Stephen Curry ready to take back championship that got away

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Sure, Stephen Curry heard the scrutiny. It was deafening. It was everywhere. Even the two-time reigning NBA MVP wasn’t immune.

Curry’s forgettable NBA Finals last year ended with Kyrie Irving hitting the deciding 3-pointer in his face and Curry unable to shake Kevin Love as Cleveland took Game 7 to complete a masterful comeback and steal a championship on Golden State’s home court.

A month later, Steph was stepping back again as the Warriors welcomed Kevin Durant to their star-studded roster. When the season began last fall, Curry unselfishly gave up some of his own scoring chances so Durant could seamlessly find his way, not making as many 3s – or half-court buzzer beaters for that matter – and lacking the same efficiency and flair.

Curry is fully healthy this postseason and ready to reclaim that championship that got away last June as the Finals begin with Thursday’s Game 1.

“I thought it was kind of ridiculous to be honest,” Curry said of the critics. “Ignore is probably not the word. I heard it, reacted to it as almost like, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone type of situation. Because I know what I was doing on the floor and what my job is every night on this team, so I could go to sleep at night pretty proud of the way I was playing.”

Irving winning that matchup against the MVP rallied the Cavs, fueled a comeback from a 3-1 deficit as Cleveland captured its first major team sports title in 52 years.

Now, all the focus of this Finals is on LeBron and KD. And that might be just the opening Curry needs to shine brightest again on the big stage after the struggles last year, when he shot just 40 percent in the Finals and had more turnovers (30) than assists (26).

Lately, Curry and Durant have engaged in intense shooting competitions to stay sharp and have a little fun at the same time as the Warriors wait once more. They’re the first team to begin a postseason 12-0, so it has made for plenty of rest and downtime – far different than a year ago when Golden State went seven games in the Western Conference finals to Durant’s former Oklahoma City Thunder.

It has made a big difference for Curry, who missed six playoff games in 2016 because of ankle and knee injuries and was never 100 percent after that.

“He’s pretty sharp,” said player development coach Bruce Fraser, who passes to Curry daily. “He’s been shooting it pretty well. I would rather have him like this than like he was going into the last Final. He’s competitive and he wants to win, so you can bet that he’s not happy about last year and he’s going to go after this one.”

Curry wants to take back the championship that got away, and help KD and so many other veterans without a title earn their ring.

He has scored 20 or more points in 10 straight playoff games and led the Warriors in scoring in eight of their 12 postseason contests. Twice he has dished out eight assists.

“It’s just been such better progression for Steph this postseason,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I mean last year, right from Game 1 against Houston he was injured and fighting an uphill battle. I thought he was amazing under the circumstances of his injury but to me he looks fresher, faster, stronger than he did a year ago.”

Curry made a point to do everything necessary for Durant to make a smooth transition incorporating into the offense, even if that meant his own numbers were down a year after his second MVP and another record 402 3-pointers as Golden State topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ wins record going 73-9.

He took two fewer shots per game, his scoring average dropped from a league-leading 30.1 to 25.3 and his 46.8 percent shooting was his worst since 2012-13. But he still hit 324 3s for the second most in NBA history to his 402 a year ago and paced himself so he is peaking now.

“That’s a part of maturing and getting older in this league is you’ve got to realize every year you’re a year older so you’ve got to tweak some things,” teammate David West said. “I thought he did a good job of that. He took some flak for it early from the outside noise but I just thought he was intent on making sure he was playing his best ball late. He’s put us in a great position.”

The 29-year-old Curry has remained his unflappable, playful, perfectionist self, yelling “finish strong!” to himself the other day as tried for a 10th straight made 3 from the baseline. He missed, letting out a loud “ahhhh!”

“I’m just playing aggressive, playing confident. Obviously shots are falling. I’m trying to do other things other than just scoring so I can help my team put us in the best situations to win,” Curry said. “That’s it, really. The moment is bright right now and you’ve kind of got to live up to it. This is what we live for as basketball players to be playing in these type of games that matter the most. We have four wins left, we have to do whatever we can to get them.”

 

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.

Stan Van Gundy backs off feud with ESPN ahead of televised Pistons game

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Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t give ESPN its usual access – a private pre-game meeting and an in-game interview – in the aftermath of ESPN publishing LaVar Ball’s negative comments about Lakers coach Luke Walton.

The first test of Van Gundy’s new policy comes with today’s Pistons-Wizards game on ESPN… and Van Gundy is mostly backing down.

Van Gundy, via Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

“I got an email from Rick Carlisle of the coaches association and they want me to cooperate, so my whole idea was to boycott the thing in support of coaches,” Van Gundy said. “If the coaches don’t want that, then it would be a selfish thing, sort of a grandstanding thing.”

“I’m certainly not looking to do extra stuff with ESPN.com when those guys call and want to do things,” Van Gundy said. “They want to put themselves out there as a journalistic enterprise — they’re clearly not. They don’t have any journalistic standards. I have no obligation to do anything extra.”

Many media members have quoted Ball on a variety of issues. Coaches threw a fit over this one because they’re sensitive to coaches being criticized. It wasn’t about journalistic ethics or the source. Van Gundy and other coaches simply didn’t like Ball’s conclusion.

I’m so glad Van Gundy is no longer grandstanding. [extreme sarcasm]

He’s not obligated to speak with ESPN reporters, but when Van Gundy rails on journalistic standards as cover for disagreeing with the opinion a journalist published, he sounds a lot like the guy he loves to criticize.

Pistons’ Jon Leuer to undergo season-ending surgery

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Jon Leuer‘s ankles survived this.

But apparently they’re not invincible.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

After suffering a sprained ankle on Oct. 31, the symptoms worsened, as an exam revealed bone fragments and other issues. Leuer has missed the last 35 games and has decided to have season-ending ankle surgery, he told The Detroit News on Friday.

Leuer, 28, has scheduled the procedure to remove bone fragments for next Friday and will have a four-month rehabilitation process.

The Pistons have applied to the NBA for a disabled-player exception

The Pistons have been without Leuer for a while, and they’ve done fine without him. Anthony Tolliver is a capable backup stretch four, and Henry Ellenson adds even more insurance there. Detroit misses Leuer as a stretch center, providing a different style behind Andre Drummond, but Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic have at least decently handled those reserve minutes.

The bigger issue: The Pistons are paying Leuer $10,497,319 this season and owe him $19,510,724 over the next two years and don’t miss him that much. He’s a luxury they don’t need and maybe can’t afford.

Perhaps, they’ll deal him before the trade deadline, as they look to upgrade the roster for a playoff run. Detroit could send Leuer and a draft pick or young player (Stanley Johnson) for a better player on a more favorable contract. How about Leuer and a first-round pick to the Bulls for Nikola Mirotic?

A disabled-player exception (DPE) would be worth $5,248,660, half Leuer’s salary. It could be used to sign a free agent for the rest of the season or trade for a player in the final year of his contract.

But the NBA grants a DPE only if a league-appointed physician rules the player is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15. The reported timeline would have Leuer back in May.

Still, the league tends to be lax with giving out DPEs. Detroit has a chance to get one.

The Pistons are just $2,745,417 below the luxury-tax line. So, they’re unlikely to use a full Leuer DPE to acquire another player (and would still need to clear a roster spot). But it could be helpful in facilitating a bigger trade.