Nurkic revenge game puts Blazers in control of 8 seed | George frustrated with lack of urgency | Gasol spacing the floor for Spurs | Clippers not at their best as playoffs draw near
No. 1: Nurkic revenge game puts Blazers in control of 8 seed -- In the biggest game of the year, Jusuf Nurkic had the biggest game of his career. The Blazers' center scored 33 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked three shots against his old team as Portland took control of the 8 seed in the West with a 122-113 win over the Denver Nuggets. With the win, the Blazers hold a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over Denver, and Portland has the easier remaining schedule. Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune has the story:
On Tuesday night, Nurkic shoved it up his former employer's derrière, sinking 12 of 15 shots from the field and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line. The player the Nuggets chose to keep as their starting center, Jokic, was solid with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. But there was no question who the best big man on the floor was — and he wasn't representing the visiting quintet.
"I was really happy for Nurk," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "I know how it is any time you face a former team. That carries a little added significance for that player.
"This was the most important game he's played in the NBA, with playoff implications. And he was fantastic."
Nurkic was magnanimous afterward, insisting it hadn't been personal — at least not with his former teammates. Each of them took the time to seek him out on the court after the game for a hug and a few words.
"I love those guys," he said. "I'm happy to see them and to talk to them. it's always nice to see friends when you've spent three years with them."
But wasn't there incentive to show the Nuggets what they're missing?
"They know," Nurkic said. "They know what they're missing. (The players) are really happy for me, that I found my spot. I'm happy for me, too."
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No. 2: George frustrated with lack of urgency -- Prior to Tuesday, the Indiana Pacers were in a tie with the fifth-place Atlanta Hawks, but also only 2 1/2 games ahead of the ninth-place Chicago Bulls. And with tougher games ahead of their schedule (the Pacers play their next five games against teams with winning records), a home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves was a critical opportunity to solidify their playoff position. Indy led by nine with less than six minutes left and by four in the final 45 seconds, but couldn't get the stops needed to hold on. Paul George let out some frustration afterward, as Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star writes:
George, in a season that has tested his mettle and patience several times, felt embarrassed after the Pacers, in a matter of minutes, went from what appeared to be a comfortable win to falling to the young Minnesota Timberwolves in a devastating 115-114 fashion.
"Pissed," George said in describing his emotions. "I know I was pissed. It's the only to really sum it up."
"We should have a professional approach, man, and defend our home court, especially to a team that's not even in the playoffs," George said of losing to the Timberwolves (29-44). "That's what it comes down to. As a team, we've got to have a grit and we've got to own up, man up."
With their playoff hopes in doubt, George, the longest-tenured Pacers, criticized his teammates for the team's inability to win a pivotal game.
"There's no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride," he said. "This locker room is just not pissed off enough."
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No. 3: Gasol spacing the floor for Spurs -- There was no replacing Tim Duncan in San Antonio, but the addition of Pau Gasol has clearly been a positive for the Spurs. Gasol's defense can be hit or miss, but the Spurs still rank No. 1 on that end of the floor and his increased 3-point volume allows Gregg Popovich to play two big men together. Things were a little sketchy early in the season with Gasol starting alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, but after a 15-game absence with a hand injury, Gasol has found a rhythm coming off the bench. The AP's Jon Krawczynski looks at Gasol's impact in advance of the Spurs' matchup with the Warriors on Wednesday:
He is 9 for 13 from deep during a five-game winning streak that has helped the Spurs pull within two games of Golden State for the top seed in the Western Conference, with the Warriors coming to San Antonio on Wednesday night.
"He's fulfilled all of our expectations," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "There were really no surprises. If anything, he's shooting the 3 more than he has before. That's been the biggest difference. We didn't expect that."
While so much of the league has turned to smaller lineups to try to keep up with the Warriors, the Spurs have gotten bigger with Gasol, Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Dewayne Dedmon in the frontcourt.
That makes Gasol's evolution even more important so the offense doesn't clog up among all that bulk. He hit both of his 3s in a blowout win over Cleveland on Monday night and went 3 for 4 from deep in a win over the Knicks last weekend.
"We didn't sit him down and say now Pau, part of your role is going to be (shooting 3s)," Popovich said. "But it's sort of evolved with the spacing and the way we do things with LaMarcus out there. It just evolved that way. He's been successful at it so we just kind of let it roll."
It has also unlocked even more from Aldridge, who has looked more comfortable and formidable this season than he did in his first year in San Antonio.
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No. 4: Clippers not at their best as playoffs draw near -- The Clippers have had Blake Griffin and Chris Paul healthy for more than a month, but have yet to play at the level they were at early in the season and now, it's getting late. L.A. is 9-9 since Paul returned from his thumb injury, with the league's 19th-ranked defense in that time. They have a favorable schedule going forward - five of their last seven games are at home and five are against teams playing the second game of a back-to-back - but leading the Kings by 18 points with five minutes to go on Sunday was a favorable situation too. Bill Oram of the Orange County Register has the story from Clippers practice on Tuesday:
Two days after the Clippers suffered the season's most damning loss, DeAndre Jordan stared down at assembled cameras and microphones. Amid a wild thicket of bed-head dreads, a patch of locks sprouted from his forehead, pointing upward like a cluster of daffodils.
"It's a struggle right now," Jordan said Tuesday morning. "My hair is a representation of the struggle we've had."
It was a rare moment of levity for the frustrated Clippers (44-31), who with seven games remaining in the regular season are coming face-to-face with their reality. The playoffs begin in less than three weeks, and the Clippers show few signs that they'll be able to win a best-of-7 first-round series, let alone exorcise franchise demons and reach their first conference finals.
Coach Doc Rivers, who has been steadfastly confident in his team's ability to eventually turn things around, said "trust and humility" have been central to his team's inconsistency.
"I'm not worried about us when we play in the playoffs being ready and playing hard," Rivers said. "But I still am concerned about consistency. Can you fix it in (seven) games? I don't know. We'll see."
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Warriors will update Kevin Durant's status on Wednesday ... As the Heat fight for a playoff spot, Goran Dragic is dealing with a foot injury ... James Harden doesn't want to rest his aching wrist ... Steve Kerr picks Mike D'Antoni for Coach of the Year ... and the Knicks are trying to get Joakim Noah cleared for play by the league so that he can begin his 20-game suspension.