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About Last Night: Clippers make history

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The LA Clippers pulled off the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history on Monday, rallying from 31 points down midway through the third quarter to shock the Golden State Warriors in Game 2, 135-131. 

Those are the raw facts, and they speak for themselves. Let it sink in: Greatest comeback in NBA playoff history. 

And yet, those details don’t nearly encapsulate the sheer magnitude of what took place at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, where the two-time defending champions were well on their way to taking a commanding 2-0 lead before the bizarre inconsistencies that have plagued them all season reared their ugly heads once again, at the worst possible time.

“We got exactly what we deserved,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. 

And so did the Clippers, who fought back from 28 and 25 points down to win games during the regular season. 

“This is who we’ve been all season,” Clippers sixth man Lou Williams said. 

Trailing by 31 with 19:31 remaining, they proceeded to outscore the Warriors 72-37 the rest of the way. (Some perspective: That’s only two fewer points than the Indiana Pacers scored during the entirety of their 84-74 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday.) While the Clippers shot 69 percent on their final 39 shots, the Warriors could do almost nothing right, misfiring on 19 of their last 27 attempts — with 14 turnovers. It was a shocking display of carelessness and ineptitude from a team that, at its best, almost seems like it’s playing a different sport. 

Williams fueled the inferno with 26 of his 36 points coming in those final, crucial minutes, while fellow spark plug Montrezl Harrell scored 15 of his 25 in the fourth. 

And what would a Clippers win be without some agitation from Hall-of-Fame irritant Patrick Beverley, who helped limit Kevin Durant to just eight shots in 34 minutes before fouling out. Beverley outdid himself at one point, fouling Durant twice and goading him into a pair of offensive fouls in a span of just 47 seconds.

Beverley fouled out as well, on a flop in which Draymond Green took immense delight. 

 

But it wasn’t too long before the Clippers were the ones doing the celebrating, heading back to Staples Center for Games 3 and 4 with home-court advantage while the Warriors look to pick up the pieces without staring center DeMarcus Cousins, who could be out for an extended period with what Kerr called a “pretty significant” quad injury

“It’s a tough feeling,” said Stephen Curry, who finished with 29 points. “We’re talking to each other, trying to figure out how we’re going to move on and use this as fuel for Game 3. But other than that, it’s just the playoffs. Everything is heightened. You have to lock into the details that separates champions from the rest.”

 

Big Ben delivers

Saturday’s first-round series opener between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets was one Ben Simmons would just as soon forget. 

In addition to struggling through one of his least productive outings of the season (nine points, seven rebounds, three assists), the Sixers All-Star compounded his no-show by lashing out at the Philadelphia faithful for their, shall we say, less-than-enthusiastic reaction as Game 1 slipped away. 

(Translation: They followed a time-honored civic tradition and booed the home team for playing poorly.)

Simmons walked that criticism back, then took matters into his own hands in Game 2 with his second career playoff triple-double as the 76ers unleashed a record-setting rout on the Nets to even the series at 1-1. 

The Sixers shattered franchise playoff marks that had stood for 49 and 52 years, respectively, with 51 points in the third quarter and 145 points overall. Their 51 points tied the Lakers’ 57-year-old record for the most points ever scored in a playoff quarter, and marked only the third time an NBA team has reached the 50-point threshold in a period. 

On the individual level, Simmons racked up 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists to match Wilt Chamberlain (of course) and Charles Barkley as the lone players in team annals with multiple postseason triple-doubles. 

Despite the blowout final, the first half was very much a contest as the Sixers took a slim one-point lead into the break. They could largely thank Simmons for that as he either scored or assisted on 13 of their first 26 field goals. 

He accounted for six more buckets in that blistering third, and the rout was on. At one point during the surge, Simmons delighted the same fans who were expressing their disgust just two days prior by cupping his ear to the crowd like Sixers great Allen Iverson — who, along with Dikembe Mutombo, was in attendance and enjoying the action courtside.

Combined with a handful of other strong performances, including 23 points and 10 rebounds from fellow All-Star Joel Embiid, not even an off night from Jimmy Butler (seven points in 30 minutes) could slow the Sixers machine, or the man who drove it.

“I was thinking about the boos from last game,” Simmons said of his Iverson tribute. “I’ve got a lot of love for this city. I was just showing that. The hustle I try to give every game is not only for my teammates and my family, but for the city.”

 

Ben Simmons racks up the triple-double in Game 2.

 

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UNC’s Little eager to show he’s ready for NBA

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If ever there was a college basketball player built to handle the hype and unrealistic expectations heaped on him by fans and the media, it’s Nassir Little, who recently completed a freshman season/career at North Carolina that many who don’t know him would call star-crossed.

Philosopher Nassir, as teammate and fellow future NBA lottery pick Colby White christened him, would beg to differ.

Little — a 6-foot-6, 220-pound athletic swingman — came to the Tar Heels as the No. 2 player in the class of 2018, ahead of even Duke’s Zion Williamson and just behind the Blue Devils’ R.J. Barrett. Little was just the fifth player at the time to be chosen MVP of the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand all-star games. He was destined to, as Little says, “come in, start, average 15 to 20 points and play 35 minutes. That’s what people probably expected me to do.”

Instead, Little played behind Carolina stalwarts Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams, battled illness and injury and wound up the subject of scrutiny that has dogged him even into last week’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, from which a major website ran a story that misconstrued the meaning of a comment he made. The story essentially said he passed the blame for a supposed underwhelming season on to his coaches at UNC.

In Little’s mind, there’s no blame to place, as he said in another interview, this with NBA.com. Little’s season — he averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds — was the one he was supposed to have.

Like anyone else with even a casual interest in college basketball, Little was well aware how Williamson — he of the Tar Heels’ archrival — emerged this season to become the national player of the year and the certain No. 1 pick in next month’s NBA Draft. Williams and Barrett were both first-team All-Americans. Little averaged 18.2 minutes a game, and people who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the Carolina program wondered what went wrong.

“This season was all about learning lessons,” Little says. “I think what people don’t see is how much I learned, and the kind of experience I was able to gain. My entire life, I was a starter. I got all the shots. Now I know how to be effective in different roles.

“That’s something I can use going to the NBA, where everybody’s talented. I think that gives me an advantage. Now I know how to come in off the bench and affect the game.”

Little proved as much as his freshman season progressed and he found his place in the Tar Heels’ rotation.

“I’ve been telling you guys all along that he’s coming,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams told the media late in the season. “He’s coming, but it’s just some guys, it takes them a little while to get more comfortable than other guys. The defensive end of the floor is what I’ll point to again.”

It wasn’t just Williams who noticed Little’s comfort level had risen.

“He is showing more and more now toward the end of the year why people thought he was one of the top players in the country coming out of high school,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after a late-February game in which Little contributed 18 points and eight boards. “I wasn’t surprised he played as well as he is capable of playing. We expected that. He is an outstanding kid. I know him very well. He has high character and is loaded with talent.”

Little might not have been a first-team All-American, or All-Atlantic Coast Conference, as Williamson and Barrett where, but he was just the fifth freshman in North Carolina history to make the ACC All-Academic team. His fall semester GPA was 3.9. Again, to anyone who knows Little, this was no surprise. He was the salutatorian of his high school class after compiling a 4.2 GPA.

This takes us back to Colby White’s nickname for his teammate. Philosopher Nassir has been a deep thinker as far back as he can remember.

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With Kawhi less than 100 percent, Raptors’ bench shines in Game 4

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TORONTO — It’s not clear what the injury is, and there has been no word from the Toronto Raptors. But Kawhi Leonard is most certainly dealing with some sort of leg ailment in these Eastern Conference finals. The most clear indication of that was a pronounced limp after he dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Raptors’ second possession of the third quarter Tuesday night.

Given how much the Raptors have depended on their star in this postseason, a hobbled Leonard, coming off a career-high 52 minutes in Game 3, would seemingly be a harbinger of doom. But the Raptors of Game 4 were not the Raptors of the conference semifinals, when contributions from the Toronto supporting cast were few and far between.

Those Raptors, in the second half of a desperate Game 4 win in Philadelphia, basically went six deep. Those Raptors had just seven guys see the floor in all of Game 7, with Norman Powell getting DNP’d with the season on the line.

The Raptors that won this Game 4 by a score of 120-102 were carried by their bench. With Leonard limited and the team desperate to avoid a 3-1 hole in the series, Powell (18), Fred VanVleet (13) and Serge Ibaka (17) combined for 48 points and we’re heading back to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday.

At this time of year, you take the wins any way you can get them. But a comfortable victory that comes with good execution and effort on both ends of the floor is nice, no? And it’s obviously a lot more reassuring to know that you have eight guys, instead of five or six, that you can count on to make plays and shoot with confidence when the call comes their way.

 

Toronto’s reserves were the difference-makers in Game 4.

“It’s just a different series,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the fluctuation play of his bench. “And it’s been really interesting for me to see how things change so much from series to series.”

From game to game, really. VanVleet gave the Raptors important minutes when Kyle Lowry fouled out of Game 3, and he did hit a big shot late in the fourth quarter of that overtime victor. But he still entered Game 4 having shot a brutal 6-for-42 (including 3-for-24 from 3-point range) over the last nine games.

On Tuesday, VanVleet drained a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer just eight seconds after checking in for the first time. He would go on to shoot 5-for-6, connecting on all three of his shots from beyond the arc, including a bank shot from the right wing when everything seemed to be going right for the Raptors early in the fourth quarter. He added six assists on a night that the Raptors had 32 assists on their 41 buckets, their second highest rate of the postseason.

Early in that Philadelphia series, Toronto was better offensively when they didn’t move the ball, because Leonard was so efficient shooting off the dribble and his teammates weren’t shooting with any confidence. But the way the offense looked on Tuesday, with everybody getting touches, is likely more sustainable, even against the league’s No. 1 defense. And despite the injury (and fatigue), Leonard was still able to get into the paint. He had a team-high 14 drives in Game 4, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

“The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention,” Lowry said of Leonard. “We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”

 

Serge Ibaka and the Raptors brought the energy in Game 4 to even the series.

But while the Raptors were still feeding off Leonard, they knew they needed to support him more than they had been. In fact, they didn’t run a single action for Leonard until their 12th possession of the game. And while the other starters did their part — Lowry finished with a team-high 25 points and Marc Gasol drained three 3-pointers (making him 7-for-14 from beyond the arc over the last two games) — it was the bench that really turned things up.

Powell, the guy who played just four total minutes in Games 4 and 7 against Philadelphia, has emerged as a difference maker in this series. He has totaled 51 points over the last three games, shooting 5-for-10 on corner threes and providing some much-needed juice off the dribble.

“There’s some speed we need there with Norman,” Nurse said. “There’s some athleticism we need there with Serge. And there’s some ball handling and running the club with Fred that we need.

“It’s really them playing up to their capabilities.”

Ibaka grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and also hit what was probably the biggest shot of the night. With about three minutes left to go in the second quarter, the Raptors had gone through five straight scoreless possessions and the Bucks had cut what was a 10-point deficit down to four. Ibaka set a ball screen screen for Kyle Lowry and then popped out for a 20-foot jumper from the right side of the key. He drained it and Milwaukee never got that close again.

The points from the bench were nice, but just as important was getting stops on the other end of the floor.

“First of all,” Nurse said, “I want them to come in and hold their own defensively and execute the defensive schemes, and I didn’t see many problems there. They were able to guard a bunch of different people.”

Playing well on both ends of the floor, the reserves pushed the game in the right direction. Powell was a plus-29 in 32 minutes, VanVleet a plus-25 in 25, and Ibaka a plus-24 in 24. Those are the three best single-game plus-minus marks in this round of the playoffs.

The trio was playing so well that, with his team up 13, Nurse dared to begin the fourth quarter with Leonard, Lowry and Pascal Siakam all on the bench. And instead of the lead shrinking, it grew to 20 points before a pair of Khris Middleton buckets forced Nurse to call timeout with 7:23 to go.

After playing 52 minutes in Game 3, Leonard played 34 on Tuesday. Siakam went from 51 minutes in Game 3 to just 23 in Game 4. And the pair combined for just 26 of the Raptors’ 120 points.

The Bucks are betting that the Raptors can’t pull off another performance like this.

 

The ‘Inside The NBA’ crew break down how crucial Toronto’s bench was in Game 4.

“We want the other guys to take shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep being aggressive defensively on Kawhi, try to limit his shots. But at the end of the day, if guys come off the bench they knock down shots, we’ve got to live with it. We’re doing our job.”

The Raptors, meanwhile, hope this is just the beginning.

“The biggest part is for our team to see how much success we can have when we play that way,” VanVleet said. “It’s not about me as an individual. Those same shots, if they go in, great, if they don’t, we gotta keep taking them. I think that just trying to build on what we did as a team offensively, is the biggest part. Individually, that stuff comes and goes.”

It’s now a three-game series to see who’s going to The Finals. The Bucks have two of the remaining three games at home, but the Raptors have led for 61 percent of the minutes over the first four. And they now have some life off of what looked like a very shallow bench just 10 days ago. In addition to more firepower, a deeper bench creates more versatility.

“One minute you say, oh, man, our big lineup is the answer,” Nurse said. “Then maybe a couple, seven days later, it’s not. It’s the smaller lineup or some faster guys out there that’s the answer. That’s been interesting to see.

“But each game is its own entity … Let’s see if those guys can bring that same pop and focus, determination on the road.”

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
 



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Raptors take advantage of Bucks’ defensive lapses in Game 4

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TORONTO — Mike Budenholzer wasted no time in identifying the Milwaukee Bucks’ fatal flaw Tuesday night in their Game 4 loss to Toronto, a defeat that essentially cut the Eastern Conference finals now to a best-of-three mini-series. 

“I think this is probably the first night defensively where I don’t feel like we were close to where you need to be to give ourselves a chance,” Budenholzer said. 

He didn’t specify whether he meant against this particular opponent, so far in the 2019 postseason or across the expanse of the 95 games the Bucks have played since late October. 

So let’s just say they were shoddy and haphazard enough in falling 120-102 at Scotiabank Arena to have undermined all three. 

Limiting this to the playoffs, the Bucks’ work defensively ranked as their low point in 13 games against Toronto, Boston or Detroit. Their 125.0 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was their worst by a wide margin; it was 110.9 when they lost to the Celtics in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. 

Their three previous efforts against Toronto in this series were 101.0 in Game 2, 98.3 in Game 3 and 98.0 in the opener. 

Not to go decimal-point crazy here, but Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding percentage (68.8 percent) also was their playoff worst. They’d been far more conscientious on the boards in Games 1 (78.3), 2 (83.0) and 3 (78.5). 

Meanwhile, the Raptors looked awfully prosperous at the Bucks’ expense. It was Toronto’s second-best night of the postseason in offensive rating, in offensive rebound percentage and in assist percentage (78.0). 

None of the above is supposed to happen against the NBA’s top-ranked defense overall in 2018-19. 

“A little bit of everything,” was how forward Nikola Mirotic explained the Game 4 unraveling. “Rotation. Defensive transition as well — we didn’t show the crowd as we usually do. They beat us on the boards tonight.” 

Said backup guard George Hill: “They’re getting a lot of open looks. They’re driving the ball hard. They’re moving the ball very well. We’ve just got to match their energy and match that style of play.” 

There are two sides to these coins, and the Bucks were quick to credit Toronto’s players for the offensive prowess they showed. The Raptors’ three reserves in coach Nick Nurse’s eight-man rotation — Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet– outscored the four bench guys in Budenholzer’s current rotation, 48-19. 

Having more scorers in rhythm stretched Milwaukee’s defense in ways that the Bucks, reduced to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as a two-headed threat, did not. And missing more than 70 percent of your 3-pointers — the Bucks have bricked 115 of 164 in the series — can fuel the other team’s transition game. 

“I’m not sure a lot of [Toronto’s big shots] were necessarily Kawhi Leonard-centric,” Budenholzer said. 

Said Middleton, who had his finest offensive game of the series with 30 points but was just as culpable as his teammates defensively: “We didn’t really take away one thing from them. For the most part, they got anything they wanted, from the paint to the blocks to the mid-range to the threes.” 

Milwaukee’s defensive formula all season has been to limit the opponents’ success near the rim, challenge them at the arc and limit their trips to the line. Well, the Raptors matched the Bucks in paint scoring with 40 points. They outscored their guests by nine points on 3-pointers, And they shot 27 free throws, making 24. 

All against a defense that had led the NBA in opponents’ field-goal percentage (43.3) and in fewest points allowed on free throws (an average of 15.1 per game). 

It might be natural for foul totals to creep up in the playoffs, when teams get more physical and no one wants to yield easy buckets. It’s understandable, too, that a team playing from behind most of the night can get desperate simply to end the other guys’ possession and get the ball back, which also leads to fouls. 

“There are some that are going to happen, but there also are some fouls we need to be smarter about,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “I mean, try to be better. Get there earlier. We have to be a step quicker. We have to do a few things smarter when it comes to reaching. Just overall be a little bit more mentally tough.” 

Connaughton played fewer than 14 minutes. But he was part of the meltdown too, with the Bucks outscored by 16 in his limited appearance. He and several teammates dismissed the possibility — an ominous one, frankly– that the Raptors have unlocked the Bucks’ defensive code and now can attack them at will. 

But that doesn’t mean there are leaks in need of plugging, pronto. 

“Part of it starts with just making sure we stick to our core values,” Connaughton said. “There were times we had a few breakdowns where they ended up getting layups. We’ve been a great defensive team all year and one of the reasons is because we don’t allow layups. We have each other’s back, we scramble, things of that nature. 

“It seemed like they had a few open layups. They had a few wide-open threes. When we’re at our best, we’re putting pressure on everybody. We’re scrambling. It’s not gonna be perfect [but] our strength is the athleticism and tenacity we play with on the defensive end. Tonight it seemed like they ended up with a few looks that we don’t usually allow.” 

Time and time again, the Raptors stayed patient to keep the ball moving in search of good, better and best shots. The Bucks also got caught chasing the ball, or ganging up two or three defenders on the ball handler until he dropped a little pass to an open mate. 

“And it seemed there were a few times where they found the open guy after we collapsed on defense,” Connaughton said. “When we were able to run him off, they found the next guy. That’s when there wasn’t another [Bucks defender] to go. When we are at our best, we have more communication. We have a better sense of who’s flying at who. We get back in the play.” 

Connaughton spoke as well about Raptors blowing by him and the Bucks’ other on-ball defenders. If it wasn’t Kyle Lowry or VanVleet, it was Leonard slipping away from Middleton to receive a bounce pass for a layup or dunk. 

“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping guys out of the lane so we don’t have to help as much,” Connaughton said. “But when we do have to help, we have to make sure we’re scrambling as well as we have all season. 

“There are plenty of clips throughout the season where we’ve had a guy running someone off the [3-point] line, and then all of a sudden he’s got a contest three passes later when it’s swung on the wing. That’s what we’ve got to get back to.” 

That’s what the Bucks’ season might come down to.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
 



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