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.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.

Clint Capela still weeks away from making his debut with Atlanta

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Atlanta traded for Clint Capela at the deadline thinking about the long haul — he is the pick-and-roll big man they want to pair with Trae Young for seasons to come.

Just not much of this season. Capela missed the four games before the All-Star break with a heel bruise and plantar fasciitis, and the All-Star break was not near enough time to get that right. He’s going to be out into March, it appears.

Atlanta would love to start the process of Capela and Young getting used to each other on the court this season, but they are not in a playoff fight, so there is no reason to rush the recovery.

Capela averaged 13.8 points and 13.9 rebounds a game this season in Houston. He sets a good pick, rolls hard to the rim, has good hands if he gets a lob, plus he’s a quality shot-blocker in the paint on the other end. He should pair well with Young.

Eventually, once he gets healthy.