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.”

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”