Kurt Helin

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Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

One way the Warriors can get him going and aggressive: A Curry/Durant pick-and-roll. On Christmas, the Warriors didn’t run it once, but it’s been more of a go-to move in recent weeks. It’s as hard to defend as you imagine.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

Report: Hawks work out Gary Neal, considering giving veteran 10-day contract

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The Atlanta Hawks need floor spacing and shooting, especially after trading Kyle Korver.

Veteran Gary Neal is a career 38.3 percent shooter from deep.

So have we got a match? Maybe, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Neal was with the Spurs when current Atlanta coach/president Mike Budenholzer was Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant, so there is history between them.

On the court, Neal seems a fit for the Hawks. He missed the end of last season with a torn hip labrum, which required surgery, but he is back and ready to go (he has been for a while, but couldn’t land a contract). Here is why Atlanta should be cautious, Neal averaged 9.8 points a game for the Wizards last season and they chose not to bring him back because of chemistry issues in the locker room — his teammates called him “selfish” and couldn’t stand him. They thought he hunted stats, to the point one player said he wish he had punched him. Before that, Neal clashed with Popovich in San Antonio.

Giving Neal a 10-day contract makes some sense, it gives the Hawks the chance to evaluate everything.

Wizards’ poster night: Kelly Oubre, Marcin Gortat get in on action (VIDEOS)

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The Sixers may have won three in a row, but they were without Joel Embiid and going up against what should be a desperate Washington squad that needs wins to secure itself a playoff spot in a crowded middle of the East.

The Wizards were attacking the rim, and it showed up in a couple huge poster dunks Saturday night. There was Kelly Oubre with the steal than transition throw down above, and below Marcin Gortat is showing he still has power inside.

The Wizards got the 109-93 win to move a game above .500.

Report: Frustrated Carmelo Anthony went on locker room rant after loss to Sixers

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The Knicks lost to the 76ers in dramatic fashion last week, blowing a 10-point lead late. On the final play, Derrick Rose drove the lane, when the defense collapsed he kicked it back out to the arc to Brandon Jennings, who had open players on either side of him: 40 percent three-point shooter Kristaps Porzingis in the corner, or 35 percent from deep shooter Carmelo Anthony above the break. Jennings chose Porzingis (who had just re-entered the game, bothered by his Achilles) and he clanked it off the side of the backboard. Seconds later at the other end of the court, Philly’s T.J. McConnell was knocking down the game winner over Anthony.

After the game, all the frustration with the Knicks season and him not getting the ball on the final play bubbled over for Anthony, and he went on a tirade, reports Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

According to a source close to the Knicks’ veteran forward, Anthony went on a tirade after the shocking loss, admonishing his teammates for blowing a 10-point lead in the final 2:30 to the inexperienced 76ers. He was also upset that he was frozen out on the Knicks final possession, a sequence that ended with Kristaps Porzingis shooting an air ball from the corner which led to Philadelphia’s fast-break. Anthony never touched the ball.

Afterwards, Anthony told reporters that the loss was “unacceptable” while one of Anthony’s associates said “that was as down as I’ve ever seen him after a game.”

Anthony and Phil Jackson are not tight, and Anthony reportedly blames Jackson for how this roster is constructed and the fact they can’t win. He’s not wrong, but when Anthony re-signed with the Knicks and took the big payday a few years back, he knew what kind of team he was signing up for (if anything, they should be doing more rebuilding and less win-now moves such as Rose and Joakim Noah). If winning was what mattered most, he could have taken less money to win now in a variety of cities (Chicago, then with Rose and Tom Thibodeau, was at the top of that list).

None of this means Anthony is so frustrated as to waive his no-trade clause and get out of town. He’s not, and he’s not going anywhere short term. One of Phil Jackson’s good buddies just wrote — and you have to think it was influenced by PJ — that Anthony would only waive his no-trade for the chance to contend with the Cavaliers or Clippers (or that maybe he could be talked into the Lakers). Neither of those is happening. The Cavaliers already are title contenders with the highest payroll in the NBA and are not adding ‘Melo’s $26.2 million next season (and reducing Kevin Love‘s minutes to shoehorn Anthony into the rotation, that or trading Love). Doc Rivers is far too smart to trade 27-year-old, in his prime Blake Griffin for 33-year-old and sliding down the hill Anthony.

It may be a dysfunctional marriage, but Anthony and the Knicks are going to stay together for a while.

So if he blows off some steam occasionally, the Knicks will just shrug and move along.

Utah’s Rodney Hood hyperextends knee, to be re-evaluated Sunday (VIDEO)

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That looks scary. Hopefully, it’s not serious.

It was late in the fourth quarter or Utah’s eventual win over Orlando Sunday night when Rudy Gobert rejected a Nikola Vucevic shot with enough authority to start a fast break the other way. Rodney Hood was leading the way, attacked the rim, stepped on the foot of Jodie Meeks, and he went down awkwardly.

He hyperextended his knee. Here is the latest, via Jody Genessey of the Deseret News.

Hood starts at the two for Utah and has averaged 14 points a game for the Jazz this season. The team is 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. If he is out for any length of time, it will mean more run for Koe Ingles and Alec Burks.