The first round of the NBA playoffs continues today with two pivotal Game 4s. Follow along here for the latest analysis and commentary from The Post’s NBA reporter Tim Bontemps, and ask him questions in the comments section. Catch up on yesterday’s games here.
• Mitt Romney is at Jazz-Thunder wearing a Mitt Romney jersey, and Utah is dominating.
• The Rockets struggled early in Minnesota in Game 4, then exploded for a 50-point third quarter. They now lead the series, 3-1.
• The Oklahoma City Thunder came into this season with sky-high expectations. But things have not gone according to plan.
The Jazz took it to the Thunder in Game 4 of their first round series, dominating the second half en route to a 113-96 victory.
Rookie Donovan Mitchell scored 33 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists to lead the Jazz, while Joe Ingles had 20 points, Rudy Gobert scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and Ricky Rubio added 13 points, six rebounds and eight assists as Utah took a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.
Paul George had 32 points and Russell Westbrook had 23 points and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes for the Thunder, which imploded as the Jazz pulled away in the second half, getting into multiple skirmishes with Utah players as the game slipped away.
Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, went just 5-for-18 and scored 11 points.
The fourth quarter of Thunder-Jazz has devolved into a series of wrestling matches.
The biggest came when Russell Westbrook gave Jae Crowder a hard foul to stem any complaints about a foul call. Crowder took exception, and when Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony got into his face, Crowder caught Adams in the face with an elbow.
That earned him a second technical foul, and an ejection.
More importantly, Utah is cruising to a win, and a 3-1 lead in this series.
With exactly two minutes to go in the second quarter, Russell Westbrook hit a jumper to make it 49-47 Oklahoma City.
Since that moment, the Utah Jazz have dominated this game.
Over the next 14 minutes of action, Utah outscored Oklahoma City 40-19, taking a game that was a competitive slugfest throughout the first half into one the Jazz were winning in a rout.
At one point, Utah was 4 for 16 from three. Now? It is 9 for 27. Combine that with the Thunder going 3 for 16 from three and committing 14 turnovers, and now Oklahoma City finds itself in a huge hole in the fourth quarter.
As a result, it is staring at a 3-1 deficit in this series.
Given the way things are going for the Thunder right now, perhaps Jazz Coach Quin Snyder will throw Romney out there for garbage time.
When Russell Westbrook picked up his fourth foul late in the second quarter of Game 4, there was one notable fan, in particular, who was quite pleased with what he saw: former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Romney, sitting in the front row right behind the scorer’s table, could be seen on the TNT broadcast waving to Westbrook as he was going to the bench, as well as holding up four fingers.
The internet took great delight in this moment from Romney, who was wearing a button-down shirt under a No. 5 Jazz jersey.
That meant that instead of wearing the jersey of rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell or star center Rudy Gobert, Romney was wearing one of three options:
— A custom jersey of some kind.
— A Rodney Hood jersey, who was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers back in February
— A David Stockton jersey, the son of Jazz legend John Stockton and a little-used reserve at the end of Utah’s bench.
This led to a flurry of tweets about how Romney chose his jersey:
And at least one Twitter user pointed out how Romney — now running for the Utah Senate seat that’s being vacated by the retiring Orrin Hatch — once was supporting the Celtics at a game in his prior role as governor of Massachusetts.
Eventually, Donovan and the Thunder got burned.
Westbrook picked up his fourth foul with 1:36 to go in the second quarter — and did so on a charge that was drawn by, of all people, Ricky Rubio. At that point, Oklahoma City trailed 50-49.
By the time the half ended, it was 58-52, as Joe Ingles hit three straight three-pointers before Donovan Mitchell capped the half with a layup.
Carmelo Anthony made a couple of nice plays defensively — not exactly his strong suit — but went 3 for 10 from the field, including missing both of his threes. Westbrook scored 15 points and only had two turnovers, but went 5 for 13 from the field and, of course, has those four fouls.
Both Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have two fouls for Utah, but the Jazz are now 7-for-19 – compared to the Thunder’s 2 for 7.
A bad call by the referees early in Game 4 nearly proved to be disastrous for Utah.
Russell Westbrook drove into the heart of the defense and kicked out to the perimeter — only to land, after jumping in the air to make the pass, and grab at his head.
A whistle blew, and a foul was called — initially on Jazz center Rudy Gobert, giving him two for the game. There was just one problem: The player who actually hit Westbrook in the head was his teammate Steven Adams.
To his credit, the excellent Brent Barry — doing color on the TNT broadcast alongside the also excellent Ian Eagle — immediately asked, “Did Steven Adams just foul Russell Westbrook?”
It turns out that he did.
Jazz Coach Quin Snyder was up off the bench screaming at the referees to change the call from Gobert to reserve wing Royce O’Neal, saying that Gobert was nowhere near the play, as he took Gobert out of the game. Eventually his wish was granted, and Gobert’s foul was changed, leaving him with just one for the game.
With Gobert out, though, Westbrook — who has not been willing to attack Gobert, the presumptive defensive player of the year, throughout the series at the rim — drove to the basket for a layup.
The first turning point in Thunder-Jazz: Russell Westbrook picking up two fouls less than eight minutes into the game.
Ricky Rubio sold some contact and went down on an inbounds play, getting Westbrook’s second foul at the four-minute mark of the first.
That left Thunder Coach Billy Donovan with a critical decision to make: take Westbrook out, or leave him in the game? Donovan chose the latter.
Let’s see how Westbrook handles it.
As Thunder-Jazz is about to get underway in Salt Lake City, something to monitor: When Russell Westbrook came out pregame, he had a lot of kinesio tape on his upper body, including both of his shoulders.
Reporters asked Thunder Coach Billy Donovan before the game about Westbrook, who has been in the news ever since he said he was going to “shut that s— down” in reference to Ricky Rubio after he scored 28 points and recorded a triple-double in Utah’s Game 3 win Saturday night.
“He’s a competitor,” Donovan said. “He’s going to come out and play. He’s going to play hard. He’s going to play well.”
Fred Katz from the Norman Transcript had further updates on Westbrook needing to be looked at during the second half of Game 3:
James Harden had 36 points and Chris Paul added 25, six rebounds, six assists and five steals to lift the Rockets to a 119-100 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.
Minnesota turned the ball over too much (17 times that became 19 Rockets points) and made half as many three-pointers, going 8 for 22 compared to Houston going 16 for 43. That combination served as a death knell for the Timberwolves in this one — particularly in the third quarter, in which Houston made more threes in 12 minutes (9 on 13 shots) than Minnesota made in 48.
Now the series shifts back to Houston for Game 5 Wednesday, and it’s hard to see how it comes back to Minnesota for Game 6.
Hey, remember when the Rockets were struggling to score at halftime?
Yeah. About that.
Houston finally burst out of its extended shooting slump in the third quarter, matching its first half scoring total by 50 points in the third quarter alone to take what was a one-point halftime lead and turn it into a 31-point advantage.
This is yet another example of how Minnesota was always going to struggle to win against Houston. The math equation of the threes taken by each team simply wasn’t going to work out for the Timberwolves – unless Houston couldn’t make any.
In the first half, that was the case, as the Rockets were 7 for 25 from three. In the third quarter, the Rockets went 9 for 13 from deep.
Minnesota, on the other hand, has only attempted 18 threes in the entire game.
Add in the fact Houston has just two turnovers (and Minnesota has no points off them), while forcing 11 Timberwolves turnovers and scoring 17 points off of them, and there’s the ball game.
This game could be over quickly.
The Rockets have opened the second half with a 13-2 run, taking what was a one-point lead for Houston to a 12-point one.
This was the kind of run it felt like Houston was perpetually going to make in the first half, but couldn’t buy a basket. And for Minnesota, a team that will struggle to win the math equation against Houston to begin with because of the number of threes the Rockets take (and Wolves don’t), such a stretch like that can be death.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are staying in Game 4 thanks to an unlikely hero: Derrick Rose.
Yes, that would be the same Derrick Rose that was discarded by the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this season, and who waited weeks to find a new home before landing in Minnesota. But now, with the Timberwolves’ season on the line, he’s producing.
Rose has 11 points in the first half, leading Minnesota’s scorers and has them within one at halftime, 50-49. That’s despite Karl-Anthony Towns being in foul trouble, Minnesota committing seven turnovers (compared to just two for Houston)and the Wolves going 3 for 10 from three-point range.
How he’s done it has been important, too, as Rose has continually attacked the paint. Now 4 for 5 from the field, Rose has made one three and taken one other long jumper, but his other three shots all came right at the rim.
If Rose would commit to being that kind of player moving forward — one that doesn’t take bad, inefficient mid-range shots and instead attacks the rim relentlessly — there’s a chance Rose can carve out a role for himself in the league as a productive player. That’s something I didn’t think, admittedly, I would be saying.
Meanwhile, this first half has to be a win for the Rockets. They missed a ton of shots — shooting 38.8 percent overall and going 7 for 25 from three — and still ended it up by one. The Timberwolves will be in a lot of trouble if Houston can get things going in the second half and could look back on it’s own offensive struggles in the first half as a missed opportunity to even this series up.
The Hall of Fame big men on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” set, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, have repeatedly begged Karl-Anthony Towns to take advantage of the smaller players switched onto him by the Rockets during this season.
In the second quarter of Game 4, Towns is taking advantage.
He’s got six points and five rebounds in eight minutes after missing most of the first with foul trouble and has attacked both center Clint Capela and guard Eric Gordon in the post in the last few minutes.
Towns is an outstanding offensive player, with the ability to shoot out to the three-point line and with the size and footwork to be devastating in the paint. He is a weapon that Houston doesn’t have a great answer to stop if he gets going, and his shot attempts have been an ongoing storyline all season long in Minnesota.
The second quarter, though, has shown what he’s capable of doing.
Tucker also returned to the game for Houston and appears fine.
Jeff Teague returned to the game for Minnesota after jamming his finger. Houston will be hoping P.J. Tucker can do the same after injuring his left leg.
Tucker went down in a heap while driving to the basket, appearing to potentially turn his left ankle or hurt his left knee before falling to the ground. He eventually got to his feet and then limped to the locker room.
A short time later, Tucker came back to the bench and put on his warmups, with no word as to his status.
For a Rockets team that switches every screen and values both Tucker’s defensive toughness and shooting ability, losing him would be a real blow — particularly with Luc Mbah a Moute already out with a shoulder injury.
The Houston Rockets had the NBA’s best record. They tied the Golden State Warriors for having the NBA’s best offense. They made — and attempted — more three-pointers than any other NBA team.
So what’s happened during Houston’s first-round series, which has seen the Rockets look far more normal than nuclear through the opening three games against the Minnesota Timberwolves?
According to Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, his team lost its rhythm.
“I’d say [the past] couple months we haven’t played really well,” D’Antoni said before Sunday’s practice, a day after a 121-105 loss that trimmed the Rockets’ series lead to 2-1. “That’s why I was worried the whole time about resting guys, doing this, getting out of rhythm. [People say], ‘It doesn’t really mean a whole lot.’ Eh, it does.
“Anyway, we are where we are. We’ll be fine. We’ll be okay.”
Chances are, D’Antoni will prove to be right. Houston has the presumptive league MVP in James Harden, another Hall of Fame guard in James Harden, and shooters galore surrounding them.
That being said: the Timberwolves, one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA this season, have successfully been able to slow them down so far in this series. Some of that can be attributed to random chance, as Houston was shooting 31.6 percent on threes in the first three games, after shooting 36.5 during the regular season.
But it’s one thing for role players to hit shots during the regular season. It’s another when the pressure is ratcheted up in the playoffs, when the opponent is keyed in on tendencies and simply playing much harder.
And the first quarter of Game 4 shouldn’t make anyone rooting for Houston feel better about its offensive issues. The Rockets were 6 for 23 in the first quarter. Remove Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon, who went 5 for 7, and that number drops to 1 for 16.
Houston still is in the driver’s seat in this series and the favorite to make the Western Conference finals and face the Warriors. But the offense going from nuclear to normal so far this postseason will be a story line worth monitoring.
First Karl-Anthony Towns left the game with foul trouble, and now Jeff Teague is injured for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Minnesota’s starting point guard exited the game and was escorted back to the locker room by the team’s medical personnel, after appearing to injure his finger going after a loose ball defensively.
Teague and Towns are the best shooters of Minnesota’s typical starting five — and the Wolves don’t have many other shooters to spare. If his game is compromised because of this injury, an already difficult task was suddenly just made much harder.
Not the ideal start for Minnesota, to say the least — even if the Wolves are only down one, 16-15, late in the first quarter.
The Minnesota Timberwolves got off to a hot start. The crowd was into the game. They got a couple of early baskets.
And then Karl-Anthony Towns got two fouls.
It initially looked like the all-star center was going to be going to the line when the whistle blew, given he’d been attacking the basket. But he was (correctly) called for an offensive foul for holding off Rockets forward P.J. Tucker with his off arm.
That was the last thing the Timberwolves, trailing 2-1 in this series, needed early on in this game. The already tough task of keeping up with Houston’s high-powered offense only will be tougher with the league’s best offensive center stuck on the bench for — at minimum — the vast majority of the first quarter because of foul trouble.
The Oklahoma City Thunder came into this season with sky-high expectations. After winning 47 games a year ago with Russell Westbrook putting up a historic, MVP-winning season, the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason were supposed to make the Thunder back into a championship contender faster than anticipated following Kevin Durant bolting for the Bay Area in free agency in 2016.
Things, however, have not gone according to plan.
Anthony has played at a level far lower than expected as the team’s third option. Andre Roberson, who was headed toward possibly being named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, was lost for the season in late January with a torn patellar tendon, altering the formula upon which the Thunder had built their team.
And now, as the Thunder is down 2-1 to the Utah Jazz entering Game 4 of this first-round series Monday night, a loss will put OKC right back in the same position it was in last year: possibly headed out of the playoffs in five games in the first round.
We have Westbrook declaring he’s going to “shut that s— off,” after Ricky Rubio scored 28 points to lift Utah to its Game 3 win Saturday night. We have Derrick Favors outplaying Anthony in Games 2 and 3, winning a matchup that will likely decide the outcome of this series. And we have Steven Adams, who was hardly ever in foul trouble this season, racking up calls in both Games 2 and 3, helping swing the series in Utah’s direction.
So what has to change in Game 4? For one, Adams needs to stay on the court. There might not be a single player in the league stronger than the hulking New Zealander, and with him on the court, Rudy Gobert’s outsized influence on the Jazz is somewhat diminished. Without Adams, Gobert can roam free and wreak havoc.
Anthony also needs to hit shots. Utah has played better in this series when Favors and Gobert have been able to share the court together — something that would be much tougher for the Jazz to do if Anthony can punish them for guarding him with Favors. That hasn’t really been the case so far, though, allowing Utah to gain control.
And, perhaps most importantly, the Thunder needs Westbrook to get back to playing like himself. He’s never going to be a good three-point shooter, but after going 10-for-21 on two-point shots in Game 1, he’s gone a combined 9-for-29 the past two — a credit to the influence Gobert is having in the paint. That can also be traced back to Adams getting into foul trouble, as the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll — one of Oklahoma City’s strengths, and something Gobert struggled to handle in Game 1 — has been neutralized the past two games.
Westbrook’s defiant answer about Rubio’s shooting after Game 3 became the thing everyone will be talking about up until tipoff Monday night in Salt Lake City. And while, yes, Westbrook simply can’t be outplayed by Rubio like he was in Game 3, it’s going to require changing a lot more than that for Oklahoma City to get the win it needs to even up this series Monday night.
- Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves (Rockets lead 2-1); 8 p.m., TNT
- Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz (Jazz leads 2-1); 10:30 p.m., TNT
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