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Last Weekend of Hope: Western Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Western Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki has aged about as well as any star of his ilk can. Jason Kidd actually shot better from the arc. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have a full training camp of work with the team to get adjusted. And Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones are legit. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t finally crack their way back into the Conference Finals. And once there, with the Mavericks size, speed, and talent, they’ll just need to get two games at Staples to have a shot. This can be done. It’s got to happen sometime, right?

Denver Nuggets: Sure Carmelo’s thinking about leaving. But when we bust out to a big start, he’ll change his mind. He has to. This is the team that drafted him. He’s not like LeBron. And we have a much better team, with Chauncey, KMart, Nene, and Lawson. We were in the Conference Finals two years ago! How could you leave a team like this for a lottery team? This team underwent a series of disasters it couldn’t have predicted last year, but it also played the Lakers tight. All it’s got to do is stay focused. And when Melo signs the extension, they can do just that.

Golden State Warriors: Cohan’s gone. Theyhave the best sophomore player in the league in Stephen Curry. Monta Ellis is ready to stop being a problem. They got David Lee and a new head coach that wants the team to actually play defense. There’s no way this team isn’t considerably better than last year’s. It’s nearly physically impossible. Better talent, better coaching, better ownership. Things finally look up in the Bay.

Houston Rockets: 24 minutes a game. There’s absolutely no reason this team can’t stay healthy with Yao only playing 24 minutes a game. They’re deep. They’re versatile. They’re extremely well coached and now have some offensive firepower. This team was painfully close to taking out the Lakers two years ago, but all of a sudden with a better team they’re also-rans? In Morey everyone should trust. All the team needs is for a series of things not to go wrong. That can’t be that hard to avoid. Sure, Yao’s injury-prone. But that’s why the minute limit exists. And it will get this team to the playoffs where there isn’t a team that matches up with them.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin.

Los Angeles Lakers: Count the rings, y’all. Count the rings.

Memphis Grizzlies: The team might have a bench! With Xavier Henry, Tony Allen, and an improved Sam Young, if the team can just hold leads on nights when all the starters aren’t on fire, it’s possible they could sneak into the playoffs. They overpaid for Rudy Gay, but he’s also the franchise star. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league and Lionel Hollins is a decided advantage. With a fast-break team that got wins over a lot of playoff squads last year, why can’t they take a step forward and win a playoff series?

Minnesota Timberwolves: The media just hates us. And David Kahn. They’re just too simple to see the truth. This team is primed for a breakout. They say Kevin Love is such a terrific talent, but the Timberwolves won’t use him despite trading Jefferson to make room for him.They say Michael Beasley is such a waste, but he tore up the preseason. They say they overpaid for Darko but then talk about the lack of legitimate centers in the league. If the media would get over themselves, they’d see that Wes Johnson is  a star in the making, Kevin Love is already a star, the team has better depth, and all this before Rubio comes. But after this season, there’s no way he’ll stay away. Then the media will see how great Kahn’s plan is.

New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul’s back, so the Hornets have Chris Paul, to go along with David West, Okafor, Thornton, and now Bayless. The Hornets almost made the playoffs without CP3 playing. How good will they be with him on board, and a better wing in Ariza. It’s time for everyone to remember how great CP3 is. Now if we could only get the team sold…

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sorry! Can’t talk right now! We’re having a party over how great our team and its future is for the next four years! PS Kevin Durant is the MVP!

Phoenix Suns: Okay, losing Amar’e is going to hurt. But hurt enough to lose a playoff spot? Did the Suns lose Steve Nash, too? Oh, no, they didn’t. They’ll be fine. The team won last year with slightly decent defense and a tougher brand of offense. Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will help in their positions and the team is still deep enough to win as long as Nash is healthy. Never count out Steve Nash.

Portland Trailblazers: Pritchard’s gone, but Cho looks great so far. Freak injuries were the only things that delayed progress last season. And Greg Oden will be a franchise player. He just has bad luck. And bad luck passes. When he gets healthy, he’ll become the All-Star he was before the injury. Brandon Roy will bounce back, the back court depth has improved and been cleaned up. There’s been every indication that the team will only improve this season, and with Nate McMillan at the helm, they can survive until everyone gets healthy. The team isn’t a young squad anymore, but it’s deep and versatile. And all it needs is a few things to go its way, for once. That’s go to happen sometime.

Sacramento Kings: Looks like Thunder. Feels like Thunder. Loaded like Thunder. Why can’t the Kings make a huge leap with two superstars they drafted? Tyreke Evans is the best sophomore in the league, the team is coming together, DeMarcus Cousins will be a beast, and they have some depth to go along with the talent. There’s no reason this team can’t make a push for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: Greatness doesn’t age. It endures. A healthy team and this is the Western Conference Finals. A few things go right and the Spurs are in the playoffs. Is there any question that this team can’t compete with the Lakers in a seven game series? One more ring for Timmy. Something to keep Parker home. The Blair Bear. Jefferson’s fitting in. James Anderson was another steal. Pop’s got one more ring in him. Duncan needs one to put him ahead of Shaq once and for all. The window hasn’t closed, and the youth on this team could prop it open just long enough to steal gold.

Utah Jazz: Lost Carlos Boozer. Added Al Jefferson. Lost Kyle Korver. Added Raja Bell. Lost Ronnie Brewer. Added Gordon Hayward. This is the definition of a reloaded team, and one that may be better than the one last season. The team has faced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs. But anything can happen in sports. That has to be how it is. What’s the point, otherwise?

LeBron James first player to reach six straight finals in 50 years

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It speaks to an incredible level of talent — talent that was honed in countless hours in the gym.

It speaks to an amazing durability.

It speaks to leadership.

LeBron James has a long resume of accomplishments — two titles, four MVPs, and he hasn’t missed an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team for a decade — but he reached one of his more impressive milestones in leading the Cavaliers past the Raptors to the NBA Finals on Friday night.

LeBron has reached six straight NBA Finals.

He’s the first player to do so in 50 years.

The last guys to do this were Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy and other members of the 1950s-60s Celtics dynasty. Nobody since has done it — not Magic, Bird, Jordan, Wilt or the rest.

Yes, it helps cement LeBron’s legacy as one of the all-time greats, but more than that it’s something we need to step back and appreciate. These were all LeBron-led teams — he has been the leader on and off the court, setting the tone. That requires incredible talent and skill on the court, plus knowing how to make those guys better not just drag them along on your coat tails. It also takes incredible physical durability. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

“There’s only one LeBron James,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team was eliminated by James and company. “He makes a difference on whatever team he plays on.”

I can feel the typing in the comment section already: “But he’s 2-4 in the Finals, Jordan was 6-0” or “But he’s done it in a weak East” or “He keeps just jumping teams to where he has the most help.” It’s all just sad. Because LeBron James is the first NBA superstar of the social media age he faces a volume of criticism that past stars did not. It’s not that LeBron hasn’t brought some criticism on himself, but there is a need to tear him down that the mythologized Jordan never dealt with. We savored Jordan at the time; LeBron has never gotten that. Jordan took 13 NBA teams to the playoffs, six made the Finals; LeBron has taken 11 and seven are in the Finals. The thing is, it’s difficult to compare across eras in the NBA:

All of this is not to say LeBron’s record is better than Jordan’s, you and your buddies can debate that while sitting on bar stools until last call, but LeBron has been on an epic run through the peak of his career the likes we haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of the game, you should appreciate that, not try to tear it down (as if Jordan’s legacy somehow needs protecting).

What LeBron has done is a stunning accomplishment. If you’re in the same sentence with the legendary Russell Celtics teams, you’re doing something right.

Warriors/Thunder Game 6: Four things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to close out series

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors react in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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For the Thunder, it is a chance for validation and an opportunity to get the ring Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, and the rest of them) crave. For the Warriors, it is their biggest test of the last two seasons. Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City, here are four things to watch.

1) Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson need to play better for the Thunder. After a couple of series where Waiters suddenly has been reborn as a quality NBA player who is the third playmaker the Thunder need, and after Andre Roberson dropped a career playoff high of 17 points the game before, both were MIA in Game 5. Roberson was 2-of-5 shooting and had as many points as fouls (six). Waiters didn’t hit a shot all night. This was tied to the Thunder returning to the bad habits of too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking on the world and OKC not enough ball movement in the halfcourt. The Scott Brooks Thunder of the past few seasons showed up in Game 5, if the Thunder fall back to those bad habits again, they will lose again.

I expect the Thunder to treat this like their Game 7 and play much better. They will have a real sense of urgency; their defense will again be energized. The question becomes can the Warriors match it?

2) Can Andrew Bogut keep the Thunder from scoring in the paint?
In Game 5, the Thunder were 8-of-18 shooting in the restricted area, and 7-of-19 in the rest of the paint. That’s not going to get it done. A lot of that was the impact Bogut had in the paint — plus he got help, the Warriors switched pick-and-rolls more, they packed the paint more and took away driving lanes. It all worked, in part because Bogut and Draymond Green played with much better energy than in previous games. Steve Kerr said he didn’t play Bogut as many minutes in the first four games due to foul trouble, he has to trust the veteran to play through fouls in this game. The Warriors have simply been better with him on the court this series and they need close to 30 minutes from him this game.

Tied to Bogut’s play…

3) Golden State defense needs to show up on the road. As noted above, the Warriors went back to a more traditional defense in Game 5 — they started guarding Roberson (rather than having a big “guard” and ignore him to protect the paint), they switched, they stayed home in the paint, and they just trusted each other and played their system better. It was a marked improvement. However, they did it at home — now they need to do it on the road, where Green, in particular, has been more prone to mistakes and frustration.

One key here worth emphasizing is the Warriors got back to switching most pick-and-rolls — that’s what they did all season, that’s part of why the “death lineup” is so successful defensively, yet in this series they increasingly went away from it (in part because of how they guarded Roberson). Switching is part of who the Warriors are, and while it will create some mismatches teams don’t want to stray too far from their core identity.

4) Stephen Curry needs to be MVP level Curry. Draymond Green needs to be his All-NBA self.
I’m not saying the same thing about Durant and Westbrook because I have no doubt they will show up with urgency in their games Saturday night. However, Curry and Draymond have been shadows of themselves in the two previous games in Oklahoma City, and if that happens again only one team is flying back to the Bay Area postgame.

Curry finished his drives a little better in Game 5, and at moments he blew by bigs switched onto him off of picks, something we have seen far less of this series than during the season. Green played well defensively in Game 5, he hit the boards hard, but he made some head-scratching offensive decisions. If the Warriors are going to force a Game 7, those two guys have to be elite in this game. The Warriors best players must lead. It’s that simple.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.