Three Things We Learned Thursday: Ice-cold Warriors struggle to find old identity without Durant


There was a time not long ago when watching the Warriors play was like watching a golden eagle hunt a fox, but not the last couple of games. So if you were watching videos of Eagles hunting on YouTube rather than the NBA’s offerings, here are the key takeaways.

1) Warriors struggle to adapt to life without Kevin Durant, can’t just flip the switch to old self/style, fall to Bulls. Andre Iguodala said it postgame: “He made the game easy for us, and you can get comfortable because of his skill set and his talent.” All season long, getting to a 50-9 record, the Warriors had a “get out of jail free” card when they were cold or sloppy because Kevin Durant could create his own shot, space the floor with his shooting, and provide them interior defense. KD was playing in a way that would have gotten him on a lot of MVP ballots (not at the top, but in the bottom three of the five voting slots), he was the Warriors best player, and he made the game easy.

With Durant out until around the start of the playoffs with a knee injury, the idea was that the Warriors would just slip back into the mode and style that won them a title two years ago, then 73 games last season. But as losses to the Bulls and Wizards the last couple nights showed, it’s not that simple. The Warriors are not near that spot right now. There are a number of factors at play.

• The Warriors spacing is off without Durant, and the cuts and screens off ball that generated so much of the Warriors offense with KD is not as effective without him on the court and touching the ball. The last two seasons the Bulls relied much more heavily on Stephen Curry running the pick-and-roll on offense, he’s very good at it, and Steve Kerr needs to get back to a heavier dose of that offense.

• More Curry pick-and-rolls, and a larger role for Klay Thompson, only works if the Splash Brothers are splashing shots. They are not, both are ice cold.

• The Warriors played Durant with the second unit a lot, and that group really missed having him on the floor. The Warriors also coasted on defense at points, they can’t do that anymore without KD’s length out there to cover some of their mistakes.

• If there has been an exploitable flaw in the Warriors this season, it’s that if you get them into close games, they are not nearly the same team that just destroyed opponents in that situation last season. Even with Durant, the Warriors struggled in the clutch compared to previous seasons — it was just hard to get them in that situation. (For purposes of “clutch” we are talking about a game within five points in the final five minutes or overtime.)

• All of that does not give the Bulls, and particularly Jimmy Butler, enough credit. Butler was the best player on the court, finishing with 22 points, six assists, and doing a fantastic job defensively anticipating passes and being disruptive of the Warriors offense. Bobby Portis had maybe his best game in the NBA with 17 and 13, but all the Bulls were just making plays.

2) Interesting NBA subplot: Could Kevin Durant injury earn Paul George $210 million? The Indiana Pacers didn’t trade Paul George at the deadline mostly because they didn’t want to — they want to find a way to keep him, to build a contender around him. (A lot of talk radio guys ask “why didn’t the Celtics pull the trigger?” on a George trade and miss the point, it takes two to dance, and the Celtics were not the unwilling partner.) There are a couple of ways to do that, but the most likely is for George to make an All-NBA team this season, allowing the Pacers to offer him a “designated player” max contract that will be about five-years, $210 million. George may have frustrations with Pacers management, but he’s not leaving an extra $30 million on the table.

The problem is, George may well not make the All-NBA team. There are six forward slots (two each on three All-NBA teams) and a few days ago there seemed to be five locks: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That would leave George, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge, and any other forward you want to name battling for one spot. The consensus was George would be on the outside looking in.

However, does the Durant injury change the equation? He’s played in just 59 games this season, and while he played fantastically (see item No. 1) could him missing the end of the season lead to him missing the All-NBA team? And if so, does that open up a slot that would go to George?

I think Durant still makes the All-NBA team, although the injury could mean landing on the second or third team rather than the first. Also, I would rank both Butler and Hayward ahead of George this season if you’re going to take two of those three. Meaning this little thought exercise is likely moot. But know that media voters are aware of the impact of this vote on potential players and their earnings, and this scenario has been noticed (Zach Lowe even tweeted about it).

3) Russell Westbrook puts up 45, but Portland gets a key win at home in its chase for a playoff spot. As Denver’s Jamal Murray told NBC over the All-Star break, Denver is making a priority of winning games and getting the eighth seed. They believe the experience of the postseason for their young players — even if it is getting quickly waxed by the Warriors — is more valuable than moving up a couple of slots on the draft board. Denver is going to win its share of games down the stretch.

Which is why Thursday night’s win over Oklahoma City is vital for Portland — they need more wins if they are going to overtake Denver and get into the dance. The Blazers were down eight in the fourth but went on a 16-0 run behind the play of Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard, then held off a late push from the Thunder to get the win, 114-109. The win got Portland within 2.5 games of Denver, two back in the loss column.

Russell Westbrook did Russell Westbrook things dropping 45 points, but Lillard countered with 33 in what was a duel of two of the best scoring point guards in the game.

Grizzlies snap 19-game skid with 101-94 win vs Nuggets

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 24 points, Tyreke Evans added 20 and the Memphis Grizzlies snapped a 19-game losing streak with a 101-94 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

Wayne Selden scored 16 points for Memphis by hitting 6 of 7 shots, including 4 of 5 from outside the arc. Marc Gasol added 14 points as Memphis won for the first time since Jan. 29.

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Jamal Murray finished with 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Denver shot just 37 percent overall and 27 percent from 3-point range.

Denver entered the night in ninth place in the Western Conference, a game out of the playoff race. Denver played without leading scorer Gary Harris, who is expected to miss the next few games with a right knee sprain suffered against Detroit on Thursday.

The Nuggets struggled through a miserable first half of shooting, connecting on 22 percent in the first quarter. Memphis stretched its lead to 21 early in the second quarter before Denver cut it to 53-48 at halftime.

Brooks hit four 3-pointers to start the second half and keep Memphis ahead.

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LaMarcus Aldridge’s 39 points lead Spurs past Wolves, 117-101

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) – LaMarcus Aldridge had 39 points and 10 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a sluggish start to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-101 on Saturday night.

San Antonio won its third straight to move into fifth in the Western Conference five days after dropping to 10th and out of playoff position.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points and nine rebounds for Minnesota, which dropped to sixth in the West.

The Spurs had lost three straight and nine of 11 but are now unbeaten halfway through a six-game homestand.

San Antonio shot 84 percent in the second quarter, their best shooting quarter since 2010.

Two nights after battling New Orleans’ Anthony Davis on both ends, Aldridge had to take on another All-Star in Towns. Aldridge responded by leading the Spurs in scoring for the 49th time this season while helping keep Towns in check.

Aldridge scored 18 of 21 points during a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, including 12 straight. He capped the run by coming from the weak side to swat Towns’ floater deep into the seats.

Minnesota started quickly, shooting 78 percent from the floor in the first 5 1/2 minutes while San Antonio floundered at 17 percent. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called timeout, only to watch the Timberwolves’ Jeff Teague steal the ball once play resumed.

The Spurs responded behind veteran reserves Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay. San Antonio went on a 16-4 run bridging the first and second quarters to take a 29-26 lead.

Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points for Minnesota and Teague had 16.


Stan Van Gundy goes off on officials: “We got absolutely screwed all night”

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The Pistons were likely to lose to the red-hot Trail Blazers on the road, and that came to be Saturday night 100-87, Portland 12th straight win. The Pistons shot 38.8 percent for the game and had a dreadful offensive rating of 93.8 (points per 100 possessions).

Portland is one the top five defensive teams in the NBA this season, but that’s not what Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy thought was the problem — he laid the blame on the officiating.

That’s going to be a fine.

Van Gundy is frustrated — with this game and with this season. So are Pistons fans, and seemingly so is Detroit owner Tom Gores after his lukewarm vote of confidence in Van Gundy recently. They should be, this team is a disappointment and the Blake Griffin trade was a big swing that has yet to work out. The Pistons are going to miss the playoffs. Around the league, the sense is that Van Gundy will lose his GM job to former super agent Arn Tellem, who was brought in to guide the Pistons into their new building but now whose talents would better serve the basketball side of the operation. The only question is will Van Gundy still be coaching in Detroit next season — just coaching, like Doc Rivers with the Clippers — or of the change will be more sweeping than that.

Hornets’ coach gives savage, frank assessment of Willy Hernangomez

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When Willy Hernangomez was not getting much run with the Knicks this season, especially as injuries opened up space in the front line rotation, there were questions as to why. Then the #freeWillyHernangomez movement popped up.

Eventually, Hernangomez was traded to the Hornets where… he barely plays. He’s gotten more than 10 minutes just once since coming to Charlotte.

What gives? Hornet’s coach Steve Clifford didn’t hold back when answering that question to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford said at the Hornets shootaround at the Players Association’s midtown headquarters. “The reality is he wasn’t playing here for a reason. He’s got to change things…

“He’s not up to speed on what we’re doing to play a lot,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him. He’s smart, but he’s not this high-flier, phenomenal, natural athlete able to make up ground. He’s got to be on top of things, especially on the defensive end. If he’s not detailed defensively, he’s not that [athletic] guy…

“To be an every-night player, and I’ve told him this, he’s got to improve his shooting,” Clifford said. “He is right now, in my opinion, a back-to-the-basket player who can pass. But the reality is his passing doesn’t come into play until they have to get close to him and know he’s not going to knock down a shot. And he’s not a knockdown shooter.”

Well then.

Just to be clear he’s got to put in a lot more effort, become smarter on the defensive end, and improve his shooting. That’s a healthy off-season checklist.

Hernangomez has another year on his contract at a very reasonable $1.5 million before the Hornets have to make any kind of decision on him, which means whoever is the new GM in Charlotte he will choose to keep Hernangomez around. For now. He flashed potential his rookie season with the Knicks, when asked to play strictly to his strengths, but Clifford and the Hornets — and basically every other team in the NBA — is going to ask more of him.

Clifford was clear, as no doubt he has been clear to Hernangomez (Clifford is as straight a shooter as the league has). The ball is in Hernangomez’s court.