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Denver Nuggets’ Michael Malone calls out starting unit after blowout loss to Blazer

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It’s not unusual for Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone to tell it like it is and he put it quite bluntly again after a 115-95 loss in Game 4 to the Portland Trail Blazers.

“Our starters were awful,” he said. “I thought we had some guys that were tentative, that looked a little scared, who played soft… we’re going to have to be a lot better going home.”

The Nuggets fell behind early in Game 4, a developing trend in the series that they overcame in Game 3. But with the Blazers bottling up Denver’s offense, along with newfound balanced scoring, the margin widened in the third quarter, eventually turning into a full-fledged blowout as Portland evened the series, 2-2.

“The urgency has to be there. Maybe this will be a wake-up call for our starting group just to play harder,” Malone said. “Good things happen when we play hard and we didn’t play anywhere close to hard enough tonight.”

The Nuggets starters were outscored 49-26 in Game 4, shot just 30% from the field and allowed Portland to shoot 65% when they were on the floor.

“Their starters beat us by a lot and we didn’t respond well,” Nikola Jokic said. “We need to be much better.”

What’s shocking about the loss — and the final score — is it came in spite of Damian Lillard making just one shot in 31 minutes. Lillard finished 1-10 from the floor, his lone bucket coming on a step-back 3 in the first half. He did make an impact in other ways, dishing out 10 assists to go along with 8 rebounds.

It was a collection of Blazers that made up for Lillard’s lack of scoring, with Norman Powell tying a playoff career-high with 29 points on 11-15 shooting, CJ McCollum scoring 21 and Jusuf Nurkic adding 17.

“If you would’ve told me going in that Damian Lillard was going to be 1-10 from the field and we’re going to get blown out, I probably would’ve had a hard time believing that,” Malone said.

The attention Lillard draws is enormous, with the Nuggets sending multiple defenders and schemes at him at all times. An adjustment in Game 2 to put the bigger Aaron Gordon on Lillard was a game-changer in that game, but he has since responded with 37 points in Game 3. But as Denver dedicated its defense to making it difficult for Lillard, he stayed committed to making extra passes and moving the ball, especially with the way his teammates were playing.

“When the game is going like that, I just try to manage the game and make sure it goes right,” he said. “Obviously I’m going to still try to find my spots and not get too passive, and I didn’t shoot the ball well, but once I saw guys had it going and we had a good flow to the game and we were defending, I knew I wasn’t going to have to force my way into it.

“If it came down to it I knew I’d put my head down a little bit more and start to search a little more, but when guys step up and are feeling good and making shots, and we’re winning the game with what we’re doing, my job is to understand that and manage it and ride that out.”

It’s the lowest field goal percentage for Lillard (10%) in a Blazers win since 2015, and the lowest field goal percentage ever for Lillard in his postseason career. Asked if the Nuggets at least executed a positive defensive gameplan against Lillard, Malone didn’t want to acknowledge it.

“There’s no silver linings when you get your ass kicked in a playoff game,” he said. “I can’t believe we’re actually talking about playing hard in a playoff game. That should be a given.”

With the Blazers up 20 or more for basically the entire second half, there was no call for Dame Time — Lillard spent most of the fourth on the bench.

“I didn’t have to come out and try to score 50 points or just dominate the game and have a hero performance or nothing like that. It was just like, our team needed to have a really good game,” he said. “We defended on a string, our communication was on point, our execution of the scouting report was on point and on the offensive end the ball was just hopping around.”

The Blazers made some rotational adjustments, going small in their second unit with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson taking Enes Kanter‘s minutes, along with tweaking their pick-and-roll coverage to try and stay tighter to Denver’s ball-handlers.

Their approach throughout the series, though, has been to go with largely single coverage on Jokic, forcing the presumptive MVP to turn into a scorer rather than a typical full offensive buffet of scoring and passing. Nurkic matched minutes with Jokic, and after fouling out in the previous two games, stayed out of foul trouble in Game 4.

After logging just one assist for the second time in four games, Jokic has just 12 total for the series, tied for his fewest in any four-game span (regular-season or playoffs) in the last three seasons.

According to Second Spectrum, Jokic had only two potential assists in Game 4 (shots that would’ve been credited with an assist if it went in), the fewest potential assists in a game over the last four seasons. Nurkic’s presence was a big part of it as he held the Nuggets to 5-17 shooting as the primary defender in Game 4.

“I hear some clowns saying I’m the worst defensive player in the league, so I don’t know, I don’t know if I can talk about defense if some guy, some clown out there saying I’m one of the worst one in the league,” Nurkic said. “I’m trying to figure out am I playing defense, or did they miss shots?”

With the series back to even, it transitions to a best of three with Game 5 in Denver on Tuesday.

“If the effort and energy isn’t going to be now, when is it going to be?” Jokic said. “I think that every player needs to take that on himself and that cannot even be a question.”

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Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday seals Game 5 win with clutch steal, alley-oop pass

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PHOENIX — As Suns star Devin Booker drove into the lane inside the final 30 seconds of Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday night, it felt like it was about to be a storybook moment. The Suns were trailing by one, and Booker — who had already hit 40 points for a second straight game — looked ready to push Phoenix back into the lead.

But then, out of nowhere, Jrue Holiday appeared.

“I was just trying to score the ball,” Booker said. “[Holiday] was behind me. I turned and he was right there.”

And, as Booker spun back toward the middle of the court, Holiday got his hands on the ball, popped it up in the air and caught it.

“I guess I was just in the right place at the right time,” Holiday said.

Then, after taking four dribbles and moving into the frontcourt, he lofted a picture-perfect alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim for an emphatic dunk plus a foul.

“The pass was all about trust,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, he could have pulled the ball out, let the clock run and get a good shot. But he trusted me, threw the ball out there, and we were able to get a bucket.”

And just like that, the Bucks went from being on the ropes to in control of the NBA Finals in a span of less than four seconds. A few moments later, Milwaukee emerged with a 123-119 victory over Phoenix, pushing the Bucks to within one win of their first NBA title in a half-century.

Game 6 is Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum.

“Going home to our fans, going home to Milwaukee is a great opportunity for us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But you have to go out and play. It’s at this point, you could feel it tonight, the high-level basketball on both sides of it.

“It’s going to be the same in Game 6. Both teams are going to come out, expect really, really good basketball. We’re going to have to compete defensively and we’re going to have to make plays, play together. It’s more about that. But to be going home to our fans, Fiserv has been rocking. It’s been huge for us, and we’re excited about our opportunity in Game 6.”

When the Milwaukee Bucks sent a bushel of draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for Holiday in the offseason, he was seen as the missing piece that would finally allow Milwaukee to find the postseason breakthrough it had been waiting for.

Saturday night, that was exactly what Holiday proved to be. He bounced back from a dreadful start to the series offensively with 27 points and 13 assists and continued to be a terror defensively, picking Booker’s pocket not only on that play late in the fourth quarter, but also midway through the third, when he buried a 3-pointer on the left wing as part of a Milwaukee run that broke the game open.

It was a complete, two-way performance from Holiday, long considered one of the NBA’s best two-way guards, and a validation of Milwaukee’s decision to go all-in on him after his predecessor, Eric Bledsoe, had failed in these situations as the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs as the East’s top seed each of the past two seasons.

“I saw it in Portland, when he was in New Orleans and we got swept in the first round,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said. “Just the way he defends on a nightly basis and the way that he’s able to do it in different ways. He’s physical, he’s quick, he’s strong. He’s got a lot of things to him. And he’s got quick hands.

“First Team All-Defense play. It was a Defensive Player of the Year [play]. It just kind of shows we’re built on defense. The last two games, we’ve had a big defensive stop to kind of push us over the hump, and they have been made by a guy who is First Team All-Defense.”

Entering Game 5, however, a Holiday offensive explosion didn’t appear to be in the cards. His shooting had been a talking point throughout the series, thanks to him shooting 34.8 percent through the first four games, including a 4-for-20 performance in Game 4.

Still, Holiday said that isn’t anything he’ll carry with him into the next game.

“Doesn’t really cross my mind,” he said. “I feel like at the end of the day, whatever I can do to help my team is most important. I went 4-for-20 the game before and we still won, and I know I can do other things to affect the game. I know when my shot is going and I’m trying to make plays for others, it is definitely an added bonus.

After Milwaukee managed to pull out Game 4, thanks to some incredible heroics from Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton down the stretch, Antetokounmpo said he believed in Holiday and trusted him to make the right plays going forward to lead the Bucks to victories.

Holiday repaid that confidence — and then some — with his performance Saturday night.

He opened the game with a mid-range jumper that hit nothing but net, a good sign for his confidence. But after a couple of quick baskets, Holiday exited the game with two fouls with 6:42 to go in the first quarter.

At that point, with the Bucks trailing by 5, Jeff Teague checked into the game. The Suns repeatedly targeted him and went on a 21-10 run to take a 16-point lead after one.

But then, with Antetokounmpo on the bench after playing the entire first quarter, Holiday proceeded to take over. As Milwaukee stormed back into the game, outscoring Phoenix 43-24 to take the lead going into halftime, it was Holiday who willed the Bucks back into it. He scored 14 points while going 6-for-7 from the field in the second quarter alone.

“I thought there was a couple stops and he was able to get to some good spots,” Budenholzer said. “Brook [Lopez] and Bobby [Portis] screening for him in transition. It starts with our defense. I thought that group played really well defensively. [Pat] Connaughton hit some big 3s in that stretch.

“They made every shot in the first quarter. We felt like it could balance out.”

It did — and then some — across the second and third quarters. The Bucks shot 32-for-45 overall and 10-for-17 from 3-point range on their way to outscoring the Suns 79-53, completely flipping the game in their favor, even as Booker was doing his best to match Milwaukee’s scoring by himself.

For as good as Holiday was, he wasn’t alone. After the home team had won each of the first four games of this series, the Bucks came alive on the road in Game 5 to break that trend. Middleton had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 41 minutes. Antetokounmpo had another routinely dominant performance, finishing with 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists. And Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton chipped in a combined 23 points and six 3-pointers off the bench.

“It makes everything more balanced and makes life easier for everybody,” Middleton said of the team-wide offensive attack. “Knowing that we play together and we have everybody clicking on all cylinders, we’re tough to guard.

“Obviously on defense, we can click. We can switch and we know how to have each other’s back. But when we are all playing well, we’re one of the best teams, for sure.”

Even with all of that, however, the Suns didn’t go down without a fight. The Bucks led by 10 with 3:25 remaining and eight with 2:23 to go, only for the Suns to then rattle off seven straight points, while Middleton missed a pair of jumpers, Holiday missed another and Antetokounmpo bricked a pair of free throws.

All of that set the Suns up with a chance to win the game when Booker brought it over halfcourt with 30 seconds to go. Instead, it turned into the moment Holiday proved he was worth everything the Bucks gave up to go get him.

Now, he and the Bucks have to do it one more time to win the title.

“I feel like now, you’ve got to give it your all,” Holiday said. “We’re literally coming down to the last game, game or two.

“At this point, there’s no excuses.”

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Phoenix Suns drop third straight, look to ‘regroup’ trailing 3-2 in NBA Finals

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PHOENIX — If there ever was a time for Monty Williams to come up with one of the adages he has been heralded for, it was after his Phoenix Suns123-119 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday.

The defeat was Phoenix’s third in a row on the Finals stage after the coach’s group had dropped three in a row just once all season, back in January. And it came in excruciating fashion: The Suns squandered an early 16-point cushion and fell down 14 in the fourth, only to have their chance to take the lead back in the final minute go awry.

So Williams kept his message matter-of-fact, looking ahead to Tuesday’s Game 6 in Milwaukee, with the Bucks up 3-2 in the series.

“We got to win one game to put them back on the plane,” he said. “That’s it. And you have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane.”

Devin Booker followed up 42 points in Game 4 with 40 points in Game 5, becoming the first player in Finals history to lose back-to-back games in which he went for 40-plus points. He needed one more play to go his way.

Booker grabbed the rebound off a Jrue Holiday miss with 29.2 seconds remaining in the fourth and pushed it up the floor, with the Suns trailing just 120-119 after a 12-3 run in the previous three minutes.

Booker advanced all the way to the heart of the paint before picking up his dribble. After his pump fake to get P.J. Tucker off his feet didn’t provide Booker enough space to get off a close-range shot because Giannis Antetokounmpo hustled over to help on defense, the Suns shooting guard tried to recalibrate.

But right as Booker tried to pivot to create some room and swung his left shoulder, Holiday was waiting on his hip, out of Booker’s peripheral vision, and lunged at the ball, stripping it away from Phoenix’s young star.

“I was just trying to score the ball. He was behind me,” Booker said afterward. “I turned and he was right there.”

The Suns had been 7-of-10 from the field with zero turnovers on possessions when Booker drove to the basket in Game 5 prior to the Holiday steal, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

Holiday timed his swipe perfectly and started the Bucks on a break, threading a ready-made alley-oop pass to Antetokounmpo that he dunked home, while absorbing a foul from Chris Paul, who pushed Antetokounmpo in midair.

“A great play by Jrue,” Williams said. “I don’t have any other words for that one.”

The game wasn’t quite over yet, as the slam put Milwaukee ahead 122-119 with 13.5 seconds remaining and an ensuing Antetokounmpo and-1 free throw to come.

The two-time MVP missed, as he did with seven of his 11 free throw attempts on Saturday, but Antetokounmpo tapped his own board back to Khris Middleton, who was fouled and tacked on another free throw to put the game out of reach for Phoenix.

Much like Game 4, when the Suns were doomed by 17 turnovers and 17 offensive rebounds allowed, it was a turnover and an offensive rebound yielded that tripped them up in Game 5 too.

“That was a horrible miss,” said Suns center Deandre Ayton, who was lined up to try to secure the rebound and couldn’t get a hand on it. “It was just an athletic play, you know; he tipped it behind him knowing that his teammates are there. It was a bad miss.”

The question is whether the series has turned to the point where the Suns will be remembering the 2021 Finals as a missed opportunity for years to come.

“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” said Paul, who bounced back with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 11 assists and just one turnover in Game 5. “We didn’t expect it to be. It’s hard. Coach said it all year long: Everything we want is on the other side of hard, and it don’t get no harder than this.

“So, we got to regroup, learn from this game. But it’s over. We got to get ready for Game 6.”

Trailing for the first time all series — and for just the second time all postseason, after the Los Angeles Lakers had the Suns down 2-1 in the first round before Phoenix then won nine straight playoff games — Game 6 is as much of a must-win game as it gets for the Suns. Phoenix can either force a Game 7 and give itself a chance at the first title in the 53-year history of the franchise or deal with the disappointment of what could have been as the Bucks celebrate a championship on their home court.

“I like it,” Ayton said. “Tables are turned now. Now, we’re the desperate team.”

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One win away, Jrue Holiday and the Milwaukee Bucks are staying the course

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PHOENIX — Jrue Holiday knows what everyone wants him to do. No one needs to tell him to be more aggressive offensively. Or to keep shooting, that his shots will eventually start falling.

“We always kind of throw that out there,” says his father, Shawn Holiday.

But Shawn has coached his son long enough to know how self-observant he is. Coming into Game 5 of these NBA Finals, Holiday had hit just 33% of his shots (23-of-69), including an especially ugly 4-for-20 in Game 4.

“After the game, we might get in the car and say, ‘That’s a rough one,'” Shawn says. “But we really don’t talk about the game much, because he already knows what he has to do.”

Be more aggressive. Keep shooting. Trust that eventually, his shots will fall.

“My dad thinks I’m the best player in the world,” Holiday said with a smile after scoring 27 points, dishing out 13 assists and creating the play of the night with a steal from Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker with 16.7 seconds remaining. A perfect alley-oop to teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo followed to seal the Milwaukee Bucks 123-119 win on Saturday night to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals.

“He just feels like I can do everything — play 48 minutes, I don’t need to come out, I don’t need a break. But really just be aggressive the whole game.”

As Jrue points out, his dad is a bit biased when it comes to him. But Shawn’s message to stay the course is important here.

How many star players could struggle from the field as much as Holiday had before Saturday night and not get down on themselves?

How many would shrug after a 4-for-20 shooting performance and just be happy the team claimed the victory?

“We still won,” Holiday said. “And I know I can do other things to affect the game.”

Like defense.

He’s been phenomenal against Phoenix’s megawatt backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker. According to Second Spectrum, in the 268 matchups where Holiday is the primary defender on Booker or Paul, they’re averaging just 22 points per 100 possessions. Against all other Bucks defenders, the duo is averaging 39.7 points per 100 possessions. Holiday has forced Paul into an uncharacteristic 10 turnovers, and Booker into eight.

One of those turnovers, of course, was the play that ended up deciding Game 5.

The Suns were rallying back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit behind clutch shot-making from Booker, Paul and Mikal Bridges and a succession of three missed free throws by Antetokounmpo.

After Paul cut the lead to 120-119 with 56 seconds to go, Booker had a chance to give the Suns the lead. He drove past P.J. Tucker into the teeth of the Bucks’ defense. Antetokounmpo rotated over to stop his drive, leaving Booker with little choice but to spin away from him.

Holiday had been eyeing the play unfold, while defending Paul near the 3-point arc. He couldn’t leave too early or Booker could find the open Paul. But he couldn’t be late, either, or Booker would’ve had a clean look at a shot out of his spin move.

As it has been so often in this series, Holiday’s timing was perfect. He dropped down as Booker was spinning, ripped the ball out from him without fouling, then rushed down the court on a fast break, where Antetokounmpo was in a full sprint, ready for the alley-oop.

“Honestly it was great team defense,” Holiday said. “I feel like we knew Booker wanted to take that last shot and played great defense on him and made him turn his back and he turned right into me. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”

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Giannis Antetokounmpo walks Malika Andrews through Jrue Holiday’s crucial steal on Devin Booker as the Bucks are on the verge of an NBA title.

Teammate Pat Connaughton was a bit more effusive.

“First Team All-Defense play. It was a Defensive Player of the Year [play],” Connaughton said.

Up in the stands, Shawn and Toya Holiday watched the decisive sequence with a small group of Bucks family members and friends. They’ve been staying with their second-eldest son at his house in Milwaukee throughout these playoffs and traveling to each road game.

They were happy, but not overly so considering their son had just turned in his finest performance in the Bucks’ most important playoff game to date, which has left them one win away from their first title since 1971 with Game 6 Tuesday night in Milwaukee.

“He’s been through this before where his shot’s not falling,” Shawn says. “But people have to understand there’s more to the game than scoring. He’s running the team, controlling the tempo of the game through defense.

“So we just tell him to stay the course.”

Stay the course, and nights like Game 5 happen.

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