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LeBron James has earned confidence following Game 1 loss

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The Celtics dominated the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday.

Dominated.

Boston built a 21-point lead in the first quarter, led by at least 14 the rest of the way and cruised to a 108-83 win. The Celtics bottled up LeBron (15 points on 5-of-16 shooting, nine assists, seven rebounds and seven turnovers). Cleveland got outscored by 32 with him on the floor – tied for his worst-ever plus-minus in a playoff game.

Afterward, LeBron sounded as if he were just toying with Boston.

“Game 1 has always been,” LeBron said, “a feel-out game for me.

“I have zero level of concern at this stage. I didn’t go to college, so it’s not March Madness.”

The NBA playoffs aren’t single-elimination. But every game carries significant weight in a best-of-seven series. Should LeBron be so dismissive of what the Celtics accomplished in Game 1?

He has earned the right to be.

LeBron has won just 61% of his Game 1s, his worst mark of any game in a series:

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That’s especially astounding, because LeBron’s teams are usually good enough in the regular season to secure home-court advantage and open series at home. (Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals was in Boston.) The Cavs and Heat have played 66% of their Game 1s with LeBron at home.

With a simple baseline of expecting LeBron to win at home and lose on the road, Game 1s are the only time he loses more than expected:

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Of course, LeBron’s frequent deep playoff runs means he usually turns it around after a Game 1 setback.

Teams that lost Game 1 of a best-of-seven series have won it just 23% of the time. LeBron’s teams have won 56% of the time.

Here are the 16 times LeBron’s teams previously dropped Game 1, including the nine series victories:

  • Cavaliers lost to Pistons in 2006 second round
  • Cavaliers beat Pistons in 2007 conference finals
  • Cavaliers lost to Spurs in 2007 NBA Finals
  • Cavaliers lost to Celtics in 2008 second round
  • Cavaliers lost to Magic in 2009 conference finals
  • Heat beat Bulls in 2011 conference finals
  • Heat beat Thunder in 2012 NBA Finals
  • Heat beat Bulls in 2013 second round
  • Heat beat Spurs in 2013 NBA Finals
  • Heat beat Pacers in 2014 conference finals
  • Heat lost to Spurs in 2014 NBA Finals
  • Cavaliers beat Bulls in 2015 second round
  • Cavaliers lost to Warriors in 2015 NBA Finals
  • Cavaliers beat Warriors in 2016 NBA Finals
  • Cavaliers lost to Warriors in 2017 NBA Finals
  • Cavaliers beat Pacers in 2018 first round

So, LeBron can taunt the Celtics a bit by calling what they hope is their breakthrough victory just “a feel-out game.”

It’s harder down 1-0 than up 1-0, and LeBron has shown cracks this season. There’s no guarantee he digs himself out of this hole.

But he, more than anyone, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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.