Nuggets need to get back to basics to beat the Warriors in crucial game 3

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Even though the series is tied at one game a piece, the Nuggets have been thoroughly outplayed by the Warriors in the first two games. Golden State has had the better game plan and has made the better adjustments. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been very good in some areas but not able to play their normal breakneck style for sustained stretches.

This, of course, is a problem. If the Warriors are controlling the tempo, dictating the match ups, and playing their own game more than the Nuggets get to play theirs, this series will turn out different than many expected — expectations that shifted even further when David Lee was injured.

If the Nuggets are to regain the momentum lost during a split on their home court, they need to get back to playing their game; get back to dictating the terms of engagement. That means getting out in the open court and scoring baskets in the paint.

The Warriors have done a good job of stopping the Nuggets’ open court attack by abandoning offensive rebounding chances in favor of getting at least three players back in transition defense. Also, it’s very hard to run for easy baskets when you’re taking the ball out of the bottom of the net as often as the Nuggets have this series.

Denver, then, needs a counter and needs one quickly. Enter Ty Lawson. The speedy point guard has had a very good series so far, shooting the ball relatively well and being aggressive in stretches. However, if the Nuggets want to change the pace and feel of this game, it must start with Lawson getting aggressive every time he touches the ball, looking to push in the open court and not settling to back the ball out and run a half court set. The Warriors are a good defensive team and are taking away the Nuggets’ deep passes up the sideline. So, Lawson must change the attack and rather than throw the ball up the court he must advance it with the dribble.

Second, the Nuggets must get back to being the team with the better frontline. In the first two games, Andrew Bogut has been the series’ best big man and has controlled the defensive paint. In game two, the Warriors’ best lineup was Bogut and four wings (Jarrett Jack, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes) and the Nuggets tried to counter that with an equally small lineup only without a traditional center. That approach failed as Kenneth Faried clearly wasn’t physically 100%.

Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee need to have more of an impact in game 3, doing a better job defensively in the pick and roll, but especially being more active around their own offensive paint. The Nuggets are at their best not only when they attack the rim in the open court and off dribble drives in the half court, but when their big men effectively crash the offensive glass. Yes, the Nuggets have to balance their pursuit of their own misses with getting back on defense, but they also need to remember why they’ve been so successful this season and that involves punishing teams with second chance points.

Of course, none of this will be easy. The Warriors have the momentum now. And, while Denver has been so great at home they’ve been a much worse team on the road. And few arenas in the league are as wild and rambunctious as Oracle Arena during a playoff game. The crowd will be into the game and they will spur on the home team.

But the Warriors have their own questions to answer and can’t just rely on the crowd to push them to a win. Curry is coming off a sprained ankle in game 2 and is a game-time decision for this game (though I bet he plays). Their small lineup was effective in the last game but how much of that success was based off a shooting performance that isn’t likely to be duplicated? At some point, missing David Lee has to matter, right?

How the Warriors answer these questions and whether or not the Nuggets can find their lost rhythm will determine the winner.

Report: LeBron James won’t take discount from max salary

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In 2014, LeBron James made clear he’d accept no less than a max salary.

Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

James’ position on maximum contracts hasn’t changed, sources said.

Are we sure LeBron will even opt out next summer? If he opts in, he’ll earn $35,607,968 next season. If he opts out, his max starting salary projects to be $35,350,000.

Those numbers are obviously close, but LeBron will be working with imperfect information. He must decide on his player option by June 29. The salary cap, from which max salaries are derived, won’t be released until July 1.

But I doubt LeBron is fretting a few hundred thousand dollars. I don’t think he’s worried directly about the monetary difference between a max and near-max contract at all. He’s set financially, regardless.

I think this is about power. LeBron can demand a team give him as much money as allowed, and whichever one he picks will. That’s appealing from an ego standpoint, which is why I expect LeBron to opt out (or at least wield his player option to get where he wants, but more on that later).

Demanding a max salary also fits LeBron as player-union vice president. It sets a precedent teams must spend to acquire talent. That’s healthy for players as a collective.

It’s easy to say LeBron can afford to take a small discount to help his team win a championship, because that’s the paradigm. Instead, he’s challenging teams to think smartly and creatively to find a way to max him out and still build a strong supporting cast.

That doesn’t preclude LeBron from eventually relenting and taking a discount if it’s advantageous. After all, LeBron once said he’d take a discount to play with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. But he’s setting a far harder line than before.

LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh took discounts to join Miami in 2010. Heat owner Micky Arison delighted in the championships and recognition those stars provided – then cut corners on the rest of the roster to save money. LeBron noticed then left. He’s clearly not accepting that anymore.

So, every team is on notice – which is why it’s overly simplistic to say every team wants to sign LeBron. Of course, every team wants to sign LeBron. But not every team is willing to take the steps necessary to seriously pursue LeBron.

In 2014, the Cavaliers made a salary-dump trade before securing a commitment from LeBron. That paid off, but they could have just been frittering away assets if he signed elsewhere. Worse, if they didn’t make the trade, LeBron might not have returned.

The 76ers won’t necessarily have max cap space next summer, but they’re reportedly expected to chase LeBron. That suggests they’ll make proactive moves if necessary to have a chance. The Lakers should have max cap space, regardless.

And what about the Rockets? They’re another team linked to LeBron, but they’ll be hard-pressed to clear max space for him. They already have nearly $76 million committed to just five players (James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene) plus three starters (Paul, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza) headed into free agency.

But they could trade for LeBron if he opts in on condition of a deal, a la Paul last summer. How about Anderson and either Gordon or a signed-and-traded Ariza plus picks to the Cavs if they’re convinced LeBron would leave in free agency otherwise? Houston would have to send a load of picks, but it’s at least feasible.

That way, LeBron might earn more next season and re-sign for a larger max contract in 2019 – a projected $219 million over five years. That’s more than he projects to get if he re-signs with Cleveland long-term this summer ($205 million over five years).

However, that’s based on salary-cap projections that could change. And the Rockets might balk at spending so much. Of course, LeBron could also always execute the opt-in/re-sign-in-2019 plan with the Cavaliers. A trade to Houston won’t change how much money he can command from his team.

But it’s the type of no-settling thinking that might appeal to him.

Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”

Listen to what LeBron James told Lonzo Ball on court (video)

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LeBron Jameson-court conversation with Lonzo Ball after the Cavaliers beat the Lakers last night quickly became a fascination.

With LeBron-to-the-Lakers rumorsfueled by Ball himself – swirling, did LeBron tip his plans for free agency?

Here’s what LeBron said after the game:

LeBron:

I don’t see the reaction, because I don’t get involved in it. I don’t do it to get a reaction.

I do it because he’s said over and over since he was growing up and who he modeled his game after. And who was his favorite player? And it was me, and I was humbled by that. So me wishing him a happy birthday was kind of a salute back to him.

I see all the stupid noise that happens, and I can’t buy a place in L.A. I can’t live in L.A. It’s funny noise. But I don’t get involved in it, because when I post things, I don’t look at comments. I’m so far removed of the white noise and the noise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.

Were you mentoring Ball or giving him advice? LeBron:

None of y’all business.

Unfortunately for LeBron, a microphone picked up most of the conversation (hat tip: reddit user IT-3):

LeBron, best I can tell:

Find your zone and just stay f—ing locked in. The media is going to ask you what I told you right now. Tell them nothing. Just be aggressive every single day.

It’s white noise to you. That’s all it is. Alright? Let’s go.

LeBron was never going to say something controversial in front of all those cameras. He knows better, especially after attention drawn by his on-court conversation with Dwyane Wade a few years ago.

Unsurprisingly, LeBron’s words directly to Ball mirror what he told the media after the game. There’s no secret plot here – just someone who has been in the spotlight for years trying to help someone going through it now.

Who needs good form? Hawks fan nails halfcourt shot for $10k (video)

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Former Hawks owner Bruce Levenson didn’t want guys like this shooting this shot.

I’m so glad this fan got the opportunity. This was Atlanta’s biggest highlight while losing to the Pistons — and John Collins had a nice dunk over Luke Kennard: