Three Things We Learned Thursday: Ice-cold Warriors struggle to find old identity without Durant

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There was a time not long ago when watching the Warriors play was like watching a golden eagle hunt a fox, but not the last couple of games. So if you were watching videos of Eagles hunting on YouTube rather than the NBA’s offerings, here are the key takeaways.

1) Warriors struggle to adapt to life without Kevin Durant, can’t just flip the switch to old self/style, fall to Bulls. Andre Iguodala said it postgame: “He made the game easy for us, and you can get comfortable because of his skill set and his talent.” All season long, getting to a 50-9 record, the Warriors had a “get out of jail free” card when they were cold or sloppy because Kevin Durant could create his own shot, space the floor with his shooting, and provide them interior defense. KD was playing in a way that would have gotten him on a lot of MVP ballots (not at the top, but in the bottom three of the five voting slots), he was the Warriors best player, and he made the game easy.

With Durant out until around the start of the playoffs with a knee injury, the idea was that the Warriors would just slip back into the mode and style that won them a title two years ago, then 73 games last season. But as losses to the Bulls and Wizards the last couple nights showed, it’s not that simple. The Warriors are not near that spot right now. There are a number of factors at play.

• The Warriors spacing is off without Durant, and the cuts and screens off ball that generated so much of the Warriors offense with KD is not as effective without him on the court and touching the ball. The last two seasons the Bulls relied much more heavily on Stephen Curry running the pick-and-roll on offense, he’s very good at it, and Steve Kerr needs to get back to a heavier dose of that offense.

• More Curry pick-and-rolls, and a larger role for Klay Thompson, only works if the Splash Brothers are splashing shots. They are not, both are ice cold.

• The Warriors played Durant with the second unit a lot, and that group really missed having him on the floor. The Warriors also coasted on defense at points, they can’t do that anymore without KD’s length out there to cover some of their mistakes.

• If there has been an exploitable flaw in the Warriors this season, it’s that if you get them into close games, they are not nearly the same team that just destroyed opponents in that situation last season. Even with Durant, the Warriors struggled in the clutch compared to previous seasons — it was just hard to get them in that situation. (For purposes of “clutch” we are talking about a game within five points in the final five minutes or overtime.)

• All of that does not give the Bulls, and particularly Jimmy Butler, enough credit. Butler was the best player on the court, finishing with 22 points, six assists, and doing a fantastic job defensively anticipating passes and being disruptive of the Warriors offense. Bobby Portis had maybe his best game in the NBA with 17 and 13, but all the Bulls were just making plays.

2) Interesting NBA subplot: Could Kevin Durant injury earn Paul George $210 million? The Indiana Pacers didn’t trade Paul George at the deadline mostly because they didn’t want to — they want to find a way to keep him, to build a contender around him. (A lot of talk radio guys ask “why didn’t the Celtics pull the trigger?” on a George trade and miss the point, it takes two to dance, and the Celtics were not the unwilling partner.) There are a couple of ways to do that, but the most likely is for George to make an All-NBA team this season, allowing the Pacers to offer him a “designated player” max contract that will be about five-years, $210 million. George may have frustrations with Pacers management, but he’s not leaving an extra $30 million on the table.

The problem is, George may well not make the All-NBA team. There are six forward slots (two each on three All-NBA teams) and a few days ago there seemed to be five locks: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That would leave George, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge, and any other forward you want to name battling for one spot. The consensus was George would be on the outside looking in.

However, does the Durant injury change the equation? He’s played in just 59 games this season, and while he played fantastically (see item No. 1) could him missing the end of the season lead to him missing the All-NBA team? And if so, does that open up a slot that would go to George?

I think Durant still makes the All-NBA team, although the injury could mean landing on the second or third team rather than the first. Also, I would rank both Butler and Hayward ahead of George this season if you’re going to take two of those three. Meaning this little thought exercise is likely moot. But know that media voters are aware of the impact of this vote on potential players and their earnings, and this scenario has been noticed (Zach Lowe even tweeted about it).

3) Russell Westbrook puts up 45, but Portland gets a key win at home in its chase for a playoff spot. As Denver’s Jamal Murray told NBC over the All-Star break, Denver is making a priority of winning games and getting the eighth seed. They believe the experience of the postseason for their young players — even if it is getting quickly waxed by the Warriors — is more valuable than moving up a couple of slots on the draft board. Denver is going to win its share of games down the stretch.

Which is why Thursday night’s win over Oklahoma City is vital for Portland — they need more wins if they are going to overtake Denver and get into the dance. The Blazers were down eight in the fourth but went on a 16-0 run behind the play of Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard, then held off a late push from the Thunder to get the win, 114-109. The win got Portland within 2.5 games of Denver, two back in the loss column.

Russell Westbrook did Russell Westbrook things dropping 45 points, but Lillard countered with 33 in what was a duel of two of the best scoring point guards in the game.

Miami’s Meyers Leonard adjusting to going from starter to out of rotation

Meyers Leonard
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Meyers Leonard was bent forward at the waist, standing a few feet away from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra on the Heat sideline, screaming with every bit of the volume that his deep and booming voice can generate.

This is his role right now for the Heat.

His only role.

Leonard is in a tough spot these days; a full-time starter during the regular season, he is now out of the rotation as the Miami Heat have made their run to the Eastern Conference finals. It is a bitter pill for him to swallow — yet to his credit, he hasn’t acted the least bit bitter about his current reality.

“My team knows this, and our coaching staff knows this,” Leonard told The Associated Press. “I would do anything to be out there. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m not competitive as hell. I wish I was impacting the game on the floor. I’m not, but as a person and as a player, I want what’s best for everybody.”

So for now, the 7-foot, 260-pound, chiseled center is the tallest, strongest and best-paid assistant coach in these playoffs. He calls out what he’s seeing on every possession, pulls aside teammates for quick one-on-one chats when necessary, and on off days he’s getting his on-court work in just in case he’s needed to play.

Leonard has started 49 of his 51 appearances with the Heat this season, more starts than he made in his seven seasons with Portland combined. But in the playoffs, he’s logged a total of nine minutes, all in one appearance.

“Meyers is one of the most special people I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach and to be around,” Spoelstra said. “He is just an incredible human being and teammate. He has all our hearts. We will do anything for him because he is so pure.”

Leonard, more than anything else, got unlucky at the worst possible time.

He badly sprained his left ankle in early February and wasn’t anywhere near being ready to return to the lineup when the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then when team facilities shut down as a precaution, Leonard’s rehab process had to be amended as well.

That was the first issue. The second was Miami became a different team a few days after he got hurt, pulling off a trade to bring Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to the Heat. Crowder has become a starter, and Spoelstra told Leonard before Miami resumed play in the NBA’s restart bubble that he was taking the rotation in a different direction.

It was tough on Leonard mentally. He was struggling when he got to the bubble because of his ankle, then spent days wrestling about whether he should stand for the national anthem or kneel with his teammates, and on top of all that he essentially lost his job as well.

“There’s just two things that I won’t ever let be questioned and that’s character and work ethic,” Leonard said. “Every day when I walk through the door, I’m going to be a great guy, a great teammate. It’s not fake. So I’m trying to make my impact now from the sideline.”

There are a few starters who aren’t in the same roles that they were for the four teams remaining in this NBA season. Avery Bradley opted out of joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble. Will Barton — who led Denver in minutes per game this season — has a knee injury and has missed the Nuggets’ entire postseason run. Gordon Hayward has missed much of Boston’s playoff stint while recovering from a sprained ankle. Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn, a starter all season, is in Miami’s second unit now.

Leonard saw the Heat change, and his role change with it. He didn’t sulk, lash out or complain.

“It’s not easy, being in this kind of situation, going through the injury he went through and having the hiatus where he didn’t get the full opportunity to rehab it,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s making the most of it, and if he gets his opportunity, he will be ready.”

Leonard also sees the reason why he should be helping the Heat however he can right now. He’s never been this close to an NBA championship; the Heat lead the Celtics 2-1 in the East finals, with Game 4 on Wednesday night.

He’ll be ready to scream some more then, too.

“I am, in the best way possible, the most jealous of watching our team’s success,” Leonard said. “I literally said this to my wife the other night. I said, ‘Elle, we are six wins away from a ring.’ That is so damn special.”

Anthony Davis yelled “Kobe” after he sank game winner

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The Lakers played in the Kobe-designed Black Mamba jerseys on Sunday night, when Anthony Davis did about the most Kobe thing possible — he drained a buzzer-beater game-winner.

When Davis did it, he yelled “Kobe.”

The Los Angeles Lakers have talked a lot this season about honoring the legacy of Kobe with their play and effort this season, and coach Frank Vogel did after this game.

“That’s a shot Kobe Bryant would hit,” Vogel said. “AD flying to the wing like that, catch and shoot with the game on the line, the biggest moment of the season, nothing but net? That’s a Mamba shot.”

The Lakers are now 3-0 in those black Mamba jerseys these playoffs. Expect to see them again.

NBA world reacts to Anthony Davis’ game-winner for Lakers

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It might go down as the shot of the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets had battled back from 16 points down to take the lead behind a brilliant performance from Nikola Jokic, who had the team’s final 11 points. Throw in a Jamal Murray block and the Nuggets were up one with 2.1 seconds left.

Then Anthony Davis happened.

The Lakers won the game (going up 2-0 in the series) and the NBA world took to Twitter to react — including a lot of NBA players.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Dates, times, matchups for all games

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And there were four.

The NBA is down to the conference finals — and the bubble has provided us with upsets galore. There are some unexpected teams in the NBA’s Final Four, but of course LeBron James is still there. The Lakers are the heavy favorites at this point.

Here are a few notes on the NBA playoffs schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing to push the pace with games every other day — except in the East, when ESPN wants a break not to clash with the NFL, and to let the West catch up. The fast pace of games will return with the NBA Finals.
Families for the players, and with the final four now the coaches, are in the bubble.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams and their target is still a Sept. 30 Game 1. If either conference finals goes seven games that date will need to be pushed back.

Here is the NBA playoffs schedule 2020 (all times are Eastern):

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

Game 1: Heat 117, Celtics 114, OT
Game 2: Heat 106, Celtics 101
Game 3: Celtics 117, Heat 106 (Miami leads series 2-1)
Game 4: Sept. 23, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 5: Sept. 25, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 6: Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 7: TBD (ESPN)*
*If necessary

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets

Game 1: Lakers 126, Nuggets 114
Game 2: Lakers 105, Nuggets 103 (Lakers lead series 2-0)
Game 3: Sept. 22, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Sept. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Sept. 26, 9 p.m. (TNT)*
Game 6: Sept. 28, TBD (TNT)*
Game 7: Sept. 30, TBD (TNT)*
*If necessary

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Second Round results

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Boston beat No. 2 Toronto 4-3

No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Milwaukee 4-1

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat Houston 4-1

No. 3 Denver beat No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First Round results

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat No. 8 Portland 4-1

No. 2 L.A. Clippers beat No. 7 Dallas 4-2

No. 3 Denver beat No. 6 Utah 4-3

No. 4 Houston beat No. 5 Oklahoma City 4-3

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee beat No. 8 Orlando 4-1

No. 2 Toronto beat No. 7 Brooklyn 4-0

No. 3 Boston beat No. 6 Philadelphia 4-0

No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana 4-0