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

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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.

Devin Booker drops 70 points for Suns in loss to Celtics (VIDEO)

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Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is just 20 years old. He’s a League Pass favorite, and indeed he should be a favorite in Phoenix for years to come. On Friday, Booker dropped 70 points — yes, 70 — in a loss to the Boston Celtics.

Booker’s 70 points is the best outing of the season. It also made him the youngest player to ever reach 70 points.

His final stat line, as you might imagine, was ridiculous. Booker shot 21-of-40 from the field, going 4-of-11 on 3-pointers and a whopping 24-of-26 from the free-throw line. The Suns phenom also grabbed eight rebounds to go with six assists.

Despite the loss to Boston, 130-120, it’s still an incredible milestone for Phoenix and for Booker. There’s a bright spot out there for the Suns.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon skies to finish amazing alley-oop (VIDEO)

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Aaron Gordon may not have had the best dunk contest this year — apparently drones and dunks don’t mix well — but the guy can still get up and finish with the best in the league.

As he did on this alley-oop against Detroit.

Elfrid Payton had to throw a lob that would get over Andre Drummond, but how many guys in the league can get that high, reach back and finish that? Damn.

Former Hawk Pero Antic’s celebration accidentally punches teammate in face in Eruoleague (VIDEO)

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Former Atlanta Hawk Pero Antic is now playing for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce, in case you were not aware.

Fenerbahce was facing Anadolu Efes in a EuroLeague game, it was tight late and former NBA player Ekpe Udoh was at the free throw line for Fenerbahce. He missed his second shot, but the rebound caromed out-of-bounds off an Anadolu Efes player. Antic was pumped.

Maybe a little too pumped.

Ouch.

That was Nikola Kalinic, by the way, the guy Antic now owes dinner to. Kalinic would like the dinner more than the hug and kiss he got from Antic right after the play.

Also, Anadolu Efes held on to win 80-77.

(Hat tip to Ball Don’t Lie.)

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.