Will Kevin Durant’s return be enough for Golden State?

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After missing a month’s worth of games with a strained calf, Kevin Durant is finally going to step on the court in these NBA Finals, playing in Game 5.

Golden State needs him.

It is the only card the Warriors have left to play in a series where they trail 3-1, have been outplayed in 10 of the 12 quarters, and near the end of Game 4 (and in the locker room afterward) looked like a beaten team.

Durant back on the court is an important turn in this series. It certainly fuels Golden State’s dream of turning the 3-1 tables in the Finals and writing their own historic comeback saga.

It also will be too little, too late.

There are a few questions about Durant’s return, but the biggest one is what Durant will be out there?

It’s impossible to say how he will move and feel, but missing a month of basketball and then getting dropped into the middle of a high-level NBA Finals will be a jolt to the system. Before the injury we talked about how Durant and Kawhi Leonard were the two dominant forces of the playoffs, he was playing that well. Durant averaged 34.2 points per game, shooting 55.9 percent from three (with a ridiculous 66.5 true shooting percentage), plus had 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. It’s not fair to expect that Durant to suddenly reappear this series, for his game to be that sharp and his conditioning to be at its peak.

Durant also is one of the games great scorers, he’s going to come in and still get buckets. It’s what he does. Durant is who the Warriors have needed in the halfcourt against a stifling Raptors’ defense that has kept the Warriors below a point per possession in halfcourt offense in Toronto’s three wins. Durant, the walking mismatch, is the guy Golden State leans on to get buckets in the halfcourt and they will revert to that again.

It’s not just that Durant plays, it’s whose minutes he takes away. Durant on the court means Alfonzo McKinnie is not. Durant on the court means the return of the Hamptons’ Five lineup that is the Warriors’ best — don’t be surprised if Kerr starts it and plays it 20ish minutes in this game — and that means DeMarcus Cousins (who was awful in the past two games) and Andrew Bogut are on the bench.

Durant on the court also messes with Toronto’s defensive matchups. Leonard will have the primary responsibility on KD, but that means he can’t be switching on to Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, Leonard can’t be in the same help positions. Golden State’s backcourt should have a little more room to operate.

Durant’s return changes the series… but probably not enough.

The Warriors are down 3-1 in this series because the Toronto Raptors are very good, and right now playing with incredible confidence. That is not changing. Toronto is still long, still athletic, can still defend, still has shooters all over the floor, and still has Leonard. It’s a high IQ team that will test Durant from the start (don’t be shocked if the Raptors drag Durant into some early pick-and-roll defenses just to test how he moves).

Durant’s return doesn’t change the fact Thompson, Cousins, Kevon Looney, and Andre Iguodala are all playing through various injuries and ailments.

The math also just doesn’t support the Warriors, as NBC’s own Dan Feldman noted on Twitter.

Even with Feldman’s very generous odds, it means the Warriors would have a 44.1 percent chance of winning the series. Less than half the time. The reality is far, far less than that.

Still, the “Durant as Warriors’ savior” belief is out there because the Warriors organization fed it. If Golden State had been honest from the start and called it a Grade 2 calf strain — something that takes 4-6 weeks to heal (if this were the regular season Durant would not be out there Monday night) — we would all have expected him to return around this time and had the appropriate expectations for what he could or could not do.

Instead, the Warriors called it mild, kept flying him around with the team, kept hope alive in the locker room and in the fan base. It just hung out there, and eventually created resentment and frustration. The question of how committed to the Warriors Durant has crept into the conversation. Golden State didn’t play this card until now, when its back is against the wall, when there was true desperation. All of those pent up feelings are on the organization, not KD.

Durant is back Monday night and this series will get more interesting. The Warriors are closer to their peak. We get to see the Warriors we expected.

But doing that now, down 3-1, seems a too-late gesture against a Raptors team playing like champions.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo says of Evan Mobley, ‘He can be better than me’

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Evan Mobley hasn’t taken the leap forward in his second season many expected, partly because he has to adjust to playing with a new, dominant backcourt in Cleveland of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Mobley is getting nearly five fewer touches a game and is not getting the same chances to use his off-the-bounce skills (73% of his shots this season come off zero or one-dribble) as he did when he was a rookie.

That doesn’t mean his superstar potential has gone away. Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, as Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did.

“He can be better than me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com in an exclusive interview while walking out of Fiserv Forum… “I don’t see why he can’t. It’s up to him. I will always try to improve. Every day. But he has the skill set to be a very, very good player. He’s 7-feet tall. He can move really well. He can shoot. He is very smart. As you said, he watches tapes of other players, which is very, very good for a young player. If he takes this seriously, he is going to be great.”

Better than Giannis? What could possibly make him say that?

“I didn’t average what he is in my second season, so he’s already ahead of me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com. “It’s in his hands. If he stays humble, continues to work hard, focuses on the game and shows love to the game of basketball, he is going to be really good.”

One of the players Mobley is known to study on tape is Antetokounmpo. Of course, mirroring the force and athleticism Antetokounmpo plays with is next to impossible, but Mobley has the skill set that could see him become a shot-creator and scorer on the wing with the ball.

The Cavaliers don’t need him to be that with Garland improving and Michell being better than advertised. Cleveland has a top-five offense and hasn’t had to turn to Mobley for more scoring and shot creation. But that can change, especially come the playoffs against the strong defenses of teams such as the Bucks and Celtics. Ultimately, how far these Cavaliers can go in the postseason over the next few years could come down to the growth of Mobley on the offensive end.

Antetokounmpo believes Mobley could be special in that role, which should give fans in Cleveland even more hope.

 

Watch Giannis throw down career-high nine dunks, score 38 in comeback win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks taught the Cleveland Cavaliers a lesson in playoff-type intensity well before the start of December.

Antetokounmpo scored 38 points and the Bucks capitalized on a 23-2 run in the first eight-plus minutes of the third quarter to rally past Cleveland 117-102 on Friday night to snap the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak.

Milwaukee came back from a 16-point deficit by outscoring the Cavaliers 35-10 in the third period. The Bucks hadn’t outscored a team by such a wide margin in a single quarter since Jan. 4, 2019, when they outscored the Atlanta Hawks 43-14 in the opening period of a 144-112 victory.

“We had a little bit of luck on our side and were able to knock down some shots and get downhill and were able to get that momentum and keep it going,” said Antetokounmpo, who also had nine rebounds and six assists. “I think it started from our guards defending the pick-and-roll and Brook (Lopez) just contesting every shot on the defensive end.”

The Cavaliers hadn’t scored less than 15 points in any quarter this season before Friday.

“They turned it up to a level that we haven’t seen, that we haven’t experienced,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led he Cavaliers with 29 points. “That’s playoff basketball, and understanding that they’re going to turn up the physicality (and) everything has to be sharper, everything has to be more precise.”

Darius Garland added 20 for Cleveland. After combining to shoot 14 of 26 and score 38 points in the first half, Mitchell and Garland went 4 of 16 for 11 points over the final two periods.

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen played only 12 minutes and scored one point before leaving with a hip injury.

The Cavaliers lost for the first time since their last visit to Milwaukee, a 113-98 Bucks victory on Nov. 16.

“We were trying so hard, and we were like running in quicksand,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the second-half struggles.

Jevon Carter scored 18 points and Bobby Portis had 14 for the Bucks.

After trailing 63-52 at halftime, the Bucks turned the game around in the third quarter.

“It felt like us again,” Portis said. “I feel like for the last couple of games, we haven’t felt like ourselves, for real, missing a lot of shots and just not playing how we play.”

Jrue Holiday, who committed three fouls in the first 1 1/2 quarters, scored his first points of the game in the opening minute of the third. He followed that up with a 3-pointer.

Carter then found Antetokounmpo for a dunk, though Antetokounmpo missed a free throw that would have given him a three-point play. Mitchell scored to extend Cleveland’s lead to 65-59, but a Brook Lopez 3-pointer and an Antetokounmpo dunk cut the lead to one.

Lopez then recorded one of his six blocks to set up an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer that gave the Bucks their first lead of the night with 7:19 left in the third. The Bucks eventually led by as many as 22.

“This is a great lesson for us,” Bickerstaff said. “We played against an established team who knows where they need to go when they need to take it to another level. That’s what we’re learning. They took the game to playoff-level physicality, and those are things we have to learn how to compete against.”

Watch Bam Adebayo score 38, lift Heat to win over Wizards

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MIAMI — Bam Adebayo scored a season-high 38 points and the Miami Heat beat the Washington Wizards 110-107 Friday night.

Caleb Martin added 20 points and Kyle Lowry finished with 13 points while Tyler Herro had 11 points and 10 assists for the Heat, who won their second straight at home against Washington after their 113-105 victory Wednesday.

Adebayo’s two free throws with 1:37 remaining put Miami ahead 105-104 lead then extended the advantage on a short jumper with 38 seconds left.

“It was one of those things where my teammates gave me the ball and I was taking advantage of the mismatch,” Adebayo said. “They were shots (Washington) let me have.”

Adebayo has scored in double digits in all 18 of his appearances this season. He’s had double-doubles in half of those games; Miami is 6-3 in those contests.

“He had a lot on his shoulders, really the last several games with a lot of different lineups and everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You need that stability from your leaders. I think at some point we’ll print up these shirts, `Mr. Reliable,’ and I’ll wear them, probably.”

Lowry also had eight assists, seven rebounds and a four-point play with 3:15 left for a 103-102 lead – the 11th of what would be 13 lead changes on the night.

And it was another close game for the Heat, who are already 4-3 in games decided by three points or less this season.

“That’s what’s happened really for, it seems like several weeks,” Spoelstra said. “It just feels like every single one of these games is going down to the last possession.”

The Wizards cut the deficit on Bradley Beal‘s dunk before Martin made two free throws with 12.5 seconds for the final margin, then hounded Beal defensively on the game’s last possession and forced the Wizards’ All-Star into a miss to end the contest.

“I take pride in trying to make stops,” Martin said. “Those are the types of situations you dream about, game on the line against a guy like Bradley Beal with the ball late shot clock. I just tried to make it as tough as possible.”

Beal and Kyle Kuzma finished with 28 points Kristaps Porzingis added 18 points for the Wizards.

“We did enough throughout the course of the game to put us in position to win,” said Beal, who returned from a one-game absence because of a quadriceps contusion. “We had several leads and ended up giving up those leads late. It was a matter of us getting stops at the defensive ends.”

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler (right knee soreness) missed his fifth straight game because of right knee soreness while shooters Max Strus (right shoulder impingement) and Duncan Robinson (left ankle sprain) also sat out.

The Heat rallied from a 12-point deficit late in the first quarter and cut it to 59-56 at halftime.

“Obviously, we had shots late that were makeable to keep them at bay,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said.

Another Hornets injury: Hayward out indefinitely with fractured shoulder

Philadelphia 76ers v Charlotte Hornets
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The basketball gods have not been kind to the Hornets this season. LaMelo Ball missed the start of the season with a sprained ankle, got back and played just three games before re-injuring it by stepping on a fan’s foot while chasing a loose ball out of bounds. Miles Bridges will not be with the team. Cody Martin had his knee scoped and is out, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out with a sprained ankle — and that’s just the guys out right now.

Now add Gordon Hayward to the list. He is out indefinitely with a fractured shoulder. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

Hayward will be evaluated week-to-week his agent, Mark Bartelstein, told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Hayward’s wife called out the Hornets for playing her husband when he had a broken bone.

Hayward has a long history of injuries and has battled shoulder issues all season. There had been hope in Charlotte that he could stay healthy long enough to contribute to some wins and build up some potential trade interest (his name came up in Russell Westbrook scenarios, for example). In the 11 games he played, he averaged 16.3 points and shot 38.1% from 3. Of course, a trade was always a longshot because Hayward is owed a fully guaranteed $31.5 million next season, no team was taking that on without sweeteners.

With him injured, a trade is out of the question (other than part of a salary dump).