Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Raptors’

Nets use momentum to force Game 7

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets use balanced offense and feisty defense to drop Raptors in Game 6 

NEW YORK – It’s been said that there’s no momentum in the playoffs, that every game has its own identity. In fact, Raptors coach Dwane Casey preached that very mantra earlier in this series.

But what other way would you explain the Brooklyn Nets’ first-half offense in Game 6? After scoring 69 points in the second half of Game 5 on Wednesday – erasing a 26-point deficit along the way – the Nets blitzed the Raptors for 60 points in the first 24 minutes on Friday.

Over four quarters, they scored at a rate of 140 points per 100 possessions, which is quite ridiculous. And after building a 26-point lead of their own in the third period, they never let the Raptors get within single digits, forcing a Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday with a 97-83 victory.

Casey had no choice but to agree that the Nets started this game like they finished the last one, but held his stance in regard to what might happen in Game 7.

“I still say every game is different,” Casey said. “Sunday’s game will be different. It’ll be something else we talk about.”

Casey had better hope so, because over the last 60 minutes of basketball, his team has been outscored 141-105 and the Nets have found a lineup, a point guard, a pace, and a defensive mentality that works for them.

After Alan Anderson played a role in Brooklyn’s comeback on Wednesday, he got the start in place of Shaun Livingston on Friday. The change gave the Nets more spacing offensively and allowed their primary ball-handlers more opportunities to attack the paint.

“It was more of a feeling among the coaching staff,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said, “the way that [Anderson] played for us in that fourth quarter up in Toronto, to see if he could carry that over. And he definitely picked up where he was in Toronto.”

So did Deron Williams. The Nets’ point guard has been maligned in the press (and outside Barclays Center) in this series, but also played a role in that comeback on Wednesday, picking up his aggressiveness and scoring eight points in the fourth quarter.

Williams pushed the pace late in Game 5, because he had no other choice with his team in such a hole. In Game 6, he looked to run early and often, attacking the Toronto defense before it could get set.

“When we can get some stops and get the ball out in transition,” Williams said, “I definitely think it suits my style of play. But I think it helps our offense when they can’t set up their defense. We move the ball really well.”

“They played faster,” Casey added. “They got us on our heels early.”

And they got into the paint. The Nets got 24 (their high for the series) of their 36 field goals in the paint, with Joe Johnson continuing to beat the Raptors up in the post and the Nets’ bigs benefiting from the guards’ penetration.

But as Williams noted, it started with stops. The Nets played their best defense of the series, holding the Raptors to just 83 points on 92 possessions.

While Brooklyn got into its offense early, Toronto got into its offense late. The Nets shut down their early actions and forced them to improvise with little time left on the shot clock. They continued to pressure Toronto’s guards out high on pick-and-rolls, but also did a better job of meeting the roll man before he could get to the basket.

Most of the Raptors’ first quarter offense was DeMar DeRozan hitting some very tough shots, a trend that just couldn’t be sustained. Kyle Lowry never got going, shooting just 4-for-16 after a brilliant performance in Game 5.

“They did a good job,” Casey said, “of trapping him, blitzing him, and getting him out of his rhythm.”

“Desperate basketball,” Kevin Garnett called it. “We had our backs to the wall at home, but there was no way in hell they were going to come here and get a win today.”

Now comes Game 7, with the Nets hoping things continue to go the same way and the Raptors hoping Casey is right.

Nets and Raptors looking to control the nail

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Joe Drops 30

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Game 6 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the first round series between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets will be determined by a nail. The nail, actually.

“The nail” is the term used to describe the middle of the foul line. And it’s the location from which the two teams generated a lot of their 228 points in Game 5 on Wednesday.

After a relatively quiet, seven-point, seven-shot performance in Game 4, Joe Johnson came back with 30 points on 13-for-23 shooting in Game 5. He almost single-handedly got the Nets back in the game after they went down by 26, scoring 26 of his 30 in the second half.

In Game 4, the Raptors did their best to get the ball out of Johnson’s hands when he got it in the low post. In Game 5, the Nets got him the ball away from the low post, where it was harder for Toronto to send a double-team.

Most of Johnson’s catches came at the nail, with a pair of teammates on either side of the floor…

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Here, Johnson is one or two dribbles away from getting to his floater, which he can shoot over any Raptor that has tried to defend him in this series. He’s 19-for-31 from the area of the paint outside the charge circle.

But if Toronto sends a double-team here, one of his teammates has an open shot or lane to the basket. And since he’s in the middle of the floor, every pass is a simple one.

On the play pictured above, Johnson took John Salmons into the paint and scored over him easily, with Chuck Hayes getting there too late to do anything about it.

The Nets still went to Johnson in the post at times on Wednesday, and he had some success there. But those post-ups mostly drew double-teams…

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Johnson did most of his damage from the middle of the floor, even when his catch at the nail wasn’t clean.

The Nets got him at the nail with a pin-down screen from the center, which kept Toronto from being able to switch the screen and deny the catch. Here’s Andray Blatche, screening DeMar DeRozan at the weak-side block and allowing Johnson to catch and go straight to the basket for an and-one

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If the Raptors sunk into the paint to stop him, Johnson was able to find open teammates on the perimeter.

Johnson played just 14:31 in the first half of Game 5, picking up his second foul midway through the first quarter and his third midway through second. He played the entire second half (save one defensive possession) and still logged more than 38 minutes total.

Brooklyn scored 101 points on the 72 offensive possessions in which he was on the floor, an incredible rate of 140 points per 100 possessions. They scored 12 on 20 possessions (60 per 100) with him on the bench.

Of course, the other end of the floor was Brooklyn’s problem on Wednesday. And it was a problem mostly when the Raptors got the ball in the middle of the floor.

Here’s DeRozan isolating on Shaun Livingston from a spot that’s hard to double-team, a play that resulted in a layup for Jonas Valanciunas

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Here’s DeRozan getting around Mason Plumlee‘s hedge on a side pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson and getting to the middle of the floor, a play that resulted in a layup for Johnson

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And here’s Johnson catching the ball at the nail on a pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry, a play that resulted in another layup for Valanciunas (plus a foul on Paul Pierce).

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Both teams got what they wanted offensively in Game 5. And the team that wins Game 6 will likely be the one that keeps their opponent away from the nail.

Morning Shootaround — May 1



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Fisher next to lead Lakers? | Report: Magic interested in owning Clippers | Hawks unveil revamped ‘Pac-Man’ logo | Report: Bulls trying to trade Boozer | Nets’ Twitter account blasts own fans

No. 1: Should Lakers look to Fisher next? — ICYMI last night, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni resigned from his position … and the speculation about who will have one of the NBA’s most glamorous jobs began almost immediately. Our Sekou Smith thinks Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski would be a good fit in Lakerland, and there’s buzz out there that ex-Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins might be interested in the gig, too. But what about a former Laker (and Kobe Bryant running mate) coming back in the fold to lead L.A.? Adrian Wojnarowski broaches the idea of current Thunder reserve guard Derek Fisher taking the reins some time soon:

As little as Mike D’Antoni wanted to coach Kobe Bryant in the end, Bryant wanted to play for D’Antoni even less. They had barely communicated for months, steering clear until a permanent parting on Wednesday night. They would’ve been miserable together, would’ve inevitably imploded the Los Angeles Lakers locker room.

D’Antoni is a great offensive mind, but his difficulties with Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Bryant have played a part in the unraveling of his coaching career. Lakers management had a willingness to bring him back next year, but refused to make a commitment beyond 2015.

The Lakers have lost talent, lost stability, lost what separates winning and losing franchises. Bryant won’t pick the next coach, the way he had no input into Mike Brown and little into D’Antoni. Bryant will wish for Tom Thibodeau to free himself from Chicago. He loves Jeff Van Gundy, and shares management’s affinity for Euro legend Ettore Messina, who spent a season on Mike Brown’s staff.

Bryant has long admired Byron Scott, but there’s a different ex-Lakers guard who could go much further to regenerate the franchise’s culture and hold the insight into getting the most out of Bryant’s final two seasons: Derek Fisher.

The Lakers need to make themselves a destination again. Free agency has major importance in 2015 and ’16 for the Lakers, and they’ll need to be positioned to make a run at Kevin Durant.

Superstars want desperately to consider the Lakers in free agency, but they won’t go anywhere based only on geography and banners. They’ll need to see an infrastructure of talent, management structure and coaching. Durant will want a culture, and Fisher could’ve grown into the job by ’16 to sell him on the Lakers’ brand.

It is risky to hire a coach with no experience, but the right minds and right coaching staffs can make it work. Fisher will command respect and he’ll be synonymous with a championship heritage that Lakers fans crave as a face of the franchise. Fisher is close to the end with the Thunder, and he’ll be the rare non-star to choose his next direction: management, coaching or television.

Derek Fisher is nearing the end, and willing to listen. This is a call the Buss family and Mitch Kupchak must make, a conversation with Fisher they owe it to the franchise to have sooner than later.

(more…)

Lowry carries Raptors to wild win

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets vs. Raptors: Game 5

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – After Game 4 in Brooklyn on Sunday, Kyle Lowry said of DeMar DeRozan, “This man is becoming a superstar before everybody’s eyes.”

That’s a nice thing to say about a teammate, but Lowry himself has been the Raptors’ best player this season and the best player in this first-round series. On Wednesday, he carried his team to a wild 115-113 victory in Game 5. Lowry scored 36 points, dished out six assists and turned the ball over only once as the Toronto Raptors took a 3-2 series lead over the Brooklyn Nets, barely hanging on after losing a 26-point lead in 12 minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey had a hard time focusing on anything but the negative afterward. His team allowed an amazing 60 points on Brooklyn’s final 34 possessions of the game, making several defensive mistakes.

But they won the game, because they blistered the Nets late in the second quarter and never allowed them to pull ahead down the stretch. Lowry was the key in both cases.

Lowry did most of his first-half damage (21 points) from the perimeter, making something out of nothing on several possessions and completely outplaying Deron Williams. In fact, as Williams committed two turnovers in the final minute of the second quarter, Lowry capped a 26-4 Raptors run by hitting a floater in traffic and then a ridiculous running 3-pointer off the glass at the buzzer.

And when the Nets had come all the way back from 26 down, it was Lowry who drew a brutal foul on Mirza Teletovic 80 feet from the basket to put the Raptors back ahead. He followed that up by drawing a charge on Alan Anderson and, when the game was tied again two minutes later, he hit a gutsy, step-back three to give his team the lead for good.

“When we need an answer,” Chuck Hayes said afterward, “call Kyle. Kyle will figure it out.”

This series is the latest chapter in the rehabilitation of Lowry’s career. He’s a bulldog. He’ll get in your shirt defensively and fearlessly drive into traffic and find a way to get the ball in the basket, even when there doesn’t seem to be space to do so. He may be the best in the league at drawing fouls on both ends of the floor.

Lowry used to be a pain in the *** for everyone around him, teammates and coaches included. But he’s learned to focus his fire and now, he’s just a pain in the *** for his opponent. Watch him closely on any given night and you’ll wonder if the Raptors could have won 20 games without him.

“He’s a hell of a player,” DeRozan said. “The dog in him makes you want to bring your A-game every single night, because you know he’s going to lay it out there with you.”

Lowry has been the most consistent force in what has been an up-and-down series for both teams. And a myriad of injuries hasn’t put any kind of a dent in his relentlessness.

“He’s never going to stop playing,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said.

Against the most expensive roster in NBA history, featuring several players with much more playoff experience, Kyle Lowry has made it clear that he’s the best player in the series, the real superstar of his team. He has them one win from the conference semifinals and he’s not going to stop until they get there.


VIDEO: DeRozan, Lowry discuss Game 5 victory

Nets must capitalize more on open shots

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Sir Charles heaps praise upon the Toronto Raptors

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – The Brooklyn Nets got a win in Toronto and had fourth-quarter leads (one of 15 points) in each of their two games at home.

Nobody expected the Toronto Raptors to just roll over and die. But their resilience was on full display over the final minutes of Game 3, coming back from that 15-point deficit to give themselves a chance to tie, and again in Game 4, outscoring the Nets 14-2 in the final six minutes. Now they’re back in Toronto for Game 5 on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) with the first-round series tied 2-2. The pressure rests on the Nets, the team with the highest payroll in NBA history and 10 times as much playoff experience as Toronto.

After the way the regular-season series went, the Nets shouldn’t be surprised at where they are. Seven of the eight games between these two teams have been within five points in the last five minutes. And now, the Raptors have four games of playoff experience and a knowledge that that they can beat the Nets on this stage.

“We know they’re a tough team,” Paul Pierce said after practice on Tuesday. “We know that they are not an easy team to beat. That’s the way they’ve been all year long. They’ve been resilient.”

The Raptors, of course, were the better team in the regular season, the only East team that finished in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They were also the best fourth-quarter team in the league and have outscored Brooklyn by 20 points over the four fourth quarters in the series. Since Pierce told Toronto why he’s here in Game 1, Toronto has executed better down the stretch.

But the Nets are a plus-18 in the other three quarters and know that they could have a 3-1 series lead if they could just make open shots.

More than two thirds of the Nets’ jumpers have been uncontested in the series, a slight uptick from the regular season. But their effective field goal percentage on those open jumpers has dropped almost 12 percent (from 51.7 percent in the regular season to 40.1 percent in the series), by far the biggest drop-off of any playoff team.

They also shot 19-for-29 from the free throw line on Sunday, splitting 10 of their first 11 trips.

If those shots start going in, the Nets are in good shape. But they don’t want to settle and just believe that their numbers can only go up. Game 3 was their best offensive game and one that they would have won comfortably if their defense hadn’t let up the last few minutes. That was also one game in which they took more than half of their shots in the paint and got to the line more than 30 times.

If the Raptors continue to take the ball out of Joe Johnson‘s hands, the pressure is on Deron Williams to make plays and shots. Williams has scored 46 points in the Nets’ two wins and 25 in their two losses.

“I just got to find my spots out there,” Williams said, also adding that he wants to push the pace to find easier shots early in the shot clock. “When they do double Joe, just driving into close-outs, just trying to get to the basket.”

Pierce also talked about not settling, but said that the pressure isn’t just on Williams.

“We just got to do a better job of making that extra pass when Joe passes out of the double-team, instead of taking the first available shot,” Pierce said. “It’s not about a certain individual on this ball club. We’ve thrived off our depth. We’ve thrived off a number of guys stepping up. Whether it’s me, Deron, or any other guy, it’s a team thing and everybody should take it upon themselves to play better.”

As a group, the Nets feel they just need to “play better” more than they need to make adjustments. Coach Jason Kidd said Monday that “we don’t mind all the attention on Joe,” believing that his team should be able to take advantage of four-on-three situations when Johnson passes out of a double-team.

“It’s going to come down to execution,” Pierce said. “It’s going to come down to the little things in the last quarter, where one play can make or break a game. So we got to be cautious of our turnovers. We got to do better at the free throw line. We got to be able to execute.”

The Raptors aren’t going away, so the Nets must win this series — rather than waiting for Toronto to lose it.

Raptors take out Johnson, even series

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down how the Raptors blanketed Joe Johnson

NEW YORK – Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey would not commit to whether his team’s Game 4 win was about great defense or bad offense.

“They missed a lot of easy shots,” Casey said of the Brooklyn Nets. “I thought our team defense was really solid,” he said later.

A little from column A, a little from column B, and the Nets scored just 79 points on 87 possessions, the least efficient performance of either team through four games. The result was an eight-point victory for the Raptors that tied the first round series at two games apiece.

After coming back from 17 points down, Brooklyn had a one-point lead with 4:58 left in the fourth quarter. But they went scoreless on their final eight possessions of the game. The Raptors didn’t have much going on offensively themselves, but got just enough (a Greivis Vasquez 3 here, a Kyle Lowry running hook there) to complement their improved defense.

The Nets were able to get the ball to Joe Johnson, who had been abusing the Toronto defense through the first three games. But the Raptors were aggressive with their double-teams and quick with their rotations. Johnson couldn’t get to his spots in the paint and his teammates couldn’t take advantage of four-on-three situations. Down the stretch, the Nets missed two jumpers, committed four straight turnovers, and then sealed their fate with a 29-second possession that ended in a blown layup by Shaun Livingston.

“The last four minutes is normally when we feel very comfortable,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said. “We just got out of character … We were trying to do it individually instead of making a play for our teammate.”

Johnson, who had averaged 23.7 points on 26-for-43 (60 percent) shooting through the first three games, got just seven shots off in Game 4. He made just two. The Raptors went with a variety of post coverages and it worked.

“Sometimes we were going [with on the dribble," Casey said. "Sometimes we were going on the pass. Sometimes we were going straight up. I thought mixing it up kept them off balance a little bit. Hopefully, it did. I don't know."

"We were much more physical," Lowry added. "We were much more aggressive on the ball and we tried to make them get the ball to other players."

The Nets have other players. Pretty good ones, too. They don't need a big game from Johnson.

But his only teammate who looked comfortable offensively on Sunday was Paul Pierce, who scored 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Others were afraid to shoot or just shaky with their jumpers. It was like the veteran team shrunk in the big moment.

"I thought [Johnson] made all the right plays,” Kidd said, “but we couldn’t knock down a shot for him.”

The jumpers haven’t been there all series, really. After a 4-for-20 performance in Game 4, the Nets are a brutal 22-for-88 (25 percent) from 3-point range in the series.

Despite that, the Nets had been pretty efficient through the first three games. But when the Raptors took away Johnson, everything fell apart. Toronto was a top-10 defensive team in the regular season and looked like it for the first time in the playoffs. Well, sort of…

“I’m not fooled by anything,” Casey said. “I thought our defense was solid. But as far as just stopping them and taking them totally out of what they want to do … they got some good looks. We made a lot of mistakes in our schemes. So we’re going to have to go back and make some adjustments on our own to clean up some stuff, because some of the shots they missed … we don’t want to leave that to chance.”

Still, the Raptors took a step forward on Sunday. They showed resilience in the face of a more experienced team, a hostile crowd, a handful of injuries, and foul trouble.

“Matching their physicality was a huge key for us,” Greivis Vasquez said. “We got the win by playing their way, which is physical. And we were not afraid. We gained a lot of experience and a lot of confidence tonight.”

They also regained home-court advantage, with Game 5 back in Toronto on Wednesday.

Is it time for Casey to change his lineup?

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside Stuff: Amir – The Heart and Soul of Toronto

BROOKLYN – Before Game 3 of his team’s first round series with the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey was asked about having to abandon something that’s worked all season because you’re getting beat in a playoff series.

“That’s called adjustments,” Casey said. “You got to make adjustments and maybe throw out some things. We’ve already thrown out a couple of sets that we had in mind for the playoffs because it just didn’t work. There’s some defensive schemes that we looked at that didn’t work out. So we had to change. You have to, more or less, gamble a little bit and roll the dice and change some things, because you don’t have a season to work things out or a chance to look at the big picture.”

In the big picture, the Raptors need Terrence Ross, their second-year starting small forward with 50-point-game potential. In this series, they need something else.

Ross has shot 3-for-16 (2-for-11 from 3-point range) in the series, but his ineffectiveness has gone beyond that, because he hasn’t helped defensively either. For the most part, he’s been guarding Shaun Livingston, who hasn’t done too much damage. But as long as he’s out there, there’s a chance he’ll get switched onto Joe Johnson or Deron Williams, which is bad news. The Raptors’ defense has allowed a brutal 117 points per 100 possessions in Ross’ 63 minutes on the floor in the series.

The defense has been better with Landry Fields on the floor, but Fields is basically a zero offensively at this point in his career. And John Salmons hasn’t been able to make an impact either.

The Raptors are down 2-1, but they’ve had chances in each of their two losses. The Nets have outscored them 291-285 in the series.

“We just got to get more productivity out of one more position,” Casey said after Game 3. “[We're] searching a little bit in those three positions to give us a defensive stopper or add some offense out of that one spot.”

So where does Casey go in Game 4 on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, TNT)? He said Friday that he likes the added “physicality” that Fields and Salmons bring to the table, but his best option may be to sacrifice the defense and play neither.

In the regular season and in this series, the Raptors have been at their best with Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson on the floor. But neither has cracked the 30-minute mark in any of the three games.

That’s tough to do when you don’t enter the game until late in the first quarter. Casey has been quicker to bring in his subs in the third quarter, but he’s still not optimizing his roster.

The Raptors haven’t gotten off to terrible starts. Their starting lineup was a minus-1 in the first quarter of Game 1, a plus-1 in the first quarter of Game 2, and a plus-0 in the first quarter of Game 3. But it’s been outscored (by 16 total points) in each of the three third quarters and is a minus-17 in 39 total minutes.

Vasquez, meanwhile, is a plus-31 and Patterson is a plus-13. The Raptors might be making a defensive sacrifice by playing a three-guard lineup of Vasquez, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but it can’t be worse than it has with Ross on the floor, and it would be the best move for their offense. They’ve scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions in 32 minutes with the three guards on the floor together.

A change (or two) to the starting lineup would give the Raptors their best chance at a strong start on Sunday and, more importantly, get Vasquez and/or Patterson on the floor longer. There’s no reason they shouldn’t each get at least 30 minutes of playing time in Game 4.

“We’re still going to look at that,” Casey said of a lineup change at practice on Saturday. “It’s not panic time, but we do have to look at that position and get more productivity out of that spot.”

Time is running out. A loss on Sunday would put the Raptors down 3-1 against a veteran club that knows it has matchup advantages. At this point, Casey can’t worry about the big picture.

Morning Shootaround — April 27


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers dismiss pressure | Garnett wants Brooklyn crowd to ‘do better’ | West and George Save Pacers | Terrence Ross must step up | Vinsanity outshines ‘Monta Madness’

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.

***


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Vince Carter

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

Nets’ Johnson continues to punish Raptors

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets vs. Raptors: Game 3

NEW YORK – It seems that you can’t consider Joe Johnson without considering his contract. He’s overpaid, yes.

But when you look through that lens, you can lose sight of how valuable Johnson is on the floor and how much of a problem he’s been for the Toronto Raptors in their first round series with the Brooklyn Nets.

We’re three games in and Toronto has yet to find an answer for Johnson, who led Brooklyn to a 102-98 victory in Game 3 and a 2-1 series lead on Friday with 29 points on 17 shots. He scored 21 in the second half as the Nets took control of the game and then held on down the stretch.

“I was just being patient,” Johnson said. “Throughout the first half, I saw them coming at me with the double-team, so I was just trying to make the right play for my teammates, and we were rolling early. In the second half, it opened up and I got a couple of easy looks.”

Johnson’s numbers sure make it look like it’s been coming easy. Through three games, he’s averaged 23.7 points on 26-for-43 (60 percent) shooting.

Since January, the Nets have found success playing small. But their small is big, starting with Johnson’s 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame that, combined with the skills of a lead guard, is near impossible to stop one-on-one.

Johnson is neither quick nor explosive. He rarely reaches third gear. And when he gets the ball, you know what’s coming. But whether he’s gotten it on the perimeter or in the post, he’s been punishing the Raptors inside. Seventeen of his 26 field goals have come in the paint.

“He’s a big body,” DeMar DeRozan said after having to work harder for his 30 points on Friday. “It’s tough once he gets you down there and gets his hip on you. He’s a very crafty little baller. His floater … you really can’t do much to it.”

Post-ups have been the go-to play call for the Nets, but even in isolation, Johnson hasn’t settled. And he’s consistently been able to use a crossover or two to get his defender on his hip and get to his floater, which has been money all series. He has shot 13-for-20 in the area of the paint outside the charge circle in the series.

Toronto simply doesn’t have anybody who can guard Johnson. Their starting wings – DeRozan and Terrence Ross – are too skinny. Raptors coach Dwane Casey has called on reserve Landry Fields in this series solely to guard Johnson, and the first time Fields defended Johnson in the post on Friday, the Raptors still sent a double-team.

After Game 3, both Casey and DeRozan said that they have to be quicker with those double-teams.

“We’ve got to do a better job of making sure we’re getting help their quicker,” Casey said. “When we do get it there, we’re in pretty good shape in those situations.”

But no matter the defense, the Nets have been rather efficient in this series, improved offensively each game. And double teams on Johnson could help some of his teammates get better looks at the basket.

“We just have to continue to play through our bread and butter and know that Joe gets his great shots,” Shaun Livingston said. “It makes the game easier for us too. It conserves energy for everybody, so we can be fresh and kind of get our game going from all angles.”

Deron Williams, who had 22 points in Game 3, has been benefiting from the attention on Johnson, but has also turned up his own aggressiveness in the postseason, taking his matchup with Kyle Lowry personally. Much of Brooklyn’s offense has been actions involving both Williams and Johnson, and they’ve played off each other well.

“We had to learn to play with each other,” Williams said of his on-court relationship with Johnson. “We’ve had to learn to share the ball and also learn where each other’s going to be. I think we understand that right now. When Joe’s playing in the post, I know where the double-team’s coming from and where I need to be. And he knows where to find me.”

The Raptors lean heavily on Lowry and DeRozan. The Nets are more balanced, but if Williams and Johnson can match the production of Toronto’s backcourt, they’re in good shape.

If Toronto can’t find an answer for Johnson, they’re not.

Nets, Raptors have some cleaning up to do in Game 3

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Raptors-Nets: Game 3 Preview

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Since the end of Game 2 of their first round series with the Toronto Raptors, the Brooklyn Nets — Kevin Garnett, especially — have been trying to stoke the fire within their fans, hoping for an atmosphere at Game 3 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) similar to the one they saw in Toronto. But in their favor this time.

“I’m very, very, very eager to see how they respond to the ‘F Brooklyn’” Garnett said after practice on Thursday. “Very, very eager to see how they respond to this kid, sitting in our arena.”

“This kid” was apparently a reference to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who incited a Toronto crowd with his “F— Brooklyn” exclamation before Game 1. Later that day, Jason Kidd said he didn’t know who Toronto’s GM was. Then Paul Pierce thought it was Bryan Colangelo. Now, Garnett is calling him “this kid.” These Nets can troll.

But can they rebound? After allowing the Raptors to grab 19 offensive boards in Game 2, rebounding will be more important than how loud the Barclays Center crowd is. So is how well the Raptors — who have 40 turnovers in the two games — hold onto the ball.

Both the Nets’ biggest issue and Raptors’ biggest issue are on the same end of the floor. And both are somewhat a result of Brooklyn’s defensive scheme.

The Nets’ big men hedge hard high on pick-and-rolls in order to stop Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan from penetrating. It’s an aggressive scheme (similar to that of the Miami Heat) and, with the Nets’ length on the perimeter, it helps force turnovers.

At the same time, it takes Brooklyn’s bigs away from the basket, at least temporarily. Here’s an example of Mason Plumlee 20 feet from the rim in an effort to contain DeRozan …

20140425_plumlee_hedge

 

That play resulted in a put-back dunk by Plumlee’s man, Amir Johnson, who had a clear line to the basket.

The Nets will also switch screens liberally, which can leave a small defender on a big rebounder. Here’s Alan Anderson trying to box out Johnson after Pierce switched onto DeRozan …

20140425_anderson_switch

Result: A loose-ball foul on Anderson and a second chance for Toronto.

Yes, the Nets play small. Yes, their rebounding got worse when they switched to a small lineup in January. And yes, Patrick Patterson did bully his way into a few of his offensive boards. Size does matter and the Raptors know that they have an advantage inside.

But part of the Nets’ rebounding issue is just a trade-off for being able to force turnovers and keep the initial play out of the paint. The same goes for much of Jonas Valanciunas‘ production (32 points and 32 rebounds through the first two games). When his man hedges hard, he can roll to the basket with only a smaller (help) defender in his way…

20140425_valanciunas_roll

Even when the Nets’ big recovers, Valanciunas will be in better rebounding position. But the Nets’ will probably take another double-double from the Raptors’ center if it means keeping Lowry and DeRozan in check.

Still, a lot of Toronto’s offensive boards in Game 2 were the result of defensive breakdowns. There were a few non-screen situations where a Brooklyn perimeter defender needed help from a big, leaving a Toronto big unchecked. There were a few rebounds that just bounced off the Nets’ hands. And on the screens, the quicker the guard can recover back to his man, the quicker the big can recover back to his. These things can be cleaned up.

“You can’t just say that we’re going to defend one way and just give up rebounds,” Deron Williams said Thursday of the Nets’ scheme. “We can’t afford to do that. We have to defend, and part of getting a stop is finishing with a rebound. Until we do that, we’re going to have some problems.”

The Raptors can say the same about turnovers. While some of their miscues can be chalked up to trying to get the pace in their favor or take advantage of Brooklyn’s scheme, there has been some general sloppiness on the Raptors’ part.

Too often, Toronto’s guards have tried to find a lane where there wasn’t one. And too often, their bigs have tried to put the ball on the floor and make plays for themselves. They all sometimes need a reminder to keep it simple, especially when the Nets are aggressively denying passing lanes.

Making shots may be more important, but rebounds and turnovers will play a role in Game 3. The team that cleans up best should have a 2-1 series lead at the end of the night.