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NBA Season Preview: New Orleans Hornets

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Last season: 37-45, after Byron Scott started the season and was bounced for Jeff Bower, they still finished out of the playoffs. Of course they played half the season without Chris Paul and right now he is everything to that franchise.

Head Coach: Monty Williams comes over from being an assistant in Portland and steps into a tough spot as a first year, man. On the court he’s asked to get blood from a stone (the Hornet bench, the starters will be pretty good). Also, he was brought in to try and form a tight relationship with CP3, to help keep him around. We’ll see how that plays out.

You can’t really mention Williams without talking about new GM Dell Demps. Demps is a well-respected guy around the league who is going to have to find a way to get talent in the door while not going into luxury tax range. Unless the new owner, should he ever arrive, change the rules.

Key Departures: Darren Collison, who came into his own when Bower trusted him in a way Byron Scott never did. The Hornets needed to trade Collison — he was the one guy they could move that would bring in talent to put around Paul at other positions (Collison just would have backed him up). Whether they got enough for that trade chip is up for discussion.

James Posey and his oversized contract were shipped out to save money, tied to the Collison trade. Mo Peterson was shipped out mostly to save money, Julian Wright went out to bring in some depth at guard.

Key Additions: Trevor Ariza, who is now Chris Paul’s wingman and should bring some better defense on the perimeter to a team that could use it. Marco Belinelli and Mustafa Shakur will try to prove they can be quality players off the bench. Aaron Gray, Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter also all come over, but may not play much.

Best case scenario: Everyone stays healthy, the bench comes together well enough and they make it back into the playoffs in the West.

For that to happen: Distractions and health issues can’t get in the way of a decent roster, and the bench needs to come togehter.

I never trust teams that that are undergoing an ownership change, and as we passed along this morning the sale of the Hornets is still alive and well. This sale could be good for the team and franchise long term — Gary Chouest could come in and invest in players and really turn the feel of the franchise around. But that has yet to be proven. Or for him to even get the team yet.

And ownership changes will just fuel the CP3 trade  rumors and distractions — with New York papers fanning the embers of whatever is there. Same is true if and when this team hits a rough patch this season (everyone does). Paul is not talking publicly about going, he has done the right things lately, but this fire will not die out this season. The team will have to learn to play and ignore all the talk.

On the court, this team could be pretty good. The starting five is good — Paul is a game changer, one of the elite guys in the league. Marcus Thornton stepped up last season and showed he can play the two, Ariza will bring defense and better energy that Peja has in years, David West remains a quality four and Emeka Okafor is solid at the five. That’s a nice group that can run or play in half court.

For this team to really make the playoffs, it will be about the bench — Peja Stojakovic is your designated gunner off the pine, but he has not been a great gunner in recent years. (Also, as he is in the last year of a big deal, look for his name to come up in a lot of trade talks.) Mustafa Shakur will be CP3’s backup and could be another D-League success story, but he’s going to be challenged to prove it. Marco Belinilli is going to have to play better. Then it’s guys like Aaron Gray that are hard for coaches to trust.

More likely the Hornets will: Be a good team that is a bit inconsistent — they’ll go out and beat the Lakers one night then drop one to the Clippers the next because their bench gets outplayed. The 54-point preseason loss to the Magic may typify that — the Hornets are not that bad but they don’t have the depth of talent to take a night off. They’ll most likely be in the mix but just miss out on a playoff spot.

This is not a bad team, in fact it has the makings of a good team in it. If it can get there some day comes back to the new brain trust of Williams and Demps, and beyond that if they get new ownership that gives them more latitude. More needs to be done to build this team, the question is will the new front office can do it and if the owner gives them the latitude to do it.

Prediction: 45 wins, leaving them 9th or 10th in the West. Then the real Chris Paul speculation will get started

Watch Stephen Curry drop 36 in Game 7 to knock off Thunder (VIDEO)

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If you watch the highlights, you will see plenty of Stephen Curry hitting threes — including the dagger late — to lead the Warriors to a 96-88 Game 7 win over the Thunder. He was masterful and finished with 36 points.

But it was more than just the threes.

Curry was attacking the bigs that switched on to him off the pick-and-roll far more this game, both by hitting threes over them — four of his seven threes came against bigs switched onto him, according to Synergy Sports — but also by blowing by those bigs and getting into the lane. Look at his shot chart from the night.

Curry Game 7 shotchart

“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “He looked better. He looked like he was moving better. I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”

When Curry is attacking and hitting threes, well, you get nights like this.

Kevin Durant entering free agency on sour note

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hugs Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors after losing 96-88 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The superstar free agent enters the offseason with three straight playoff losses, a once-promising season ended in devastating fashion.

Kevin Durant? Yes.

LeBron James in 2010? Also yes.

Will Durant follow LeBron’s lead and leave the team that drafted him?

Those Cavaliers didn’t beat the 67-15 Spurs. They didn’t push the 73-9 Warriors to a Game 7. They didn’t have Russell Westbrook.

And, of course, Durant isn’t LeBron.

But the Thunder must feel sick about letting this opportunity slip away – not just a trip to the Finals, but a chance to remind Durant of their virtues. Golden State – a leading suitor for Durant – undid so much of the progress Oklahoma City made in the postseason with this comeback from down 3-1, capped with a 96-88 win tonight.

“We just lost like 30 minutes ago,” Durant said. “So, I don’t have any thought about it.”

For much of the playoffs the Thunder did everything they could to convince Durant to stay. They carved up the Mavericks, overpowered the Spurs and outraced the Warriors through the Western Conference finals’ first four games. It seemed no team could offer Durant a better situation.

Now, it’s as tempting as ever to imagine Durant with Golden State.

Durant must weigh what joining the team that beat him would do to his image, but there’s no doubt that the Warriors are better than the Thunder. There can’t be after a 16-win difference in the regular season and these last three games. Oklahoma City might flip the script next season if Durant re-signs, but he must also assess how much better Golden State would be with him. At minimum, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson not guarding him anymore.

The Thunder didn’t do their part to send Durant into free agency on a high note, but he did all he could. Unlike LeBron in 2010, Durant didn’t shrink from the moment of his high-pressured closeout game with free agency looming. Durant scored 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting against those elite defenders, including a late personal 7-0 run that cut the deficit to four points.

Then, Stephen Curry scored six straight – drawing a foul on a 3-pointer and hitting a 3-pointer – to put the game out of reach. These Warriors are special. Durant has to see that.

Not that he’s focused on Golden State (or the Spurs, Celtics, Rockets or…). This loss is too raw.

“It hurts losing,” Durant said. “It hurts losing, especially being up three games to one.

“It sucks to lose. It sucks.”

How long will that feeling last, and how strongly will Durant associate it with Oklahoma City? The Thunder can offer more money, but one of their biggest selling points is their team success – and that seems like a distant memory. Right now, Oklahoma City is on a three-game losing streak that won’t be snapped before Durant signs somewhere.

Durant will weigh the prudent details, but his will be an emotional decision. Where does he feel most comfortable?

There’s plenty of time to decide. Free agency begins July 1, and he’ll surely want to meet with teams before finalizing a choice.

The Thunder have done him well for years, and they’d remain elite with him.

But they can’t feel good with this being Durant’s final image of their season – victorious Warrior after victorious Warrior hugging Durant and consoling him on Oklahoma City’s third straight failure.

Too much Stephen Curry, too many threes bury Thunder in Game 7, Warriors win 96-88, advance to Finals

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For seven games the athleticism and improved defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder smothered nearly everything Golden State tried to do inside the arc. The Thunder length and aggressiveness had them owning the paint and dominating the glass much of the series. Oklahoma City outplayed Golden State below the arc all series long.

But the Warriors owned the three ball.

“They beat us from the 3-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

After a rough shooting first half (again), the three balls started to fall for Golden State in the second half of Game 7 Monday — many of them contested, the Thunder defense remained stout. The Warriors opened the game 2-of-6 from three, then hit 12 of their next 24 — 10-of-20 in the second half — while the Thunder missed 13 straight at one point.

The Warriors made 10 more threes than the Thunder in Game 7 and — just as it was in Game 6 — that proved to be the difference. The Warriors came from down 3-1 to win Game 7 96-88 and take the series.

Golden State will host Cleveland in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

“I knew we were ready for the moment,” Stephen Curry said after the game. “I knew we were a mature basketball team that tried our best to not listen to the noise outside. Six or seven days ago when we were down 3-1 everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was the end of our run, but not the locker room. The talk was positive, it was let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time, claw our way back into the series, and see what happens.”

It took the best run of games these Warriors have put together in two-plus seasons — a stretch that included a championship and 73 regular season wins — to get past OKC and back to the Finals. The Thunder’s improved defense and great scoring  forced the Warriors to find another gear.

But Golden State always had the three ball to bail them out. Look at their shot chart from Game 7.

Warriors Game 7 shot chart

Curry, who finished with 36 points and hit 7-of-12 from three, was the difference as he played like the MVP version of himself. That version had been held in check much of the series by the Thunder’s defense, and likely a lingering knee issue (although he would never admit that). All series long Curry had struggled to beat the Thunder bigs who switched onto him off picks, but not in Game 7 when he hit four threes over those bigs, and blew by them and into the lane a host of other times.

“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “He looked better. He looked like he was moving better. I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”

Kevin Durant was giving up the ball and finding teammates early in the game, trying to get others involved, but late in the fourth he put together a personal 7-0 run that made it a four-point game inside three minutes. Durant was a beast and finished with 27 points to lead the Thunder. Russell Westbrook added 19 points and 13 assists. They just didn’t have the threes to keep up with the Warriors.

Early on it in Game 7 felt like it might be the Thunder’s night. It was a disjointed start to the game (as often happens in Game 7s), which helped Steven Adams get a couple of buckets and had the Thunder trying to move the ball. Both teams had jitters and guys are trying to do a little too much, evidence by Curry starting 3-of-8 and Thompson 0-of-4. What OKC did was get six offensive boards in first quarter, which had then up 24-19.

In the second, Waiters came in and played a little out of control but proved to be a spark that had the Thunder pushing the lead up to 13. The Thunder also got solid play early from Enes Kanter, who had eight points and four rebounds in eight minutes. Meanwhile, the Warriors were missing their twos — started 6-of-20 inside the arc — but unlike Game 6 they were missing their threes as well. Play Thompson started 0-of-7.

Then Thompson hit three in a row from beyond the arc, the Warriors’ energy returned, and they went on 11-2 run to make it a game again. Thunder responded with 7-0 run of their own. Then Warriors have 7-0 run to get it to five. By the half, it was 48-42 Oklahoma City.

Golden State came out gunning from three to start the second half and behind a few Curry threes went on a 15-4 run and the Warriors were up 57-54. The Thunder hung around but got sucked into the wrong style of play and they missed 13 consecutive threes at one point. The threes were falling for the Warriors, the Thunder could not buy a bucket, it was a 29-12 third quarter for the Warriors and they were up 71-60. The Warriors felt in control.

“I actually thought we got some good looks,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the third quarter. “I thought we really, really good looks. They made some shots… I liked the way we played on offense tonight, we moved the ball and played the right way…..

“We were right there every step of the way with them, and this was a record setting team, and a team that’s won a world championship. So you can sit there and say what happened, but you’ve got to give them credit. Give them credit.”

But the Thunder played too hard and too well this series to go quietly into that good night. Durant made his push, they crashed the glass, they defended with heart and made plays down the stretch. A foul by Serge Ibaka on a Curry three may have sealed the Warriors fate — a four-point game became seven, and that was too much to overcome.

Because the Warriors threes kept falling no matter what.

Stephen Curry goes high off the glass at the buzzer just before the half

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Golden State hadn’t shot well all first half — 38.6 percent — and Stephen Curry was 4-of-10 with time running out in half.

Then Curry hit this high, high off the glass to end the half and bring Golden State within six at the break, 48-42.

Notice that Curry grabbed his knee after the shot. He was out for the start of the second half.