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Three things to watch for on Christmas in Cleveland vs. Golden State

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This is the marquee game on Christmas day.

Forget just Christmas, this is the NBA’s marquee matchup and rivalry period — the two best teams in the NBA three years running. While Houston and Boston want to try to crash the party this year, there’s at least a 50/50 chance Golden State and Cleveland will be back in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season.

There’s a little firepower missing in this meeting: Stephen Curry is out for the Warriors (sprained ankle) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will suit up for Cleveland for the first time in the coming days, but not on Christmas. And both of these teams have coasted to good but not great records to start the season, knowing their real season begins in mid-April. Still, these teams are loaded with All-Stars and recognizable names, and more importantly they know each other very well — unlike almost all NBA regular season games, these two teams are very familiar with the deep scouting report on the other. Coaches can go deeper into their bag of tricks with certain plays or try to force specific matchups more than they would in most NBA regular season matchups.

Here are three things to keep an eye out for when the Warriors and Cavaliers tip-off.

1) LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. These are the two best basketball players walking the face of the earth right now, and the debate of who is better flared up in the Finals last season when Durant hit a dagger three over LeBron in Game 3, a shot that put the Warriors up 3-0 and all but sealed the series.

Durant went on to be the Finals MVP, but he wouldn’t even have been in Golden State if LeBron hadn’t been the Finals MVP the season before sparking Cleveland to come from 3-1 down to win the series. That loss opened the door to KD in Golden State. These two men’s careers have been intertwined because of it.

They will be intertwined — and at times matched up — on Christmas.

LeBron is having an MVP-level season, averaging 28.4 points, 9.2 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game, is shooting 41.1 percent from three and has a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 65.7. He also put it upon himself to lift up the Cavaliers defense up after a sloppy start to the season on that end, and that sparked a 14-game win streak.

Durant says he is on the level of LeBron. If anyone is, it’s him. KD is averaging 26.3 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per night, and with Curry out he has taken over the Warriors offense, becoming the focal point of its scoring (much of it during an 11-game win streak that ended Saturday). Durant is also having his best defensive season ever, an All-Defensive Team level season.

This game is going to be decided more by which superstar gets more help than their head-to-head matchup, but when you get to see two future Hall of Famers at the top of their craft going at each other, it is must-watch television.

2) The Warriors’ secret weapon: Andre Iguodala. It wasn’t Curry, and Durant wasn’t around yet, but when the Warriors won the first title of this run in was Iguodala who was the 2015 Finals MVP. He has been the Golden State’s secret weapon in these matchups. As Kevin Pelton of ESPN noted, since the start of 2014-15 (the first season these teams met in the Finals) the Warriors are +208 when Iguodala is on the court against the Cavaliers, and -54 when he is not.

With Stephen Curry out, coach Steve Kerr is leaning more heavily on Iguodala in recent games. Kerr regularly talks about how much he trusts Iguodala and can lean on his steadying veteran influence as the second unit as a playmaker and leader. More than just that, he’s a strong defender who back in 2015 was the guy Kerr turned to when he needed someone to make LeBron really work for his points.

Iguodala has not quite been himself this season, he looks a step slower to the eye and his numbers are down (his PER is just 10.4, his true shooting percentage is below the league average and stands at 51). Is that just part of not taking the regular season seriously enough, or is Father Time starting to win the race he eventually wins with all of us? We will see on Christmas because Kerr will lean heavily upon Iguodala in this one.

3) Warriors small ball looks different, but will the Cavaliers have an answer? Golden State’s most notorious small ball lineup — “Hamptons five” with Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green — has only played 58 minutes total this season and been unimpressive when it has been out there (-8.6 per 100 possessions). Injuries have limited how much Steve Kerr can go to it what has been his best lineup in the past, but even when all five are healthy he seems to keep it in his back pocket this season. Without Curry playing, we will not see this lineup on Christmas.

However, the Warriors still have a couple dangerous small ball lineups. The lineup of Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and David West is outscoring opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions, and West has been the Warriors best small-ball center all season. Another small-ball lineup using bench players — Patrick McCaw, Thompson, Durant, Green, and rookie Jordan Bell — is outscoring teams by 16.4 points per 100 possessions.

Cleveland’s Tyron Lue can counter because he starts the game smaller now, with Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron, and Kevin Love — and that lineup has outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.

Kerr will go to his small ball lineups against the Cavaliers, possibly early, and then tell his team to get out and run — Cleveland has been one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA this season. Only two teams (and not good ones, the Clippers and Kings) allow opponents to get a higher percentage of their offense in transition, and teams are scoring 125.6 points per 100 transition opportunities against the Cavaliers (26th in the league).

If the Warriors are racking up easy buckets in transition on Christmas, this game will be over early. Cleveland has to be efficient on offense and get back on defense to have a shot for the upset on the road.

Steve Kerr on Warriors’ late possession vs. Rockets: “I wanted the timeout”

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The Houston Rockets leveled the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night by a margin of 95-92. The win for the Rockets was ugly, but it leveled the series at 2-2 heading back to Houston.

It was a close game down the stretch, and it looked like Golden State’s last chance to get the win was going to come on a possession with 11 seconds to go following a missed James Harden jumper.

The Warriors immediately turned up the floor and did not call a timeout. The resulting possession was messy, and it wound up ending on a difficult Klay Thompson turnaround jumper. Golden State would get another shot at a 3-pointer with half a second left thanks to a foul on Thompson’s miss, but many were still left wondering why Steve Kerr did not choose to call a timeout during the possession before.

Kerr addressed the decision after the game.

Via Twitter:

You sort of have to side with Kerr in principle, but if you’d seen the way the Warriors played the rest of that fourth quarter you would probably err on calling a timeout and letting them set something up. Curry was 1-of-8 in the fourth, Durant shot poorly most of the game, and Golden State scored 12 total points in the final period.

When you consider Curry got a look at a wide open 3-pointer in the corner with 0.5 seconds left on the clock when the Warriors did call a timeout on the next possession, it makes it look even worse.

In any case, Houston beat out Golden State in a close game and we’re headed back to Texas for Game 5 on Thursday.

Rockets survive gut punch from Warriors, even Western Conference Finals at 2-2

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The Houston Rockets can only win against the Golden State Warriors in one way: ugly.

During their Game 2 blowout against the defending champions, Houston’s 22-point victory was ugly for the Warriors. In Tuesday’s Game 4 win, it was ugly for the Rockets despite the 95-92 score in their favor.

Golden State came out of the gates hot, scoring the first 12 points of the game as it was clear that the Warriors were drawing off of the home crowd back in Oakland. Houston eventually settled, coming back with a massive 34-point second quarter. Mike D’Antoni, using an abbreviated rotation, found a way to up his team’s defense on the Warriors, clamping down on Golden State from the 3-point line.

The Rockets took a 53-46 lead into the half, and needed to brace for the coming changes from Steve Kerr’s squad.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors answered with a 34 point quarter of their own to open the second half. Golden State found their range from 3-point land as — guess who — Stephen Curry started to go nuclear. Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points but shot a woeful 37.5 percent from the field, started to slow even as he got open looks off jumpers above smaller defenders.

Then came the fourth quarter.

Houston remained resolute, and full of energy as PJ Tucker and Chris Paul jumped for loose balls and battled for rebounds. Meanwhile, Golden State appeared to slowly run out of gas. Steve Kerr said as much after the game, intimating that his own shortened lineup without Andre Iguodala could have played a role.

D’Antoni, who obviously had a game plan to better defend Durant, then focused his attention toward Curry. The Warriors point guard finished the game shooting 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter, including a miss on the final shot of the game.

Curry scored 28 points with six rebounds and two assists. Durant added 12 rebounds and three assists to his scoring total. Draymond Green contributed 11 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists.

For Houston it was Harden who led the way with 30 points, four rebounds, and four assists. Paul had 27 points to go with four assists and two rebounds. PJ Tucker, who scored just four points, grabbed a whopping 16 boards. Clint Capela was much the same, scoring eight points while grabbing 13 rebounds.

This season’s Western Conference fighters has been both puzzling and Expected. Well the variants of victory margin has been much greater than any of us anticipated for both sides, the fact that the coaches on each bench are trying to out dual each other each game Runs with the idea we have of some of the best playoff series in NBA history. In fact, the back-and-forth battle between two teams as they trade winds is perhaps what makes be later rounds of the NBA playoffs so worth watching.

Houston’s victory was gritty, and defensive, and not much to look at. True to his persona, after the final horn Rockets point guard Paul called it, “A fun game.”

While we finally got ourselves a close conference finals game out West, the question now turns to what the teams will do for Game 5 back in Houston. Will this series become more competitive? Or will Houston and Golden State continue the back-and-forth, big-margin victories we’ve seen thus far?

No matter what, there’s no doubt the Rockets will be trying to recapture the defensive aura they held in Game 4 as Golden State tries to find a way to break through it.

Report: Suns could have traded for Kristaps Porzingis last season

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I’m going to need New York Knicks fans to read this one with their eyes closed. Ready? Here we go.

The Phoenix Suns recently won the right to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. That means they will be adding a player like Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton, or Marvin Bagley to their young roster. Last season, Phoenix selected fourth and picked Josh Jackson. It’s a rebuilding process, to be sure.

But a new report says that if Phoenix would have decided to instead trade the pick they used on Jackson, they could have had Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis.

Seriously.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Phoenix had an opportunity to put together a package that would have sent Porzingis to Arizona. That anything the Suns had, plus the No. 4 pick, would have made that happen is just another testament to why Phil Jackson had to go in New York.

Via the Ryen Russillo show:

The Knicks actually hit on Porzingis, and although he may be out for the entire year next season, he’s a keeper to build around, not to trade. On the other side of things, why the Suns didn’t include that pick and pull the trigger is a head scratcher, although we don’t know the full details of the proposed package.

No doubt New York fans are glad the Suns didn’t decide to accept the offer without that pick.

Watch James Harden dunk all over Draymond Green (VIDEO)

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Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals started off hot for the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs scored the first 12 points of the game, but the Houston Rockets rallied before the half was over to take the lead, 53-46, at the break.

One of the biggest highlight plays from Houston came courtesy of James Harden late in the second quarter.

The play came with 6:06 left to play in the half and with the Rockets pushing on the Warriors in transition. Harden found himself with the ball at the top of the key and with an open lane. That forced Draymond Green to slide over as a help defender, and the result was a thunderous dunk for Harden over the Golden State defensive stalwart.

We’ll forget that Chris Paul probably either travelled or double-dribbled before Harden got the ball on the play.

Golden State leads the series, 2-1.