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.

Steve Kerr “uncertain” if he will coach in NBA Finals

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The Warriors have gone 12-0 through the playoffs, the first team to sweep the first three rounds of the playoffs since the NBA went to a best-of-7 in all three rounds (a couple Lakers teams did it when the first round was best-of-5).

That doesn’t mean they haven’t missed Steve Kerr as coach, but they haven’t needed him. Yet. Mike Brown has done the job quite well.

Will Kerr be back for the NBA Finals? He told Marc Spears of ESPN he doesn’t know.

Kerr had back surgeries two summers ago, and that caused him to miss the start of the 2015-16 season (Luke Walton ran the show). Kerr coached through pain caused by a slow leak of spinal fluid until nausea and pain became too much at the start of this postseason. Kerr has had a new procedure — one that is apparently promising, one that we hope works to end the leak — but he’s understandably cautious about jumping back in.

That said, the next round, against the Cavaliers (barring the most improbable comeback in NBA history), is when the Warriors will need Kerr’s creative mind and solutions to the challenges Cleveland presents.

He’s also got more than a week to decide since the Finals don’t start until June 1.

Manu Ginobili receives standing ovation upon exiting what may be his final game

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Manu Ginobili is a four-time NBA champion, a two-time All-NBA player,  two-time All-Star, and a Sixth Man of the Year.

He’s also the most popular Spur of his generation — walk around San Antonio, even at the peak of the Spurs runs, and you saw more Ginobili jerseys than Duncan or Parker or Robinson or anyone else. Ginobili is beloved.

When he was taken out near the end of Game 4, maybe his final game as a Spur, the fans erupted into a standing ovation (joined by Stephen Curry, who stepped away from the free throw line to let the moment happen).

Ginobili hinted during the season this would be his last, but has said repeatedly during the playoffs he didn’t know what he would do during the season. He looked like he had game left in the tank during the Western Conference Finals (he had 15 points in Game 4 and was one of the Spurs best players in the series). The question is, at age 40 next season, will he want to go through all the work it takes to get physically ready for the next season.

Warriors take control early, hold off Spurs to sweep series, advance to NBA Finals

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This series was decided early in the second half of Game 1, when Kawhi Leonard’s ankle rolled. He never got back on the court in the next three games, the Spurs were +21 when he was on in that first game and -85 the rest of the way. Without his defense on one end and shot creation on the other the Spurs could not match up.

The Spurs didn’t play like it was over Monday night — while the Warriors would hit threes and go on runs, the Spurs would answer back never let them completely pull away. They got buckets from Kyle Anderson (20 points off the bench) and 15 from Manu Ginobili in what may have been his final NBA game (he got the start, and the crowd erupted when he was taken out near the end).

It wasn’t enough. The Golden State Warriors were the better team — maybe even if Leonard had played — and they were in control of this game the entire way, getting 36 points from Stephen Curry and 29 from Kevin Durant.

The Warriors went on to win 125-110 and sweep the Spurs 4-0. Golden State swept through the West undefeated at 12-0, and they will take on the winner of the East (we all know it will be Cleveland). The Finals don’t begin until June 1.

This is the Warriors third straight trip to the Finals.

“Our chemistry is getting better and better,” Durant said after the game. “We’re going to need it even more in the next series, whoever we play, we’re just looking forward to it. I’m glad we got this done.”

There was a lot of respect between the teams after the series, particularly for Ginobili.

“Somebody I grew up watching, amazing competitor, even more fun playing against him,” Durant said after the game. “I got nothing but love and respect for him, plus he wear my shoes every year so that’s a plus. He was phenomenal this series.”

There also was a feeling among fans that we were robbed of a good series by the injury to Leonard (and the cheap play by Zaza Pachulia that caused it). Without Leonard (and Tony Parker) the Spurs struggled to create shots and generate consistent offense against a stout Warriors defense.

It was evident at the start of Game 4. San Antonio opened game 3-of-16 shooting, but the bigger issue is they went 1-of-8 in the paint against a Warriors team that started small (Patrick McCaw instead of JaVale McGee). Meanwhile, the Spurs were 7-of-7 in the paint to start the game. That is why the Warriors raced out to a quick 12 point lead midway through the first quarter.

The game hung around the 10-point era until an 11-0 Warriors run midway through the second quarter. The Spurs kept fighting, they had 13 more shots than the Warriors in the first half — thanks to 9 Golden State turnovers and 8 San Antonio offensive boards — but the Spurs shot 34.5 percent in the first half, and it wasn’t enough because the Warriors shot 60 percent. The Warriors shot 74 percent (14-of-19) in the second quarter. Because of that it was Warriors 65, Spurs 51 at the half, and Curry and Durant each had 18 for Golden State; Kyle Anderson has 10 points to lead the Spurs.

The second half saw the lead bounce between 10 and 20 most of the time, the Spurs would make a little run and the Warriors would answer with some crisp ball movement and a three. Curry was 5-of-13 from three on the night to lead the way.

Draymond Green added 16 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists for the Warriors.

Now the Warriors get more than a week off to rest and prepare for the Finals.

Kevin Durant blocks Dejounte Murray twice on one shot (VIDEO)

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Kevin Durant was doing it all in the first half — he had 18 points to lead the Warriors (tied with Stephen Curry) and was making plays all over the court.

That includes racing back on this play and blocking Dejounte Murray‘s layup. Twice. On one shot.

The Warriors have led by 20 and been in control through the start of the third quarter. KD was at the heart of that.