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Golden State looks vulnerable. Can Spurs do anything about it?

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Steve Kerr has been frustrated in recent weeks with his team’s effort. Very frustrated. Walk into the shower, throw a bunch of bats on the floor and call them “lollygaggers” frustrated.

Golden State coasted the last month of the season, much of it without Stephen Curry, and went 7-10 in their final stretch of games. However, the Warriors problems go deeper than a lack of focus and being without Curry — Shaun Livingston has been banged up and not right, Andre Iguodala’s efficiency has dropped this season, and Draymond Green is still shooting just a tick above 30 percent from three. To name just a few things.

The Warriors look vulnerable.

But can the Spurs do anything about it?

Probably not. San Antonio (without Kawhi Leonard, it would be a surprise if he came back now) doesn’t have the athletes. We saw it last year when these teams met in the playoffs and Leonard went down after Zaza Pachulia slid under him on a jumper, at that point the Warriors ran away with the series. The Spurs are not going to beat themselves, they will defend well and make smart plays, the Warriors are going to have to earn it — but Golden State should take the series fairly quickly.

Should. That’s the key, as Kerr said Friday (via Mark Medina of the Mercury News).

“They’re going to bring out the best in us or they’re going to completely expose us,” Kerr said after Friday’s practice. “One way or another, that’s probably a good thing for us.”

It’s probably going to be the former — expect the Warriors to flip the switch.

Here are the things you’ll see Saturday at 3 ET (on ABC) if the sleeping Warriors have awakened.

• Defensive energy and focus. This is what the Warriors have lacked mostly over the past six weeks — since March 1 the Warriors have allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the NBA. Not terrible by some standards, but last season the Warriors allowed just 101 points per 100, best in the NBA. In February of this season, when the Warriors focused for a while, they allowed just 102.3.

The defensive change needs to start from the team’s leaders — Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Durant played fantastic defense in the Finals last season, and remember on Christmas Day he did it again against the Cavaliers (leading to some around the team to try and promote him for the All-Defensive team). Then he seemed to check out on that end. He needs to bring his focus back, create some turnovers with his length, and protect the rim a little.

Green has been good but not dominant this season defensively, but that brings us to our next point…

• Draymond Green needs to take charge of this series. There’s a couple of reasons for this. One ties into our first bullet point above — he is the emotional leader of the Warriors. If they are going to snap out of their malaise, it starts with him. If he brings the defensive effort, others will follow.

More than that, Green has vital roles in this series.

Defensively, he will be matched on LaMarcus Aldridge for key stretches — and with Leonard out the San Antonio offense runs through Aldridge (and occasionally Pau Gasol). While Aldridge can shoot fadeaways or little hooks over the top of Green, historically he has struggled to do that efficiently against Green’s physical defense. It also just isn’t going to be one-on-one because the Spurs don’t have enough shooting to space the floor out and scare the Warriors if Aldridge passes out. If Green (and Zaza Pachulia, and David West) can make Aldridge work for his buckets, it becomes difficult for the Spurs to score enough.

On offense, the Warriors need playmaking Green to return and take on a bigger role. He needs to grab rebounds and push the tempo in transition, in the half court they need him to roll down the lane with the ball then kick-out to the open shooters. He’s more than capable of this, we’ve just seen less of it this season.

• Kevin Durant needs to lead — and that’s as much defense as offense. Last season during the Finals Durant was a defensive force, that won him Finals MVP as much as his offense. That continued through the first part of this season up through the Christmas Day game against the Cavaliers — he was playing so well some around Golden State tried to push him for Defensive Player of the Year (or at least a spot on the All-Defensive team). However, after that Durant seemed to coast a little on defense. He wasn’t the same. The Warriors need the earlier Durant back.

On offense, he’s going to get all the touches and shots he wants, Durant just needs to be efficient and a playmaker.

• Other scorers step up besides Durant. KD is going to get his, and Klay Thompson will knock down threes and put up numbers as well, but when the Warriors are clicking the ball moves, guys are cutting, and the role players get clean looks and join in the scoring.

Will a fresh and rested Andre Iguodala get some buckets on hard cuts to the rim? Will David West knock down some midrange jumpers? Can Quinn Cook continue to impress? Will the center by committee group of Pachulia/JaVale McGee/Kevon Looney/Jordan Bell pitch in buckets?

The Warriors will need them because the Spurs can still defend and will make life challenging for Golden State’s big three.

Jazz use big third quarter, pull away from injured Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The Utah Jazz know they might have to contend with the Golden State Warriors again on the big playoff stage.

A different version of the defending champions by then, most certainly – a far healthier version.

Rudy Gobert had 17 points and 15 rebounds and the Jazz pulled away from the undermanned, injury-plagued Warriors in the third quarter on the way to a 110-91 victory Sunday night.

Utah wants to make sure the rest of the regular season goes smoothly before thinking too far ahead.

“We know it could be a rematch,” Gobert said of another playoff series after Golden State swept the Jazz in last year’s Western Conference semifinals. “We’re focused on the moment.”

Quinn Cook had 17 points and eight assists as defending champion Golden State played without its four injured All-Stars and was forced to use yet another makeshift starting lineup.

Before the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr ruled out Stephen Curry for the first round of the playoffs because of a sprained left knee – while Curry vowed to do everything in his rehab power to prove Kerr wrong and return sooner.

Donovan Mitchell scored 21 points for the Jazz, coming off a four-point overtime loss at San Antonio on Friday. Joe Ingles added 14 points with four 3-pointers, eight assists and six rebounds.

This marked just the second time Golden State played without its four All-Stars after Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all sat for a 107-85 loss on March 11, 2017, at San Antonio. But, that time, Durant was the lone injured one of the group rehabbing a left knee injury while the other three simply rested.

“I thought we hung in there pretty well,” Kerr said. “We just didn’t have enough firepower, but I like the way we fought.”

Green had been set to return Sunday, but was ruled out with flu-like symptoms.

Kerr expects both Durant and Green back as soon as Tuesday against Indiana, while noting “Klay’s coming along well” as he nurses a fractured right thumb.

“Well, we’ve got to hold down the fort,” Kerr said. “We’ve got enough. We’re blessed with a great roster, a lot of depth and so, let’s get going. Let’s play and let’s compete and hold down the fort. There’s no reason why we can’t come out and really play well down the stretch and be ready for the playoffs and then maybe we get Steph back and we’ll see what happens.”

Cook, Nick Young, Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney and JaVale McGee started.

Cook went to the locker room late in the half after two crashing drives but returned for the third quarter, when the Warriors shot 8 for 20.

Golden State began the game 5 for 16, but Utah was just 4 of 16.

 

Blazers beat Warriors 125-108 for 9th straight victory

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The key to the Portland Trail Blazers’ nine-game winning streak starts behind the scenes.

“I think we’ve done a great job of being sharp in practices and when we go in the film room, we’ve been taking our game seriously – not that we haven’t all season, but I think lately it’s just a different level of focus. It’s more intense,” Damian Lillard said.

The ninth win came on Friday night with a 125-108 victory over the Golden State Warriors. CJ McCollum scored 30 points and Lillard added 28.

The Warriors had won seven in a row but didn’t have Stephen Curry, Jordan Bell and Andre Iguodala, who were all out with injuries. Kevin Durant led Golden State with 40 points.

Portland has its longest winning streak since also winning nine straight in 2014. The Blazers’ streak started when they beat Golden State 123-117 at the Moda Center on Feb. 14, the last game before the All-Star break.

The streak has propelled Portland into third place in the Western Conference, 11 1/2 games back of the Warriors, who are a half-game back of the first-place Houston Rockets.

“What streak?” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We’re just playing games, we’re just trying to get wins.”

McCollum hit a 3-pointer to give the Blazers a 101-93 lead with 7:20 left. He added another 3 before Durant got one. Klay Thompson made a layup but Lillard answered with another 3 to make it 107-98.

Another 3-pointer by Lillard extended Portland’s lead to 115-103 with 2:40 to go and the Warriors could not catch up. There were seven Blazers in double figures.

“We fought hard. I really liked our fight and our competitive spirit but we’ve got to be smarter. We just did not play a smart, focused game tonight and it cost us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

Curry rolled his right ankle in the first quarter of the Warriors’ 110-107 victory at home over San Antonio on Thursday night.

He missed 11 games in December with the sprained right ankle and injured it again last Friday at Atlanta. He did not travel to Portland and Quinn Cook started in his place.

Bell, who sprained his right ankle Tuesday against Brooklyn, will be out through the weekend and re-evaluated Tuesday. Iguodala was out with a left wrist sprain for the second straight game.

Portland saw the return of Maurice Harkless, who missed three games with a left knee injury.

Portland led 33-27 at the end of the first quarter, after Draymond Green‘s dunk didn’t quite make it by the buzzer.

Portland went on an 8-0 run to push the lead to 41-27, but Golden State got within 52-50 on Kevon Looney‘s follow shot. Portland led 61-52 at the half. Durant led all players with 22 points while Lillard had 15.

Durant’s 3-pointer and a jumper gave Golden State a 77-73 lead with 4:01 left in the third. Portland re-took the lead on Ed Davis‘ tip-in and a trio of free throws from Lillard to make it 87-83 going into the final period.

“They hit shots,” Durant said. “They’ve been making shots on this run they’re on for a while. I thought we did a good job making them take some tough ones, but they made them.”

OUTTA HERE

Security at the Moda Center ejected a fan in a courtside seat who exchanged words with Durant late in the second quarter.

“When you’re sitting courtside you kind of think you’re Teflon – you can say or do whatever – but the ref caught him,” Durant said. “Before I could even get over there the ref said he was throwing him out of the game.”

 

Josh Huestis, Brice Johnson, Rashad Vaughn also have team options declined

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Players selected in the first round of the NBA draft who sign within three years are given a contract set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement – two guaranteed seasons followed by two team options. Because the team owners and veteran players who negotiate the CBA are incentivized to keep more money for themselves, rookie-scale contracts are relatively low-paying considering the talent and upside of the players on these deals. Therefore, options on rookie-scale contracts are usually exercised with little fanfare.

Yesterday, was the deadline for 2018-19 options and there were a couple notable exceptions – Jahlil Okafor (76ers, No. 3 pick in 2015, would have earned $6,313,832 in 2018-19) and Mario Hezonja (Magic, No. 5 in 2015, $5,167,231). Wade Baldwin (Grizzlies, No. 18 in 2016, $1,955,160) even had his option declined before the season, in conjunction with being waived. Kevon Looney (Warriors, No. 30 in 2015, $2,227,081) and Chris McCullough (Wizards, No. 29 in 2015, $2,243,326) also had their options declined.

A few other declined options came out later in the night:

Huestis was drafted in 2014 but didn’t sign with the Thunder until 2015 – part of an infamous pre-draft agreement where Huestis agreed to spend his first professional season on a D-League salary with Oklahoma City’s affiliate in exchange for being drafted then signed to a rookie-scale contract the following year. The idea on the Thunder’s part appeared to be that they’d be better off with a lesser prospect in their system for five years than someone on a typical four-year rookie-scale contract. Now, they’re set to cut Huestis loose after just four, anyway.

Johnson goes on the ledger of Doc Rivers draft picks who didn’t work out. After starting his rookie year injured, Johnson hasn’t gained any traction.

The Bucks were reportedly offering a second-round pick just to get another team to take Rashad Vaughn this year. So, it’s no wonder they didn’t guarantee his salary for next season. Don’t draft players for bad reasons.

Warriors could eclipse $260 million in spending next season

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Kevin Durant is reportedly willing to accept less than a max contract next season.

That, ironically, could get very expensive for the Warriors.

Golden State would need to clear cap space to pay Durant his max – the system working as intended to limit spending. But if Durant takes less than his max, the Warriors could operate as an over-the-cap team, sign players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston with Bird Exceptions and spend into the stratosphere.

Just how high could Golden State’s payroll get next season? Let’s make a few assumptions:

  • The luxury-tax line is the projected $121 million
  • Durant opts out and re-signs for the Non-Bird Exception ($31,848,120 starting salary)
  • Stephen Curry re-signs on a designated-veteran-player contract (more than $35 million projected starting salary)
  • Iguodala re-signs for a starting salary of $18 million
  • Livingston re-signs for a starting salary of $9 million
  • Zaza Pachulia re-signs for the full Non-Bird Exception ($3,477,600 starting salary)
  • Ian Clark re-signs for the full Early Bird Exception (about $6.5 million projected starting salary)
  • David West re-signs for the full Non-Bird Exception ($2,794,382 starting salary)
  • JaVale McGee re-signs for the full Non-Bird Exception ($2,540,346 starting salary)
  • Golden State keeps its players already under contract (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw)
  • The Warriors use the full taxpayer mid-level exception ($5,192,000 starting salary)
  • Golden State rounds out its roster with a minimum-salary player

That’d give the Warriors a payroll of about $155 million and a luxury-tax bill about $106 million – a total of about $261 million.

For perspective, the Cavaliers are in line to spend about $151 million this season, about $127 million on salaries and about $25 million in luxury tax (rounding explains the seemingly incorrect math).

Now, this is obviously a rough projection, and the Warriors won’t be forced to spend so much. Maybe Golden State re-signs Iguodala or Livingston for less or lets one walk. I doubt the Warriors use the full taxpayer mid-level exception, especially if they keep both Iguodala and Livingston. Golden State might also view Clark as more of a luxury than it could afford. Pachulia and McGee could seek more elsewhere and be replaced by minimum-salary players.

But if Durant is taking a discount, it’s not to save Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber money. It’s to help his team win. Durant shouldn’t take less unless the owners commit not to scrimp around the edges – and that could lead to a monstrous payroll.