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.”

Watch Pacers’ rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO (AP) — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.