Chance (and maybe the Celtics) are biggest roadblock to Warriors this season

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I would like to tell you that the Houston Rockets adding Carmelo Anthony is a major threat to the Golden State Warriors.

I could tell you that the Oklahoma City Thunder, back in full health and with a former MVP on its roster, could create significant matchup problems for the reigning NBA champions.

It would be helpful to write that LeBron James and his Island of Misfit Boys will be a Western Conference Finals foe for Steve Kerr’s squad.

The problem is that I don’t think any of that is true.

The reality of the situation is that the only real thing standing in the way of the Warriors grabbing another title is health. Specifically, the health of the two players who are clearly the most important for them when it comes to the playoffs, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala.

But writing a season preview for the Warriors focused on the anxiety of a potential major injury to a star player delves too far into the macabre even for yours truly. That’s not to say that a catastrophic injury couldn’t derail Golden State’s season, it’s just that writing about such a thing in September seems a bit fatalistic.

From a basketball standpoint, it is true the Rockets are a top contender to at least cause problems for the Warriors come playoff time. Before Chris Paul‘s injury last year, Houston took Golden State right to the wire in a thrilling Western Conference Finals matchup that resulted in yet another win for a Paul foe by TKO. And as much of a CP3 fan as I am, it’s damn near impossible to try and count on him being a major player deep into the playoffs at this juncture in his career.

The Thunder are a contrarian’s pick against Golden State, although even with Andre Roberson back it’s not clear how Oklahoma City is better than the Warriors. Russell Westbrook is a machine, and the Thunder are more sorted out as ever as they return Paul George. But where the Thunder could take advantage of Golden State, so too are there too many options available for the Warriors to take advantage of Oklahoma City.

This goes the same, on down the list, for just about every team when trying to pick an upset in Oakland. The problem with the Warriors is that they have too many counters to any kind of matchup problems or schematic Molotov cocktails opponents might throw at them in the playoffs.

The West is an absolute gauntlet, but the real answer for who might be able to create problems for the Warriors could lie in the East. The Boston Celtics seem most rotationally appropriate as foils for the Warriors’ cornucopia of basketball talent. Gordon Hayward returns to a team that won 55 games last season before finally looking outmatched by LeBron and the Cavaliers for lack of veteran leadership in the postseason.

The Celtics will get that back in spades as Hayward returns from a broken tibia and as Kyrie Irving, who sat out the entire playoffs, brings more firepower to the starting lineup. Boston is one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and if Jayson Tatum doesn’t hit a sophomore wall it’s possible the Celtics waiver only slightly as they move through their bench rotation. Al Horford was stellar last year. Marcus Smart is coming back. Jaylen Brown was far more valuable than many thought he would be at this stage in his career. There is no way around it, Boston is good.

This is not to lend any kind of confidence to the idea that the Warriors will have a real challenger in the Finals this season. The reality is that at full force, Golden State is better than any team in the NBA. That holds true even if Kevin Durant decides to leave next season, at least for the time being. The true enemy of the Warriors will be cap space and the aging of their core, both in terms of miles on Curry’s ankles, Iguodala’s everything, and Draymond Green’s upcoming contract. Klay Thompson has said that he wants to stay put, but anything is possible when money comes into play in the NBA.

For now, it seems as though the Warriors will continue their dominance at least through this season. Over the next three to four years, that will change. Golden State will waver, even if ever so slightly. Options will be available for teams to take over that top spot in the NBA, and someone else will win a championship.

Whether it’s the Celtics, or the Rockets, or some other team, opponents will need to pounce if Golden State shows the slightest sign of weakness, this year or next. No doubt many are prepping for that very thing.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.