Golden State looks every bit the juggernaut in Game 1 win in Houston

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Golden State would like to remind you they are the defending NBA champions. For good reason.

Houston brought its MVP to the table in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals and James Harden had 41 points on 24 shots, hit five threes and had seven assists. The Rockets brought the three ball and took 37 of them (hitting 35.1 percent). They brought their switching defense aimed directly and dealing with the Warriors.

None of it mattered.

Kevin Durant looked like the MVP he once was too with 37 points on 27 shots. The Warriors hit just as many threes as the Rockets (in four fewer shots). More importantly, they picked apart the lapses in the Rockets switching defense — and there were plenty, more and more as the game wore on and players got tired. Klay Thompson kept getting uncontested threes (he had 28 points). Harden was a defensive liability and the Warriors directly targeted him.

The result was a 119-106 Golden State win in Game 1 on the road, where the Warriors were comfortably ahead through the final minutes of the game.

The Warriors now lead the series 1-0 and look in control, having won the first game on the Rockets’ home court.

The big difference in this game was the defense — the Warriors were solid, making the Rockets really work hard for their buckets on every possession. The Rockets would do that for stretches, but then have breakdowns in matchups or effort that led to layups or uncontested threes.

The Rockets tried to make Durant work for his buckets, but it usually just didn’t matter.

“Kevin is the ultimate luxury,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “A play can break down and you just throw him the ball. He can get a bucket as well as anybody on Earth.”

Harden went off in this one — as he has done in the first couple games of the first two rounds of the playoffs — and in this game the Rockets relentlessly targeted Stephen Curry, setting picks to force him onto Harden. Curry did not have a standout offensive night (18 points, eight assists), but he battled Harden as best he could on defense, gave a full effort and make Harden put in the effort. Draymond Green was able to help a lot, especially when Clint Capela sat (he needs to play more, especially late), but give Curry credit for the effort.

“If that’s the game plan they want to stick with, my job is to make it as tough as possible,” Curry said.

“We know James is an all-world scorer, he’s gonna make shots over us, we just try to stay solid,” Durant said.

Houston got the start it wanted — Harden hit a couple of stepback threes early, one over Curry. Harden opened the game with 12 fast points on 4-of-6 shooting. Green cane out over-hyped and emotional, picked up a needless technical for shoving Harden, and made some defensive mistakes. Capela was making plays on defense in the paint and held his own.

“Well, they home for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, we knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy, especially after that long layoff,” Durant said. “We just tried to take that first punch and keep fighting.”

Keep fighting they did. The Warriors were the Warriors. They stayed steady, Kevin Durant had 17 points in the first half, Klay Thompson hit a couple of threes and Nick Young came out of nowhere to drain three more from deep in the first half.

The Rockets never pulled away, it was 30-29 Houston after one quarter, and 56-56 at the half. It felt like a blow chance.

Durant owned the third, with 13 points, and the Warriors stretched their lead out to double digits, but a late 8-0 Rockets run kept it close 87-80 after three. Still, the Rockets just could not execute well enough down the stretch.

The Warriors could. They have done this before. And unless the Rockets find another couple of gears, the Warriors are going to again.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.