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Three Things to Know: No Curry? Okay, Warriors just give ball to Kevin Durant

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) No Stephen Curry, no Draymond Green, that just means more Kevin Durant.
It’s really not as simple for Golden State as “Curry’s out, let’s just give the ball to Durant more.”

Although sometimes it is that simple.

From the opening tip Wednesday night, Kevin Durant decided to take over the game against Charlotte. With All-Stars Curry (ankle) and Green (shoulder) out and replaced in the starting lineup by a guy just called up from the D-League (Quinn Cook) and a rookie (Jordan Bell), Durant went into MVP mode, put the Warriors on his back, racked up a triple-double of 35 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists, and led the Warriors to a 101-87 win in Charlotte.

This was KD’s night, but it’s not going to be like this every game. Things will get challenging for the Warriors without Curry. To use the cliché, his gravity as a shooter — his ability to pull defenders to him 30 feet from the basket, with or without the ball — is what provides the space in the Warriors offense and makes it elite. That spacing is gone for a couple of weeks, and it will be up to Durant to create shots and rack up points, but also Klay Thompson (22 points) and others to pick up the slack. That said, Durant is capable of winning a few games on his own.

More importantly against Charlotte, the Warriors came out and played focused defense for 48 minutes — something they have not done consistently all season. The Warriors have coasted a lot, but with Curry out they can no longer do that and still win a lot. Wednesday in Charlotte was one game, but it was a sign that the loss of Curry snapped the Warriors out of their sleepwalking ways, and gave them focus. If it stays that way, Golden State will barely miss a beat the next few weeks.

2) LeBron James drains threes, including dagger late, to push Cavaliers win streak to 13. LeBron James is shooting 43 percent from three this season. He still has as quick a first step as anyone in the game, and once he gets rolling downhill he’s an unstoppable force, but now he can consistently just shoot over the top of the defense and make them pay, too. Good luck stopping that.

Just ask the Sacramento Kings, who came into Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday night and were scrappy. However, LeBron was 5-of-8 from three, including a step-back with 16 seconds left that sealed the game, and the Kings could not match him. LeBron finished the night with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists.

The Cavaliers win streak is now at 13 games, tying a franchise record (LeBron’s Cavs did it in 2009 and again 2010). They can break that tie Friday night in Indiana.

3) DeMarcus Cousins sets history with another 40-20 night. With Anthony Davis out for a third straight game, the Pelicans are leaning more on Cousins to keep them in the crowded playoff mix in the West — and he’s responding. On Wednesday night he had 40 points and 22 boards in the Pelicans’ win against Denver.

That’s Cousins’ second 40-20+ game this season. The last guy to do that was Patrick Ewing back in the 1989-90 season. Back when “Do The Right Thing” was in theaters and we couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing “Funky Cold Medina.” It’s been a long time since we’ve seen something like Boogie’s recent run.

More importantly for New Orleans, thanks to Cousins the Pelicans are 3-1 in games Davis has missed. That is keeping them in the playoff mix.

 

Three Things to Know: Stephen Curry sprains ankle in Warriors comeback win

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Here is what you missed while cooking your own meal at Waffle House.

1) Stephen Curry sprains his ankle and it looks nasty. He’s going to miss a little time. Often when there are less than two minutes left in a Warriors game Stephen Curry is resting comfortably on the bench, a towel draped over his head, watching guys who just pulled off their sweats five minutes ago close out another blowout Warriors win. But with the Warriors down 20 at the half to the Pelicans, Golden State mounted a comeback (more on that below) the Warriors stars were in the game late and bad things happened.

Curry lunged for a steal, stepped on the foot of E'Twaun Moore, rolled his ankle and it was not pretty.

After the game X-rays were negative but his ankle was very swollen and Curry was diagnosed with a sprain. An MRI comes on Tuesday, at which point there will be some kind of timeline for his return. However, you can be sure Curry is out Wednesday in his hometown of Charlotte, and very possibly for the two games left on the Warriors road trip after that.

Golden State has the talent to survive without an injured Curry and still win most, if not all, of its games. However, the team will need to be a lot more focused than the way it has coasted through most of the last few weeks, and frankly most of the season.

2) For the second time this season, the Warriors were down 20+ points at halftime and came back to win. But this time it had a price. It’s one bit of NBA history that Steve Kerr would rather not have his team associated with: For the second time this season, the Golden State Warriors were down at least 20 points at the half and came back to win — the first team in the NBA to do that twice in one season.

It speaks to how the Warriors have played all season long — they make playground passes that don’t connect, they take bad shots (even for them and their shooters), they coast on defense and hope that their talent gets them through. In games where it doesn’t, they flip the switch for a stretch — five minutes, a quarter, a half at tops — and overwhelm teams.

In the first half Monday night, against a pretty good and (as of now) playoff-bound Pelicans team, the Warriors had a first half offensive rating of 87.3 (points scored per 100 possessions) and a defensive rating of 130.6 — that’s -43.3 net rating in a half. Second half it was a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 74.9, a 136.4 offensive rating, an 84 defensive rating for a net rating of 52.4. The Warriors cared, got 31 points from Curry, 22 from Klay Thompson, 19 each from Kevin Durant and Draymond Green and that was enough to get the win. (Jrue Holiday had 34 for the Pelicans, who were without Anthony Davis.)

But the Warriors paid the price this time. Curry will miss time with a sprained ankle. And Kevin Durant will pay a $25,000 price after he and DeMarcus Cousins were ejected late in the contest.

Don’t expect the Warriors to turn it on and care, outside of some specific games, until the playoffs. The question is can Steve Kerr get them to build good habits through the course of this season anyway?

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo is amazing, drops 40 on Boston, but that’s not enough to beat Celtics. Two things we thought coming into this game felt confirmed by the night.

First, Giannis Antetokounmpo is an elite NBA player, a top 10 guy (maybe top five). Going against the best defense in the NBA this season, he dropped 40.

Boston, however, is the better team. Kyrie Irving put up 32 points, Al Horford had 20 (and shows some real chemistry with Marcus Smart), and rookie Jayson Tatum had 17. Boston defended well, played as a team, and was in control of this game pretty much the whole way, exploiting the shaky defense in Milwaukee that could lead to Jason Kidd’s seat getting warm. Boston is talented and relentless with their execution, and that was too much for the Bucks.

Already anointed, Devin Booker aims to become worthy of star status

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DETROIT – Devin Booker spent his first two seasons burnishing one of the NBA’s best reputations.

The Suns made him their franchise player. LeBron James and Kevin Durant went out of their way to praise him. He became the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game.

But there was a dirty little secret behind the curtain: Booker played awful defense.

“Having a heavy load on offense, I just tried to rest a little bit,” Booker said. “But you realize, if you want to be that player in this league, you have to play both sides of the ball.”

That player.

The leader. The one capable of carrying his team deep into the playoffs. The true star.

Despite his accolades, Booker isn’t yet that player. His Suns are just 8-15, on pace for their best record in his three seasons. But he has scored more points before turning 21 (a month ago) than everyone besides LeBron, Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Booker is judged too harshly by his critics, too generously by his advocates. He’s flawed, to be sure, but don’t ignore his potential. Don’t paint the picture of a player who has already figured it out, either.

Evaluating individual players is a circular exercise. Players can be judged on their own, and their perceived production can each be plugged in to predict team success. But a player’s individual value can also be derived from his team’s output. If a team thrives or struggles, it’s worth examining how its players contribute to that result. Form new evaluations of each player, plug those in and re-predict team success. Then re-apportion the team’s results onto each player again. And on and on.

A good player – someone who contributes positively to winning – can play on a bad team. A bad player – someone who contributes negatively to winning – can play on a good team. A single player can do only so much.

But, at a certain point, a truly elite player should keep his team from the dregs of the league

Phoenix has gotten outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor. That’s obviously not all his fault. His teammates, frankly, are bad. But if Booker was all his supporters crack him up to be, wouldn’t he lift the Suns higher than he has?

Only a few players since 2000-01 (as far back as NBA.com’s data goes) have been All-Stars while their team was performing so poorly with them on the floor before the All-Star break:

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Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant were over the hill and All-Stars only because of the fan vote. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from the 17-65 Cavaliers who tanked to get LeBron in 2003, is the only All-Star chosen on the merits despite his team struggling so much.

Becoming an All-Star in this Western Conference – where Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler are competing for four to six guard spots – is hard enough, anyway. But Booker holds no illusions about the hole in his case.

“I know that comes with winning,” Booker said.

Booker brings up the 60-win Hawks of a few years ago. Not only were Al Horford and Paul Millsap All-Stars, Atlanta’s team success vaulted Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver into their only All-Star appearances.

Booker isn’t shy about referencing other teams. Asked about his leadership, he pointed to the Warriors as a model he’d like to emulate. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green all share various aspects.

But Phoenix has pinned so much of its future directly onto Booker.

The Suns told Booker they wouldn’t trade him, even when Kyrie Irving became available. Then, they dealt Eric Bledsoe, the team’s best and highest-paid player.

This is now Booker’s team.

“It’s a good pressure to have,” Booker said. “It’s a pressure that keeps you on your toes. It’s a pressure that I want. It’s a pressure that keeps you determined.”

Booker fits as first in command, because Phoenix gives more than a quarter of its minutes to players even younger than him – a smidge behind behind the Lakers, but nearly double anyone else. Not only is he older than Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Derrick Jones Jr., Booker is also more advanced than slightly older starting point guard Tyler Ulis.

Ideally for the Suns, this young core – along with future first-round picks, including all Phoenix’s own plus two extra from the Heat – will blossom into a dangerous team.

Booker is trying to accelerate the process, and that starts with defense.

“He’s taking the challenge of trying to guard guys,” Phoenix interim coach Jay Triano said. “I think that was something, before, he just, ‘It was something I have to do.’ And now, he’s coming to the bench, if a guy has made two in a row and saying, ‘Put me on him. Let me guard him.'”

Like all Suns, Booker’s defensive effort has improved since Triano took over for Earl Watson just three games into the season. (How could it not?) Triano calls Booker’s defensive results under his newfound approach “excellent,” but that seems to be more positive reinforcement than anything. Booker is merely trending up from atrocious defender toward regularly bad defender. He’s more engaged off the ball, and he really locks in during clutch situations.

It’s a step in the right direction for Booker as he tries to improve his all-around game. Growth also include better distributing.

Despite a slight downtick in minutes, Booker is averaging a career-high 4.0 assists per game. But he has made an even larger jump in potential assists per game – 8.9, fourth among shooting guards (behind only James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler).

Why such a split between his actual assists and potential assists? The simple and partially correct answer: His teammates miss too many shots. But Booker also doesn’t tilt the defense to create efficient opportunities for his teammates quite like an elite playmaker would.

As usual with Booker, context matters, but it doesn’t completely absolve him.

Same with his scoring. He averaged 22.1 points per game last year and his averaging 23.0 this year, shiny numbers that mostly explain his plaudits.

Efficiency matters, too, though. For his usage percentage (28.9), his true shooting percentage (56.8) is only middling. But it’s above league average for the first time, and he’s just 21. Only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron and Durant have matched Booker’s usage and true shooting percentages in their age-21 season or younger.

Booker is a good scorer, period – and a special one for his age. His 70-point game against the Celtics last season is the crowning achievement of his career so far, unmatched by any active player and not neared ever by anyone so young.

It also heaped loads of attention on him, as a blowout loss to the Pistons on Wednesday perfectly displayed. Booker scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting, but Detroit aggressively trapped him throughout the game, and he committed seven turnovers.

Booker returns to Boston, the site of his 70-pointer, tomorrow knowing defenses have treated him differently ever since that game.

“You can’t be a secret forever,” Booker said. “I remember all the open looks I got when I first started playing as a rookie. I haven’t seen one of those since.”

The Suns’ lackluster supporting cast makes it simpler for Booker to remain the center of attention, but that’s not the only culprit. His hype keeps outpacing his production.

Booker is just trying to put his head down and keep up.

LeBron James in 3-point contest? ‘Not when I can spend a Saturday night at home with my family’

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LeBron James is making 42.5% of his 3-pointers – by far the best percentage of his career – while attempting a healthy 4.8 per game this season.

Could he participate in the 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles?

LeBron, via Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

“Not when I can spend a Saturday night at home with my family,” he said.

Lakers fans can rejoice at LeBron again mentioning the comfort of his Los Angeles “home.” It obviously doesn’t mean he’ll sign with the Lakers next summer, but it’s a positive indicator.

As for LeBron in the 3-point contest, it’d be mostly about his name recognition. He’s a viable choice, but C.J. McCollum, Tobias Harris, Joe Ingles, Klay Thompson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Kyle Korver, Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Kevin Durant are all surpassing LeBron in 3-point attempts per game and 3-point percentage. That doesn’t even include the best 3-point shooter of all-time and a player in his prime, Stephen Curry, or the reigning contest champion, Eric Gordon.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement requires All-Stars – which LeBron will surely be – to participate in at least one Saturday-night event (not including the dunk contest) if the league so chooses. So, LeBron could be pressed into the 3-point contest against his wishes. That said, LeBron has the ear of commissioner Adam Silver. Would the NBA really make LeBron compete if he doesn’t want to?

Sloppy Warriors, Stephen Curry turn it on in overtime to beat Lakers

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LOS ANGELES — Galling.

That was the word Warriors coach Steve Kerr used to describe his team’s 22 turnovers, but he might as well have said their game overall.

“I like the word galling. Tonight was absolutely galling,” Kerr said. “There were some mind-boggling plays out there, and I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve got to be able to take better care of the ball and make better decisions.”

Stephen Curry had been part of the problem much of the night, but then he turned around and scored 13 points and knocked down a couple of crucial threes in overtime as the Warriors held off a feisty Lakers team 127-123.

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but this really was one for the Lakers.

Brandon Ingram had probably the best game of his career, scoring 32 points on 12-of-21 shooting, and he was aggressive from the start — early in the game in transition drove right into the body of Jordan Bell and powered through him. Ingram, the No. 2 pick in 2016, looks like a player figuring it out, turning the corner to become a force in the league. And he was fearless. Much of the night Ingram was matched up with Kevin Durant and showed no hesitation. Ingram defended well and forced turnovers (he had three steals and two blocks on the night), plus was the Lakers’ go-to offensive option.

That meant with 5 seconds left and the game tied 109-109, the Lakers turned to Ingram in isolation to try and win it, but Draymond Green slid over in a good bit of help defense on Ingram’s drive, challenge the shot, Ingram missed the driving lay-up, and the game went to overtime.

“He was going to go right, he always goes right,” Green said of his help on the final play (and it’s a reminder Ingram still has work to do to round out his game).

Lonzo Ball finished the night with 15 points and 10 assists, and for one third-quarter stretch found his groove and knocked down back-t0-back threes, then hit a driving layup. For much of the night, the Warriors helped off Ball and basically ignored him on the offensive end when he didn’t have the ball, and for a couple of minutes he made Golden State pay for that and was the scorer the Lakers need him to be.

“Well, he’s been shooting lights out in practice the last week or so,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “I told him before the game, I said, ‘Zo, you’re going to be one of the best point guards in the league, you are. Embrace this challenge if you’re open and in rhythm.’ I thought most of (his shots) tonight were in rhythm.”

All of which is nice for the Lakers, but the Warriors got the win. Durant had 29 points, Curry 28, Klay Thompson 20 with four threes, and Green had 15 points and 11 boards.

Golden State looked either disinterested or like they had too good a time in Los Angeles the night before for much of the game. But they locked in for a few stretches and overtime, and that — plus their talent — was enough.

“We got stops when we needed,” Durant said. “We turned the ball over too much tonight and got them going, but we got stops when we needed them, we hit big shots down the stretch.”

That was enough for this night. Barely.