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Warriors’ latest identity: Steph and Depth

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The Warriors don’t necessarily need Kevin Durant.

That’s how good they are.

Golden State is better with him, of course. He might be the NBA’s best player. He’s an elite scorer and very good defender when engaged. He provides so much margin for error.

But the Warriors might still might beat Toronto in the NBA Finals without Durant. They swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals without Durant, and many called him a necessity to beating Portland. The level of competition increases significantly to the Raptors, but Golden State might still be superior.

The Warriors are still loaded with talent – Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala. That was the core of a team that won the 2015 title then won 73 games and reached the Finals the following year.

Golden State’s remaining players are also so smart and versatile. They’ve shown a malleability that allows them to match up with opponents of varying styles, which is highly important as teams advance through the playoffs.

The latest iteration – crystalized against Portland with Durant sidelined – carries many traits the Warriors hold in high regard. Against Toronto, they could continue to lean on the identity I call Steph & Depth.

Steph

In 2015, Curry won Most Valuable Player. In 2016, he finished fourth in Most Improved Player voting. The first former MVP to get multiple MIP votes, he of course repeated as MVP. There was no telling where his rise would end.

Then, Durant signed in Golden State.

Curry remained a superstar, but he suppressed his game to give Durant room to operate. The plan worked well, the Warriors winning the last two championships. But neither player has fully maximized his ability. Durant has adjusted by experimenting with new aspects of his game. Curry has been quieter.

But Golden State fully unleashed Curry against the Trail Blazers. He ran pick-and-rolls and plenty of off-ball action. His scoring was the center of the attack.

Curry’s 36.5 points per game in the Western Conference finals were the most by a player on a series-winning team since Shaquille O’Neal scored 38.0 points per game against the Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals.

Here are the players with the highest-scoring winning series since the NBA adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984:

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Curry has always been Golden State’s most beloved player during this era. Fans embrace him. Teammates connect with him. It’s a common reason Durant is widely predicted to leave in free agency this summer.

The Warriors’ offense features more ball and player movement with Durant sidelined. The scheme keeps defenses off guard more frequently. But it’s not a truly egalitarian plan. It revolves around Curry, and everyone seems happy to continue playing through him.

Depth

Opponents allow Curry to torch them only so long. Eventually, if Curry’s shot is falling, they defend him more aggressively.

That’s why Draymond Green’s playmaking is so important. He can set a screen and, if Curry gets blitzed, thrive in 4-on-3 situations. Green is the connector between a Curry-dominant offense and one that gets everyone else good looks.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr loves his “strength in numbers” motto, and he backed it against the Trail Blazers.

Curry, Green and Thompson started every game. When Andre Iguodala got hurt, Alfonzo McKinnie started. Andrew Bogut, Damian Jones and Jordan Bell each started at center.

All in all, the Warriors started eight different players and won four games. That’s never been done on record (since 1984).

In fact, no team on record has started so many different players in the first four games of a playoff series and won even three games. The only team on record to sweep a series with even seven different starters was Golden State, which did so against the Spurs in the 2017 conference finals.

Here’s each team in every playoff series since 1984, sorted by number of starters and wins in the first four games. The size of the dot corresponds to the number of times that combination occurred. Golden State’s unprecedented combination last round – eight starters, four wins – is circled:

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Several marginal Warriors got valuable experience against Portland. Kerr tends to look for reasons to play as many players as possible. At a time many teams would tighten their rotation, it’s not Golden State’s preference.

Durant could return during the Finals. The Raptors’ defense could prevent Curry from going off. Toronto could play well enough, especially by attacking weak links, to force Kerr to lean on only his best players.

What worked against the Trail Blazers won’t necessarily continue.

But it seems the Warriors found an identity that suits them. Here’s betting they’ll open the Finals trying to maintain it.

If it doesn’t work, they’ll adjust. They have the talent and basketball intelligence to do so.

That’s what makes them so good.

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 Fortnite 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 – Fortnite, 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.