Here are the NBA’s Top 5 stories of 2016

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I’m in the camp 2016 sucked — just the deaths of Bowie, Prince, and Ali alone would rank it there.

Except not in the NBA — 2016 was about as amazing a year in hoops as you are ever going to find. It had everything. Narrowing this list down to five things was hard, there were so many other things that could have made this list: The passing of Craig Sager, the exit of Sam Hinkie in Philly just as Joel Embiid urges everyone to trust the process, Dwyane Wade going back to Chicago, and on and on.

Take a stroll with us down (recent) memory lane, here are our five biggest NBA stories of 2016.

5) Kevin Durant signs with Golden State.

So many things had to come together for this to happen: A new television deal that led to a massive spike in revenue for teams that would drive up the salary cap; the NBA players union refusing to go along with Adam Silver’s plan to smooth in that cap spike; the Thunder blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals; and mostly Durant seeing something in a franchise outside Oklahoma City that he wanted to be a part of. A year out from his decision the sense around the league was that Durant was likely to stay, but as all those pieces mentioned above started to fall into place there became more and more of a sense that he was willing to leave a little money on the table to go to Golden State because of the on-and-off court chemistry the team had. When Durant made his decision last July, it shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference — two of the three best players on the planet had teamed up. In 2017 we will see if they can reach their goal, but it has already led to some impressive highlights.

4) Warriors win record 73 games.

Because they lost in the NBA Finals (in dramatic fashion) we tend to sleep on what an unbelievable accomplishment this was. Back when Phil Jackson coached the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, he was asked about his team chasing that record, and he said no team from the West Coast could do it because of the increased travel demands (everything is farther apart, the road trips are longer). The Warriors did it with a combination of great players, a small-ball “death lineup” that nobody could plan for and stop during the regular season, and a lot of luck with health. Maybe it wore them down come the playoffs (they think so), but that does not diminish what was the greatest regular season we have every seen.

3) New Collective Bargaining Agreement reached — and way before the deadline.

When was the last time anything at your office/school got done long in advance of the deadline pushing it? Exactly. That’s maybe most amazing thing about the NBA owners and players’ union reaching a deal on a new CBA before even the opt-out deadline, let alone the July 1 lockout one, that it came together this easily and way in advance. Give NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and players’ union executive director Michelle Roberts credit for not bringing the scar tissue of past negotiations to the table. The two sides agreed on the money split — which remains basically 50/50, just as it was in the last CBA — and the players got more from, and more control over, player image licensing. The new CBA adds a “designated player” exception so teams such as Oklahoma City can pay more to keep players such Kevin Durant. Also, the two sides agreed to start the season earlier to reduce back-to-backs, and they put together a medical insurance plan for former players. But mostly, this new CBA is the status quo, which shows that the influx of cash from the new television deal had both sides making so much money nobody wanted to screw it up.

2) Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett all retire.

That is one insane Hall of Fame class coming in five years. Kobe and Duncan should vie for the greatest player of their generation — both with five rings, both were cornerstones of powerhouse franchises for decades, and both evolved their games with age and with the changes in style in the NBA. Also, it was fitting that both Kobe and Durant left the game exactly the way you’d expect them to: Kobe gunning his way to 60 points in a blaze of glory final game that was enthralling; Duncan didn’t even show up to his retirement press conference, leaving Gregg Popovich to do the talking.

Every time you see a big man spacing the floor, showing his handles on the wing, and then getting back and defending, you should thank KG. Of these three, maybe nobody more influenced the direction the game has gone than Garnett and how he transformed what could be expected of a seven footer.

1) LeBron James leads Cavaliers from 3-1 down to break Cleveland’ title cures.

What, you thought it could be anything else? LeBron played as great a three games in the NBA Finals of anyone ever. He lifted a team that I thought looked broken after a Game 4 loss at home and refused to let them die (the Draymond Green Game 5 suspension was both earned and opened that door for the Cavs). But this was more than LeBron lifting Kyrie Irving up to a point he could sink the series-clinching three on the road — this was LeBron lifting an entire city, and entire region up. It had been 52 years since a title came to Cleveland, and he the hometown boy put everyone on his back and got them there.

LeBron did more than win a third ring with that title, he secured a legacy.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

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Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

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Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — 11 of them in the first half. Houston was up 17 in the first quarter and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points. With the offense not running through Kevin Durant isolations, it just flowed better (the Warriors best lineup of the night was Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young, +13 in just more than eight minutes).

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

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The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.

Warriors’ Andre Iguodala out for Game 6

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Steve Kerr has been searching for a couple of games now for his fifth guy.

With Andre Iguodala out there is no Death/Hamptons 5 lineup and Kerr is looking for a fifth guy to partner with his four All-Stars. Kevon Looney is starting, Jordan Bell is showing potential but also makes some rookie plays, Nick Young has been bad enough that Kerr trusted Quin Cook more at the end of the last game (and Cook missed his looks).

Kerr is going to have to keep searching for a guy in Game 6 because Iguodala is out again.

The Warriors are not the team heading into Game 6 with the most significant injury woes, the Rockets are without Chris Paul. That and the fact the Warriors’ backs are against the wall is the reason they are heavy favorites in Game 6.

However, the Warriors have not been the same without Iguodala. He is a playmaker who can control the ball and settle things down, makes the right decision, get the player and ball movement the Warriors have strayed too much from back, plus is one of their best defenders on James Harden. Nobody else on the roster can do that.

And if Game 6 gets tight late, the Warriors are going to miss those skills. As they have in the last two games.