Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry reacts during their NBA Western Division quarter-final playoff game against the Denver Nuggets in Oakland

Warriors shoot, play solid defense and take control of series 3-1 over Nuggets

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When David Lee went down for the playoffs with a torn hip flexor, the Warriors were going to go small and it was hard to see how they were going to slow down a Denver team that led the NBA in points in the paint this past season. Not that Lee’s a defensive force, but he’s a big body and where was Golden State’s inside/outside balance going to come from?

Meet Andrew Bogut.

Bogut has stepped up like his old self and Stephen Curry has cemented his position as the best shooter in the Association over the last three games.

That combination — and a rash of Denver Nugget turnovers — led the Warriors to a 115-101 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Game 5 is in Denver Tuesday night.

Golden State went small when Lee went down — starting Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson — and just decided to run with Denver. Game 4 was played at a pace faster than the Nuggets averaged in the regular season.

It works in part because Bogut is having his best stretch of play since before his elbow injury back in Milwaukee, back when people in the game thought Bogut one of the best centers around. In the first half Bogut went 6-of-9 for 12 points, leading a team that shot 52.5 percent in the first 24 minutes. Bogut was throwing down dunks and roaring at the Nuggets. Denver did a good job of taking the ball out of Curry’s hands — he was just 1-of-3 in the first (and that make was a deep three up against the clock).

But the Nuggets couldn’t take advantage because Warriors also did a good job of crowding the paint and contesting the Nuggets shots when they drove the lane. Bogut again was at the heart of that. Denver shot just 42.9 percent in the first half and the team that led the league in points in the paint in the first half had just 18 points.

Golden State went on an 11-0 to end the first half and lead 56-44 at the break. Denver had six turnovers during that run, 14 for the half and was stalling them out.

That trend continued, Denver ended the game having turned the ball over on 23.3 percent of their possessions. They turned it over almost one if four times down the court.

Denver made a push in the third quarter and got the lead down to four with 6:30 left and looked like they might make the series all square.

Then Curry hit another three and it was on. He finished the third with 22 points, he had the crowd fired up — and there are few crowds louder, few places harder to play when the stadium is rocking than Golden State.

Curry finished with 31 points and the Warriors ran away with it in the fourth quarter. Jack finished with 21 and six Warriors were in double digits. Golden State had 48 points in the paint to 36 for a Denver team that averaged more than 50 a game that way in the regular season.

Golden State has embraced what they had to do after Lee went down, beating Denver at its own game. Denver needs Kenneth Faried and its big men to step up and match Bogut, to defend in the paint. When that happens, the Nuggets can focus on keeping a guy on Curry from the second he steps over the half court line, because right now that’s where his range starts.

Denver is going to need a lot or a team everybody was high on a month ago as a team that could shake up the West will be gone after the first round. Maybe after Tuesday.

Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan becomes bona fide star just in time for Toronto All-Star Game

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (10) celebrates scoring during his team's 101-81 win over Miami Heat during an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – DeMar DeRozan admits he’s a terrible planner.

“Don’t ask me, are we going to go to dinner next week and what time?” the Raptors wing said. “Because I don’t know. You’ve got to ask me an hour before. … A hour before I’m hungry, I decide.”

That blind spot makes it easier for DeRozan to focus on the task at hand, especially with so much – Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto, an opportunity for playoff redemption and a max contract in free agency – ahead of him.

DeRozan, already an All-Star and two-time 20-point-per-game scorer, is having his best season by a decent margin. His Raptors are 35-17 and looking increasingly capable of challenging the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title many already handed Cleveland.

And it’s because DeRozan never got too comfortable with what he already accomplished nor too caught up in what he could accomplish. Calling himself the “most mellowest person,” DeRozan just tries to stay in the moment.

Toronto coach Dwane Casey credited DeRozan for working on one aspect of his game each offseason, including “just handling the ball in the post and not throwing it in the fourth row” when they first worked together. But saying DeRozan polished only one skill since last year would be selling him far too short.

DeRozan has transformed his offensive game, becoming more effective than ever.

Start with his ability to get to the basket. That had long been a strength, but DeRozan has taken it to another level this year. He ranks seconds in the NBA in drives per game (11.6):

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And third in free-throw attempts per game(8.3):

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How does someone so mellow find the aggression to play a style that generates so much contact?

“I grew up different from a lot of people,” said DeRozan, a Compton native. “I grew up in an aggressive area. I had an aggressive lifetime for a long time. I just felt like, I’ve seen a lot of stuff and did a lot of stuff at a young age that make you mellow now, but once you grow up in that aggressive nature, it’s just always going to stick with you.”

DeRozan said he found a difference balance in his life at USC, where he spent only one year, as he hilariously told teammate Kyle Lowry.

DeRozan’s one year in college helped make him the No. 9 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, but he entered the league with one glaring deficiency: outside shooting. DeRozan made just six three pointers at USC – and even fewer, four and five, his first two NBA seasons.

Still not quite to league average, DeRozan has at least become a credible threat beyond the arc this season, shooting a career-high 33.7%:

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These shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are coming at the expense of long 2s. After peaking at 36.5% three years ago and remaining a far-too-high 33.8% last year, DeRozan is taking just 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc:

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For someone who declared just last year, “I don’t care about analytics at all. I could give a hell about them,” his game has sure become more analytically friendly.

The previous two years, DeRozan had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among 20-point scorers – ahead of only Kobe Bryant last season and LaMarcus Aldridge the season prior. Now, DeRozan’s true shooting percentage (54.8) is above league average for the first time since his rookie year, which – not coincidentally – was the only time his usage percentage fell below league average.

There’s a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and DeRozan was on the wrong end of it. He was increasing his scoring by taking more bad shots.

His improved efficiency hasn’t come with shifting the shooting burden to less-capable teammates, either. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7) is a career high and ranks above Carmelo Anthony‘s, Kevin Durant‘s and John Wall‘s.

The turnaround is all the more stunning considering how limited DeRozan looked as an inefficient gunner.

A whopping 74.5% of his long 2s were assisted in 2010-11. That number fell 47.5% last season, which look more ridiculous if not for the great height from which it fell. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas – another player on both the drives and free-throw attempts leaderboard – has just 34.2% of his long 2s assisted.

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Essentially, DeRozan was taking too many bad shots – and needed help getting them.

This year, DeRozan looks much more in control with the ball in his hands. Only 26.8% of his long 2s are assisted, not that he’s taking that many shots from that range, anyway.

He’s also using his greater control to dish a career-high 4.7 assists per game. Continuing the trend, it’s a substantive improvement. DeRozan isn’t throwing foolish passes in the hopes of upping his assist numbers. His turnovers remain characteristically low, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a career best.

DeRozan has looked the part of a star the previous couple years. This season, he has produced like a star, too.

Lowry has watched the process unfold.

“It’s just being comfortable in your own skin,” Lowry said. “He doesn’t worry about what anybody says. He’s going to be comfortable in his own skin at all times.”

Lowry and DeRozan have developed a fun bond in their four seasons together, and it’s special they’ll represent the Raptors together in the Toronto All-Star game.

DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013, when the Raptors became good enough to warrant an All-Star but reserve-voting coaches still seemed bitter at Lowry, a superior player who’d clashed with his coaches when younger. Lowry got his first All-Star appearance last year, fans voting him a starter.

This year, both deserve to be there.

The next step is turning their individual success into team success. Despite holding home-court advantage the last two years, the Raptors were bounced in the first round – by the Nets in 2014 and Wizards in 2015. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, which was also the last time it produced two All-Stars (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis).

With DeRozan playing like a true star, this could be the year the Raptors break the drought.

Individual riches for DeRozan should follow.

He reportedly and logically plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $10,050,000 next season. The upside? A max deal projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years if he re-signs or $110 million over four years elsewhere.

DeRozan always probably could have pulled at least one max offer in what will be a player-friendly market next summer. But this improvement makes it far more likely he’ll have his pick of max options, and not just from teams as desperate as the Lakers.

Despite not looking ahead often, DeRozan says he has one plan for handling free agency: Calling Lowry.

“I’m putting it on Kyle,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know. I’m going to put in on Kyle when that day comes. So, whatever he says, that’s where I’m going to go.”

So, that means DeRozan will return to the Raptors?

“At the end of the day, I’m his friend first,” said Lowry, who spurned heavy outside interest to re-sign in 2014. “He’s going to make a decision on what’s comfortable for him, and I’m going to support everything he does – just like he did for me.”

That’s very nice, but doesn’t Lowry at least hope that process leads DeRozan back to Toronto?

“At the end of the day, I’m going to support my friend – no matter what it is,” Lowry said.

There was long reason to doubt the relative emptiness of DeRozan’s numbers. But what’s clear: The people around him believe in him.

“He hasn’t reached the ceiling of his game yet,” Casey said, “and that’s the great thing about him, because he is a worker.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo sprints from behind to reject John Wall dunk (video)

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There’s a lot to like about Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Maybe his most impressive ability? How quickly he covers ground.

Report: Brooklyn Nets GM search down to finalists

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  The Brooklyn Nets logo adorns center court prior to the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Barclays Center on November 25, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. 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 Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Brooklyn Nets remain without a general manager. With the trade deadline less than a week away. Meaning simply, when you hear rumors the next week of a blockbuster Nets trade dismiss them, they aren’t going to be doing that because they don’t have anyone in the big chair to make that call.

Someone may be in the big chair before the deadline, however. (Not soon enough to make a significant deadline deal, however.) The Nets are down to a few finalists for the job, reports Chris Broussard at ESPN.

The frontrunners are believed to be two-time executive of the year Bryan Colangelo, Denver Nuggets assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas and San Antonio Spurs assistant GM Sean Marks….

Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov told ESPN.com on Wednesday that his search committee’s first round of interviews is over, and they were in the process of compiling a short list of candidates.

Any of those men can do a good job — if they are given the space by Prokhorov and his people to make moves and rebuild the organization without meddling or pressure to do things quickly. Prokhorov says he wants a quick turnaround for his 14-40 team, but it was his pressure on former GM Billy King to put together an immediate title contender with no regard for the long term that put the Nets in the hole they are in now.

Let’s hope he and his people have learned their lessons and they let the basketball people make the basketball decisions.

Worst dunks in All-Star Dunk Contest history? We got that video.

at Verizon Center on February 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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.
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The All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest has brought some memorable moments — Dr. J and Michael Jordan gliding through the air, Dwight Howard in a Superman cape, Nate Robinson showing off serious hops, through last season and Zach LaVine re-energizing the event with his athletic throw downs.

But there have been some duds, too — and from some elite dunkers. Here is a highlight mix of the worst, which is almost as much fun as the best. Enjoy, then tune in for hopefully more good than bad from Toronto Saturday night on TNT when LaVine and the dunk contest return.