Portland vs. Golden State: Five things to watch in the Western Conference Finals

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This Western Conference Finals matchup has some great storylines:

• Is Damian Lillard the real representative of Oakland? Lillard grew up not far from Oracle Arena — the place the Warriors are abandoning next year to move into a glitzy new building in San Francisco — and the Portland guard brings the kind of grit and toughness you’d expect from the city that also gave us Gary Payton. You can make the case Lillard is more Oakland that Curry/Thompson and their flashy game. He’s going to rep the city.

Stephen Curry vs. Seth Curry. Brother vs. brother for the first time in the Western Conference Finals will have Dell Curry flipping a coin.

The Western Conference Finals may feature more good storylines than close basketball. Give Portland credit, the team is not here by mistake — it just won Game 7 on the road in Denver. That’s impressive, and the Blazers have been the three seed in the West for two seasons in a row now. This is an outstanding basketball team.

This is also a terrible matchup for Portland.

Check out the latest ProBasketballTalk podcast where we break down this series in more detail, but here are five things to watch on the court when Portland travels to Golden State for Game 1.

1) Can Portland steal a game on the road before Kevin Durant returns? Stopping the Warriors offense when they don’t have Durant — which will be the case for at least Game 1 and likely Game 2 — is hard. They move the ball, cut hard off the ball, run a crafty pick-and-roll game, and just tear teams apart with Curry’s gravity as a shooter leading the way. Just ask the Rockets.

It gets even harder to stop them when they add the best player in the world to their rotation.

The Warriors offense is more predictable and runs a little slower with Durant, but knowing what is coming and being able to stop it are two different things. Durant will get his against anyone, and Klay Thompson or Curry can get going at any point as the defensive attention focuses on KD.

Lillard needs to go off in one of these first two and help Portland steal a game on the road in Oracle — get the work done early because things will only get harder. Lillard will have a slight advantage early in the series because Andre Iguodala likely will still start for Durant, and that gives Lillard a place to hide on defense and not work as hard (expect Moe Harkless to start on Curry). Warriors coach Steve Kerr will even want to cut back on Iguodala’s workload after the last series.

The Warriors will not play Durant in the first two games, and when he returns may depend on how threatened they feel in this series. If the Warriors hold home court in the first two, why play him and risk anything in Game 3?

When we see KD — and how much of the Hamptons’ five lineup we see — will tell you how concerned the Warriors are in this series.

2) It’s going to be a long series for Enes Kanter. For a guy who entered the playoffs with a terrible defensive reputation — especially in space against the pick-and-roll — Kanter has held up well on that end of the court. Give the man credit, his post and paint defense have improved and he has put them to good use.

He’s also gone against two teams that did not exploit his weaknesses enough. Oklahoma City just did not have the personnel to run a spread pick-and-roll. Denver did a better job and ran some Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll at Kanter, enough that Kanter was -28 in that series (in 245 minutes).

The Warriors will hunt Kanter. Relentlessly. Expect Kerr to go back to Andrew Bogut or Kevon Looney as the starting center (with the other getting minutes), and those guys will set high screens for Curry and force Kanter out into space to defend it. The Warriors will show all the mercy of Daenerys Targaryen at Kings’ Landing. The Warriors will work to play Kanter off the floor.

This likely will mean a lot more Zach Collins for Portland. Collins is a good and improving player, but this will be a big ask in a tough series, especially when the Warriors go small.

3) Can Portland slow the Warriors offense? This ties into the Kanter note above, and this is where going against Golden State is just a bad matchup for Portland.

The Trail Blazers’ base defense is a drop pick-and-roll coverage — where the center stays back to protect the paint rather than come out and challenge the ball handler coming off a pick — and doing it without switches. With the right personnel, that defense can be effective, it’s what Milwaukee did this year, the difference being the Bucks are loaded with long, athletic defenders all over the court.

Portland is not. Give Curry and Thompson a little space off those picks and things get ugly fast. And the Warriors’ guards will have space.

Portland also does not generate turnovers with their defense, they were 26th in the NBA scoring 15 points a game during the season off opponent turnovers, which is down to 13 a game in the playoffs. If you don’t get easy buckets against the Warriors things get harder.

Portland isn’t a bad defensive team (16th in the NBA during the season, middle of the pack) but this is just a tough matchup for them in terms of style and personnel. Things could get ugly.

4) Klay Thompson will try to make life difficult for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Unlike their opponents, when matchup up the Warriors have the advantage of a tall, smart, NBA All-Defensive Team level player in Thompson to throw at the great Portland guards.

Not that Thompson can stop Lillard or McCollum, whichever one he is lined up across from (expect him to start on Lillard but spend time on both). However, Thompson can make them work, make them a little less efficient. And the Warriors have the players to throw strong traps at Lillard to get the ball out of his hands while still having a good defender on McCollum. Especially once Durant returns to the lineup.

Portland will get buckets against the Warriors, they are too good not to — this is the third best offense in the NBA this past season. The concern for Portland is Thompson and Golden State can slow them down just enough they will not keep up with the Warriors’ offense.

5) How focused is Golden State? In the ultimate sign of respect, Kerr had the Warriors start the last series with the “Hamptons’ Five” on the floor. No messing around with a traditional center, the Warriors went straight to their best lineup because they realized the level of test in front of them. Houston had Golden State’s attention and respect from the opening tip and the Warriors’ rotations (and minutes load) showed that.

Golden State vs. Houston was seen as the real Western Conference Finals, the two best teams. The Warriors recognized the threat.

When the Warriors relax, when they don’t feel threatened, they can take their foot off the gas, not defend with energy, and get sloppy with the ball. They lose games because of a lack of focus. It happened early in the first round against a feisty Clippers team.

It could happen again against Portland, and the Trail Blazers are good enough to take advantage. The Warriors want to end this series and get as much rest as possible before the Finals start (on the road for them in Toronto or Milwaukee). The Warriors know they want to take care of business.

But will they? Or will the Warriors open the door just a little for the Trail Blazers and watch Lillard and company bust on through it?

It’s just one more thing to watch in this series.

Kemba Walker stops personal losing streak to LeBron James at 28, Celtics top Lakers

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BOSTON (AP) — Kemba Walker finally beat LeBron James, and he did it by helping the Boston Celtics send the Los Angeles Lakers to their biggest loss of the season.

Walker ended a career-long losing streak against James, scoring 20 points to beat him for the first time in 29 tries and lead the Celtics past the rival Lakers 139-107 on Monday night.

“I’m happy I got one at least, before he goes,” Walker said with a laugh after the Celtics snapped their three-game losing streak. “Who knows how long he can play, because he’s just incredible. But you know, it’s only one. One and 28.”

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, drawing a taunting technical after dunking over James, and Enes Kanter had 18 points and 11 rebounds for Boston.

“I ain’t going to lie, that was pretty nice, pretty awesome,” Brown said. “LeBron, he’s gotten so many other guys. Just to be out there against one of the best players to ever play the game is an honor. I always like that matchup and it gives me a little extra boost.”

James said there was no shame in getting beaten — this time.

“Why would I take it personally? It’s part of basketball,” he said. “It’s not the first time I got dunked on. It might not be the last time I get dunked on. But Jaylen’s been playing exceptionally well this year. It was a good play.”

The Celtics gave up the first eight points of the game but turned things around when Anthony Davis, playing for the first time in almost two weeks, went to the bench with a pair of fouls 49 seconds apart early in the first quarter.

“The less he plays, the better for everybody else,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

James had 15 points and 13 assists for the Lakers, who had won 10 of their previous 11 games. But the Celtics made 13 of their first 22 3-point attempts to open a 103-75 lead in the third quarter — the biggest against Los Angeles all season until Boston made it a 34-point game in the fourth.

“We were fortunate to put the ball in the basket quite a bit,” said Stevens, whose team shot 56% overall. “The ball going in masks some things.”

Walker’s 28 games without a win against James was second in NBA history only to Sherman Douglas’ 0-30 head-to-head record against Michael Jordan.

“If anybody: him. The guy I couldn’t beat, it’d be him. He’s such a great player, he’s done so much in this league,” said Walker, who spent the first eight years of his career in Charlotte. “He’s beaten a lot of guys. I bet you there’s a lot of people who don’t have a winning record against LeBron James.”

 

Lakers, 76ers reportedly interested in trade for Derrick Rose

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Derrick Rose‘s renaissance has come to the point this season he is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game (before Monday’s game against the Wizards).

The Pistons are in the mix for a playoff spot in the East — three games back of the eighth-seed Nets, who are finally getting healthy — but with Blake Griffin out for the season they are expected to be sellers at the deadline. That means Rose, a guy who could help a number of contending teams.

The Lakers and 76ers are among those interested, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and multiple teams with championship aspirations have expressed interest in trading for Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

The Lakers and Sixers are in search of point guard assistance for the stretch run, sources said.

The Lakers need a second playmaker as their offense falls by 9.8 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James is off the court. To make the deal work, the Lakers would have to dangle Kyle Kuzma plus someone to fill the salary (Avery Bradley would work but that would cost Los Angeles another starter; DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook works, too, but why would the Pistons want them?). The Lakers are limited in picks they can send out after the haul they sent to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis deal.

The 76ers need a playmaking point guard to go next to Ben Simmons at points, ideally one who can stretch the floor (Rose is shooting just 31.8 percent from three). The Sixers would likely dangle Zhaire Smith and maybe Mike Scott to make the salaries work.

Expect the Pistons to listen to offers up to the deadline, playing teams off each other to get the best possible deal. But Rose may well be on the move before Feb. 6.

Chris Paul scores 28, leads Thunder rally to hand Rockets fourth straight loss

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HOUSTON (AP) — Chris Paul scored 28 points and Danilo Gallinari added 25 as the Oklahoma City Thunder rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat cold-shooting James Harden and the Houston Rockets 112-107 on Monday.

Paul scored 27 of his 28 points in the first half against his former team. Gallinari and Dennis Schroder, who scored 17 of his 23 points after halftime, carried the Thunder after the break.

Former Thunder player Russell Westbrook had 32 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds for Houston. Harden had 29 points but was astonishingly inefficient, making 1 of 17 3-point attempts, as the Rockets’ losing streak stretched to a season-high four games.

Oklahoma City used a 6-0 run, highlighted by a dunk from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander after he stole the ball from Harden, to put the Thunder up 108-105 with about a minute left.

Harden made a layup for Houston to cut the lead to one, but Schroder made a jump shot with 28 seconds remaining to make it 110-107. Russell Westbrook missed a 3-pointer on the other end and Gilgeous-Alexander added two free throws to secure the victory.

Houston had a 15-point lead before the Thunder scored 13 straight points to get within 100-98 with 4 1/2 minutes to go. Gallinari led the way for Oklahoma City in that stretch, making two 3-pointers and adding three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.

Harden made one of two free throws after that but Gallinari struck again seconds later with another 3 that tied it at 101-all. Gilgeous-Alexander then made one of two free throws to give the Thunder their first lead since the first quarter.

Westbrook made Houston’s first field goal in more than four minutes with a layup with just more than three minutes left. He then added another layup after a steal seconds later to give the Rockets a 105-102 lead with about two minutes to go.

The Thunder trailed by 16 points after three quarters, but a 9-2 run, with five points from Schroder, got them within 91-82 with about 9 1/2 minutes left.

Houston trailed by as many as 10 in the first half but led by seven at halftime and used a 9-3 run to open the third quarter and push it to 73-60. P.J. Tucker had a 3-pointer in that stretch and Westbrook added four points.

Houston scored the last four points in a third quarter where Oklahoma City scored just 14 points to make it 87-71 entering the fourth.

 

J.J. Redick: Players more concerned with Instagram than winning

J.J. Redick
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J.J. Redick transformed himself from bust to NBA success.

He changed his habits and outlook. He worked hard and learned how to optimize his fit. That partially explains why the Pelicans signed the veteran last summer.

Why aren’t more players so diligent in their work?

Redick on “The JJ Redick Podcast With Tommy Alter“:

There’s just too much stuff going on. There’s too many people in your ear. There’s not enough time in the day, probably, for some guys. They’ve got Fortnight to go to. They’ve got to worry about getting a fit off for pregame. This is an issue. I really believe this. I think there’s more guys concerned with getting a pregame fit on Instagram than they are worrying about the win and loss of a basketball game. I stand by that statement.

Maybe some players are more concerned with Instagram than winning. That’s tough to evaluate from afar. I’m not sure Redick – who’s obviously not in anyone’s mind but his own – is close enough to make that evaluation, though he obviously has more access to see how NBA players act.

But players have always held interests outside basketball. They always will. Redick doesn’t need to look far to consider that. This quote comes from his podcast.

That Redick gripes about this modern technology – Fortnight, Instagram – makes him sound like an old grump. Why not rail against players who party too much? There are surely players who indulge in that classic distraction.

Not every player is obsessed primarily with winning. Yet, I’m unconvinced that’s any more or less true now than with a prior generation.