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NBA PM: Utah Has Some Hope Against Heavily Favored Warriors

The Warriors are heavily favored against Utah but the Jazz have some factors in their favor, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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On May 2, 2017, the Golden State Warriors will host the Utah Jazz for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The Jazz come into the match up after closing out the Los Angeles Clippers in a commanding Game 7 victory on the road at Staples Center. In contrast, the Warriors long ago finished a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers on April 24.

In all time head-to-head match ups, the Jazz have won 104 of 177 total regular season games. Consider this to be the only place where the Jazz can claim just about any sort of edge between the two franchises. In the playoffs, the Warriors have won two of the three series match ups. The last time two franchises met, they also played in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2007. In that match up, the Jazz defeated the Warriors in five games and took down the “We Believe” Warriors, who had just upset the first-seeded Dallas Mavericks. In a quest to avenge the past as the team marches forward, the Warriors will be hosting many players from the “We Believe” team and honoring their historic upset of the Mavericks (before being eliminated by the Jazz).

Ten years later the two teams meet again and this time, the Jazz are the severe underdogs. In fact, the odds are out from Vegas and they are astonishingly bad for the Jazz. Notably, the Warriors come into this series after winning each of their regular season games against the Jazz by an average of 18 points.

Of all playoff teams so far, the Warriors have the league’s lowest turnover percentage, the highest true shooting percentage, the second-highest team assist percentage and are third in offensive rating. In addition, the Warriors currently sport a dominating plus/minus of 18 in four playoff games. The team does a great job of executing their sets, moving the ball without turning it over and scoring a lot of points efficiently. Simply put, they win and they win by a lot.

Based on plus/minus, the Warriors possess the top three two-man lineups — including combinations of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — the top-two three-man lineups if you add in in Zaza Pachulia and the top five four-man lineups when you add in Kevin Durant to the mix. The starting five for the Warriors, in almost any combination, has been unstoppable.

Although the majority of the Warriors’ best players are perimeter players, the team as a whole does a great job of getting to the rim and scoring. In the playoffs, they shoot 30 shots a game at the rim (five feet or less, and ranked 2nd among teams still in the playoffs) and are shooting 60.8 percent (tied for 4th) on those shots. That is in addition to their hot shooting on perimeter shots (3rd place on shots from 20-24 feet and from 25-29 feet). The Warriors score all over the floor, which includes getting to the rim at a high rate. That puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, which Portland experienced firsthand in the first round.

After only needing four games to dispatch the Trail Blazers, the Warriors come into this series well rested and presumably well prepared. They are hungry to avenge their stunning Finals collapse last season and are ready to quickly dispatch any team on their way to a presumed rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a historic third Finals match up in a row.

It’s clear that the Jazz are not only the underdog in this series, but are over-matched talent wise and face astonishingly bad odds in this series. So what can the Jazz do to maximize their odds? Follow Head Coach Quin Snyder’s game plan and execute their offense at their usual methodical pace. As stated above, the Warriors haven’t played since April 24. If the long layoff causes the Warriors to have a slow start to Game 1, perhaps the Jazz can take advantage and jump out to an early lead.

In the regular season, the Jazz played at the league’s slowest pace and the Warriors played at the fourth fastest pace. In the playoffs, of the teams remaining, only the San Antonio Spurs play at a slower pace than Utah so far, while the Warriors play at the fastest pace. In sum, there is a huge contrast in style between these teams. The Warriors want to run up and down the floor and if given the chance will blow a game wide open and look to run up the score, while the Jazz will try to muck up the game with defensive pressure.

In the regular season, the Jazz posted the league’s third-best defensive rating, just behind the Warriors and Spurs, which helped make them a sleeper choice for playoff success. While the Warriors have maintained their overall excellence (first among all playoff teams) with a net rating of 18.3, the Jazz have fallen off their pace (seventh of all playoff teams) with a net rating of 1.8.

Even if the Jazz can execute on offense and slow the game down, they will need to return to the high level of defensive excellence that marked their regular season play. However, part of that formula may be out of their control. The Jazz were able to rely on a healthy Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert in 81 of 82 regular season games. Although he has since returned from a hyper-extended knee in Game 1, Gobert has continued to look less than 100 percent with his scoring, rebounding and mobility at least slightly compromised. If Gobert can play up to his regular season level, look for the Jazz to attempt to play one-on-one defense on the perimeter, stay home on shooters and allow Gobert to protect any penetration at the rim. The Jazz have a roster especially built for this as they have a plethora of capable wing depth. This will allow Utah to disrupt passing lanes, force Golden State into contested jumpers and could lead to easy baskets in transition.

Although the Jazz have seemed to settle on a strategy where Gobert and Derrick Favors mostly alternate at center, Gobert getting into foul trouble in Game 7 allowed Favors to shine as he pulled down 11 rebounds and scored 17 points on 8-11 shooting. If either of these players can be especially effective down low, look for Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green to shift down low to help contain. Warriors’ centers Pachulia and Javale McGee can be effective but less dominant on defense. Having Green focused on the interior can prevent his devastating roving abilities, help defense, which can wreak havoc on opposing offenses, and will keep him from hounding Utah’s perimeter scorers.

Other bright spots for Utah include forward Gordon Hayward’s play. If you remove the food poisoning game, Hayward has averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and four assists on 48 percent shooting from the field, 46 percent from three and 96 percent shooting from the free throw line. The strong play from the first time All-Star has been supplemented by the well-documented clutch performance from veteran Joe Johnson, who absolutely crushed the Clippers playoff hopes in multiple games. As a team, the Jazz have faced many close game situations already this postseason, whereas the Warriors haven’t played in any high-pressures games since the regular season.

What else can possibly hinder the Warriors? The team has yet to announce when head coach Steve Kerr might return. His ongoing back issues continue to hang over the franchise. Kerr has had to remove himself from coaching in the playoffs so far due to the reoccurrence of severe back pain related to complications from his back surgery and there has even been speculation that his ongoing condition could force him to retire. There have been no issues yet but perhaps the substitution of assistant coach Mike Brown might eventually disrupt some of the Warrior’s usual tendencies and dominant flow. At least former fill-in assistant coach Luke Walton had half a season to step into Kerr’s shoes. Contrast this uncertain coaching situation with the strong coaching performance of head coach Quin Snyder, who did an admirable job of adjusting and readjusting to all of the Clippers’ moves in the opening series.

Additionally, though he has returned to action and has played well, there is still some trepidation as to how forward Kevin Durant will hold up throughout the playoffs after returning from a February 28 knee injury. A subsequent calf strain limited Durant to 20 minutes in the Game 4 close out against the Trail Blazers. Although it hasn’t been an issue yet, the Warriors are under pressure to not only win a championship this season but to do so convincingly. If any of the above factors come into play, perhaps a bit of that pressure negatively affects their play.

In sum, the Warriors will most likely win this series and do so in dominating fashion. However, if some combination of potential issues listed above come into play, perhaps the Jazz have a chance, however slim, to make this a competitive series and possibly shock the world.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return

Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.

Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.

“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”

The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.

Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.

Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.

To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played).  Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.

“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.

“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”

Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.

The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.

Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.

“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”

In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.

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Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman

Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Spencer Davies

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Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?

Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.

Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.

BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?

Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.

BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?

Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.

BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?

Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.

Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.

BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?

Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.

I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.

BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?

Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.

That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.

BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?

Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.

BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?

Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.

BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?

Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.

BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?

Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.

BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?

Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.

The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.

BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.

Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.

BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?

Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.

I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.

BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?

Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.

BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?

Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.

BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?

Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.

Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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