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NBA Season Preview: Golden State Warriors

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Last season: 26-56, which is kind of the record you end up with when you don’t play much defense. And Don Nelson had stopped caring about defense, or seemingly coaching half the time. But as much as that, it was an injury-ravaged season that kept the win total that low.

Head Coach: Keith Smart, who still wants this team running as fast as anyone in the league, but has set up some flex (think Jazz) half court sets. And he is going to hold guys accountable on defense. (Note to Warriors fans, defense is the thing played on the other half of the court where your team is not shooting. Just wanted to give you a reminder as you hadn’t seen it in years.)

Key Departures: Owner Chris Cohan — no player move the Warriors could have made is as big as this. Cohan had owned the Warriors 16 seasons and the team made it to the playoffs just once. Front office power plays took place while he watched seemingly uninterested. He was one of the few owners in the league you could compare to Donald Sterling (of the Clippers). Just him being out gives hope to Golden State fans.

Anthony Randolph seemed like a guy that should blow up in Don Nelson’s system — the Warriors hyped him like he would — but it never really happened. So he goes to the Knicks along with Kelenna Azubuike and Ronny Turiaf as part of the David Lee deal. It’s not a bad deal in that Lee brings some needed skills across the country with him, but giving up Randolph and Azubuike is a lot of potential out the door. But it’s time for a little of the old coaching axiom in Golden State — potential will get you fired. With Lee, you know what you get every night.

The real head scratcher of a summer move was sending Anthony Morrow to the Nets for a second round pick. Morrow is a lights-out shooter at an affordable price. How does that not fit in any system?

Also gone are Anthony Tolliver and Corey Maggette.

Key Additions: New owners Peter Guber and Joe Lacob (Lacob will be the front man). They may or may not be great owners — Lacob was part owner of the Celtics and saw how a first class organization works first hand, but he also said the Warriors would not spend over the luxury tax. Already they are making changes — Nellie is out, while they bring in gritty players that will actually rebound the ball (David Lee, Lou Amundson) which alone will bring a needed change to the roster. Bottom line — the new owners bring hope to a fan base that has wanted desperately to believe. Now, we all believe.

On the court, there is David Lee. The Warriors were a terrible, terrible rebounding team last season and David Lee will change that. Parts of his game may have gotten overhyped in New York, but not his work on the boards, where last season he grabbed 17.9 percent of the available rebounds when he was on the floor. He is particularly a beast on the defensive glass. Now, as for his defense, that will be a fun challenge for Smart.

Also in the door in Golden State are draft picks Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 overall) and Jeremy Lin (the fan favorite), plus Dorell Wright, Amundson, Rodney Carney, and even Dan Gadzuric.

Oh, and cool new uniforms.

Best case scenario: The Warriors start to figure out who they want to be, who fits with that, and the second half of the season they make a run at a playoff spot while keeping the cap space and flexibility they have to build in the future.

For that to happen: The Warriors just need to be smart about it. What that last paragraph really says is there is true hope for the future now, because the Warriors have some good pieces to start building around. And just watching something with a chance to grow that ownership will not uproot too early for no good reasons will go over huge with the loyal Warriors faithful.

Golden State has a lot of potential in the Stephen Curry/David Lee pick and roll. Lee is a very good roll-man — he sets a quality pick and last season shot 64 percent when he got the ball in that spot. He also picks up a fair amount of and-ones in that spot as he is strong enough to get off a good shot while rolling even if hit. Meanwhile Curry is an improving ball-handler on the pick-and-roll. You have to fight over the top of the pick or show hard on Curry — you have to respect his shot and cannot just let him get a clean look — and Curry is figuring out how to use that attention to set up others.

Like Monta Ellis, who is another great scorer and also a ball-handler that is solid as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Ellis just puts points on the board — not terribly efficiently last season, but he was asked to carry a lot of the Warriors offense.

There are questions if Ellis and Curry can play together, but two ball-handlers who can both be fantastic catch-and-shoot guys can work very well together — if they want to. It’s more about desire and ego than fit.

The Warriors also have a nice collection of role players. Reggie Williams is a personal favorite to watch and Smart will give him quality minutes. Andris Biedrins could be a strong center if he can stay healthy. Dorell Wright gives Golden State some nice athleticism on the wing. It’s just a matter of finding the direction for the team then seeing who fits.

More likely the Warriors will: Be better with flashes of really good, but struggle to win a lot in a very deep Western Conference. However, what is different is this time they will not self-destruct and rip apart whatever future there might have been. They will learn and build. In a year or two, they will be the team that makes the big leap forward, just not this season.

Prediction: 33-49, and by the end of the season a formed identity. That or Smart will be gone and a coach with an identity will be brought in.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.