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Is a championship enough for Warriors to impress this season?

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The day after Cleveland won the 2016 NBA title, the Warriors were favored to win in 2017.

And then they signed Kevin Durant.

Golden State became favored against the field, a recognition not bestowed on any team since Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

Durant leaving the Western Conference’s second-best team for a 73-win juggernaut tipped the scales in a way that made many uncomfortable. A Warriors title felt preordained before the season began.

This wasn’t the first time people felt a super team would destroy competitive balance. But the howling about Golden State might have been the loudest. Warriors fatigue was just setting in with every Draymond Green nut kick, every brag. And then Durant joined a team that already won a title, reached consecutive Finals and set the regular-season wins record with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green.

Expectations were so high, fans – and maybe even some owners – resented Golden State for tipping the scales too greatly. The Warriors, especially Durant, became villains.

Now, Golden State enters the Finals on the verge of winning a championship, usually the final step to silencing critics. But in this case, that might prove them right.

The Warriors are in a no-win situation. If they lose to Cleveland in the Finals, many will dance on their grave. If they win, many will dismiss their title as product of a stacked deck.

Personally, I find the latter criticism unfair. Every championship is earned – some more than others, but no team is just handed a title. Golden State drafted and developed Curry, Green and Thompson. The Warriors earned Durant’s services by creating such an appealing environment, he chose it despite knowing he’d receive immense backlash. Even with this loaded roster, a championship wasn’t guaranteed. It can be difficult for multiple stars to mesh, and Golden State had major financial constraints to add supporting centers. Credit the Warriors for luring Zaza Pachulia and David West and rehabilitating JaVale McGee.

Really, credit the Warriors for making this look so easy when it’s really not.

But I know that argument won’t convince many – especially considering how the playoffs have gone.

Golden State beat the Trail Blazers without Jusuf Nurkic, the Jazz mostly without George Hill and, in the biggest “what if?”, the Spurs only after Kawhi Leonard got hurt. Everything aligned for the Warriors to cruise through the Western Conference, which never looked like the stiffest challenge in the first place.

Yet, is there a way they can dominate enough to offset the competition imbalance and convince the masses of their greatness?

Golden State went 67-15 in the regular season, ranking No. 1 offensively and No. 2 defensively. The Warriors’ playoff run to the Finals set records for record (12-0) and point difference per game (+16.3).

Golden State’s combined winning percentage between the regular season and playoffs (84%) ranks second all time behind only the 1995-96 Bulls (87%). The Warriors would remain No. 2 by sweeping the Cavaliers or winning in five.

Here are the top teams by combined winning percentage (regular-season, playoff records in parentheses), with Golden State’s current place and possible finishes based on Finals record:

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Obviously, nobody would hail the Warriors as an all-time team if they lose in the Finals, but their combined record would still be elite if they got swept. That says something about their greatness to this point.

Golden State is also in striking distance of the best point difference, regular season and playoffs combined, of all-time. The Warriors (+12.23) rank second to the 1970-71 Bucks (+12.58).

Here are the all-time leaders in combined point difference (regular-season, playoff records in parentheses):

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Here’s how many points the Warriors would need to outscore the Cavs by to pass the 1970-71 Bucks, by series length:

  • Four games: 84 (21.0 per game)
  • Five games: 96 (19.2 per game)
  • Six games: 109 (18.2 per game)
  • Seven games: 121 (17.3 per game)

The odds are against dominating Cleveland that way, but if the Warriors do it, how could we deny them?

Golden State could drop a game to the Cavs, and 16-1 would still be the best postseason record of all-time. Maybe the 2001 Lakers (15-1) and/or 1983 76ers (12-1) could have done that in the current playoff format. But the Warriors have an opportunity to actually do it (as do the 12-1 Cavs, for what it’s worth).

The question remains: Would anyone outside Golden State’s own fans appreciate it?

The best thing that happened to LeBron James‘ reputation was losing his first year in Miami and of his second stint in Cleveland. That showed his titles were earned, not the forgone conclusion of manipulated super teams.

Perhaps, consecutive championships, including one this year, would achieve similar recognition. But that wouldn’t persuade those who view the Warriors as invincible.

Oddly, and I’d argue unfairly, the best thing for the Warriors legacy might be losing this season then winning a future season. We need proof they’re fallible before we can treasure their accomplishments.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.

 

 

Twins Marcus, Markieff Morris each fined by league for separate instances

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Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have a special bond, one that includes doing so much together on the basketball court — playing at the same high school, the same AAU team, then going to college together at Kansas, and even playing together in the NBA for a while together with the Suns (they are now on separate teams).

That includes them both getting fined Saturday by the NBA for recent actions during the playoffs.

Washington’s Markieff Morris picked up a $25,000 fine for “attempting to escalate an altercation and pushing a game official,” the league announced. Here is the play in question, just minutes into Game 3.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby draws a foul knocking Morris to the ground, but Morris starts the incident with an elbow to Anunoby’s back, and he does push referee Kenny Mauer. Considering all that, a $25,000 fine is not that severe.

His twin Marcus Morris picked up a $15,000 for “public criticism of the officiating,” which he certainly did following the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks. Here are his comments, and they are NSFW.

That $15,000 fine is pretty much the going rate for ripping the referees after the game.

Markieff outdid his brother on this one… if you consider getting the larger fine the “win.”

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.