Warriors/Thunder Game 4 preview: Which small ball lineup wins?

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I wouldn’t say this is a must-win game for either team, but it’s standing next to must win with its arm around it. The Warriors don’t want to be down 3-1, it’s hard to picture them winning three straight in this series. The Thunder don’t want to have a 2-2 series with two games left at Oracle, where it will be difficult to win again. Here are four questions where the answer will help determine the outcome of this game, and maybe the series.

1) Which small ball lineup wins? Going into the series, I thought the Thunder would stay with bigger lineups because they didn’t want to go small and try to out Warrior the Warriors. Except that’s exactly what they did in Game 3 and they won definitively. Lineups with Kevin Durant at the four (with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Serge Ibaka all getting time at center) where quicker, allowed for more switching, and it allowed the Thunder to get out and run more — and run it right down the throat of the Warriors small ball lineup. Golden State’s “death lineup” was -22, and Steve Kerr was right in saying that lineup (and the starters in general) tried to isolate against defensive mismatches rather than keeping the ball moving, they settled for quick shots, and the Warriors offense stagnated.

The key to the small ball lineup for the Thunder is the same that has driven the success of the Warriors’ small ball for the past two seasons — they still played great defense. The Thunder are long and athletic on the perimeter, but the combination of Durant and Adams or Ibaka still did a fantastic job of protecting the rim. Those stops turned into transition buckets the other way — Russell Westbrook and the Thunder players attacked the rim, and the Warriors played some of the worst transition defense we have seen from them. It may well come down to this again in Game 4: Which team’s small unit does a better job defensively, then can convert those stops into buckets at the other end.

2) Can Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters have another big game for Oklahoma City? The Warriors’ defensive strategy this series has been to ignore Roberson, put a rim-protecting big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green) and let them patrol the paint, daring Roberson to shoot and beat them. In Game 3, he was 3-of-5 from three, and while those came as part of the Thunder Can’t Miss run, if he is hitting and scoring it is a problem for Golden State. Dion Waiters used to be the guy to leave alone on this roster, but he has blossomed under Billy Donovan — he was 6-of-8 in the first three quarters of Game 3 and in these playoffs has played the best ball of his career. You know that Westbrook and Durant are going to score (and they scored very efficiently in Game 3), but if the Thunder are getting that kind of quality play from their role players they become almost impossible to stop.

One other thing to watch: When Stephen Curry picked up an early foul, the Warriors tried to protect him by putting him on Roberson, but that meant a big man had to guard an offensive threat that took them away from the basket. Suddenly the Thunder were in a layup line at the rim. Don’t expect that adjustment again — and if Steve Kerr is rolling out a lot of minutes for Anderson Varejao and Ian Clark again, it’s a bad sign.

3) Can Draymond Green take control in the paint? Forget the kick to Steven Adams’ groin… well, Thunder fans aren’t going to forget, they are going to boo Green mercilessly. But that’s not the point, that play and the punishment (a fine and a flagrant two but no suspension) are in the past. What matters for the Warriors is Green was awful in Game 3 — 1-of-9 shooting with four turnovers on offense, and his rotations and rim protection were a slow on defense. When you talk about what was wrong with the Warriors trainsition defense, it starts with Green — he looked stuck in mud all game. That can’t happen again if the Warriors want to win. They need All-Star, Top 10 player, world-class pest Green in Game 4. He is crucial to what they do. If he loses his poise (as he did in Game 3) or just has an off night, the Warriors are in trouble.

4) Is this the game where the Warriors figure out the Thunder?
Or, can they figure out the Thunder? Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game that they were not worried, his team had been in this position before — down 2-1 to Memphis last playoffs, and down 2-1 in the Finals to Cleveland. In each case they made an adjustment — ignoring Tony Allen against the Grizzlies, going small against the Cavaliers — and from there took over the series to sweep it out. They believe they can do it again, and it’s hard to bet against them because they have done it, they have shown versatility, and another gear not team seems to be able to match. But this series feels different — they already ignored Roberson and tried to play small and they are down 2-1. Is there a magic adjustment out there, or is it simply a matter of them executing what they like to do better against the most athletic defense they have faced in a playoff series? Just figuring out the Thunder is not that simple.

Less than a magical adjustment, the Warriors need to knock down shots. Not the rushed shots when they lost their poise during the Thunder’s second and third quarter run, but before that — the Warriors moved the ball and got good looks early, they just didn’t hit them. That can’t happen for them to win — this isn’t Portland anymore, the margin for error is too small.

Finally, and this is just obvious: Stephen Curry needs to be MVP Stephen Curry. The Thunder can throw athletic defenders at him, their bigs can challenge him a little, but the Warriors need him to be transcendent. Because Westbrook and Durant will be.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.