Despite LeBron James’ brilliance, Golden State wins Game 5 to come within one win of title

69 Comments

OAKLAND — LeBron James played the single best game of these NBA Finals Sunday in Oakland. He was otherworldly — he scored or assisted on 26 of the 32 Cleveland buckets. He had 40 points, 11 assists and 14 rebounds, plus played good defense inside. He carried the Cavaliers as far as any player could have. It was an epic Finals effort for the ages.

And it wasn’t enough.

Stephen Curry had his best game of the Finals scoring 36 and taking over late in the fourth dropping 17 in the frame; Andre Iguodala continued his fantastic play all series, and the small ball lineup of the Golden State Warriors got them the pace they wanted. In fact, the Cavaliers had to go small to match them just to stay in the game.

“It’s the way we had to play to have a chance to win the game,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, noting that lineup kept them close until late while their big lineups were getting torched.

It still didn’t work.

Golden State won Game 5 104-91 and now lead the best-of-seven NBA Finals 3-2. The Warriors can close out the series on the road Tuesday night in Cleveland.

source: Getty Images
Getty Images

But you can bet LeBron is not going to let that be easy.

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” Curry said. “The locker room, if you walked in there, was the exact same as after a regular-season win.”

The Cavaliers hung around this one because of LeBron, but in the final five minutes the Warriors pulled away — because of the jump shot.

In answer to a LeBron three that was closer to the half court line than the three point arc (34 feet, according to NBA.com), Curry showed off a shake-and-bake move to create space and drain a three. Then after a stop, Klay Thompson hit a 29 footer, and the Warriors were up five. The Cavs would not quit, they would not let the Warriors run away as they had done so often during the season. LeBron answered with a bucket and, after a stop, he drove and assisted Tristan Thompson for a bucket that made it a one-point game again. LeBron would not let the game go.

But the Warriors’ threes kept raining. Iguodala from the corner. Then Iguodala on the old-school and-one three after an offensive board. That had the lead up to seven.

LeBron drove and drew a foul, but he was clearly gassed at this point. His shots started to come up short, his drives lacking just that little bit of power he had earlier.

Soon came another Curry shake-and-bake three, and the lead was up to 10.

Eventually came another Curry three with 1:24 left that was the dagger, after another ridiculous move.

“It was an incredible play and I enjoyed watching it from my front-row seat,” Draymond Green said. Yet both he and Curry refused to call it a signature play because only the team holding the trophy has those, and they are not holding yet.

But Curry found his groove and the narrative that Matthew Dellavedova was a Curry stopper finally died.

“From the very beginning, when they went small, had their shooters out there, I thought, ‘This is Steph’s night,’” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

Curry finished with 36 points on 13-of-23 shooting and hit 7-of-13 from three. After that, the Warriors had balance: 16 points from Draymond Green, 14 from Iguodala, 13 from Leandro Barbosa, 12 from Klay Thompson. The Warriors played their game all around.

“(Curry’s shooting) not why we lost.  We gave up 18 fast breakpoints.  We gave up 15 second-chance points,” LeBron said. “Steph was special, obviously, but him hitting those step-back threes is not why we lost the game.”

In the first half, it was the LeBron James show.

“He’s phenomenal, he’s doing everything,” Kerr said of LeBron James. “But I’m not enjoying the marveling (at his play).”

After starting 0-of-3, the Warriors hit the next 4-of-5 as they attacked the rim for dunks. They were getting out in transition and getting to the rim with Mozgov pulled out on the perimeter and unsure what to do (and in no position to recover).

The Cavaliers decided to match the Warriors by going small, and it mostly worked. Because of LeBron. — he was otherworldly in the first half.

LeBron had 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the first 24 minutes. He scored or assisted on all but one of the Cavaliers buckets in the first half. He got them to 50 (with JR Smith pitching in and hitting some threes). He also did a good job in the paint protecting the rim.

But all that left the Cavaliers one short after a Harrison Barnes putback dunk, the Warriors were up 51-50 at the break. The Warriors shot 54.1 percent and hit 5-of-10 from three in the first half, Stephen Curry had 15 points hitting 3-of-4 from three.

The third quarter saw LeBron struggle some, getting four points and an assist, as he started to wear down and was missing shots outside the paint. The Cavaliers were getting great play inside from Tristan Thompson, who kept making plays at the rim.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
1 Comment

We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.