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Three things we learned Wednesday: MVP level Stephen Curry is back

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The Miami Heat made it nine wins in a row. Kyrie Irving was dropping dimes, with 14 assists (the most ever by a LeBron teammate). The Knicks won (against the Nets, but it still counts). Even Dell Curry was draining threes. It was such a busy night in the NBA that none o that even made our list of takeaways from Wednesday night around the league.

1) MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Because the Warriors weren’t dangerous enough already. Stephen Curry is not going to win a third straight MVP award this year, it’s either going to be James Harden (I think he’s the frontrunner now by a small margin) or Russell Westbrook.

However, after a rough couple of months to start the season, MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Just ask the Hornets, who watched him drop 11 threes and 39 points on them Wednesday (a Warriors 126-111 win).

Those 11 threes left Curry one short of the record for most in a game (12, by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall) but Steve Kerr didn’t play Curry in the fourth to chase the record (Curry played just 30 minutes). That’s not a game the Warriors are playing this season, chasing records.

Things changed for Curry after the Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers. He knew he needed to be more aggressive (and not defer as much to Kevin Durant), and Steve Kerr knew he needed to put Curry in better situations to take advantage of his skill set. Curry was given a chance to run more pick-and-rolls (as he requested), and now it was Durant setting the pick more often. Curry’s shots went up by three per game, and while not all of those were “good” shots part of what makes Curry tick is taking some shots that nobody else should take — he hits a few, and it gets him going.

As noted by ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, with the ball in his hands Curry’s three-point percentage jumped from 39.7 percent before Christmas to 46.2 percent after it. The numbers bear out he’s playing like his MVP self again. His swagger is back. The Warriors are his team again.

Curry looks like the best player in the league again (LeBron James doesn’t dial it up like this for the regular season anymore).

And woe is the rest of the league when Curry plays like this.

2) Or maybe Isaiah Thomas is the best player in the game — he drops 42 on Raptors to get Celtics win. This was a big game: It was for the lead in the Atlantic Division (if anyone actually cares about NBA divisions anymore), more importantly, it was for second place in the Eastern Conference. Guys stepped up for this game — Kyle Lowry was stunningly good on his way to 32 points. It was the Jared Sullinger revenge game, and he had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Those two helped Toronto to an 11-point halftime lead, and the Raptors seemed to control the game.

Then Isaiah Thomas happened.

Maybe the hottest player in the game, he had 19 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and he led the Celtics to win the fourth 32-19 and the game 109-104.

Like Curry above, Thomas isn’t going to win the MVP award, but he’s going to get some votes down ballot (third, fourth, fifth) and deservedly so. He has the Celtics offense humming and the Celtics in second place in the East. Toronto fans would like to point out they did not have DeMar DeRozan for this game, and that’s duly noted. But this win matters because second place in the East matters — it means home court in the second round. Also, a hot Wizards team is just one game back of the Raptors now, just two-and-a-half back of the Celtics, the Wiz are in this conversation (at 22-9 they have the best record in the East since Dec. 1). What that really means is teams want to avoid being the four seed — nobody wants Cleveland in the second round. Which is why wins like this one by Boston matter. A lot.

3) Maybe the Bulls thrive in tensions and chaos, they pick up a quality win over Thunder on the road. Rumor still swirls around Chicago like paparazzi around Beyoncé. The team’s young players love Rajon Rondo more than the “leaders” of the squad. The Bulls don’t plan to trade Rondo, apparently, but the team the focus of trade rumors.  Rival executives believe Jimmy Butler will be available again via trade, in part because of tension with the front office dating back to Butler betting on himself and not taking the rookie deal extension management offered (and management threatened to play Tony Snell in front of him at the time, which didn’t go over well with Thibodeau). And all that is since the Butler/Wade bashing of the team’s young players and Rondo coming to their defense.

With all that noise and chaos around them, the Bulls have picked up two quality wins in a row. First, it was a hot Sixers team, then Wednesday the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a victory over Westbrook and the Thunder. Butler had 28 points on 17 shots, Wade had 18 points and seven assists, and Cristiano Felicio Doug McDermott each had 11 points off the bench. Rondo had another strong game leading the second unit. The Bulls looked comfortable in the win.

The question isn’t “are the Bulls on track or in turmoil?” Rather, it’s “do the Bulls thrive in turmoil?” We’ll find out over the next couple weeks, because the turmoil isn’t going away during this six-game road trip, which is followed immediately by Boston and Toronto at home.

As an aside, the highlight of the Bulls/Thunder game unsurprisingly went to Westbrook, with his rejection of Butler.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.

Klay Thompson back on practice court with Warriors Friday

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The last time Klay Thompson was on an NBA court, it was Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals when an ACL tear both ended those playoffs for him and caused him to miss all of this season.

Friday, Thompson was back on the court.

The three-time champion and five-time All-Star cleared quarantine and was in the “Dubble” where the Warriors are conducting a two-week minicamp at their facility to help prepare for next season (whenever that starts).

It’s a good sign. When next season starts, the Warriors hope he, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green are all healthy and running at 100%.

Another good sign for the Warriors, Kevon Looney has been working out and reportedly looking good at the Warriors minicamp (take all the “he looks great” reports with a grain of salt, but the fact he is on the court is a good sign).

Looney played through injuries in those 2019 Finals, and has missed parts of four of his five NBA seasons due to injuries — he played just 20 games last season and had surgery on his core in May. It led to whispers around the league he may never again find his form as a quality role player. If Looney can stay healthy — coach Steve Kerr said he went “full bore” at the team’s first practice — he becomes a solid, athletic interior presence the Warriors need to balance their elite perimeter players.