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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.

PBT Extra: Despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double pace, James Harden is MVP frontrunner

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The NBA’s MVP race is down to two men. Sure, you can make a case for Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James, some even want to throw Isaiah Thomas in the mix, but the best any of them is going to do is down the ballot in the final three slots.

The top two are reserved for James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

In this PBT Extra, I discuss that while Westbrook is on pace for a historic season — averaging a triple-double of 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 10.1 assists a game — it is Harden who is lifting his team to higher heights, and that very well could win the beard the award.

As Texas legislature considers it’s own “bathroom bill,” Adam Silver hints it could cost Houston All-Star Game

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 18:  NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks with the media during a press conference at Smoothie King Center on February 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — The 2017 NBA All-Star Game is co-existing with the start of Mardis Gras in New Orleans right now because of the North Carolina legislature.

When that state passed bill HB2, commonly called “the bathroom law,” the NBA owners and Adam Silver rightfully drew a line in the sand and said, in so many words, “we’re not bringing our All-Star Game to your city if that discriminatory law is on the books.” Of course, there was no way a Republican-controlled legislator and governor were going to cave on a red meat issue for their base like that one in an election year. So the NBA joined numerous businesses that pulled out of the state, as well as some musical acts planning concerts, and took their business elsewhere.

Right now, the Texas legislature is considering a similar bill.

Houston is considered a frontrunner to land the 2020 or 2021 All-Star Game, the NBA has opened the application process for those games and Houston is interested.

Could the bill kill Houston’s application before it even gets to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s desk? Silver is too smart a lawyer and negotiator to box himself in a corner and say there is no way Houston gets the All-Star Game if the law passes, but he made it clear it could.

“You know, I’m not ready to draw bright lines. Clearly, though, the laws of the state, ordinances, and cities are a factor we look at in deciding where to play our All-Star Games,” Silver said at his annual All-Star Weekend press conference.

“I think the issue is we’d have to look at the specific legislation and understand its impact. I mean, I’m not ready to stand here today and say that that is the bright line test for whether or not we will play All-Star Games in Texas. It’s something we’re, of course, going to monitor very closely. What we’ve stated is that our values, our league-wide values in terms of equality and inclusion are paramount to this league and all the members of the NBA family, and I think those jurisdictions that are considering legislation similar to HB2 are on notice that that is an important factor for us. Those values are an important factor for us in deciding where we take a special event like an All-Star Game.”

The 2018 NBA All-Star Game is headed to Los Angeles, and there is no concern that California is going to pass such a law. The 2019 game is officially unscheduled right now, but the NBA’s hope is to give it to Charlotte if HB2 is rolled back or eliminated. The uproar over the law is part of the reason the former governor Pat McCrory lost his re-election bid last November to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper.

“I have talked to Governor Cooper, the new Governor of North Carolina since he was elected, really to express our desire to return to North Carolina [in 2019] for our All-Star Game,” Silver said. “We have a team in North Carolina. We have a development team, soon to be a G-League team, in North Carolina. And 20 other teams will visit North Carolina this season. So we’d very much like to get back there.

“We had a discussion so I understood, certainly, his position, when he was running for office, was anti-HB2, the bill that ultimately led to our leaving. So I really was talking to him more to understand, from his standpoint, how he was hoping to move forward in terms of changing that law. My pain purpose of talking to him was to express our desire to return.”

The HB2 law covered a variety of issues, but what drew the most attention was that it restricts transgender bathroom use — you have to use the bathroom for the gender with which you were born. The law also superseded anti-discrimination ordinances put in by the city of Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, laws that tried to block discrimination against gays and lesbians. 

While any state has the right to put on the books laws it sees fit (within the framework of the Constitution), those actions can come with consequences. Just like Texas has the right to put the law on the books (not a sure thing, there has been pushback from the business community in the state), the NBA has the right to decide where it will do business. And bringing an All-Star Game to a city is a big economic boost — Charlotte lost an estimated $100 million in spending without the game, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Kevin Durant introduced as ‘OKC’s own’ (video)

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Kevin Durant attended the Three-Point Shootout, which was a perfect time to introduce the high-profile Warriors star.

It just happened in an incredibly awkward way.

Report: Former Magic teammates had ‘real issues’ with Serge Ibaka

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, of Congo, reacts after being called for a foul while defending a shot by Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets won 125-112. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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In trading Serge Ibaka to the Raptors, the Magic didn’t just get assets (Terrence Ross and a first-round pick) for a player who seemed increasingly likely to leave in unrestricted free agency this summer.

Orlando apparently also got rid of a headache.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Going from the winning Thunder to the lowly Magic probably didn’t bring out the best in Ibaka, and thats understandable, though not entirely excusable.

I also wonder how much of this was situational rather than anything Ibaka actively did wrong.

His presence forced Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green from their ideal position of power forward to small forward. That narrowed Mario Hezonja‘s path the the court. Any minutes Ibaka received at center cut into Bismack Biyombo‘s and Nikola Vucevic‘s playing time.

Both elements probably worked in concert. Ibaka disrupted the play of several teammates just by being there, which likely led to them giving him less benefit of the doubt about his attitude.

Don’t absolve Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, though. He built a roster overloaded with bigs. He asked for leadership from a newcomer who was third banana at best on his previous team and is entering a contract year. It’s not a huge shock this dynamic soured on and off the court.