NBA

Utah Jazz back up Donovan Mitchell while Chris Paul runs the show for Houston Rockets

Jay Asser 19/04/2018
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Donovan Mitchell embraces Ricky Rubio after Utah's Game 2 win.

The way the Utah Jazz got back into their opening-round series was, unsurprisingly, through everyone around Donovan Mitchell stepping up.

Utah’s dependable rookie once again led the way, but it was his supporting cast that made the difference in the 102-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2.

Paul George wasn’t a flamethrower this time and Thunder offence as a whole was held in check, but on the other end the Jazz took advantage when the ball was out of Mitchell’s hands.

Oklahoma City continued to employ an aggressive trapping defence against Mitchell for much of the game and though he still got his by scoring 28 points on 10-of-25 shooting, Utah didn’t fall apart when he had to rely on his teammtes.

Ricky Rubio scored 22 points and hit an improbable (for him) 5-of-8 from deep, while Derrick Favors added 20 and hit a pair of 3s of his own.

Outside of Rubio and Favors, the Jazz struggled to shoot from the perimeter, finishing 9-of-29 for the game, but more than made up for it with nifty passing around the paint to exploit 2-on-1 situations after Oklahoma City sent two defenders at Mitchell.

With as much of the scoring burden as Mitchell has to carry, the Thunder will likely continue to force the ball out of his hands and make the rest of the Jazz beat him.

That task for the supporting cast will be tougher when either George or Russell Westbrook are feeling it, but if Utah can keep within striking distance on the strength of their defence, they have enough offensive talent to advance.

Houston, we have no problem

If you want to know the biggest difference between previous iterations of the Houston Rockets and this season’s team, look no further than the 102-82 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 2.

In years past, the Rockets likely wouldn’t have survived hitting just 36.5 per cent from the field and seeing James Harden finish with a modest 12 points on 2-of-18 shooting. Thanks to their underrated defence and the presence of Chris Paul, however, Game 2 against Minnesota wasn’t all that close.

In the regular season, Houston allowed the second-fewest 3-point attempts and makes, while holding opponents to the fourth-lowest shooting percentage from beyond the arc at 31.7.

Their ability to defend the perimeter was on full display in Game 2 as the Timberwolves hit just 5-of-18 triples and struggled to get anything easy.

With Jimmy Butler continuing to look at less than 100 per cent and taking only six shots in 25 minutes, the Rockets shut down Karl-Anthony Towns again as the big man went 2-of-9 for only five points.

Towns averaged 21.3 points on 54.5 per cent shooting in the regular season, but through two games against Houston he’s scoring 6.5 points per game and converting 27.8 per cent from the field. Without him carrying a greater offensive load, the Timberwolves have no chance.

On the other end, with Harden having an off night, Paul filled the role of chief playmaker.

The veteran point guard was at his best to score 27 points on an efficient 10-of-18 shooting, while dishing eight assists.

He wasn’t hitting the same step-back 3s we’ve become accustomed to seeing Harden nail, but he was still cooking Minnesota in isolation and getting to wherever he wanted on the floor.

It’s a tremendous luxury the Rockets have that when their superstar isn’t on his game, they can turn to their other star for similar production.

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NBA

LeBron James has to do it all for Cleveland Cavaliers to squeak out series-evening win over Indiana Pacers

Jay Asser 19/04/2018
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LeBron James was not going to fall into an 0-2 hole.

There have been games in James’ spectacular career in which he has willed his team to victory and shown the type of body language that makes it clear he’s not losing on that day.

Game 2 against the Indiana Pacers was one of those moments.

After falling behind in the opening round for the first time in his career – and suffering his first round one loss since 2012 – James responded by dominating with a 46-point effort to even series.

He scored the game’s first 16 points and had 29 at halftime – the second-most points he’s scored in a playoff half, behind only his monster performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics in 2012.

Despite James’ individual brilliance, however, only three points separated the Cavaliers and Pacers when the final buzzer sounded on the 100-97 result.

So while Game 2 proved James is still as impactful of a singular force as there is in basketball, it also showed that LeBron may have to do it all if Cleveland are to go far in the playoffs.

Tyronn Lue’s switch to put Kyle Korver in the starting lineup paid off as the sharpshooter contributed 12 points by hitting 4-of-8 from deep, but aside from him and Kevin Love – who had an inefficient 15 points on 16 shots and suffered a thumb injury – James received little help.

Indiana could have just as well left Cleveland with a 2-0 lead, but they didn’t help their own cause by finishing 6-of-22 from long range, committing 17 turnovers – leading to 18 Cavaliers’ points – and sitting Victor Oladipo too long after he picked up two early fouls.

Oladipo ended up playing only 28 minutes, scoring 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting, but the Pacers were plus-11 with him in the lineup. When he was sitting, Indiana were outscored by 14 points and saw their net rating drastically drop from 14.3 to minus-35.2.

The All-Star also had a clean look at a potential tying 3-pointer with 27.5 seconds left, but missed the mark as Cleveland survived.

Even against James, the Pacers have been the better team when their best player has been on the court. They can take solace in that as the series shifts to Indiana for Game 3 and 4.

So while LeBron’s heroics may be needed regularly going forward, they also might not guarantee anything for the Cavaliers.

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Dwyane Wade turns up the Heat as pressure shifts to Philadelphia 76ers while return of Joel Embiid looms

Jay Asser 17/04/2018
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Dwyane Wade had 28 points in 26 minutes off the bench for Miami.

Everyone knew a Dwyane Wade game was coming at some point – it just happened to come before the series shifted back to Miami as the Heat stole home court advantage from the Philadelphia 76ers.

Wade turned back the clock to produce the kind of playoff performance he once delivered with regularity in his prime, scoring 28 points in just 26 minutes off the bench to even the first-round series in Miami’s 113-103 win.

It was the 76ers’ first loss in over a month and ended their 17-game winning streak.

With the Heat in need of some offensive punch, the 36-year-old Wade stepped up to shoot an efficient 11-of-16 from the field, proving he still has some big-time shot-making left in the tank, even if it’s become a rarer sight in the twilight of his career.

However, as much as Wade reminded what he’s capable of, Philadelphia shouldn’t overreact and remain in a favourable position control the series.

For one, it will be difficult for Wade to play that well again.

In Game 2, he was automatic in the mid-range, making 7-of-8 from the area, while hitting all three of his fadeaways. For the season, Wade shot just 33.5 per cent on mid-range and 34.4 per cent on fadeaways, so it’s likely he regresses to the mean next game.

Speaking of regressing to the mean, the 76ers should see a positive regression when it comes to their outside shooting.

It’s unlikely they’ll make a blistering 18-of-28 triples and score 130 points on Miami’s stout defence again, but they’re also unlikely to hit just 7-of-36 from long range going forward.

Philadelphia ranked 10th in the league in 3-point percentage during the season, converting at a 36.9 per cent clip, and they shot 39.5 per cent during their 17-game winning streak.

The Heat are stingy when it comes to guarding the 3-ball as they ranked sixth in both opponent attempts and makes during the season, but the 76ers have chosen to be aggressive from beyond the arc in the series by surrounding Ben Simmons with knock-down shooters.

Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Robert Covington and Marco Belinelli combined to hit 17-of-27 in Game 1. They collectively struggled in the loss, taking and making all of Philadelphia’s treys.

But even when they’re not connecting to the extent they were in the opener, the 76ers’ shooters provide spacing for Simmons to operate as a scorer, offering an uncluttered paint to attack downhill.

The point guard had 24 points in Game 2 on 10-of-17 from the field and continued to overcome Miami’s strategy of giving him ample space to dare him to shoot.

Philadelphia’s offence may have a different look in Miami, but it would be a welcomed change as Joel Embiid could return to the court after recovering from a broken orbital bone.

The All-Star centre has been sidelined since March 28 and took to social after Game 2 to show his frustration at not yet being cleared to play.

“F****** sick and tired of being babied,” Embiid posted on his Instagram story.

Embiid, of course, has been treated with caution by the franchise after dealing with multiple injuries at the start of his career.

When he’s on the floor though, the 76ers are a much better team, posting a 41-22 record in games he played in the regular season and a 11-8 mark when he was out.

“When you’re seeking to become a whole team, you need Joel Embiid,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said after Game 2.

While Hassan Whiteside has barely been a factor so far in the series, playing a total of 27 minutes, the 76ers could use Embiid on both ends to alleviate pressure.

With the way Miami have hounded the ball defensively and made Philadelphia work, Embiid would be a release valve in the post, as well as someone who can create shots for others. And on the other end of the floor, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate would thwart the Heat’s slashing.

Whenever Embiid returns, the 76ers will receive a boost, but in the meantime they’re more than capable of stealing back home court.

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