LeBron James struggles to solve puzzle of Golden State

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OAKLAND — Every time LeBron James would look down at the stat sheet in front of him, he would shake his head. It was involuntary.

LeBron and his Cavaliers had just been thrashed by the Golden State Warriors by 33, getting beat in every aspect of the game. The stat sheet was ugly — the 35.4 percent shooting by the entire Cavaliers team, the 17 turnovers (seven by him), the 33-point deficit in the score.

LeBron had seemed frustrated during the third quarter. He pounded the ball into the ground with his dribbles. He’s usually the guy figuring the other team out, exploiting weaknesses, and making them pay. Through two games he has been unable to find answers to anything the Warriors were doing. Golden State is quick to bring help defenders to him when he drives, trying to make LeBron a jump shooter and he is not that anymore — he was 6-of-8 in the restricted area in Game 2, 1-of-9 from everywhere else. Plus, LeBron is getting little help from the finally healthy Cavaliers — Richard Jefferson was Cleveland’s second-best player in Game 2.

After the game, LeBron the PR guy was at the podium saying all the right things, he just couldn’t help but shake his head when he looked down.

“I’m not disappointed in our guys or frustrated,” LeBron said. “We’ve just got to do a better job. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game both offensively and defensively, both physically and mentally. They just beat us at every — we didn’t win anything. No points of the game did we beat them in anything. Even when we had an early lead, they beat us to 50-50 balls, they got extra possessions, they got extra tip-ins. They beat us pretty good tonight.”

They’ve beaten them pretty good for two games, winning by a combined 48 points. That is without Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson having a breakout game yet.

Part of the Warriors’ success has been keeping LeBron in relative check. The Warriors contested 11 of LeBron’s 17 shots, and he shot just 36.4 percent with a hand in his face. He shot 1-of-6 outside the paint.

“You just try to make everything tough,” Draymond Green said of defending LeBron. “Some of the shots LeBron missed, I mean, you’ve got to give a little credit to our defense. But some of them he missed, he just missed. It happens like that sometimes in the game of basketball. That’s why none of us is perfect. But I think we’ve got a good game plan that we’ve stuck to and that we have to continue to do throughout the rest of this series.”

“I’ve got to be better,” LeBron said, shouldering the blame, as he tends to do after losses. “I’ve got to be better with the ball. You know, trying to play make for myself and play make for my teammates at the same time, I’ve just got to be more solid.”

LeBron is struggling against the Warriors’ defense, but he also isn’t getting much help. Kyrie Irving is shooting 12-of-36 overall and 1-of-7 from three, with just five assists, through two games. Kevin Love has been a virtual non-factor and now may miss at least the next game due to a concussion.

It will lead to calls from some for LeBron to revert to his Finals form from last year and take over the offense. To run everything through himself as he did in last year’s Game 2 win by the Cavaliers (39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists). To be more selfish.

“Selfish is probably the wrong term,” LeBron said. “I got myself in a lot of trouble tonight personally. Turned the ball over way too much. And I said after Game 1 we just can’t turn the ball over against a great team and expect to win, and I had basically half of the turnovers.”

The problem is even when LeBron does take on more of the offense, the Cavaliers still lose to the Warriors. For reference, check out how last year’s Finals ended. Basketball remains a team game and the Warriors are the better team right now. The deeper team. The higher IQ team. The more locked in team. And they are focused on defending LeBron.

“We just tried to be as active as possible,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We have a lot of speed on our team and like-sized players who we can kind of help and recover and switch. And it’s a very difficult job because LeBron is so smart that he sees everything before it happens, and sometimes if you switch, he’ll read that and find somebody for a lay-up or he’ll attack at the exact right time to expose our defense. And I just thought our guys did as good a job as we possibly could in terms of trying to cover him in penetration and stay with shooters at the same time….

“We’re not comfortable playing against LeBron, to be honest with you…. And I would say we’re confident that we can beat anybody. But we’re definitely not comfortable playing against LeBron. He’s obviously one of the great players in the history of this game, and we’ve had success the first two games, but there’s a lot of basketball left.”

What can LeBron and Cleveland do differently? LeBron’s not completely sure of the answers. Which is part of what frustrates him.

“We’ve got to get back to the film and we all have to figure out ways we can help the team be successful….” LeBron said. “Internally we have to figure out how we can be better. We have to figure out how we can help one another. We definitely have to figure out how we can get more guys involved. Fifteen assists, it’s not winning basketball, especially versus this team. We’ve just got to figure it out.”

They need to figure it out fast or this series will be over.didn’t

Watch Pacers’ rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO (AP) — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.