Three things to watch in playoffs Monday: Stephen Curry’s return?

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1) Get ready for the small-ball experience in Heat/Raptors Game 4. Probably. Here’s what we know about Game 4: The Heat are without Hassan Whiteside, and the Raptors are without Jonas Valanciunas. The big men had played prominent roles in this series — particularly Whiteside’s rim protection, and Valanciunas on the glass and setting screens (he has also been the Raptors most efficient scorer this series). Now what? Nobody knows. Coaches Erik Spoelstra and Dwane Casey have an idea what they want to do, but both know they will have to adjust on the fly as this series enters uncharted water. Funky lineups and experimentation will be the norm.

Expect a lot of small ball from both teams — both played this way a chunk during the season, it’s not completely new to them. The Raptors likely start Bismack Biyombo but expect them to go with Patrick Patterson, maybe Norman Powell and James Johnson at center for long stretches. If Toronto can get offensive production elsewhere (or builds a nice lead), Biyombo becomes a good defensive option inside, but he hurts the offense badly. The Raptors have the depth to play around with lineups and see what works. Also, they have Kyle Lowry, who started to get hot last game (5-of-8 from three) and will benefit more than anyone that there is no Whiteside in the paint. The loss of Whiteside hurts the Heat more than the loss of Valanciunas does Toronto, because the Heat have no other rim protectors.

Spoelstra’s options at the five for Miami are older and less versatile: Udonis Haslem, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Josh McRoberts. One or more of them needs to step up, and expect some five-wing lineups. The bottom line may be whichever team can get better defense out of their small ball lineups will win this game and likely have a leg up in the series. It just feels like the Raptors may have an advantage there.

-Kurt Helin

2) Will Stephen Curry play? Curry’s health been the storyline of the playoffs so far, and the Warriors just upgraded him from doubtful to questionable for Game 4 against the Trail Blazers. Reading the tea leaves, when a team upgrades a player’s status on game day, he usually plays.

There are bigger questions at stake than just Curry’s availability. How well does he move? Is he rusty? Most importantly, how prepared will he be for the for the conference finals?

Golden State is still favored, though not invincible, against Portland. The Warriors are far more likely to need Curry at or near full strength in the next round

3) Outside shooting of Trail Blazers’ forwards. Curry or no Curry, the Trail Blazers still have a dangerous offense that can give Golden State trouble. Guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum attract so much attention, their frontcourt teammates are often left open on the perimeter. After shooting 11-for-31 (35%) on 3-pointers in Games 1 and 2, Portland forwards combined to shoot 8-for-12 (67%) from beyond the arc in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 win:

Henderson and Crabbe also play guard, but with Lillard and McCollum logging so many minutes, Henderson and Crabbe are spending most of their time in the frontcourt. It’s a nice wrinkle that gives Portland more shooting.

But when Aminu and Harkless are hitting from outside – and providing the benefits of being true forwards – the Trail Blazers are a tough out.

Report: Rockets exiled Anthony rather than just dropping him from rotation ‘because his name was Carmelo’

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Why isn’t Carmelo Anthony in the NBA?

That’s the question everyone obsesses over, but the answer is quite simple: He’s washed up. Anthony played poorly for the Thunder then even worse for the Rockets. He’s now 35. Occasionally, washed-up players still land on NBA rosters, but they usually don’t. It’s not worth fretting over the common outcome happening.

The question that really intrigues me about the latter stages of Anthony’s career:

How did Houston go from giving Anthony a major role to deciding he suddenly couldn’t be with the team at all?

Baxter Holmes of ESPN:

Still, the Rockets know they can’t just take him out of the rotation; doing so would cause a media firestorm. “Because his name was Carmelo, we treated it differently,” one team source says.

The Rockets hope that parting ways with Anthony quickly might allow him to join another team.

This is a strange explanation.

What made a “media firestorm” so inevitable? Even if it were inevitable, what made a “media firestorm” so difficult to deal with? The Rockets couldn’t handle a few questions about Anthony?

If Anthony protested about a reduced role, that would’ve been one thing. But by all accounts, he did what Houston asked of him while there. He didn’t even get a chance to show whether he could’ve helped as a non-rotation player.

The Rockets gave him 20-39 minutes in each of his games with them. If he deserved that much playing time, he couldn’t have helped at all in situational spot minutes? Maybe Anthony’s awful defense would have been at least tolerable if he could’ve conserved his energy for smaller bursts on the court.

If Houston tried to do him a favor, it failed. Anthony never landed with another team. His abrupt and confusing end with the Rockets certainly didn’t instill confidence around the league.

Anthony has expressed resentment for how Houston exiled him. He deserves some blame for the predicament. His prior objections about coming off the bench in Oklahoma City contributed to everyone being on pins and needles about his role.

But it remains strange the Rockets handled the situation in such an extreme manner.

Report: Lakers player lost $1 million endorsement deal in China

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LeBron James publicly criticized Daryl Morey and reportedly pressed NBA commissioner Adam Silver on punishing the Rockets general manager.

Why is LeBron so upset with Morey, who merely tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters trying to expand and maintain their freedom?

Following the money often provides an answer.

Due to Chinese backlash, the NBA will reportedly lose millions of dollars of expected revenue, which affects players’ salaries. Lakers players also felt even-more-direct consequences while in China for preseason games.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo — to name a few — had appearances canceled. One Lakers player, sources told ESPN, had agreed to a $1 million endorsement deal with a Chinese company prior to the trip. When he arrived — poof — it was gone. A seven-figure payday went out the window.

It’s understandable someone would be agitated by losing a $1 million endorsement deal because of someone else’s tweet. I can’t even imagine how frustrating it’d be to miss out on that money.

Morey chose to take a political stand. Others are paying the price. He definitely rankled people around the league.

But perhaps scorn for Morey is misdirected.

This is the peril of chasing money in a place where an endorsement deal can fall apart because of someone else’s tweet. Maybe a bigger problem is a business environment where free expression is so stifled.

Report: Kings offer four-year, $90M contract extension to Buddy Hield, who wants $110M

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Buddy Hield is making noise about leaving the Kings in free agency next summer if they don’t sign him to a contract extension by Monday’s deadline.

Where do negotiations stand?

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The Kings have an offer for Hield on the table for four years and $90 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Hield and his agent, Brandon Rosenthal, are seeking a number closer to $110 million, sources said.

This will primarily come down to two factors – Sacramento’s willingness to bend and Hield’s appetite for risk.

A four-year, $90 million extension seems quite fair. I bet many players of Hield’s caliber would’ve already accepted it.

But in a weak free-agent class, he has a chance to get much more next summer. He could even draw a max offer sheet, which projected to be worth $125 million over four years (though that was before the NBA began losing China revenue).

Of course, the Kings would have matching rights on Hield, who’d be a restricted free agent without an extension. So, Hield can’t unilaterally leave Sacramento next summer. The Kings also have another good young shooting guard in Bogdan Bogdanovic (who has his own extension offer on the table). These factors all give Sacramento reason not to pay Hield generously now.

If the Kings up their offer, that’d make it easy on Hield. He and Sacramento are trending in the right direction together. A big payday would clearly satisfy him.

If the Kings hold firm at less than Hield’s desired $110 million, he faces a choice: How much risk is he willing to incur to bet on himself?

With those numbers so close, perhaps there’s room for compromise. In addition to salary, guarantees, incentives and options could help bridge the gap. But evident by the lack of a signed extension, a significant divide clearly remains.

Report: LeBron James pressed Adam Silver on Daryl Morey repercussions, perceived double standard for players

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Lakers and Nets players – who were meeting with Adam Silver in China – reportedly told the NBA commissioner they would’ve been punished for a tweet as costly as Daryl Morey’s and asked Silver what he’d do to Morey. LeBron James reportedly spoke up in that meeting. LeBron also later criticized Morey.

It wasn’t difficult to connect the dots.

But in case you wanted confirmation LeBron was among the players questioning Silver on Morey…

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Silver opened the floor. James raised his hand.

His question was related to Morey — and the commissioner’s handling of the Rockets’ GM. James, to paraphrase, told Silver that he knew that if a player caused the same type of uproar with something he said or tweeted, the player wouldn’t be able to skate on it. There would be some type of repercussion. So, James wanted to know, what was Silver going to do about it in Morey’s case?

Silver pushed back, reminding the players that the league never doled out discipline when they publicly criticized President Donald Trump. Morey was exercising the same liberty when he challenged China. Regardless of the financial fallout of one versus the other, that’s not what should matter. Silver might have disliked the ramifications of Morey’s tweet, but he would defend the right to say it.

We can’t know what would’ve happened if a player tweeted like Morey. But Silver is right: The NBA has a track record of allowing players – including LeBron – to speak unchecked on social issues. I think a player would’ve gotten the same treatment as Morey. Still, as the WNBA showed, there might be limits for players’ freedom of expression.

This line of questioning also reveals something about LeBron. There are many possible responses to this situation. Seemingly suggesting Morey – who supported Hong Kong protesters, who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms – deserved punishment is, um, one way to go.