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Three Things to Know: Cavaliers, Thunder both lose again, face serious questions

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Cavaliers, Thunder continue to stumble the out of the gate, both face deadlines to get it right. 
The only reason we are not talking more about how the Oklahoma City Thunder are struggling early and look like LeBron James’ 2010-11 Miami Heat — “you take a turn on offense, then I’ll take a turn,”  guys playing next to each other but not with each other — is the Cleveland Cavaliers have stolen the spotlight with their terrible defense and ugly start.

It happened again Thursday night, but this time on the big TNT national games. The Thunder struggled late and lost to the Nuggets, but it was overshadowed by another Cavaliers loss.

Cleveland’s trend this year has been to show up and play much better against any team they perceive as a threat — notice they have wins against Boston, Washington, and twice against Milwaukee — but not against lesser squads. Houston is the kind of game the Cavaliers show up for, and they did, battling back from 18 down in the first half to make it a game late. But three things led the Rockets to a win. First was James Harden dropping a triple-double of 35 points (on 21 shots), 13 assists, and 11 rebounds.

The other two keys were free throws and offensive rebounds. The Rockets attacked the Cavaliers defense all night and got to the line 36 times (led by Harden’s 14), and that was 22 times more than the jump-shooting Cavs. The other key was offensive rebounds, the Rockets got the ball and a second chance or putback on 41.5 percent of their missed shots, and that’s too many opportunities for a good offense. Clint Capela had 6 offensive boards on the night, plus 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter.

Even when they care right now, it’s a matter of Cleveland’s offense trying to cover up for a bad defense — the Rockets jacked up 46 threes and had an offensive rating of 119.6 (points per 100 possessions) in this game, which raised Cleveland’s league-worst defensive rating to 113 for the season. LeBron is right, the Cavs need Isaiah Thomas back, but he’s not getting them stops. The Cavs have to figure the defensive end out, because right now they look very vulnerable.

Oklahoma City built a quick 11-point lead in Denver on the back of Carmelo Anthony’s 10 first-quarter points, but the Nuggets took control of the game with a 12-1 run in the fourth quarter against the Thunder bench and held on for the win. When the pressure was on in the fourth, the Thunder shot 38 percent as a team to Denver’s 53 percent. Russell Westbrook was 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter, while Paul George got just one shot in the frame. Westbrook was 6-of-22 on the night, he struggled, but when it mattered he was taking difficult shots like it was last season, and George was nonexistent in the offense.

The Thunder make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league and run the most isolation. At the end of games, that makes them predictable. As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, OKC now has just three assisted field goals in the final five minutes of a game within five points all season. Meanwhile their defense struggles in the clutch as well.

OKC’s challenge is this is a one-year shot with this roster. Paul George could leave as a free agent next summer, but even if he stays and Anthony opts in (as expected) it would leave the small-market Thunder with a massive tax bill (they are already paying more than $25 million this season, next season they would be a repeater). We’re talking a tax bill that would make the Knicks or Lakers freak out. OKC owner Clay Bennett says they will pay it and is all in, but nobody around the league believes he will pay the ridiculous amount that woudl be due. This is a one-year shot in OKC, and they have to figure things out sooner rather than later.

2) Rookie De'Aaron Fox drains game-winner, lifts Kings past Sixers. The Kings are not good, but go into their arena and not take them seriously and teams will pay the price. Sacramento’s young core plays hard. Philadelphia should have learned that lesson having watched Oklahoma City earlier in the week, but they did not and history repeated itself.

Philly had the lead in the fourth, but the Kings kept it close thanks to 11 fourth-quarter points from rookie forward Justin Jackson. Then Sacramento closed the game on a 7-0 run, capped off by this pull-up jumper by Fox.

One other note, the Kings defended the final shot by the Sixers well, Ben Simmons may need to take that one on the drive in the future, but his kick-out would normally get a bucket.

3) The NBA’s kind of town, Chicago is — for the 2020 All-Star Game. On Friday it will become official when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce it, but we already know it’s happening:

The 2020 NBA All-Star Game is coming to Chicago.

It was nearly 30 years ago in 1988 when the All-Star Game last came to Chicago — that was the year Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins had one of the (if not THE) greatest All-Star Dunk contest ever. Then in Sunday’s showcase game, Jordan dropped 40 points, led the East to the win, and was named MVP.

The NBA took in a lot of applications for the 2020 and 2021 All-Star Games, from Indiana through the Golden State  (who will be in a new building by then). The 2021 location has yet to be decided. By the way, the 2018 All-Star Game will be in Los Angeles, then in 2019 the game heads to Charlotte.

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 — eight of them in the first quarter. Houston was up 17 in the first 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. The Warriors were also forcing turnovers, 21.3 percent of Rockets possessions ended with a turnover (more than one in five trips down the court). 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.