NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Blazers dismiss pressure — The Portland Trail Blazers were minutes away from a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Houston Rockets before D-League call-up Troy Daniels hit a miraculous 3-pointer in overtime. The shot kept the series alive and, according to James Harden, transferred pressure to the Blazers. Not surprisingly, the Blazers disagree. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian with more:
“The pressure wasn’t on us — it’s never on us,” Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum said. “They have huge expectations. They talk about championships. We just talk about the next game.”
That comes Sunday, when the Blazers host Game 4 at 6:30 p.m., and there’s a feeling around the Blazers that the end result will be different if they merely play they way they did in Game 3, only with a tweak here and there.
The Rockets entered Friday night in desperation mode and coach Kevin McHale altered his starting lineup in hopes of resuscitating his flatlining team, replacing Terrence Jones with mammoth center Omer Asik. He made the move, primarily, to slow down LaMarcus Aldridge, who had been unstoppable in the first two games of the series.
Aldridge acknowledged the Rockets “caught” him “off guard” with their new schemes, but he pledged to be prepared for Game 4. Similarly, coach Terry Stotts downplayed Houston’s defense.
“We scored 110 in regulation, so we scored enough points,” he said. “We didn’t lose the game at the offensive end, that’s for sure.”
Stotts was more concerned about other areas, most notably the Rockets’ 22 offensive rebounds and the fact that they attempted 15 more shots than the Blazers. The prodigious rebounding no doubt led to many of those 15 extra shots and directly facilitated Houston’s 25 second-chance points. If even five of those rebounds had bounced the Blazers’ way, today’s narrative likely would be on the probability of a Blazers’ sweep rather than which team carries the most pressure.
“That’s probably our biggest concern right now,” Stotts said of Houston’s 58 offensive rebounds this series.
There are no more secrets between these teams. They’ve played seven times this season and three games have gone to overtime — including twice in the postseason. This best-of-seven grudge match has been wickedly competitive, wonderfully entertaining and wildly unpredictable. The line separating the teams is razor-thin, and likely will continue to be.
So, what about Harden’s declaration the Blazers are now facing the pressure?
It took a playoff-high 37 points — on 35 field goal attempts — from James Harden, an unlikely three from an unlikely player and a new starting lineup for a team that opened the season with championship aspirations to beat a team most didn’t expect to be in the playoffs.
Pressure? That idea elicited a few laughs Saturday from the Blazers after they went through a light workout at the practice facility in Tualatin.
“We were predicted to lose this series — I don’t think the pressure’s on us,” Wesley Matthews said, chuckling. “Actually, we weren’t even supposed to be here. We’re up 2-1, we’ve still got two games at home. We’re not taking that for granted by any means, just like we didn’t take anything for granted all season. We’re going to come out with a better urgency than we did last night, more of a toughness, more of a mental edge than we did last night.”
Added Batum: “We still control the series. We know who we are. We’re still the underdogs … people don’t expect something from us. So we’re going to go out there tomorrow, try to win this game, try to go up 3-1 before we go back to Houston.”
No. 2: Garnett wants Brooklyn crowd to ‘do better’ — From his days with the 50-plus-win Minnesota Timberwolves to the big-three Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett knows how a great crowd can sound. And he doesn’t sense this necessary noise and engagement level from the Brooklyn crowd after Game 3. Mike Mazzeo from ESPN New York with Garnett’s quotes:
The Barclays Center crowd was pretty good on Friday night.
But Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who played in front of some absolutely raucous playoff crowds for several years at Boston’s TD Bank Garden, expected more.
“They could do better,” Garnett said Saturday. “I was expecting Brooklyn to be real hostile, New York-style. I know what it’s like to come here as the opposition, so our crowd could do better, but they were there when we needed them, and we fed off of them.”
Added Pierce: “Well, we know gradually they got into it. Hopefully the next game, it will get a lot better from the start. We want to come out from the jump, from the beginning, and have them in the game. It shouldn’t take a big play from us. We want them behind us. It was a great crowd tonight.”
The Nets beat the Toronto Raptors in Game 3, 102-98. They got off to a slow start, and some of the crowd arrived late due to the 7 p.m. tipoff.
“I mean, I thought the crowd was pretty good,” Joe Johnson said. “We just gotta go out and make them be excited, we gotta make plays on the court. That’s it.”
The Nets finally got going late in the second quarter, when Pierce’s crossover dribble and slam dunk highlighted a 10-0 run. In the final minute, Garnett dove for a loose ball.
When he got up, Garnett was screaming and popping his white home jersey.
“I don’t really know [what I was doing]. I blacked out at that point,” Garnett said. “I have a kid at the game, setting an example, being a role model, all that goes out the door. I’m playing with heart at that point, I’m playing with passion, I’m feeding off the crowd; my friends, my family there; my teammates; J [coach Jason Kidd]. I’m just going. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just going.”
Garnett was eager to see what the atmosphere was going to be like. He figured the fans didn’t appreciate it when Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri said, “F— Brooklyn!” prior to Game 1 of the series.
“I don’t know if you can say ‘F Brooklyn’ and then come into Brooklyn,” Garnett said earlier in the week. “So we’re about to see what it’s like.”
The crowd will have a chance to get better on Sunday night in Game 4. Brooklyn leads the series 2-1.
VIDEO: Pacers vs. Hawks: Game 4
No. 3: West and George save Pacers — Things were about to get dire if the Indiana Pacers lost yesterday to fall down 3-1 to the Atlanta Hawks in the series. But they rallied in the final minutes, through the play of David West and Paul George, to take a victory from Atlanta and reclaim home-court advantage. It was a critical victory which would not have been possible without West and George, writes Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star:
Music played in the postgame locker room. Voices of joy rang out. There was elation, there was relief, and now the Indiana Pacers, 91-88 Game 4 winners over the Atlanta Hawks, have another chance to make things right in this series.
One minute, they were facing a 3-games-to-1 deficit that only eight NBA playoff teams have overcome. Daunting? There’s a 3.7 percent chance of winning a series from that position.
The next minute, they were making heroic plays, the kinds of plays that keep a season on the brink alive for another couple of days — or weeks or months.
When it had to happen, it was the Pacers’ leaders, their best players, who made it happen.
David West and Paul George.
With a lot of help from George Hill, who once again played great defense and scored seven huge points down the stretch.
For a few short minutes, those were the old Pacers, the First Half of the Season Pacers, grinding down an opponent underfoot. This was about shot-making and defense and rebounding and will, the kind of will we haven’t seen often enough in the latter stretches of the season.
West was plagued by early foul troubles in the first two games, but took complete ownership of this game. It was as if he made up his mind, “Enough of this nonsense. Our season’s on the line. Now follow or get out of the way.”
“(West has) the best will I’ve ever been around as a coach,” Frank Vogel said. “He has that whatever-it’s-called inside to find a way to win. Whether it’s making a 3 or a big bucket in the post or making a play with his hands defensively, he finds a way to win a game.”
It wasn’t just West’s 3-pointer. Perhaps more important, it was his late defense against the Hawks’ best player Saturday, Paul Millsap.
“We felt like they were a little too comfortable the two games they won, swinging the ball, coming off screens,” West said. “This game, I thought we were the aggressors. It’s all about making them uncomfortable. Kyle Korver is one of the greatest shooters ever, we’ve got to make him uncomfortable, make all their guys uncomfortable. If they’re walking into shots, if we don’t pressure them, they’ll make those shots.”
West, who has been around the block a time or two, understands that these kinds of opportunities don’t come along often. The postseason is not a divine right. It’s rare to earn the No. 1 seed and have home-court advantage.
“It was all or nothing, and we understood that,” he said. “We were in desperation mode.”
The other guy, George, left it all on the court, playing almost 44 minutes and filling up the stat sheet: 24 points on efficient 10-of-18 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. He also helped hold Jeff Teague to a 5-of-15 shooting day.
After talking to the media at the podium, he returned to the locker room and slumped in his chair, too beat to contemplate a shower.
There was no way Vogel was going to take George off the floor in the second half. No way. There will be plenty of time to rest in the off-season, an off-season that would have come early had the Pacers lost this game.
“He missed a couple of 3s in the second half and I thought about (resting him) but against this team, with the speed they have out there, you have to play him, at least for the defensive end,” Vogel said. “He’s guarding an elite point guard all night and doing all of the intangible things on the defensive end.”
No. 4: Terrence Ross must step up — One of the best features of the Toronto Raptors this season has been their swingman pairing of DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Unfortunately, Ross hasn’t come to play so far in the playoffs and it’s making some consider whether he should stay in the starting lineup. Eric Koreen of The National Post reports:
Ross is a flat line. When he was introduced to the Toronto media after the Raptors drafted him in 2012, it was one of the things he said: Do not expect him to try to get the fans involved with a gesture or primal scream.
Heading into the post-season, it seemed as if Ross might benefit from that. The kid never gets nervous, so extra attention from the officials, louder crowds, a one-on-one matchup against seven-time all-star Joe Johnson would barely register with him. If anybody was going to push a little too hard and take himself out of his game, it was bound to be DeRozan.
It has not worked out that way. DeRozan has pressed at times, and is shooting just 36 percent from the floor in his team’s series against the Brooklyn Nets. DeRozan is adapting, though, and he is playing through the learning process. In contrast, Ross is lost, just another tourist in New York City. He has just 10 total points in 63 minutes of action through three games, and things have actually been worse on the other end. He has lost Johnson and Deron Williams on the perimeter and been knocked off his man by sturdy Nets screens far too easily. When he failed to contain Nets reserve Marcus Thornton in the second quarter of Game 3, Raptors coach Dwane Casey had finally seen enough, sending him to the bench. Ross played just the first five minutes in the second half on Friday, and then was done for the night.
Now, he must consider replacing Ross in the starting lineup.
“We’re still going to look at that,” Casey said. “The decision hasn’t been made but we will look at it. Right now we don’t want to do anything drastic. … It’s not panic time, but we do have to look at that position and get more productivity out of that spot.”
It might not happen, just because the options are limited. They could start Greivis Vasquez, who is already responsible for a large playmaking burden, and would put DeRozan on Johnson permanently — a situation he has struggled in so far. Casey could opt for John Salmons, who has been unpredictable on both ends since arriving in Toronto. Or he could start Landry Fields, the team’s best defender but an absolute offensive non-threat. As always, given the options, Ross represents the highest upside.
Winning this series is not Casey’s only consideration, though. All along, both Casey and general manager Masai Ujiri have emphasized that player development is still a big factor for the Raptors, despite the semi-accidental success they have achieved. That becomes much tougher to live by during the playoffs — after a grinding 82-game season, a surprise Atlantic Division title and the first three coin-flip games of this series that could have been turned by getting something, anything from Ross’s spot. Given the way he is playing, Ross is actively hurting the Raptors’ chances of winning this series.
Certainly, that is not ideal. That does not mean Casey should change it, though. Casey acknowledged that it is far tougher to stick with young players when they struggle in the post-season than it is during the regular season.
“But a big part of the reason we’re here is because of their play,” Casey said. “I’m not blind to the fact that they are our future and the only way they’re going to learn is to go through it. The amount of time might be a little shorter, but they’ve got to get out there.
“Both [Ross and Jonas Valanciunas] are soaking up big minutes. If they weren’t young guys, if that wasn’t our future, our direction, they probably wouldn’t be in there with some of the mistakes they’re making. But, they’re our guys.”
Now, it is on Ross to wake up.
No. 5: ‘Vinsanity’ outshines ‘Monta Madness’ — Vince Carter‘s corner 3-pointer at the buzzer Saturday afternoon gave the Mavericks a 109-108 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, a 2-1 series lead, and took the spotlight away from Monta Ellis‘ incredible game. Ellis, the same player who helped knock-out the one-seeded Mavericks in 2007, is thriving in the Dallas and his ability to penetrate has been nearly impossible for the Spurs to stop. Tim Cowlishaw of The Dallas Morning News with more on Ellis:
Even on a mostly balanced afternoon, one in which Coach Rick Carlisle had all hands on deck in a 109-108 Game Three upset of the Spurs, one player had to rise up to make Vince Carter’s game-winner possible.
That man was Monta Ellis, and it’s not surprising at all when you think about it. He’s the only Maverick who has been here before.
Eighth seeds enjoy success over No. 1 seeds on an infrequent basis in the NBA. It has happened five times in 20 years. But Ellis was on the other side of the Mavericks’ most frustrating playoff start — a first-round loss to Golden State in 2007 after Dallas had won 67 regular season games — and so he’s feeling right at home.
“That series was similar because that Dallas team was a great team, too,” Ellis said. “For Golden State, it was just our time. Now we’re trying to make this our time, but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. We’re not going to get big-headed because we’ve won two games.”
Carter’s deep corner jumper drove the place crazy, but it was Ellis who led all scorers with 29 points, driving inexorably and sometimes recklessly to the basket, forever on the attack.
“We need to ride a hot hand whenever we can find it,” Carlisle said. “Ellis down the stretch was great. The ‘and-one’ was big.’ ”
Ellis’ ability to deliver in the clutch and his willingness to do it in selfless fashion are making all things possible.
Keep in mind he was a 21-year-old backup guard on that Warriors team. He never would have guessed that seven years later Golden State’s upset of Dallas would be his only taste of playoff success.
“I’m just going out and playing basketball like I have all season,” Ellis said. “The points may look like it was me, but it was a total team effort. We’re playing as a team. We’re winning.”
Ellis insisted that nothing about his post-season play is designed to suggest he was overlooked around the league when Dallas signed him for three years and $25 million — far below what most 20-points-per-game scorers command.
“I don’t make anything personal,” he said. “I’m just on a better team. I don’t have to go out and get 65 percent of the team’s points or anything.”
While Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki struggled from the floor in a Game One defeat — each went 4-for-14 for 11 points — the Mavericks’ shooting guard has picked up the pace by averaging 25 points in the two Dallas wins.
Nowitzki has not yet had his first 20-point playoff game — he averaged 25.9 in the post-season before this series — and while he shot a higher percentage Saturday, he has had trouble freeing himself from the attention he’s getting from Tiago Splitter and the occasional double teams.
But Ellis is being Ellis. He’s willing to attempt some of the more improbable hanging drives to the bucket you’re likely to see. They don’t all connect, but he was 12-for-22 from the field Saturday including 3-for-7 from three-point land. The Mavericks will take that from last season’s free-agent bargain every time.
As three-time champion Tony Parker said afterwards, “I thought we did pretty good (against the point guards), it was more Ellis that was hurting us today.”
And then, having led the way for 47 minutes and 58 seconds, Ellis stepped into the shadows and ceded the spotlight to Carter.
Eight-seed madness ensued.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Sacramento Kings will draft the best player available. … Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr may meet this weekend to discuss the Knicks’ coaching vacancy. … The NBA continues to investigate the alleged Donald Sterling recording. … Former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley died Saturday at age 77.
ICYMI: NBA TV’s Inside Stuff ventured to Toronto to find out why Amir Johnson is so important to the Raptors …
VIDEO: Inside Stuff: Amir Johnson