Warriors core needs to follow old blueprint to advance past Rockets

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There was something familiar, almost nostalgic, about the Warriors’ offense in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, after Kevin Durant limped off the court with a frightening-looking non-contact leg injury.

Stephen Curry had the ball in his hands, running some pick-and-roll out high and using his gravity — the fear of his shot — to pull defenders to him and stretch out the defense. Behind that players were cutting, setting back screens, there was a whir of constant movement and energy. The floor opened up, the ball flew around, guys were getting and hitting shots, including Curry, who had 12 points and was 2-of-3 from three in the fourth quarter.

Golden State looked more like the 2015-16 version of themselves — the pre-Durant version that was every fan’s second favorite team to watch because of the style and joy with which they played.

That blueprint of success still hung on the walls in Oracle — and it worked, the Warriors won a tight game down the stretch Wednesday, beating the Rockets 104-99 to take a 3-2 series lead.

Now they need to win one of their next two games without Durant — who will be re-evaluated in a week due to a right calf strain — to advance to the Western Conference Finals. It will mean a bigger burden for the Warriors core four from the previous era — Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala — but blueprint on how to do that is still ingrained in this Warriors team.

“I think we obviously turn to Steph to generate most of our offense down the stretch,” coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s not like we’ve gone completely away from that over the years. It’s just that with Kevin we have the ultimate weapon. So we’ve sort of mixed in different styles and different offensive starting points for our team over the last few years. We’ve had different rotations. We’ve had different ways to attack.

“But the one good thing here is that we do have experience from before Kevin was here with Steph, Klay, Draymond, Andre, Shaun, our core guys. So we’ve been successful. That’s not to say it’s the same. That was a few years ago. But we’re comfortable that we can be successful with that group.”

Kevin Durant has been the best player in these playoffs, cementing his status as the best player in the world right now. The two-time Finals MVP had averaged 34.2 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting overall in the playoffs, but since his “I’m Kevin Durant, you know who I am” pronouncement he has been an unstoppable force averaging 36.9 points per game while shooting 41.9 from three, not to mention the 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists a night.

For the Rockets, Durant being out feels like a reversal of fortune from a season ago when Houston was up 3-2 on these Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and Chris Paul went out with a hamstring injury. The Warriors won the final two games of that series and went on to win an NBA title. These Rockets are going to come out with a level of desperation in Game 6 Friday night, not only to keep their season alive but also sensing an opportunity.

However, those Rockets will now need to play defense against a different-looking Warriors team and style. They struggled to do that in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Warriors put up 32 points and got plenty of clean looks. With a couple days to watch film and adjust, will the Rockets be ready?

Because we know Golden State will be ready — this team has shown it plays its best when challenged. When backed into a corner.

The Warriors core — Curry, Thompson, Green, and Iguodala — are not as young as they were back in 2015, and they do not have the same depth around them, but they also do not have to sustain that 2015 level for an entire playoff run. They need to beat the Rockets in one of the next two games, then starting next Tuesday hold their own against either Denver or Portland. Within a couple of weeks, Durant should be back.

Green yelled “we don’t need you” at Durant during a very-public argument earlier this season.

That’s not true — to win a title this season, they will need him.

However, they can survive for two weeks and advance without him.

“The one thing I think everybody understood and understands as a whole is not one person is going to fill that role,” Green said. “We’re going to have to collectively do that. I think down the stretch, Jonas [Jerebko] hit a big three, I was able to hit a three, Klay hit a three. We really used each other.

“We really have to rely on each other to search and find great shots. We did that down the stretch. That was the difference in the game for us.”

It needs to be the difference in Games 6 and (potentially) 7. Kevon Looney came up big with Durant out, and he likely gets the call as the starter. Shaun Livingston has struggled this series but needs to find the fountain of youth for a couple of games. Iguodala needs to fight through and handle a heavier minutes load than he or Kerr would prefer.

But the Warriors know what is needed. They have the blueprint.

“[Durant has] been phenomenal. So it’s obviously a huge loss,” Kerr said. “But our team has a lot of confidence. They trust each other. They’ve won championships together. So we come out and we give it our best shot, and we try to mix and match some lineups and find some minutes and some contributions where we haven’t had them so far in this series. Guys will get opportunities who haven’t had an opportunity yet. It’ll be a little different.

“But no reason why we can’t go get a win.”

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.

Report: Klay Thompson could be interested in Clippers if Warriors don’t max him

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Most everyone has expected that Klay Thompson will return to the Golden State Warriors next season. That seemed even more of a lock after Thompson tore his ACL, which might scare off outside teams.

Thompson is certainly a max-level player, and the Warriors will need to decide whether they are going to offer him that contract this summer. It’s not clear whether Thompson would be willing to take a discount, or if he’s finally ready to cash out in a big way.

Golden State will have a hard time keeping their core intact as everyone continues to get more expensive. Finding some leeway with Thompson’s contract has been seen as one way for the Warriors to at least limit their luxury tax bill.

But according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there are other teams interested in giving Thompson a hefty sum if the Warriors decline to offer him a max deal.

Via ESPN’s “Woj & Lowe” special:

“The one team that I think — my information is — he would be very open to going down to sit down with are the Clippers. And if they have a chance to sell Kawhi Leonard with Klay Thompson, certainly that’s an appealing sell for any free agent.”

It seems unreasonable that the Warriors would not try to max both Thompson and Kevin Durant. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe said as much during their special.

But we have seen made promises to spend in the past, and often that decision has been reversed. Golden State might end up choosing a handful of their core players to keep, and either Durant or Thompson could be left looking elsewhere.

There will be plenty of suitors for either of these guys, and both are still max-level players despite their catastrophic injuries. Whether both, one, or neither will be in San Francisco next year is the question heading into July 1.

Danny Green on fans trying to delegitimize Raptors title in light of Warriors injuries: ‘We don’t care’

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The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA champions. For some folks, this title comes with a caveat thanks to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Many fans feel as though there should be some kind of asterisk next to their championship in the record books.

This is, frankly, is sour grapes at best and patently insane at worst.

What-ifs are some of the more fun things to contemplate in a league like the NBA, but reality is inescapable. What has come to pass is the truth, and in front of our very eyes we saw the Golden State Warriors go down in six games to Toronto. And should have been five.

Raptors guard at Danny Green shares the same sentiment, saying is much too the New York Times Marc Stein in his newsletter this week. When asked about the prospect of adding an asterisk to the Raptors championship in light of Golden State’s injuries, Green disagreed.

Via NYT:

In a phone interview Monday night, Toronto’s Danny Green forcefully scoffed at the asterisk question before I could even finish the sentence. “We don’t care,” Green said. “Doesn’t matter to us.”

Should I be surprised that this is an actual conversation happening between NBA fans in 2019? Probably not. I’ve been around for too long. But here I am, and the incessant idiocy of excuses remains ever-present.

Now, if only we knew with this kind of certainty where Kawhi Leonard was going to sign this summer.