play this year — on the bench while Thomas worked things out, and IT has been moved out of the rotation.

That doesn’t mean he took the news well. From Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

It’s very possible we’ve seen peak Thomas. That doesn’t mean most of the NBA is rooting to be proved wrong on that — I’m among many who want to see him succeed.

Hopefully next season he lands somewhere and really gets that chance. Denver became too good too fast to really be that place for him this season.

 

Nuggets remove Isaiah Thomas from rotation

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
3 Comments

Isaiah Thomas, while stuck on a contract that underpaid him, finished fifth in MVP voting just two years ago.

His reward in free agency last summer: a minimum contract.

A hip injury kept Thomas out then ineffective then out again. He signed with the Nuggets hoping to reestablish his value, but he has missed most of this season. He has played nine games since debuting a month ago and has struggled.

Denver coach Michael Malone shortened his rotation during a win over the Timberwolves last night, and that meant a DNP-CD for Thomas.

Sean Keeler of The Denver Post:

Malone said he plans on keeping the rotation smaller down the final few weeks of the regular season, and had explained the rotation to Thomas, whom he’d previously coached in Sacramento, before the game.

“Oh, you definitely talk to him (about the decision), and I’ll keep that conversation between IT and myself,” Malone said. “(It’s) not an easy conversation, but that’s my job.”

“Obviously, 16 (regular-season) games to go, (we’re going to) try to find a rhythm,” said Malone, who didn’t play Thomas in the 26-point victory. “And a rotation that I feel gives us the best chance to win now, and into the playoffs.”

The Nuggets (44-22) are second in the Western Conference, 1.0 game behind the Warriors and 2.5 games ahead of the Rockets. An easier first-round matchup is important. Home-court advantage in later rounds is important. This is the time to push for the best possible seed.

That clearly means leaning on Monte Morris, who has emerged as one of the NBA’s best backup point guards.

On another team, Thomas might get more leeway to shake off his rust. But in Denver, Morris is such a clearly superior option.

Thomas plays a high-usage style, and his 5-foot-9 frame limits him defensively. So, when he’s shooting poorly, he’s especially destructive to his team. Thomas just hasn’t found his groove this season.

It’s unfortunate Thomas will again enter free agency facing immense doubts about his ability. He just didn’t have much opportunity to prove himself this season.

But this is what the Nuggets had to do. Thanks to Morris, they’re too good for a reclamation project right now.