Steve Kerr and David Blatt meet again, this time as rookie coaches in the NBA Finals

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When they first met last June (something set up by their shared agent), David Blatt and Steve Kerr found they had a common vision for how the game of basketball should be played — ball movement, spacing, player movement off the ball, playing uptempo. All of it designed to create just a little space, which is all the best players need to make the defense pay. The two became fast friends and got along so well that after a couple of meetings Kerr offered Blatt a seat next to him as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors.

But before Blatt accepted, his phone rang. That call ultimately became owner Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers offering Blatt their head coaching job.

Now Blatt and Kerr meet again, but this time as opposing head coaches in the NBA Finals — the first time rookie head coaches have met in the NBA Finals since 1947, the first season the league existed.

However, the pairs’ paths from when they first met to this point couldn’t be much different.

Kerr, patient in taking over for Mark Jackson, got his budding superstar Stephen Curry to buy into all those offensive philosophies he had discussed with Blatt. With the help of lead assistant Alvin Gentry (who will take over as the head coach in New Orleans after these Finals), Kerr built a thoroughly modern NBA offense around Curry and a variety of versatile weapons. The Warriors had the second best offense in the NBA, won 67 games and have been the best team in the Association since the season tipped off. Kerr was a serious candidate for Coach of the Year.

Blatt’s path changed dramatically just a couple weeks after he took the job when LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland — this went from a rebuilding project to a team that could win the title instantly (especially with the addition of Kevin Love). Blatt’s offensive system had to bend to the weight of the NBA’s star system — and that process was not fast and not always pretty. Blatt took criticism at every turn (deserved or not), it seemed everything that went wrong was on him, everything good was on LeBron. The offense struggled some early until the Cavaliers went with something more conventional and comfortable for LeBron and Kyrie Irving. After LeBron James’ mid-season sabbatical, the Cavaliers’ became an offensive force with those conventional looks. From the All-Star Game through the end of the season, the Cavs had the third best offense in the NBA scoring 108.9 points per 100 possessions (trailing only the Spurs and Warriors).

Both teams are in the Finals because of their defense. Again the Warriors have been phenomenal on that end all season. Meanwhile the Cavaliers have started to finally peak on that end in the playoffs (and especially since Tristan Thompson replaced the injured Kevin Love).

What will be most interesting these playoffs is how the two coaches — the two friends — will probe and test those defenses.

Kerr will use the depth and versatility of his offense to find weaknesses in that Cavalier defense. One matchup to watch early is whomever Kyrie Irving is guarding — Irving is not 100 percent, and there is nowhere to hide a player defensively against the Warriors. If he starts out on Stephen Curry, well, Curry will test him both off the dribble and keeping up with him off the ball. Same with Klay Thompson. Maybe the best bet is to hide Irving on Harrison Barnes, but he is another guy who moves incredibly well off the ball, and one who has the size and strength to score on Irving inside.

Golden State also is a team that makes opponents pay for ball watching — and key Cavaliers will do that. Specifically J.R. Smith and LeBron, both of whom could end up trying to track Klay Thompson at times — lose him and the result will be three Warriors points.

Finally, in the regular season the Cavaliers defense — even after the additions of Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert — struggled to move laterally well if the ball switched sides quickly. Good passing would lead to good shots against Cleveland. However, no team has exploited that in the postseason — the Celtics and Bulls were not really built to do so, and the Hawks team that shared the ball to 60 wins didn’t show up for the postseason. Golden State will be a real test of how far Cavaliers defense has come.

On the other sideline, Blatt’s European roots have shown at times in these playoffs, both in good and bad ways.

The most talked about instance led to criticism. In Europe it is common on key late-game possessions to have your best passer — even if it’s your best player — take the ball out of bounds, finding the open man. With the score tied 84-84 in Game 4 against Chicago, and just 1.1 seconds on the clock, Blatt called for LeBron to take the ball out of bounds. LeBron overruled him. LeBron called his own number, which ended up being a step-back corner three to win it for the Cavaliers. After the game, it was LeBron who told the media how that play came to be, reinforcing the idea in the minds of some that he was the real guy in charge. He may well be.

But Blatt has also made decisions — ones influenced by his European roots — that have worked brilliantly for Atlanta. Because there is no real star system in Europe coaches will simply go with the player they think is best, regardless of contract, which is how James Jones has been on the court and playing well instead of guys like Mike Miller in the postseason.

Blatt also has had strong defensive game plans. He looked at a star-less Atlanta team — one that had shot the three ball well most of the season but was not the same by the time of the Eastern Conference Finals — and decided to dare Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and basically any Hawk not named Kyle Korver to beat them from three. The Cavaliers went under picks and stayed back. The January Hawks would have carved up that defensive strategy, but these were not the same Hawks. They couldn’t take advantage.

Blatt will need a different defensive strategy this round (I don’t recommend going under picks against Curry), but he has his team peaking at the right time. And he has LeBron’s endorsement (at least publicly). Kerr’s advantage is he has more pieces on the chess board, more and more versatile players he can use to find matchups that work — and he has done that with adjustments each round that the opposing coach simply could not counter.

However the series ends, Blatt and Kerr will hug it out as friends. That hasn’t changed since they first met last June. It’s just everything else since then that has been different.

Damain Lillard outduels Russell Westbrook again, Blazers go up 3-1

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Damian Lillard scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers held Russell Westbrook without a basket in the second half in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-98 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their series.

Lillard had another big third quarter after scoring 25 points in the period in a Game 3 loss Friday. In this game, the All-Star point guard was 5 of 7 in the third to help Portland take control for good.

Lillard made his first basket with 1:14 left in the first half after missing his first six shots, but he still had seven assists before the break.

“We’ve kind of come to expect it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He manages the game. He senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. He is going to give it his all.”

C.J. McCollum scored 27 points, Al-Farouq Aminu had 19 points and nine rebounds and Maurice Harkless added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Trail Blazers. Portland can close out the series Tuesday at home.

Paul George had 32 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder added 17 points.

Westbrook scored 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He missed his final 10 shots and was 0 for 7 for one point in the second half.

George missed most of the second quarter with three fouls, but the Thunder hung tough and led for much of the period. Lillard hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half to give Portland the lead, then Aminu hit a 3 with 3.9 seconds left as the Trail Blazers took a 50-46 edge into the break.

“I thought in the first half, we weathered the storm a little bit with Paul picking up fouls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We didn’t close the half very well and gave them momentum going into the locker room.”

Lillard hit deep back-to-back 3s 27 seconds apart to give Portland a 66-54 lead. The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 19 in the third quarter before the Thunder closed the gap. George hit a 3-pointer from the corner in the closing seconds to cut Portland’s lead to 79-68.

A 3-pointer by Schroder cut Portland’s lead to 97-87 with 3:35 remaining, but the Trail Blazers maintained control.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Lillard was just 2 of 8 in the first half and scored seven points. … Made 22 of 23 free throws. … Outrebounded the Thunder 41-38.

Thunder: Donovan was called for a technical in the first quarter for a no-call against Steven Adams. … Shot 37.5 percent from the field. … Westbrook had nine rebounds and seven assists.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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Kawhi Leonard scores 34 as Raptors take 3-1 lead over Magic

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Kawhi Leonard missed the NBA playoffs last season, in multiple ways.

He wasn’t playing the games.

He wasn’t feeling the games, either.

That’s not a problem this season for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP. Healthy and happy, Leonard has the Toronto Raptors one win away from the second round. He scored 34 points and the Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 107-85 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series.

“You just want to be out there on the floor, with your teammates and just feel that team spirit and chemistry, just trying to focus on one goal,” said Leonard, who was out for almost all of last season, his last with San Antonio before an offseason trade to Toronto. “That’s something I was missing, just being out, sitting out. That’s why it’s a blessing this year just to be able to play and be on the floor, regardless of what the outcome is.”

Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell each scored 16 for the Raptors, who can advance with a home win in Game 5 on Tuesday. Toronto has now won three consecutive postseason games, only the third time that’s happened in franchise history.

Aaron Gordon scored 25 for the Magic, making his first seven shots of the second half. Evan Fournier scored 19 and Nikola Vucevic added 11 for the Magic, who committed 17 turnovers that became 21 Toronto points.

“We’re better than what we’ve shown,” Gordon said.

And now the Magic’s season is squarely on the brink. There have been 11 teams to successfully rally from a 3-1 series deficit in a best-of-seven NBA series, and of those, only three pulled it off by winning a Game 7 on the road.

So it’s not impossible – just highly improbable.

“Our guys have fought hard all year,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

He liked the fight on Sunday, too.

Leonard just always had the better counterpunch.

He made 12 of 20 shots, added six rebounds and scored his 34 points in 35 minutes. He was in total control on both ends, and the Raptors shot 53 percent – a franchise record for a road playoff game. Serge Ibaka scored 13 and Kyle Lowry had nine assists for the Raptors.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Leonard said. “And obviously, we all know the job isn’t done yet.”

A flurry at the end of the first half, led by Leonard and Siakam, put Toronto up by double digits and the margin stayed there the rest of the way.

Vucevic missed from close range – the Magic argued that Leonard was guilty of goaltending, the referees disagreed – with about 2:45 left in the half, a disputed play that could have gotten Orlando within seven.

Instead, the Magic went into the break down by 16.

Toronto closed the half on an 11-1 run, with Leonard scoring the first five and Siakam hitting a pair of 3s for the final six. The last of those 3s by Siakam came with 4.5 seconds left, and the Raptors headed into intermission with a 58-42 cushion.

“These series, and the games in the series, are a lot about imposing your will on a team,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

Whenever Orlando flashed some hope in the third quarter, Leonard immediately snuffed it out.

A dunk by Gordon cut the lead to 13? Leonard made a 3.

A 3-pointer by Fournier to get within 12? Leonard made a pullup.

A stepback by Gordon to get within 12 again? Leonard split defenders, absorbed contact and laid the ball in to start a three-point play.”

“He’s a Finals MVP,” Gordon said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. That’s what they pay the man for, to come down here and be Kawhi Leonard.”

And before long, there was no more doubt about the outcome. Magic fans started leaving midway through the fourth quarter. The team’s dancers gathered for a group photo at midcourt not long after the final buzzer, as if they knew the last home game of the season had just ended.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Toronto is 28-2 this season (and 16-0 on the road) when leading by at least 10 points at the half. … Leonard’s teams are 60-31 when he plays in the postseason. Among players in this year’s playoffs with at least 60 postseason wins, only Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry – all Golden State Warriors – have a better winning percentage.

Magic: Orlando, which fell behind 11-0 in Game 2 and 10-0 in Game 3, started Game 4 on a 7-0 run. The Magic started 6 for 6 from the field, and then missed 26 of their next 38 shots – going 1 for 13 from 3-point range during that drought. … Terrence Ross beat the buzzer for the second straight game; it was a midcourt shot to close the first half of Game 2, and this time it was a 35-footer to end the third quarter.

VIRAL MOMENT

Nurse was trending on social media for much of the game, after a fairly nondescript 3-second call on Fred VanVleet with 2:12 left in the opening quarter elicited quite the reaction from him. Nurse stood almost perfectly still on the sideline after the call, his mouth agape for about 15 seconds in some sort of disbelief. “Is that a good thing?” Nurse asked afterward, when told he was a social-media phenomenon.

UNTIMELY

Orlando has dropped three straight, its longest slide since losing four in a row from Jan. 23-29. The Magic have also been held under 100 points in three straight games for the first time since Jan. 6-9.

UP NEXT

Game 5 is Tuesday in Toronto.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Korver: ‘I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell’ (VIDEO)

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Utah Jazz wing Kyle Korver has played with some good point yards in his career. Deron Williams, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder… the list is long.

That’s why what Korver said on Sunday impacted so many people.

Speaking to reporters this week, Korver said that he had never seen a young player like Donovan Mitchell take over a team and take responsibility for leadership the way the second-year Jazz player had.

Via Twitter:

Those are some pretty strong words of support by Korver, and Mitchell is going to need them. The Jazz are now down, 3-0, to the Houston Rockets in their first round series.

Draymond Green leaves arena wearing brace on right wrist (PHOTO)

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The Golden State Warriors have a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series. But as it often happens in the playoffs, it appears the Warriors could be starting to get banged up.

After the game on Sunday, Draymond Green was seen wearing a brace on his right hand. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Logan Murdock published a photo after the game of Green sporting his new supporting wrap.

According to Green, it’s nothing to worry about.

Via NBC Sports Bay Area:

The next game in the series isn’t for a couple of days, so Green has a chance to rest up. Still, the idea that Warriors could lose some production value out of one of their most important playoff performers isn’t great.

Hopefully Green will be able to get healthy and the athletic staff will get him some treatment that works so he can play effectively moving forward.