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Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

One way the Warriors can get him going and aggressive: A Curry/Durant pick-and-roll. On Christmas, the Warriors didn’t run it once, but it’s been more of a go-to move in recent weeks. It’s as hard to defend as you imagine.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

Stephen Curry Curry to play Web.com Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic

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HAYWARD, Calif. (AP) — Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is set to test his golf game against the pros.

The Web.com Tour said Wednesday that Curry, coming off his second NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors, will play in the Ellie Mae Classic at TPC Stonebrae on Aug. 3-6.

It’ll be the first PGA Tour-sanctioned event for Curry, who has competed in various celebrity events and pro-ams. The top 25 on Web.com Tour’s regular-season money list will earn PGA Tour cards.

Curry will maintain his amateur status, competing on an unrestricted sponsor exemption in the event that benefits the Warriors Community Foundation.

Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice played in the event in 2011 and 2012. He missed the cut in 2011 with rounds of 83 and 76 and withdrew in 2012 after playing 27 holes in 23 over.

Also Wednesday, Nissan’s upscale Infiniti brand announced that Curry would be its new global brand ambassador. The point guard will be featured in ads for the Q50 sports sedan beginning this summer.

Report: Clippers never committed to offer Chris Paul five-year max contract

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The Clippers projected to be able to offer Chris Paul a five-year, $201 million contract that would have culminated with a $46 million salary in his final season.

Did they offer that much before sending him to the Rockets?

Just as one side is trying to pin all the Clippers’ problems on Doc Rivers and Austin Rivers, the Clippers surely want to spin Paul’s exit to another way – that they shrewdly chose when to part ways rather than that they lost the best player in franchise history due to nepotism.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

If Paul really wanted that five-year max, he could have pushed harder for it by bringing counter offers to the Clippers in July rather than engineering his way to Houston before free agency even began.

Would the Clippers have eventually relented and offered the five-year max? We can never know for certain.

But it’s pretty clear why the Clippers would want this version out there. Accurate or not, it makes them seem far more on top of things and is less likely to taint them with free agents they covet in 2018.

How Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza complicate Rockets’ pursuit of third star

AP Photo/John Raoux
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After pairing Chris Paul and James Harden, the Rockets are reportedly chasing a third starPaul George, Carmelo Anthony or someone else.

But Houston parted with significant assets to land Paul from the Clippers. And the Rockets will have a tricky time dealing two remaining players, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Unloading Ryan Anderson to sign Paul outright would have helped Houston keep one of their outgoing guards, but the market for the three years and $60 million left on Anderson’s deal was frigid. Not even the Kings wanted him for free. At least two teams would have demanded two Houston first-round picks in exchange for absorbing Anderson, according to several league sources.

The salary filler probably can’t be Trevor Ariza, by the way. Ariza and Paul are close after years together in New Orleans, and playing with Ariza factored at least a little into Paul’s decision, per league sources. The Clippers had tried to trade for him in prior seasons, sources say. Ariza is also still good at a coveted position, and his Bird Rights will be valuable to a capped-out Rockets team next summer.

Anderson would be dangerous as a stretch four in pick-and-pops with Paul and Harden. Even if he’s overpaid, might be better to keep him than surrender more assets to dump him.

Likewise, Ariza is a nice two-way player and can play small-ball four. There’s a use for him on this team.

But beyond them, Houston is left with Eric Gordon and Clint Capela as movable players. Gordon, with a higher salary and less obvious fit with Paul and Harden, would almost certainly be a key cog in a trade for another star. Capela is younger and more valuable, though the Rockets would probably want to keep him as a defensive anchor.

That might not be possible while trading for a third star, though. Houston can’t even guarantee sending out another first-round pick in a trade after sending a protected first-rounder to the Clippers. (The Rockets could agree to convey a first-rounder two years after sending one to L.A., which would is highly likely to convey next year.) Including Capela in a trade might be the only way to assemble a suitable package.

Even then, Houston would be hard-pressed to surpass an offer from the Lakers or Celtics for George. Plus, if Indiana is rebuilding around Myles Turner, Capela is an awkward fit. That trade might require a third team – causing further complications.

Hoping Anthony gets bought out by the Knicks then signs for the mid-level exception is much simpler – though that route returns the lesser third star.

But Daryl Morey just brought Chris Paul to Houston before free agency even began. Now is not the time to underestimate the Rockets general manager.

Report: Knicks won’t consider Isiah Thomas to run front office

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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A couple years ago, Knicks owner James Dolan said there was no scenario Isiah Thomas would return to the Knicks.

But Dolan also said a few months ago he’d keep Phil Jackson for the duration of Jackson’s five-year contract.

With Dolan effectively firing Jackson today, could Thomas become the Knicks’ next president?

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

The Post also learned Liberty president Isiah Thomas would not be considered for Jackson’s successor.

It’s sad that this needs to be reported. It’s even sadder that, even if this the Knicks’ plans right now, there are no assurances Dolan holds steady.

Dumping Jackson is a reason to celebrate. But as long as Dolan owns the team, it must be a reserved celebration.

At least the Knicks’ next step won’t include Thomas. Probably.