Portland looks tired, overmatched defensively in Game 1 loss to Warriors

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Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals didn’t go how the Portland Trail Blazers wanted. The Golden State Warriors trapped its two stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, while Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry feasted from 3-point range. In the end, Portland looked tired, perhaps overwhelmed by their Game 7 theatrics against the Denver Nuggets. The Blazers fell to Golden State, 116-94, and there’s many questions to be answered.

The first among them was about that Game 7. Portland had just 48 hours to prepare for the reigning NBA champions, and it was revealed during the broadcast that they hadn’t had practice or shootaround. Meanwhile Golden State had been resting since May 10 after beating the Houston Rockets in six games.

The Blazers flagged noticeably. McCollum and Lillard looked worn out after battling around the Warriors’ traps, but so too did the likes of Moe Harkless and Rodney Hood. It certainly didn’t help Portland that all the WCF games start at 6 p.m. Both Al-Farouq Aminu and Enes Kanter are Muslim, and aren’t allowed to drink water, take medicine, or eat during sunlight. The sun didn’t set until 8:11 p.m. on Tuesday, leaving just six minutes of game clock in the fourth quarter for each to get hydrated and get some food.

But much of that will get tossed aside as excuses. More puzzling was Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his decision to play the Warriors in a low ICE defense in the pick-and-roll. On high screens involving Thompson and Curry, Kanter and backup Zach Collins were often standing at the free-throw line — sometimes just inside of it. The result, thanks to Golden State’s screens, was a lot of breathing room for the Warriors shooters.

Still, it’s not clear what Portland is supposed to do in that situation. Its big men are not as switchable and of fleet of foot as Golden State’s, and so any high pressure will be a trick. Plus, the Blazers just don’t play that way. Portland hasn’t consistently hedged or showed on the high pick-and-roll since 2012-13, Stotts’ first season in Oregon.

An intrepid reporter asked Stotts after the game about why his defense was so soft against the best shooter of all-time, citing the Rockets’ strategy of trapping Curry. His response was that Houston also allowed Curry to score 33 points in the second half of Game 6, intimating Stotts could be sticking to his plan. Still, reason stands that the Blazers will at least move their forwards higher in Game 2.

There were also some other head-scratchers from Stotts, including extended periods of time with McCollum guarding Thompson in bench lineups where Evan Turner would have been the better choice. Aminu looked nearly unplayable, and his 19 minutes felt like a stretch given his production.

Offensively, many of the same questions that haunted Portland fans during the Denver series remain after Tuesday night in Oakland. Turner, one of the heroes on Sunday, laid a goose egg on the scoreboard. McCollum shot just 7-of-19 from the field, and posted a game-low -20.

Lillard struggled again, scoring 19 points but going 4-of-12 from the field with seven turnovers. Taking on the Warriors in Game 1, Lillard continued a curious trend. The best way to put it is he’s looked reticent to enter the paint to score for himself. In fact, according to play-by-play charts from ESPN, Lillard has made just five shots inside the restricted area over the past four playoff games.

On Tuesday, Lillard took to a strategy of getting within six feet of the basket, jumping, then dumping off to a cutter with a mid-air bounce pass or a wraparound dish to his big men. Golden State had that sniffed out by the third quarter, and it’s what led to Lillard’s game high in lost possessions.

The Blazers have been training for years to try to get around the kind of traps the Warriors sent at them to open the Western Conference Finals. Turner was signed all the way back in 2016 as a kind of release valve for that, which hasn’t worked and didn’t against Golden State. But there was something else missing for Portland, even if their dedication to getting tips in passing lanes and their general defensive dedication kept them within single digits all night.

Call them tired, call them weak, call them emotionally drained. Whatever wasn’t in the tank for the Blazers against the Warriors will need to be refilled by the time Thursday’s Game 2 rolls around. Curry went 12-of-13, knocking down nine 3-pointers en route to a 36-point performance in Game 1. That might happen again, but if the Blazers want to continue this Cinderella run in the playoffs, they’ll need to find a solution on offense that gives them a kick in the pants.

That, and they’ll need to take a step above the free-throw line on those Warriors threes.

Game 2 is at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Oracle Arena.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.