Destined or not, Kevin Durant needed to earn hard-fought Game 5 Warriors win, NBA title

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OAKLAND — It may have felt destined, like Golden State’s birthright since last July, but it was never going to be easy. Not from getting blown out the opening night of the season through battling a brilliant LeBron James performance in the Finals. The Warriors had to earn this ring with some grit.

In the end, Game 5 followed was the script the Warriors wanted before this series started. A couple big runs, monster nights from their two top-five players Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, strong defense, a small-ball lineup nobody could stop, and some big threes when they needed it.

Game 5 also followed the script the Cavaliers feared. LeBron James would be brilliant, but the defense that was questionable all season would make key mistakes giving up easy buckets, and even a hot night from J.R. Smith would not be enough save them.

Golden State grabbed the Game 5 lead with a 28-7 second quarter run, and despite pressure from the Cavaliers never gave it up, going on to win 129-120.

Golden State is your NBA champion, beating Cleveland 4-1. This is the Warriors second title in three years.

Kevin Durant had 39 points on 20 shots, plus had seven rebounds. His five-straight 30+ point games earned him the MVP award. He came West and the Warriors may well not have won this ring without him.

“Yeah, I hear all the narratives throughout the season that I was joining, I was hopping on bandwagons, I was letting everybody else do the work,” Durant said. “But then that was far from the truth. I came in and tried to help my team. Like I said, tried to be myself, be aggressive and sacrifice as well.”

Curry had 34 points on 20 shots, and Andre Iguodala had 20 points off the bench.

LeBron had a game-high 41 points, plus 13 rebounds and eight assists He averaged a triple-double for the series and carried the Cavaliers for long stretches. Kyrie Irving added 26 points on 9-of-22 shooting, and J.R. Smith had 25 points and shot 7-of-8 from three.

Golden State came out with more energy winning the hustle battles early — Zaza Pachulia grabbed one offensive rebound (which became a Klay Thompson three), but the key factors in the first went Cleveland’s way. The Warriors went more than six minutes in the first with Draymond Green at center — their best lineups — and were just +2. LeBron James went to the bench for the final 1:20 of the quarter, and the Cavs were +3 — the Warriors need to dominate those stretches. It was 37-33 Cavs after one, LeBron and Irving each scored a dozen. Curry had 12 for the Warriors, but they were 2-of-7 from three.

Midway through the second quarter, those dynamics changed — the Warriors went on what ultimately was a 28-7 run that had them up double digits and in control of the game. The run started with defense (the Cavaliers didn’t score on eight straight possessions) which in turn led to transition buckets — but it helpe the Warriors hit 14-of-15 shots. Plus, the Warriors went 4-of-4 from three in the second.

“Turnovers. Turnovers. Bad shot selection,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said of that run. “Something we talked about all series. You can’t turn the basketball over, you can’t take bad shots because you don’t have floor balance. And they’re so fast, they get out in transition. It’s tough to get back and get matched, especially with their speed.”

“We tried to contain it and keep it a half-court game, but they continued to push the pace,” Kevin Love said. “They play really well when they do that. There were times where we were fanning out trying to get to that three-point line [on defense], and then they would back-cut us and get a layup. So we were just trying to protect everyone’s back and got caught up in a few situations that weren’t good for us.”

The Warriors were able to stay small in part due to quality minutes from David West, and he showed a little of the fight the Warriors had in this game, getting into it with Tristan Thompson (J.R. Smith jumped in for fun, and all three got technicals.

It was 71-60 Warriors at the half, and they had led by as many as 17 late in the second.

However, the Cavs did not roll over, they had great shotmaking to come out in the third, attacked the mismatches they wanted and were more disciplined, cutting the lead to four at one point. It wasn’t Cleveland’s defense that was the answer, it was all about buckets — they scored on 13 of 16 possessions at one point in the third. Getting stops was the hard part.

“They started to go with the 1-3 pick and roll with Steph Curry and Durant, which might be one of the most unstoppable pick-and-rolls in our league,” Lue said. And they waited until late to do it. But that’s a tough play to stop.”

Cleveland could never fully close the gap, the lead fluctuated between four and nine, with it being at five heading into the fourth. The Warriors got big three from Iguodala, they got some cuts for Durant dunks because defenders can’t help off Klay Thompson, and when they needed stops they got enough.

And they will get a ring for it.

Will ex-Syracuse commit Darius Bazley still play in NBA’s minor league as planned?

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When Darius Bazley announced he’d skip his freshman year at Syracuse to play in the NBA’s minor league, it seemed he could start a trend.

But what if Bazley doesn’t even follow that path?

He just participated in the Nike Basketball Academy in Los Angeles and apparently struggled.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

After Bazley decided last spring to skip college basketball and play in the G League this season, there were heightened stakes for him at this event and not many positives to take away from his performance. There is speculation among NBA scouts that this might have been the last competitive action they will see from Bazley until the NBA pre-draft process next spring — or even the 2019 summer league. If he doesn’t feel ready for the G League, he could reconsider his decision and forgo competitive basketball for the year

I was never convinced Bazley was shaking up the system rather than just responding to his unique circumstances. This obviously doesn’t change that thought. Mitchell Robinson did the same thing just last year before the Knicks drafted him in the second round.

Maybe Bazley will still choose playing in the NBA’s minor league. He could develop there. But he’d also risk exposing his flaws and hurting his stock. On the other hand, maybe it’s too late and the cat is out of the bag.

Nene: Carmelo Anthony still a top-10 player in NBA

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With the Rockets signing Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and Chris Paul said flattering things about their new teammate.

But they didn’t come close to matching Nene’s praise of Anthony.

Marc Berman of Fox 26:

Follow-up question for Nene, who played with Anthony on the Nuggets: Which of these 10 players – listed in no particular order – is worse than Anthony?

And that doesn’t even get into the dozens of other players better than Anthony.

At best, Anthony is a tough fit offensively on an efficient scoring team and a limited defender. His shot creation is still valuable, and I haven’t given up on his ability as a complementary offensive player – if he embraces that role. Not every team can take advantage of his lackluster defense. But the 34-year-old Anthony has declined considerably from his peak. It’s OK to acknowledge that.

I don’t at all blame Anthony’s teammates for adulating him rather than soberly evaluating him. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

But the level of Nene’s hyperbole just makes him look silly.

Hawks progressing nicely in rebuild

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

It seems as if the Hawks have been rebuilding for ages.

Really, they’re only one season removed from a decade-long playoff streak, the NBA’s second-longest at the time.

General manager Travis Schlenk has swiftly done what his predecessors didn’t – dismantle a team that won 60 games and commit to rebuilding. In fact, Schlenk has advanced far enough that he’s already well into building Atlanta back up.

Only Kent Bazemore remains the playoff-series-winning team in 2016, let alone the 60-win squad in 2015. Heck, only Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry and Bazemore remain from the team Schlenk inherited just last year.

The Hawks aren’t done dismantling. They’re poised to tank another season. But their rebuild has already seen a defining move.

On draft night, Atlanta traded the rights to No. 3 pick Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for the rights to No. 5 pick Trae Young and a future first-round pick. That decision will take year to evaluate and will linger over both franchises far longer.

For now, it seems about fair. I rated Doncic ahead of Young and both above their draft slots. The Dallas pick – top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected the following two years and unprotected in 2023 – roughly bridges the gap between the players.

If the Hawks preferred Young anyway, they did a great job leveraging an extra first-rounder and still getting their man.

Atlanta’s other first-round picks – Kevin Huerter (No. 19) and Omari Spellman (No. 30) – were also sound. Squint hard enough, and Young and Huerter comprise a backcourt that somewhat resembles Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. That’s the easy comparison considering Schlenk came from the Warriors’ front office, though that’d probably make Spellman the next Marreese Speights.

And that’s make Dennis Schroder the next Monta Ellis, a talented player it was time to move. Though Schroder is just 24, he’s too combustible with and away from the team. Young is the Hawks’ future at point guard.

Rather than pay Schroder $46.5 million over the next three years, Atlanta is better off sinking $25,534,253 into a waived Carmelo Anthony this season. And the Hawks got a potential first-rounder in the deal!

The Thunder pick is lottery-protected in 2022. Otherwise, it converts into two second-rounders. So, there’s a decent chance Atlanta never receives a first-rounder. But unloading Schroder, who had negative value to many teams around the league, was enough. Getting a pick or two – who knows how good Oklahoma City will be in four years? – is gravy.

The Hawks also swapped Mike Muscala for Justin Anderson in the three-way trade with the Thunder and 76ers. For this team in this league, going from the 27-year-old center to a 24-year-old small forward  is an upgrade. Anderson must gain traction in his career, but it’s worth the bet he does so in Atlanta.

Alex Len makes sense as another flier. The former No. 5 pick had moments in five years with the Suns, and he took major strides forward last season. Perhaps, the 25-year-old is on the verge of emerging as capable of being in a good team’s rotation. I’m surprised the price (guaranteed $8.51 million over two years) was so high, but the Hawks had cap space to burn. Better to get their preferred project center.

To that end, Atlanta splurged a lot of its cap room on Jeremy Lin, getting the point guard with just a smattering of second-round considerations going between Atlanta and Brooklyn. Could that cap space have been put to better use, like a salary dump or even just saving ownership money? Did the Hawks acquire Lin as a fan draw? Will Lin generate more revenue than his $13,768,421 salary? He could work well as a veteran mentor, but that’s a lot to pay a veteran mentor.

With Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince at the forefront and Spellman, Anderson and Len diversifying the portfolio, the Hawks have a nice core to build around. They’ll add to it with their own first-rounder, the extra first-rounder from Dallas and a potential first-rounder from Cleveland (top-10 protected the next two years or else it becomes two second-rounders).

Atlanta lost a good coach in Mike Budenholzer, but he didn’t seem eager to oversee a rebuild. Lloyd Pierce, known for player development and teaching defense, takes over. Like practically every first-time NBA head coach, Pierce is a roll of a dice. Maybe the Hawks could have leveraged Budenholzer into securing compensation from another team for letting him leave or even just paying off less of contract. Instead, they just sent him packing.

Sometimes, it’s best to make a clean break and move on.

Offseason grade: B-

Rockets GM Daryl Morey on Warriors signing DeMarcus Cousins: ‘It’s a little bit hard on paper to figure out how to make it work’

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DeMarcus Cousins picking the Warriors sent shockwaves through the NBA. You know they were felt in Houston, where Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is admittedly obsessed with beating Golden State.

Morey on The Dan Patrick Show:

I was really curious. Bob is really good at his job, and he likes to take smart gambles like I do. So, I understood the move. But it’s gonna be interesting. Coach Kerr is one of the best, too. So, it’s a little scary. They’ll probably figure out how to make it work, but it’s a little bit hard on paper to figure out how to make it work. But we do that well and so do they, obviously. They’re gonna be a tough out again, obviously. They’re arguably the best team in NBA history. They’re on their path to maybe be able to make that argument.

Cousins isn’t a seamless fit with the Warriors.

They like to run, and Cousins doesn’t always sprint up court – even before his torn Achilles. Their offense is predicated on quick ball movement, and Cousins likes to survey the floor. They have more efficient scoring options in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, and Cousins is used to being a focal point. They like to switch defensively, and Cousins isn’t as comfortable guarding on the perimeter.

But Cousins is so talented, and the Warriors can afford to be patient as he recovers from his injury. They’re elite already.

I also believe Golden State will slow its tempo and play more traditional defense as its core ages. Cousins might fit better with next season’s Warriors than previous iterations of the team.

So, I think Morey is spot on. Golden State general manager Bob Myers was targeting wings for a reason. The Warriors didn’t exactly need another center – especially a slow-paced, ball-dominant, offensive-minded one. But when Cousins fell into their lap, signing him was well worth the relatively low cost.