Switch flipped: Warriors rout Spurs in Game 1

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Who is vulnerable, exactly?

Tell me again how the Warriors would struggle to flip the switch in the playoffs.

From the opening tip Saturday Golden State played with energy on defense, moved the ball on offense, and exploited their considerable athleticism advantage over San Antonio. The Warriors shed the disinterested, coasting skin they had worn for weeks and came out playing with the passion — and playing with the flair, having fun — we have come to expect from them.

The end result was a 113-92 Warriors win that was never really in doubt by the middle of the first quarter.

“At the end of the season, I think we were thinking too far down the line and worrying about the playoffs when we should have been worrying about today,” Kevin Durant said in his postgame interview about the Warriors flipping the switch. “Today we worried about the present, came out with a good game plan and executed it.”

The Warriors need to guard against the return of complacency game-to-game — especially if they have a couple of easy wins in a series in a row — but for one day that question was put to rest.

The Warriors now lead the series 1-0, and while Gregg Popovich will make adjustments, it’s hard to imagine what he could do with the players at his disposal that would change the outcome of this series with the way the Warriors have dialed in. The Warriors are just vastly more athletic and it allows them to create matchups and opportunities that work for them.

Nothing highlighted that athleticism gap early like the play of JaVale McGee. The Warriors started McGee at center and guarding LaMarcus Aldridge and he was a force — at one point in the first quarter it was McGee 9, Spurs 8 (the Warriors had 15). In the first half, MeGee had 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting plus a couple of blocked shots inside.

Klay Thompson finished with 27 points and hit 5-of-6 from three, Durant had 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists, Draymond Green finished with 12 points and 11 assists, and McGee ended the game with 15 points.

Most importantly, the Warriors were engaged defensively from the start, holding the Spurs to 40 percent shooting for the game (although the Spurs did go 9-of-22 from three).

From the opening tip, Golden State was executing smart plays. The Warriors used the Spurs switching defense against them, forcing a smaller guy — Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills — on Kevin Durant, and while the Spurs smalls pressured KD just shot over the top of them on his way to 16 first-half points on 10 shots.

Spurs came out more physical and aggressive in the second half, but it didn’t matter. As the game wore on, the Warriors looked more and more comfortable. They looked more and more like their vintage self.

San Antonio’s offense all season used at its core LaMarcus Aldridge working out of the post, where he can score two on a fadeaway over anyone. But he doesn’t have a lot of shooting around him to space the floor, so he might hit a cutter on the pass, but the Spurs come away with two. Then the Warriors drain a three. The math just doesn’t work for the Spurs, and they have no answer for Durant.

If the Warriors stay engaged and defending at this level, the math is going to end this series quickly for the Spurs.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.