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.

Report: If Brooklyn signs Kyrie Irving then D’Angelo Russell will leave

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Rumors have been flying around for weeks that Kyrie Irving is leaning towards signing in Brooklyn as a free agent. Things can still change, the Irving/Kevin Durant pairing with the Knicks is not off the table (or with the Nets), but there is, at the very least, strong mutual interest between Irving and the Nets.

Last season, Brooklyn extended Spencer Dinwiddie, giving them a quality reserve point guard at a reasonable price.

Where does that leave All-Star D'Angelo Russell? Out the door if Irving signs, reports Ian Bagley at SNY.com.

If Irving signs with the Nets, SNY sources familiar with the matter say it is highly unlikely that Russell remains with the Nets. Members of the Nets organization have communicated that idea in recent days, per sources.

Russell will have no shortage of suitors, including good teams looking for another shot creator in Indiana and Utah.

Russell is a restricted free agent and if Irving does not sign the Nets likely want Russell back. One interesting thing to watch, if the Nets rescind their rights to Russell, it would mean they are about to sign two max guys (they would need to get Russell’s cap hold off the books to get that done).

Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7 assists a game last season, shooting 36.9 percent from three. His shots started falling at a higher rate, he improved as a floor general, and his game took a leap forward to All-Star level last season.

How much did five Finals runs, fatigue factor into Durant, Thompson injuries?

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Klay Thompson ran more than 60 miles on the court during these NBA playoffs, that coming off a season where he ran nearly 198 miles during games.

Kevin Durant, even after missing a month with a calf injury, ran 29.5 playoff miles during these playoffs.

And that was just this season. In the past five seasons, the Golden State Warriors have played 105 playoff games. That means they essentially packed six seasons — including a playoff run — into five seasons of time.

The sports science on this is clear: Catastrophic injuries — such as a ruptured Achilles or ACL tear — are far more likely to happen when the player is fatigued.

With many trying to assign blame for the Warriors two devastating injuries in their final two games, part of that needs to fall on the Warriors’ own success. “Blame” may be the wrong word here because it’s not like the Warriors would give back a title, but becoming the first team since the Bill Russell Celtics to make it to five straight finals added to the fatigue for the team and likely played a role in what happened.

“I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it’s devastating,” an emotional Steve Kerr said after Game 6 discussing Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Thompson’s torn ACL.

Kerr is not alone. Twitter doctors and Charles Barkley aside, nobody knows how significant a role the extra games played in the injuries because there is seldom a straight line to draw between cause and effect on major injuries. Human nature is to want simple, clean answers, but life rarely presents those. It’s a complex stew of factors. LeBron James can go to eight straight Finals and not have this issue (although he is a physical outlier in the NBA in many ways).

Fatigue, however, appears to play a role.

In Durant’s case, his exertion may correlate with his injuries. His initial calf strain — and the Warriors insist that is all it ever was — happened against the Rockets, a series where Durant saw a jump in playing time of about five minutes a night because Kerr leaned heavily on his core in a series where the Warriors realized the threat. Studies have shown that injuries are more likely to occur when a player sees a sudden jump in minutes played and load carried, in part because that players’ body becomes more fatigued.

When Durant returned to the court for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the plan was to play him in “short bursts,” meaning four- or five-minute stints. After the first five minute stint (there was a timeout at 7:11 in the first quarter), Durant said he felt good and asked to stay in, so he remained on the court until 5:50. He rested for about two and a half minutes, then was back on the court — and playing well. Durant had 11 points and the Warriors offense flowed far more smoothly again. Kerr left Durant in to start the second quarter, and at the 9:46 mark we all know what happened.

After missing 32 days of basketball, Durant played 12 of the first 14 minutes in Game 5. How much did that play a role in his torn Achilles?

Thompson missed Game 3 of the NBA Finals with a strained hamstring and was not 100 percent the remainder of the way. If that hamstring was healthier would he have landed differently or been able to withstand it better, not tearing his ACL after being fouled on a dunk attempt? We will never know, but it’s possible.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Toronto Raptors took heat in some quarters for the “load management” of Kawhi Leonard, having him miss 22 regular season games to rest his body and keep his quad tendon healthy. Leonard played through a sore right knee — suffered compensating for that left quad tendon — but was out there for every game and was Finals MVP.

Players, agents, and teams all took note of that. The next time a player is coming back from injury, Durant in particular (but also Thompson) will be seen as a cautionary tale. Expect guys to make sure they are 100 percent (or close to it) before getting back on the court, not wanting to risk a greater injury. Most guys are not still going to get the same contract offers after a catastrophic injury. Also, “load management” will become even more of a thing.

The NBA is a recovery league where fatigue is a constant issue. Maybe this is all another baby step toward shortening the NBA regular season schedule, but we all know the financial complexities of that make it a long way off. At best.

But for those that need to assign blame for the injuries to Durant and Thompson, starting with the Warriors own success is a good idea.

NBC Sports/Rotoworld NBA Draft preview show and mock draft

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With the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans’ select…

Zion Williamson. That’s just obvious. Then the Grizzlies will take Ja Morant second, and the Knicks — or whoever has the pick by draft night — will take R.J. Barrett.

Then things get interesting.

I joined Rotoworld’s Tommy Beer and Steve Alexander to do a mock draft of the first round, from Zion through… you’ll just have to watch. The full video is above, and we also talk a little about potential trades and fantasy impact.

If you can’t get enough mock drafts, CollegeBasketballTalk’s Rob Dauster and I did a mock draft podcast of the first round a couple of weeks ago. You can check out the list and listen to picks 1-10 here, and then the rest of the first round at this link.

Raptors title sees Canada set viewing, spending records

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LAS VEGAS — The final numbers are in, and the NBA Finals were a smashing success for Canada all the way around.

The NBA said Friday that 56% percent of the Canadian population watched at least some part of the NBA Finals, with an average viewership of about 8 million for the Toronto Raptors’ title-winning victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6.

The league also said the total combined U.S. and Canadian audience for the finals was up 11 percent over the combined viewership of the 2018 title series between Golden State and Cleveland.

Thursday’s game was the most-watched NBA game in Canadian television history, a record that was toppled several times during this postseason because of the Raptors’ popularity. Viewership for each of the six finals games rank among the 10 most-watched television programs in Canada so far this year.

“Everybody who supported us during the season, all the fans in Toronto, everyone in Canada – this is for you,” Raptors forward Serge Ibaka said after Toronto’s first NBA championship. “This is for Canada, baby. You should be proud.”

And not only were Canadians watching, but they were buying.

The NBA said that online sales through the league’s official portals smashed records for the day following the end of a championship series, up more than 80 percent from the previous mark (set when Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016) and were more than 100 percent over sales on the day following the Warriors’ sweep of the Cavaliers last season.

The Raptors are planning a parade in Toronto on Monday, one that will likely take more than two hours.

“This means so much to our city and to many in Canada, and we are looking forward to showing everyone the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Monday,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said. “Bringing the NBA championship to Toronto is the realization of a goal for our team and for our players, and we are thrilled to be able to celebrate together with our fans.”

The newly crowned NBA champions, who won the title in Oakland, California on Thursday night, are expected back in Toronto on Saturday. They were planning to spend Friday night celebrating in Las Vegas.