Warriors dig early hole with misses, Cavaliers don’t let them out, win 115-101 to force Game 7

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CLEVELAND — Stephen Curry tried. With the rest of his team ice cold, he went Davidson for a stretch and just tried to do everything himself, on his way to 30 points. But in the end, he fouled out — and in frustration chucked his mouth guard, which will bring a fine from the league.

Klay Thompson tried, he went off for 15 third quarter points to close the gap.

But LeBron James would not let it happen.

In a game that makes him the Finals MVP favorite — whichever team wins Game 7 — LeBron had 41 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds hitting 16-of-27 shots. And he had an emphatic rejection of Curry that was the exclamation point on the night. In two elimination games, LeBron has 82 points, 24 rebounds, 18 assists, 6 blocks, and is a +37.

“It’s LeBron being LeBron,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s one of the greatest of all times. Our back was against the wall and he took it upon himself in the last couple games, himself and Kyrie, to really put this team on their backs and really get us to where we’re trying to get to and that’s a Game 7 in Golden State.”

Behind LeBron and a big night from Tristan Thompson — 15 points and 16 rebounds — the Cavaliers raced out to a 22-point first-quarter lead behind ice-cold shooting from the Warriors (who got good looks and clanked them), then held off a couple of Golden State rallies to win 115-101.

Game 7 is Sunday night in Oakland.

Cleveland fans — with five decades of built up passion — roared their approval all night and by the end were chanting “see you Sunday” and “Cavs in seven.”

Cleveland earned this win by playing harder, with more force and desperation than the Warriors all night. But they were aided by a Warriors team that couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean, got frustrated with the officiating and let it impact their play, and made some stupid passes and poor defensive gambles for a usually smart team.

The Cavaliers won this game by bringing that force from the opening tip.

Cavaliers got off to an 8-0 start because Warriors started 0-of-7 shooting, and that trend continued through the first quarter. Harrison Barnes remained ice cold and bricked a trio of wide open threes (he was 0-of-8 shooting on the night and by the end the Cavs let him take jumpers). Golden State shot 5-of-22 in the first quarter (22.7 percent) and 1-of-9 from three — a number of those very clean looks — with four turnovers, which allowed the Cavaliers to get out run, score a dozen points in the paint and shoot 57.1 percent in the first.

The result was a 31-11 Cleveland lead after one quarter. It was the hole the Warriors could never climb out of.

“Obviously Cleveland brought a lot of force to the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I thought we had some good shots early that didn’t go in, and it was like 6-0 after about four minutes. Our defense was pretty good. They had a couple run-outs where they got lay-ups, but our halfcourt defense was good. We just could not get a shot to fall, and then they just blitzed us. As I said, they deserved to win the game. They outplayed us. It was too difficult to come back from 20 down.”

“But once again, they won the game in the first quarter,” Klay Thompson said. “Come Sunday, we’ve got to blitz them. We can’t be on our heels and them be the aggressor. We’ve got so many good players on this team that if they’re trying to take out me, Steph, or whoever, someone’s going to step up.”

Golden State did make a few runs. One came in the second as the Warriors settled down, got stops, hit a few shots (they started 4-of-8 from three in the quarter behind Curry) and chipped away at the lead, getting it all the way down to eight. However, Curry picked up a third foul on a stupid reach, Green picked up a third going over Dahntay Jones back and after Barnes kept missing the Cavaliers went on a run to get the lead back up to 16. At the half, it was 59-43 Cleveland, with the Warriors shooting 5-of-21 from three (Curry was 4-of-8 from three, the rest of the team 1-of-13 with Barnes and Thompson a combined 0-of-9).

To start the third Barnes missed three more open looks and the Cavaliers stretched the lead out to 24 again. Stephen Curry was the only Warrior hitting and resorted to Davidson mode trying to do everything himself, and he got the lead cut to 15. But a turnover by the Warriors and an offensive rebound by the Cavs stomped on any momentum the Warriors would build. Cleveland just continued to out work Golden State.

Then suddenly the Thompson-inspired run came — he had 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the third. Warriors went on a 10-0 run as Thompson hit threes and the Cavaliers slowed down and isolated on offense, allowing the Warriors to defend and get stops. The score was 80-71 Cavaliers after three, just nine points.

Once again in the fourth the Warriors got the lead down to eight. But they struggled to get stops consistently – especially when LeBron started taking over with strong drives and smart passes to set up Thompson and others. Plus, the Warriors would break out a little playground passing — something that works for them against lesser teams during the season — and it would lead to momentum-killing turnovers and transition chances for the Cavaliers.

The end came ultimately when Curry fouled out with a few minutes to go — in frustration he threw his mouth guard into the stands and it hit a fan, which got him ejected and will bring a $25,000 fine from the league. Curry was hot. But he and the Warriors let the inconsistent officiating get into their heads.

“Yeah, I’m happy he threw his mouthpiece,” Kerr said postgame as part of a rant about the officiating that will bring him a fine from the league Monday. “He should be upset. Look, it’s The Finals and everybody’s competing out there. There’s fouls on every play. It’s a physical game. I just think that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the way we run our offense, we’re running, we’re cutting through the lane, we’re a rhythm offense. If they’re going to let Cleveland grab and hold these guys constantly on their cuts and then you’re going to call these ticky-tack fouls on the MVP of the league to foul him out, I don’t agree with that.”

The officiating was inconsistent all game. LeBron played through it.

Because of it, on Sunday his team has a chance at history.

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.