Golden State must answer questions about defense, halfcourt offense in Game 2

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The Toronto Raptors did more than just win Game 1 on Thursday night.

They laid out a roadmap for them to beat Golden State and win the NBA Finals.

That is what has Raptors fans so optimistic — the Raptors posed questions to the Warriors in Game 1 that will be difficult to answer in Game 2 (especially without Kevin Durant, who remains out). If Toronto can win Game 2, even if KD returns back in the Bay Area, you have to like Toronto’s chances.

The Warriors still have the confidence earned by champions, and they know what they need to do, they know the level of focus they need.

What the real confidence is is when you’ve been through everything and you’ve seen everything –you’ve won, you’ve lost, you’ve experienced every high, every low, then you know what this is about and you can dig into your reserve of experience to remember what’s necessary, which is really you just keep going back to the basics,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Saturday.

“It sounds boring, but transition defense, boxing out. Football coaches just say blocking and tackling. It’s the
same concept, but your ability to do that under pressure, when you’re in The Finals or in a big series, whatever, and everybody’s asking you a million questions, it’s can you focus on blocking and tackling? That’s what it comes down to.”

The Warriors need that focus in Game 2. Which means they need to do a couple of things much better, starting with improved halfcourt offense.

It seemed like Game 1 of the NBA Finals was played at a fast pace because both teams tried to push the ball up the court and get some easy transition buckets. The Raptors, in particular, went with some long passes up the court, and they exposed the Warriors’ transition defense to the tune of 24 fast break points.

More importantly, on the other end, Toronto also did a fantastic job of getting back, taking away those easy buckets from Golden State — there were only 97 possessions in this game. The Warriors want that into the triple digits at least, and Golden State had just 17 fast break points.

In the halfcourt, the Raptors defense locked the Warriors down — 0.84 points per possession (stats via Cleaning the Glass, which only counts the first shot toward that number). For comparison, in the regular season, the Warriors averaged over a point per possession in the halfcourt. What the Raptors did should not be a surprise, this is how they beat the Bucks in the last round.

With no Durant, it leads to one of the two big questions for the Warriors in Game 2 on Sunday night in Toronto:

Where are they going their points from?

Golden State got to the free throw line 31 times in Game 1, led by Stephen Curry going 14-of-14 from the stripe. Toronto will likely foul less in Game 2, which means the Warriors need to find a way to create mismatches, and come up with counters to plays the Raptors clearly were prepared for, to get cleaner looks. Klay Thompson had 21 points on 17 shots, he can do more, and Andre Iguodala hasn’t hit a three since the Houston series (literally) and they need him to get a few buckets. It can’t be just Curry and Thompson.

That said, the Warriors still had a 112.4 offensive rating for the game, slightly below their regular season average but still enough offense to win. Which leads to the bigger question for Golden State:

Can they get enough stops to win Game 2?

Golden State has to be flat-out better on that end of the court, starting with transition defense.

“The biggest thing for me was our transition defense was just awful and that’s the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 1. “That’s the No. 1 priority when you play Toronto, you have to take care of their transition and we gave up 24 fast-break points, we turned it over 17 times. So that’s the game, really.”

For my money, an equally significant issue is the Warriors need better rim protection. The Raptors shot 20-of-28 within eight feet of the rim in Game 1 — they got inside and they scored. Those are the easy buckets the Warriors need to take away, both with Draymond Green and whoever is playing center (Jordan Bell, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney). Toronto can’t get that many good shots at the rim.

Expect Green to play a little more attention to Pascal Siakam, but the Raptors can get more offense out of Kawhi Leonard (who was happy to facilitate when trapped) and Kyle Lowry (who was just off). The Warriors need to do a better job of making the Raptors work for their buckets.

If not, Golden State is going to find itself in a place it has not in the Steve Kerr era — down 0-2 in the NBA Finals.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.