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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.

PBT Podcast: Lakers? Clippers? Jazz? Rockets? Breaking down race out West

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What are the odds that one of the teams from Los Angeles is in the NBA Finals?

Could the Utah Jazz surprise the Lakers and Clippers, returning to the Finals for the first time since Stockton and Malone?

Or is it Denver’s turn to step up? Maybe James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston’s turn? How about Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?

The NBA’s Western Conference really is the Wild West this season where anything can happen, and Mark Medina of the USA Today joins me to break down the conference, who could come out and make the Finals, and how, in a very deep conference, there will be no easy path forward.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Knicks’ Julius Randle’s goals this season: First All-Stars, then playoffs

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Two seasons ago, Julius Randle broke out as a scorer with the Lakers when he stopped trying to be what everyone else wanted him to be and started just playing bully ball getting to the rim. Last season he took that to another level in New Orleans, while the Pelicans’ team fell apart around him he averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.

Now he’s got a two-year, $63 million contract in New York — and the Knicks are counting on him to be a leading scorer for them. While R.J. Barrett develops, the Knicks are banking on Randle and Dennis Smith Jr. to go get buckets.

Randle wants to get them and more — he wants to be an All-Star (the Knicks’ first since Carmelo Anthony), then lead the Knicks to the playoffs. That’s what he told Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“I just feel like situation and opportunity. Everything I’ve been through in the past, all the work I’ve put in in the past has prepared me for this opportunity now,” Randle said. “So [All-Stars] just a goal of mine. Eventually you feel like you have an opportunity. I feel like I do.”

“(The playoffs are) extremely important. I’m not going to sit here and talk about every day but it’s extremely important,” he said. “That’s what you work hard for. You talk about opportunity, this is my opportunity to be a real leader.

“So I just want to make sure everybody’s connected and we get better every day. I like our team compared to a lot of other teams. We do what we need to do every day to get better, that mental focus, lock in, stay connected, I like our team.”

Making the All-Star team could happen. Randle is going to put up numbers and get plenty of exposure in Madison Square Garden, and there’s space on the roster. Guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are All-Star locks, but the second tier of East frontcourt players — Blake Griffin, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic — is one it feels like Randle could crack.

To do that, the Knicks need to find a way to win enough to make Randle look good compared to other guys trying to get in the All-Star club (Lauri Markkanen, for example).

Will that be enough wins to make the playoffs? Well… maybe just focus on the All-Star part first. To be fair, I wouldn’t want a player on my team who went into the season thinking his team had no shot at the postseason. Reality will hit Randle and the Knicks soon enough.

Before it does, at least Randle has set his goals high.

 

LeBron James says Daryl Morey was “not educated on the situation” with China Tweet

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When Stephen Curry was asked about how the NBA moves forward in its relationship with China, he gave an answer backing Commissioner Adam Silver’s second position and playing it straight down the middle.

LeBron James was a little more aggressive, saying he didn’t have the necessary information to comment, and suggesting Rockets GM Daryl Morey had no idea what he was getting into. Via Marc Spears of ESPN and Ben Golliver of the Washington Post.

LeBron’s comments quickly blew up on Twitter, and soon after he clarified what he meant, saying he was referring to the backlash from the Tweet.

This issue will not die.

Both the NBA and China would like it to, and both are working on relaxing tensions, including NBA preseason games being shown in China again. Both sides want to move on. It’s not good for the NBA’s bottom line, and in China the NBA is incredibly popular with younger generations.

But the questions about relations between the NBA and China are not going away, and issues are going to flare up again.

 

 

Rookie Tyler Herro scored 14 straight points for Heat Monday night (VIDEO)

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Tyler Herro is having himself an impressive preseason.

He already dropped 18 points in a preseason game last week and throughout the preseason has shown he’s ready to knock down shots at the NBA level.

Monday night he went 5-of-5 — 4-of-4 from three — to score 14 straight points for the Heat.

He’s also showing he can do more than just shoot, crowd him at the arc and he can put the ball on the court and make a play.

Herro’s fellow rookies voted him the best shooter in this draft class and he’s looked every bit of that. The No. 13 pick out of Kentucky started to show that in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he scored on catch-and-shoot chances, pull-ups, step-backs, running off screens, and he could get out in transition as well. Doing that in Summer League is one thing, doing in the NBA preseason is a step up from that — but the real test, the NBA season, is a whole different level.

In Miami, they love the production but what fans really like is Herro plays with swagger.

We’ll see how his rookie season goes, but put that shooting and hustle next to Jimmy Butler for stretches and Miami becomes a lot more interesting.