Warriors vs. Spurs preview: Three things to watch

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Never have two teams playing this well met this late in the season in the NBA.

The 62-6 Golden State Warriors travel to take on the 58-10 San Antonio Spurs (who are 34-0 at home this season) — that’s a combined 89 percent winning percentage. (The previous record was a Bulls/Magic game in April 1996, where the teams had a combined 81.6 percent winning percentage, according to the NBA. Chicago won.) The Spurs are on pace to win 70 games this season and still enter this game four games back of the Warriors.

The last time these teams met, Golden State thumped San Antonio 120-90, but not even die-hard Warriors fans can’t expect a repeat of that night. Heck, there are reasons to write this game off — the Warriors are banged up and on the second night of a road back-to-back, having to play their stars in the fourth quarter of a win over Dallas Friday. Still, this game may be the best way to judge these teams and what they will look like if/when they meet in the Western Conference Finals. Yes, these two play again in April (twice), but by then both coaches will be resting players, and more importantly neither coach will want to tip their strategy hand at that point — those games will have all the Xs and Os details of the Pro Bowl.

Here are three key things to watch on this Saturday night showdown.

1) How much will Golden State miss Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut? Last time these teams met, it was San Antonio missing a key piece — Tim Duncan, still the Spurs’ defensive lynchpin, was out. This time he is back, and it is the Warriors who will be missing a couple of key players.

Andrew Bogut has a strained left big toe suffered Friday against Dallas and is expected to miss Saturday’s game — that’s a big body and smart defender the Warriors need against the LaMarcus Aldridge/Duncan front line of San Antonio (Bogut draws Duncan). Remember, the Warriors can’t turn to Festus Ezeli, he remains out with a knee injury. This likely means more Anderson Varejao, who brings some energy and some rebounding, but generally looks lost and slow in the Warriors’ defensive schemes.

However, the bigger blow is missing Iguodala. He helps settle down the second unit, serving as a secondary ball handler, plus he brings defense to that unit. Iguodala is also an essential part of the small ball “death lineup” that is Golden State’s ultimate weapon — without his defense and ability to score those small lineups are less threatening. Remember, we are talking about the Finals MVP here, he will be missed a lot. Especially against a Spurs bench that has been a dominant force of late.

2) Can San Antonio slow Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? The first time these teams met, Curry had 37 points and hit 6-of-9 threes. Curry and Thompson are coming off a game where they dropped 70 on Dallas. Golden State has had some struggles of late, they have had more than a couple of games where they have looked sloppy (particularly on defense), but the shooting of Curry and Thompson simply bail them out. If San Antonio is going to beat the Warriors (now or in a playoff series), they need to find a way not to let the Splash Brothers go off and dominate.

The Spurs have the best defense in the NBA — by far. This season the Spurs have allowed just 95.7 points per 100 possessions, three per 100 better than the second place Hawks (and five better than the fifth-place Warriors). With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Spurs have two quality perimeter defenders they can throw at the hot hand. However, Popovich seems to prefer Leonard on Draymond Green and Danny Green on Curry, which allows the Spurs to switch the dreaded Curry/Green pick-and-roll (it’s about as effective a plan as any team has to deal with that play). The challenge is that leaves Tony Parker on Thompson, which could be a field day for Klay, who can shoot over the top of Parker or post him up. The Spurs are usually good at hiding Parker, but there is nowhere to hide against Golden State. It will help the Spurs this time around to have Duncan back in the paint, both to challenge shots and to quarterback their entire defense.

Will all that be enough? Remember last meeting Curry spun Leonard around and made the game’s best perimeter defender look helpless. Curry is on another level right now.

3) Can Golden State disrupt improved play of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard?
Last time these teams met Aldridge was 2-of-9 shooting for five points. Draymond Green drew the defensive assignment most of the night and despite giving up four inches it was Green who was the disruptive force — he did not let Aldridge get to his spots on the floor or feel comfortable. Green’s length still challenged Aldridge’s shots. After the game, Aldridge was so frustrated he deactivated his Twitter and Instagram accounts (although he denied the two were not related).

Of late, Aldridge has been a lot more comfortable. He has developed a real chemistry with Tony Parker and since the All-Star break Aldridge is averaging 20 points a game on 52.6 percent shooting (an impressive true shooting percentage of 58.6 percent), and his assists are up while his turnovers are down. Aldridge has found his groove, can Green push him out of it again?

Then there is Leonard, who is growing in confidence daily on the offensive end. He had 16 points on six shots in the first meeting, but expect more out of him in this get together. Since the All-Star break Leonard has averaged 24.3 points a game, is shooting 46 percent from three, with a 62.1 true shooting percentage. This may be the matchup where the Warriors most miss having Iguodala to throw at Leonard.

The real danger is when Aldridge and Leonard are paired — the Spurs are +18.1 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together post All-Star break. Add Danny Green to the Leonard/Aldridge combo and the Spurs are +25.2 per 100 since the All-Star break, with an offensive rating of 116.2 per 100 possessions. They will be a test for the Warriors’ defense (which has struggled of late due to the injuries).

Heat says they need faster start in Game 4 against Celtics

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The formula that the Miami Heat had backed themselves into using throughout this postseason wasn’t exactly ideal.

They were losing almost every first quarter, and winning almost every game anyway.

It’s not a sustainable plan, and the Boston Celtics finally showed that in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when they pulled off a wire-to-wire win over Miami, not letting the Heat put together their typical comeback. Game 4 of the East title series — with Miami still leading 2-1 — is Wednesday, and the Heat are insisting that there will be more urgency at the beginning.

“I think we’ve just got to start off better,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we started off anywhere near where we’re capable of. I think we dig ourselves a hole and try to fight back out of it. I think going into this next one, it’s up to the starting five to come out with a great start.”

Before Game 3, Miami was 8-0 in the playoffs when trailing after the first quarter — after going 10-16 when put in that position during the regular season. In the 36 minutes of first-period action against the Celtics, the Heat have led roughly one-sixth of the time.

Butler is 1 for 6 in 29 first-quarter minutes in the series. Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic are a combined 10 for 19; the rest of the Heat in first quarters against the Celtics are 11 for 46. Boston has won the first quarters by a combined score of 88-68, shooting 54% to Miami’s 32%.

“Certainly, it would help to be able to get off to a good start,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But you have to play good basketball more consistently when you get to this point in the conference finals against a quality opponent.”

Another wild stat is this: Boston has outscored Miami 50-18 from 2-point range in first quarters so far in the series. And yet, somehow, the Celtics still need a win on Wednesday to even up matters — or fall into the dreaded 3-1 series hole.

“Obviously, you know that when a team lost its last one, you’re going to get a great shot,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But you expect a great shot every time. We’re going to have to play our best game in Game 4, and then after Game 4 is over, we’re going to have to play better than that in Game 5. That’s kind of the way it works.”

The teams have had three full days off since Game 3, a quirk in the schedule to allow the Western Conference finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets to catch up; the Lakers and Nuggets were to play the third game in their series Tuesday night.

Not that this one needs explaining, but Miami’s chances go up considerably in this series if the Heat find a way to win Game 4. The Heat are 11-0 in series where they lead 3-1, and 9-9 in series where it’s tied 2-2 after four games. The Celtics haven’t successfully overcome a 3-1 deficit since the 1981 East finals.

LeBron James has “zero comment” on L.A. County Sheriff, speaks on violence

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been no stranger to outlandish acts and putting himself in headlines since taking office. Most recently, he and his department were sued by Vanessa Bryant over photos from the site of the plane crash that took Kobe’s life.

Last week, the controversial Villanueva decided to drag the most popular athlete in Los Angeles into his headlines, challenging LeBron James to double the reward for the person who shot two Sheriff deputies who were sitting in their car. It was a clear dig at LeBron’s stances against police violence around the nation, and Vanessa Bryant had slammed Villanueva for it on social media.

LeBron, after the Lakers’ loss to Denver Sunday night, refused to play Villanueva’s game, saying he has “zero comment” on the Sherrif. However, LeBron did speak on police violence.

“I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. Never have,” LeBron said. “But I also know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong… I’ve seen a lot of counts firsthand of a lot of Black people being racially profiled because of our color. And I’ve seen it throughout my whole life.

“And I’m not saying that all cops are bad because, I actually, throughout high school and things of that nature, and I’m around them all the time, and they’re not all bad. But when you see the videos that’s going on and you can see all over the — not only my hometown but all over America — you continue to see the acts of violence toward my kind, I can’t do nothing but to speak about it and see the common denominator.

“But not one time have I ever said, ‘Let’s act violent toward cops.’ I just said that what’s going on in our community is not OK, and we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go on every single day as a Black man and a Black woman and a Black kid, a Black girl. We fear. We fear that moment when we’re pulled over…

“But I do not condone violence toward anyone — police, Black people, white people, anyone of color, anyone not of color — because that’s not going to ever make this world or America what we want it to be.”

LeBron’s too smart to be dragged into Villanueva’s game, which is more about the Sherrif trying to distract from issues around himself.

LeBron has put his money where his mouth is on social justice issues, forming an organization to work to register minority voters and work against voter suppression nationwide.

Attacking Jamal Murray sparks Nuggets, who hold off Lakers for Game 3 win

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Down 0-2 to a LeBron James team, the Denver Nuggets’ backs were against the wall.

The Los Angeles Lakers learned — like the Jazz and Clippers before them — that the Nuggets have a couple more gears when their season is threatened.

Jamal Murray attacked from the opening tip, set the tone for Denver, then when the Lakers made it interesting late, stuck the dagger in the Los Angeles.

“I didn’t have any doubt we were going to show up tonight,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame. “The reason I didn’t have any doubt is we won six straight elimination games…

“For some reason, this team loves the bubble.”

Denver pulled away from the Lakers in the second quarter and held on at the end to take a 114-106 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers still lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 Thursday night.

Murray was the best player on the floor in Game 3, scoring 28 points, dishing 12 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, and forcing the Lakers’ defense to adjust to him.

“When you look at these three series we’ve played so far, he’s starting to get the respect from the other teams, and they’re game-planning, they’re blitzing him, they’re double-teaming.”

Both Denver and the Lakers came out attacking the paint early: The teams combined for 56 first-quarter points, and they scored 34 of them in the paint (60.7%)

In the second quarter, however, the Lakers started settling for jumpers while the Nuggets kept attacking. Denver went on a 15-2 run to start the quarter — with Nikola Jokic on the bench — and Denver went on to dominate the next two quarters, leading by as many as 20.

The Nuggets got a big night from Jerami Grant, who had career playoff hight 26 points. Jokic added 22 plus 10 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Lakers could not get jump shots to fall. Los Angeles was 6-of-26 from three (23.1%), and worse, they scored 12 points on 24 spot-up shot attempts (stat via Synergy Sports).

LeBron James did his part — a triple-double of 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists — and Anthony Davis added 27, but the Lakers defensive energy, and with that transition buckets, were not there.

Until the fourth quarter.

The Lakers got much more physical and aggressive defensively, and the Lakers went on a 19-2 run, which included six straight Nuggets turnovers at one point. The Lakers went to a zone defense that flummoxed Denver.

Eventually, Murray and Jokic righted the ship. Denver stretched the lead back out and got the win. After the game, the Lakers to a man said they needed to bring that fourth-quarter energy all game on Thursday.

One thing talked about after the game was Murray’s elbow to LeBron.

“I don’t think it was blatant. I don’t know his mindset, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” LeBron said postgame.

The other thing talked about postgame — now we have a series.

Zach LaVine reacts to Chicago hiring Billy Donovan: ‘Wow, that’ll be good’

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Zach LaVine learned about the Chicago Bulls hiring Billy Donovan as their head coach while playing Call of Duty.

Which means there is a recording of his real-time reaction to the news.

“Damn, we just got Billy Donovan as our next head coach… wow, that’ll be good.”

LaVine also Tweeted about the hire.

He wasn’t the only Bulls’ player excited about the hire.

Bradley Beal, a former Donovan player at Florida, loved the hire.

Donovan takes over a Chicago team that seems on the cusp of something. How big a something remains up for debate. The roster has young talent: Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter, and the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Donovan is an upgrade over Boylen, both in terms of player relations and tactics, making the Bulls better.

Even with Donovan, what is the ceiling for these Bulls? Next season they are not going to be better than the Celtics, Bucks, Heat, or Nets, and likely not the 76ers or Raptors either (unless Toronto tears down the roster). That’s six. And a lot of people would put the Indiana Pacers on a level above the Bulls as well. Bottom line: Even with a coaching upgrade and player improvement, the Bulls are likely scrambling for a bottom playoff spot in the East.

The Bulls are looking beyond next year. Expect Chicago head of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas to spend the next season deciding who fits and who doesn’t, and shake up the roster accordingly. By then the Bulls may be in a better place to be a threat in the East.

Whatever happens, the Bulls got better with this hire, and their biggest star likes it.