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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.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.