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.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.