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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.

Mike D’Antoni on Rockets’ defense: “I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it.”

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Last season the Houston Rockets’ defense allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, seventh best in the NBA. After the All-Star break they allowed just 103.8 per 100, fourth best during that stretch. By the end of the season, the Rockets switched every screen on- and off-ball (something they felt they needed to handle the Warriors in the playoffs) and leaned on defensive minded role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It got them within a game — within a half, really, the Rockets led at half of Games 6 and 7 vs the Warriors — of reaching the NBA Finals and almost certainly bringing home a title.

This season, the conventional wisdom was the Rockets would take a big step back defensively. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left as free agents, replaced on some level by James Ennis (a quality defender), Carmelo Anthony (not so much) and Michael Carter-Williams. Defensive-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, adding to the losses.

That narrative was fed opening night when Anthony Davis did whatever he wanted on his way to 32 points, Elfird Payton (yes, Elfrid Payton) put up a triple-double, and the Pelicans scored at a 124.8 points per 100 pace in blowing the Rockets out.

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t see the season going that way. Speaking to  Sam Amick of The Athletic he defended the team’s defense this season.

I think we’re even deeper this year, so we can have fresher guys on the floor… Trevor and Mbah a Moute were big parts of (Houston’s switching defense), but it’ll be taken up by Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a very good defensive player. James Ennis, who has energy and can play defense, and has all kinds of energy, to Eric Gordon, who will play with Chris and James a little bit more. So I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it. ‘Melo and the guys are smart enough (to know that) by switching it helps them too. They don’t have to fight through screens and all that. We’re just switching everything to try to keep guys in front. We have a nice philosophy, I think, where players understand what we’re trying to do.

The only thing that’s really changed is that (assistant coach) Roy (Rogers) has the (defensive) voice, in film sessions, talking to them, and (former assistant) Jeff (Bzdelik) had the voice (last season, before unexpectedly leaving during the summer). We all sat down to figure out what we wanted to do defensively, what were the best matchups, talking to Chris and James and PJ about, ‘OK, who you guarding tonight, and what do you think?’ And they’ll figure it out. But at the end of the day, the information still flows exactly the same.”

While the system may be the same, the players executing it are not. Carter-Williams was just lost and a mess defensively in the opener. Anthony will be better than some think as a team defender during the regular season (not good, but not a complete dumpster fire), but he can be exploited in a playoff series (Utah hunted him out in the first round last season, and it worked). P.J. Tucker is a fantastic defender, as is Chris Paul, but both are a year older and not getting faster.

Opening night was an aberration — the Rockets are not that bad on either end of the floor. It’s just one game and every team will have a few clunkers over the course of 82. The Rockets will play better against the Lakers in LeBron James‘ home opener Saturday night (that will not be an easy game for Houston by any measure).

Right now it feels like the Rockets are headed for a step back defensively this season, and with that their margins against the Warriors get even smaller. We’ll see over time if D’Antoni knows best.

Russell Westbrook out vs. Clippers Friday night, second game he’s missed

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The Thunder offense struggled on opening night, scoring less than a point per possession (96.2 per 100 possessions, to be specific). While the Thunder got out and ran a decent amount, 18.6 percent of their possessions started in transition, they scored just 0.88 points per possession on those chances (stats via Cleaning the Glass). On spot-up jump shots, they shot scored just 0.67 points per possession (via Synergy Sports) and they shot 27.8 percent from three in the part of the game that mattered.

How much of that was the Thunder offense missing their engine in Russell Westbrook, and how much of that was going against the solid defense and length of the Golden State Warriors?

We may find out Friday night because Westbrook is out again, still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on right knee back on Sept. 12. Royce Young of ESPN broke the news.

That means again most of the offense will flow through Paul George, which worked reasonably well but he needs more help from other players. The Clippers’ defense was fairly good opening night, and they played Denver close, but couldn’t score enough and lost a lead down the stretch, dropping their season opener.

What really matters is this gives us another chance to watch Westbrook try to sneak-snack on the bench.

LeBron James: Team chemistry not “like instant oatmeal. It is not that fast.”

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We shouldn’t overreact to the opening night loss for the Lakers in Portland, there were a lot of things in there we should have expected. First, Portland is a superb team led by two All-Stars that is always tough at home. The  Moda Center is never an easy place to win for any team. Second, the shooting woes the Lakers had were too be expected when we looked at the roster, and while it’s going to be a lingering problem all season they will have better nights than 7-of-30 from three and 0-of-7 from the corners.

However, the biggest takeaway is this: The Lakers lacked continuity and chemistry, and in a one-point game in the fourth (101-100) that really started to show, while the Trail Blazers are primarily the same team running primarily the same system, and their chemistry fueled the win.

That also shouldn’t be a surprise. So LeBron James, how long is it going to take for the Lakers to find that chemistry? (As reported by Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN).

“Um, not as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” James said when asked how long it will take for the Lakers’ chemistry to develop. “I always kind of compare it to like instant oatmeal. It is not that fast. It takes a while to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are.”

LeBron has history on his side here. Both when he went to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and when he returned to Cleveland, his teams got off to slow starts as they figured out their team chemistry. It takes player a while to adjust to playing with LeBron — who was working hard to set his Laker teammates Thursday rather than just taking over — and for him to adjust to them. Both those Cleveland and Miami teams went on to the NBA Finals.

The difference is this is the West and there is almost no margin for error, and early struggles could cost the Lakers’ playoff seeding. Or more.

Shirtless man berates Bulls center Cristiano Felicio on Philadelphia street: ‘You ain’t no Michael Jordan’

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Cristiano Felicio didn’t play in the Bulls’ loss to the 76ers last night.

But the center made an appearance in Philadelphia.

Josh Haber:

Plenty of well-articulated points here that are worth thoughtfully considering.