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Warriors’ struggle before trouncing Spurs somehow bodes well for both

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We’ve all been waiting for this season to show us exactly what it is. It opened ominously with the injury of Gordon Hayward, then sat dormant as little injuries picked off players here and there. Earl Watson got fired, I suppose. We didn’t get any national anthem protests, or wild trades. At least not yet.

The league is still waiting to see what the Phoenix Suns will do with the shadowbanned Eric Bledsoe. The Cleveland Cavaliers are terrible, but to what extent that matters is still up for debate. It’s one that is asked every season and answered only through the passage of time.

So instead we’ve sat here, gratefully watching plays we missed over the long summer lull. Plays like this:

Meanwhile, Thursday’s matchup between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs was always going to be one of intrigue, even as coach Gregg Popovich announced that star Kawhi Leonard didn’t have a specific timetable for his return from a quadriceps injury.

The game itself certainly did not disappoint.

In classic Spurs fashion, San Antonio came out landing punches on the reigning champions. At the end of the first quarter, the Spurs were up by nine points as LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, and Patty Mills led the way. The pattern continued through the second, with the Warriors going into the half down 55-48 to their Western Conference rivals.

That’s when the Warriors turned on the jets.

Golden State took their first lead a few minutes into the third quarter, and even then it took a gigantic effort on defense to stall Aldridge & Co. The Warriors held San Antonio to zero made 3-pointers in the second half, and therein stood the answer to their 20-point victory.

Of course, without Leonard or the still-injured Tony Parker, it was hardly a fair fight for the Warriors. But in their win, we learned enough about both teams to be able to at least start tracing the shape of what the season will look like for these teams.

First, and perhaps less important, is what happens to Golden State when they get punched in the mouth. What happens in November to the Warriors is maybe one of the least important things to pay attention to in the NBA. But hidden in what makes Golden State great — their defensive ability — was what has made them irrepressible these past few season. That is, the offensive threats they can rely on interchangeably on any given night.

The Warriors needed a 27 point effort from Klay Thompson as their leader on a night when their bench depth didn’t give them much of anything. Eight players came off the pine for Steve Kerr and scored a combined 20 points on 7-of-28 shooting. Gross.

And while Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant weren’t exactly dormant, it’s largely been a combination of star power and bench depth that has made the Warriors such a juggernaut offensively — even if the highlight reels are all lighting-quick catch-and-shoot threes. On Thursday, it was the depth between those stars that kept Golden State afloat, and perhaps continues to dash the idea that Thompson himself is extraneous to the team’s success.

For San Antonio, the first half thumping of the Warriors is less clear. Yes, Aldridge appears to be back on the path to All-Stardom, but with the caveat that Leonard has yet to play a game for Popovich this year. That’s both encouraging and worrying if you’re familiar with Aldridge’s history.

The former Portland Trail Blazers centerpiece famously had a discussion with Popovich over the summer, admitting that he wasn’t happy in San Antonio with his new role. The worry for Aldridge — who has struggled to enjoy being second fiddle to the likes of Brandon Roy, Damian Lillard, and now Leonard — is that he cannot be the top option on an elite team. So too should Spurs fans be wary that Leonard could regress if and when Leonard returns.

San Antonio came out and showed they are still a Popovich-coached team. They weren’t afraid of what is likely the most powerful squad ever to grace an NBA court, and instead took them down with smart, measured play in the absence of their No. 1 option.

And even if Popovich’s late-game ejection couldn’t rally them to even a single-digit loss, they still know they have the coaching and talent to run with the Warriors come playoff time. If they have Leonard, of course.

Thursday night’s victory for Golden State, 112-92, didn’t go as planned, but it did give us our first rematch of the playoff series from last season. The final score may not have informed us whether San Antonio will ever get their shot to top Golden State in the postseason, but it should let us know what these games will be like from October to April. It’s just a shame we have to wait until February 10 to see it all again.

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

NBA reacts anthony davis
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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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

Anthony Davis drains game-winner at buzzer to put Lakers up 2-0

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It looked like Nikola Jokic, the All-NBA Second Team center, was going to be the star of the game — he scored Denver’s last 11 points and had them up with 2.7 seconds to go.

Then Anthony Davis — the All-NBA First Team center — drained this game-winner, a three over Jokic at the buzzer to win the game.

This is why the Lakers got Anthony Davis (and gave up a lot to get him).

That shot gave the Lakers the 105-103 win to put them up 2-0 in the series. Game 3 is Tuesday night.

Davis carried the Lakers at the end of the game, hitting a couple of clutch threes, and finished with 31 points and nine rebounds. He has been the best Laker in this series, with 68 points and 19 rebounds through two games.

For the Lakers, it was a dramatic win in a game where they were sloppy with 23 turnovers, and where their defense came apart for stretches of the game. Good teams win ugly games, that’s how the Lakers have to view it.

Denver supporters may want to spin this as “look how much better we played” — and they did, slowing the pace down (97 possessions, via NBA.com) and getting inside more, taking advantage of switches — but the reality is the Lakers are only going to have bad outings once or twice a series and the Nuggets needed to take advantage. They didn’t, and this loss stings.

“This is the Western Conference Finals. No moral victories, no silver linings,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame.

Davis’ good look to win the game came on the kind of defensive breakdown Denver has at times that other teams have not exploited these playoffs. Mason Plumlee was inserted for his size and defense, and he was on Davis, who simply runs across the top of the arc. Plumlee doesn’t stick with him, instead running over by LeBron James, who is just hanging out at the elbow (but Denver fears), and acts like there should be a switch. Torrey Craig can’t switch, if he does that LeBron has a free lane to the rim and an easy two. If it was an X-out style switch then Plumlee needed to trail Davis all the way to Jokic, he didn’t, leaving Jokic a ridiculously long closeout. Jokic read the play and got there to contest, but Davis had gotten a clean look.

Jokic had 30 points and nine rebounds for Denver, taking over the game when it mattered most and looking like an elite playoff performer. Jamal Murray had 25 points on 8-of-19 shooting and (as The Athletic’s John Hollinger noted on Twitter) was +16 in 44:14 minutes, meaning Denver was -18 in the 3:46 he was on the bench getting some rest. Denver got 15 points from Michael Porter Jr. and good minutes out of P.J. Dozier (although his five missed free throws in six attempts came back to bite the team).

Los Angeles got 26 points and 11 boards from LeBron and 11 points each from Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Lakers came out flat in this game except for LeBron, who had the team’s first 12 points. It looked like a close game until the Lakers went on an 18-3 run in the second quarter, with 8-0 of that coming with LeBron on the bench. The highlight of that was an Alex Caruso dunk that had the Lakers bench up and yelling.

Los Angeles stretched the lead out to as many as 16, but the Nuggets never quit.

Anthony Davis had to shut the door on them.

Watch Alex Caruso monster dunk, LeBron and Laker bench reaction

Alex Caruso dunk
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Alex Caruso has sneaky hops. Fans relate to him because he doesn’t look like an NBA player — he doesn’t really give off the vibe of one when you see him hanging out in the Lakers’ locker room either — but watch him on the court and he is more athletic than people realize. Alex Caruso can sky and throw down a dunk.

Just ask the Denver Nuggets.

The best part of this? The reaction of LeBron James and the Lakers bench.

The Alex Caruso dunk was part of an 8-0 Laker run right as LeBron went to get some rest. Denver had done a good job early being right with the Lakers by controlling the pace and limiting the Lakers in transition. That fell apart in the second quarter, fueled by Denver’s seven second-quarter turnovers (13 for the half), which allowed the Lakers to get out and run.

And Caruso to dunk, firing up the team.