Five questions that will decide NBA Finals

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This was the matchup we expected in June before the season started: Golden State vs. Cleveland for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Again.

However, the road to get here was far different — and with far more twists and turns — than we imagined. It was the kind of season that left us with questions — including questions about how the Warriors and Cavaliers match up in the Finals.

Here are the five questions whose answer will determine the winner of the NBA Finals.

1) How challenged, how engaged will the Warriors be this series? It’s easy to say the Golden State Warriors shouldn’t need more motivation to bring their “A” game every night — they are in the NBA Finals, the biggest stage in basketball. They are four wins away from a third NBA title in four years. They are playing to be considered a dynasty.

Yet, as we have seen this all season from Golden State, if this team doesn’t feel challenged, if it doesn’t get pushed, the Warriors coast and fall bad habits, making mistakes on both ends. The question isn’t even “will they coast in the Finals” as much as “how much will they coast in the Finals?”

The Warriors are unquestionably the more talented team in this series — for the Cavaliers to have any shot the Warriors have to be party to their own demise. The best way to tell if that’s happening (outside just missed threes by Golden State) is if Cleveland can replicate what Houston did last series — take away Golden State’s off-ball movement with good switching defense, and force them into a slowed down game in the halfcourt featuring Kevin Durant isolations. The Warriors will fall into that trap, if led there. The Rockets had the defensive talent, the defensive recognition and communication to pull that off. The Cavaliers… that brings us to our next question.

2) Can Cavaliers’ defense even begin to slow down Warriors’ offense? The Cavaliers are playing better defense in the playoffs than they did the regular season — Cleveland gave up 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the season (29th in the league), but it has been down to 105.9 per 100 in the postseason (7th in the playoffs, the equivalent of 15th in the league for the season). Cleveland players are putting in the effort, or at least they are when LeBron James is putting in that effort.

None of that may matter against the Warriors.

The Rockets had success shrinking the floor, switching everything, and defending the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but the Cavaliers do not have the same personnel to make that defense work. Cleveland doesn’t have a rim-protecting big the likes of Clint Capela who can also switch on the perimeter and hold his own. The Cavs don’t have a good matchup for Kevin Durant (not that anyone does, but Trevor Ariza did a respectable job; now the defense of Durant likely falls to Jeff Green and LeBron). They don’t have switchable wing defenders who can play a physical style, like P.J. Tucker. They don’t have anyone who can hang with the off-ball movement of Klay Thompson.

George Hill, with his length and veteran savvy, may do okay on Stephen Curry. However, expect the back cuts, split cuts, and other off-ball movements that the Rockets took away from the Warriors last round to come back. And expect a lot of finger-pointing and glaring at each other from the Cavaliers after wide open made Warriors baskets.

3) Who will be the fifth man for the Warriors? Golden State hopes Andre Iguodala will be back this series — he is out for Game 1 at least. He would help their cause, primarily as a quality defender on LeBron James (so that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green don’t have to shoulder that burden all the time). Iguodala matters — in the 2017 Finals the Warriors were +60 when he was on the court and -26 when he was not. On offense, Iguodala is a smart playmaker who keeps the motion offense going.

Shaun Livingston has been the best fifth man with the rest of the Hampton’s lineup (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green), but he’s not as good a defender and more of a midrange shooter. Jordan Bell brings athleticism and energy, but for every good play he makes he also seems to bring a rookie mistake. Kevon Looney tries. There is just not a great fifth option without Iguodala, but how much can the Cavaliers exploit that.

4) Can the Cavaliers knock down their threes? In the regular season, the three ball accounted for 34.8 percent of Cleveland’s non-garbage time shots, fourth highest percentage in the NBA (higher than the Warriors at 31.3 percent). In the playoffs that hasn’t changed, with 35 percent of Cleveland’s shots coming from beyond the arc (second highest percentage of playoff teams).

This isn’t rocket science — the Cavaliers need a high percentage of those shots to fall. Cleveland is shooting 34.7 percent on playoff threes (non-garbage time) and that simply isn’t going to be good enough against the high-powered Warriors. LeBron James, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and every other Cavalier player taking threes has got to knock them down this series at a high clip — Cleveland doesn’t defend well enough to lock Golden State down, the only way the Cavs win is outscoring the Warriors in a shootout. Which means making a lot of threes.

5) Will LeBron’s supporting cast be anywhere near enough? Last year, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five games in the NBA Finals — and that was a Cleveland team that had Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, and James Jones. None of those guys are back this season.

LeBron has had to carry an incredible burden to get this team roster to the NBA Finals.

He’s got a few veterans who have been here before — Korver, Smith, Tristan Thompson — but not as many and some not as good as who they replaced. Then there are the newcomers such as George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson — those guys are going to have to step up and have big series on a stage they have never been on before.

Kevin Love’s return from a concussion — his status is not known for Game 1 as of this writing — would be a big boost. He can score, he is a matchup problem, and he’s got a ring to show he can play under this kind of pressure.

Can the rest of this team? The Cavalry is not charging over the hill to save the day for LeBron, he’s got to make due with the guys around him. That just doesn’t look like it will be enough.

Draymond Green leaves arena wearing brace on right wrist (PHOTO)

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The Golden State Warriors have a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series. But as it often happens in the playoffs, it appears the Warriors could be starting to get banged up.

After the game on Sunday, Draymond Green was seen wearing a brace on his right hand. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Logan Murdock published a photo after the game of Green sporting his new supporting wrap.

According to Green, it’s nothing to worry about.

Via NBC Sports Bay Area:

The next game in the series isn’t for a couple of days, so Green has a chance to rest up. Still, the idea that Warriors could lose some production value out of one of their most important playoff performers isn’t great.

Hopefully Green will be able to get healthy and the athletic staff will get him some treatment that works so he can play effectively moving forward.

Warriors beat Clippers to take 3-1 series lead

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LOS ANGELES — Kevin Durant scored 33 points, Klay Thompson added 32 and the Golden State Warriors beat the Los Angeles Clippers 113-105 Sunday to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.

Stephen Curry was in foul trouble for the second straight game and finished with 12 points. Andrew Bogut fouled out with 5:50 remaining in the game with eight points and 10 rebounds.

The Warriors were 17 of 19 from the free throw line. They controlled the boards, 49-33, led by Curry and Bogut with 10 rebounds apiece.

Coming off a 27-point loss in Game 3, the Clippers played tougher defensively and hung in after trailing by 11 in the second quarter.

They outscored Golden State 30-25 in the third when they rallied to take a five-point lead. But Curry scored seven of the Warriors’ final 10 points to send them into the fourth ahead 87-84.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Oakland, when the two-time defending champions could close out the series.

The Clippers narrowed it to 87-86 early in the fourth, but Thompson sank his sixth 3-pointer and the Clippers never got close the rest of the way.

Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Clippers with a career-high 25 points. Danilo Gallinari added 16 points but was just 5 of 20 from the floor. Patrick Beverley had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Super subs Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were held to 12 and 10 points, respectively. They were limited to a combined eight points in the second half.

After a quiet 12 points in Game 3, Thompson broke out for 27 points by halftime. He hit 6-of-9 3-pointers in the game.

The Clippers opened the second on a 13-3 run to tie it 35-all, but Thompson made two free throws that put Los Angeles down 10 later in the quarter.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Their streak of having at least 30 assists in three straight playoff games, which tied a franchise record, ended. They had 27 assists.

Clippers: C JaMychal Green started in place of rookie Ivica Zubac. Green scored a career playoff-high 15 points in Game 3, but had just six points. … Retiring Hall of Fame announcer Ralph Lawler turned 81. … The anthem singer was 7-year-old Malea Emma Andrawidjaja.

UP NEXT

Game 5 is Wednesday at Oracle Arena.

Watch Myles Turner dunk all over Gordon Hayward (VIDEO)

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The Indiana Pacers are had a hard time in their series against the Boston Celtics. On Sunday, the Pacers were swept by the Celtics in four games.

It was a disappointing end to a gem of a season by Indiana. The Pacers didn’t have star Victor Oladipo for most of the season, but they were still able to grab 48 wins en route to a 5-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Sunday’s game was a tight one, 110-106, in favor of Boston. But the Pacers could at least take away the fact that they put up a fight without their best player.

Oh, plus this Myles Turner dunk.

Via Twitter:

The Celtics will go on to play the winner of the Milwaukee Bucks-Detroit Pistons series. No doubt Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will come out of that one.

Meanwhile, Indiana will need to regroup and come back with a plan to attack their Eastern Conference rivals next season.

Celtics complete rare sweep by beating Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Gordon Hayward scored 20 points and Marcus Morris started a decisive 3-point flurry late in the fourth quarter Sunday to give the Boston Celtics a series-clinching 110-106 victory at Indiana.

It’s the first four-game sweep for the Celtics since 2011 and their second since 1986-87, becoming the first team to reach the second round of the playoffs.

Bojan Bogdanovic finished with 22 points and Tyreke Evans finished with a playoff career-high of 21 to lead the Pacers. It still wasn’t enough to prevent Indiana from enduring its second first-round sweep in three years – the only two best-of-seven sweeps in franchise history.

This game, unlike the previous three, did not turn on Boston’s suffocating second-half defense. Instead, it was a flagrant foul called on Indiana’s Cory Joseph with 6:45 to play.

Jayson Tatum took advantage by making both free throws to give the Celtics an 83-82 lead. Al Horford sank 1 of 2 on Boston’s next possession and then Morris started the decisive flurry with a 3-pointer with 5:08 to play. Hayward’s three-point play with 4:24 left made it 90-83 and Boston made three more 3s over the next three minutes to take an insurmountable 102-90 lead.

Twice in the first half, it looked like Boston might run away with the victory.

But the Pacers charged back to take a 49-47 halftime lead and extended it to 56-49 in the third quarter.

That’s when Boston rallied, closing a methodical comeback with the final four points of the third to take a 73-72 lead and then put it away behind the shooting of Hayward and Morris, who had 18 points and eight rebounds.

Kyrie Irving had 14 points and seven assists for Boston.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Closed out the series with their seventh straight win against Indiana this season. … Tatum also had 18 points and rebounds while Al Horford finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. … Jaylen Brown added 13 points and Terry Rozier had 11 off the bench. … Boston was 10 of 28 on 3s, 5 of 7 in the fourth.

Pacers: Darren Collison had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists while Thaddeus Young added nine points and nine rebounds. … Domantas Sabonis scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds while Myles Turner had 13 points and seven rebounds…. The Pacers shot 40.9 percent in the game. … Victor Oladipo made his first public appearance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse since suffering a season-ending right knee injury in January.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Will wait to find out who they play in the second round.

Pacers: Head into the offseason contemplating how they can improve next season.