Golden State vs. Toronto: Five things to watch in NBA Finals

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The Golden State Warriors are looking to cement their dynasty status before what will be a summer of change.

The Toronto Raptors are trying to cap off a franchise-best playoff run with the first NBA title ever to go north of the border.

One way or another, NBA history will be made with these NBA Finals, the first ones ever to have games take place outside the United States.

This is also a series with the three players trying to vie for the mythical title of “best player on the planet” with LeBron James having not made the playoffs — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry. It’s a Finals that will feature other great players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry) and players on the rise such as Pascal Siakam.

Here are the five things to watch that will likely swing this series toward Toronto or Golden State.

1. When does Kevin Durant return?

This is the storyline of the series because it changes everything. Durant is out for Game 1, and while nothing is official (and he did travel with the team) Warriors coach Steve Kerr made it sound like Durant will be out for at least Game 2 Sunday as well. Whether he returns for Game 3 or not may depend in part on what happens in the first two games and how badly the Warriors feel they need him.

With Durant out, Raptors coach Nick Nurse can put Leonard and his physical, elite defense wherever it will do the most damage. Leonard can be on Curry if he gets hot, on Thompson (probably where he starts), Andre Iguodala (so Leonard can help more and be disruptive that way), or whatever causes the Warriors the most trouble. It also means Siakam can cover Green, then switch onto Curry and use his length when the Warriors use their go-to Curry/Green pick-and-roll. The Raptors will be in position to crank up the defensive pressure.

All that goes away when Durant returns. Leonard has to spend the bulk of his time on Durant, which is going to mean more favorable matchups for Curry, Thompson, and Green. Plus, Durant becomes another long, quality defender they can throw at Leonard on the other end (along with Iguodala, Thompson, and Green.

Durant’s return changes a lot in this series, the questions are when will it happen, and where will the series stand when it does.

2. Kawhi Leonard has to continue to be the playmaker he was against Milwaukee.

For the first four games against Milwaukee, Leonard averaged 2.5 assists per game.

However, over the final two games he had 16 assists — it was the best playmaking we had ever seen from Leonard. As the Bucks threw multiple defenders at him, Leonard found his teammates, and they knocked down the shots. The Raptors offense has generally seen less ball movement with Leonard in the game, but not the last two.

That has to continue against the Warriors if the Raptors are going to win.

Leonard is playing as well as anyone in the world right now, but he can’t do this alone. The Warriors are a good defensive team — even better with Durant out — and while Leonard will get his, it will be making sure he finds Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and the rest of the Raptors, and that they hit their shots, that will give Toronto a chance.

Put more simply: The second biggest question in this series is will the Raptors be able to score enough to keep up with the Warriors? Leonard has to be a playmaker for that to happen.

3. Can the Raptors switching defense slow Curry in the pick-and-roll?

To beat the Warriors in a series will require a team that can switch a lot defensively — similar to what the Rockets did a season ago — and the Raptors have the long, athletic roster that can pull that off.

On paper. Yes, they have Leonard, Siakam, Danny Green, and they should get OG Anunoby back this series, all guys built for this kind of switching defense. That said, having the players for it and executing it against the Warriors is another thing. Especially the way Curry is playing right now — and Curry is motivated chasing the Finals MVP he wants so badly.

Of course, the Warriors have a counter. If the Raptors switching defense does work well, expect to see Durant back and more DeMarcus Cousins — those are the guys they lean on to punish switches. They are walking mismatches. By the way, don’t expect to see a lot of Cousins this series, but he can have an impact in short stints.

4. Danny Green has to find his shot.

Danny Green struggled mightily with his shot in the Eastern Conference Finals — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts and was 4-of-23 for the series. Coach Nick Nurse turned to Fred VanVleet off the bench, and in the final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son), it worked brilliantly as VanVleet was lighting it up.

The problem is the Warriors will light him up. VanVleet is listed at 6’0” while Lowry is 6’1”. Curry and Thompson are 6’3” and 6’7”, respectively, and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland how that works.

Green is 6’6”, meaning he has the kind of size — and plays the kind of defense — the Raptors will need on the perimeter in this series. If he is still slumping and not an offensive threat, the Warriors will be able to help off him and cause more trouble. The Raptors need Green to be a threat teams cannot help off of again.

5. Toronto cannot have one of its historically disastrous Game Ones.

Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and then lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost big to the Orlando Magic in the first game of the first round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they led by as many as 13 in the second half but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.

Toronto bounced back handily in both of those series to win handily — that will not be the same against the Warriors.

Game 1 sets up well for Toronto: The Raptors are home, the Warriors have been off for nine days and should be rusty, plus there is no Kevin Durant. Toronto needs to win this game, both because of all that and for the confidence — drop Game 1 and the doubts about if they can match up with the Warriors will creep in. This is a different team on a different stage than Toronto has faced before.

The Raptors need to put a little doubt in the mind of the Warriors on Thursday night.

LeBron James drops 31, leads Lakers comeback to beat Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rode a big third quarter to a a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

The Lakers bounced back after a loss to Orlando on Wednesday night that snapped their nine-game winning streak. The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which ties a season high, and they have dropped four of five.

Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.

Los Angeles didn’t lead in the first half but used a 32-point third quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth.

Houston used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 with about seven minutes left, but the Lakers scored the next six points to extend it to 110-94 midway through the quarter. That sent many Rockets fans streaming for the exits and caused a large contingent of Lakers fans to start chanting, “Let’s go Lakers.”

The Rockets did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.

The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 69-68, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter. James capped that run by making a basket and then added another one seconds later after JaVale McGee blocked a dunk attempt by Clint Capela. McGee beat his chest and screamed after in Capela’s direction after the play and received a technical foul for taunting.

There were about seven minutes left in the third when Westbrook and Anthony Davis, who missed the game with an injury, both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

The Lakers led by three later in the third when Kuzma scored the first four points of a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 85-75.

Houston had a chance to cut the deficit at the end of the third quarter, but Westbrook missed two free throws to leave the Lakers up 91-82 entering the fourth.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.