Three things to watch as Curry, LeBron renew rivalry in Lakers vs. Warriors


Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James.

That’s the unavoidable headline for the second-round series between the Lakers and Warriors because those two men met in the Finals for four straight years between 2015-18. Curry is still with the Warriors, although this team has evolved since then. LeBron James has jumped to Los Angeles and added a championship banner to a storied franchise.

However, this series is much more than Curry and LeBron.

“I think the Lakers changed their team dramatically at the trade deadline,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team eliminated the Kings. “They made some brilliant moves and became an entirely different team and Davin has done an incredible job guiding that team. They’re excellent defensively. We know they’ve got one of the all-time greats in LeBron but a lot of talent across the roster so it’s going to take a big effort to beat them.”

Here are three things to watch as the Lakers face the Warriors.

1) Can Anthony Davis be the best player in this series?

It’s a big ask considering the Warriors have “I just dropped a 50-spot in a Game 7” Stephen Curry, but if the Lakers are going to win this series Anthony Davis has to be dominant and the best player on the floor.

He was in the first round against Memphis (despite a couple of rough stretches), averaging 20.8 points and 13.7 rebounds a game, and more importantly playing maybe the best defense of his career. He has looked like a Defensive Player of the Year averaging 4.3 blocks a game and altering more shots in the paint.

The Warriors present a different test — Kevon Looney just outplayed likely All-NBA center Domantas Sabonis last round. Looney is a strong, big-bodied center who moves his feet well and uses his size to wear down whoever he plays against. He’s physical, and Davis will have to fight through it.

Spin off Looney to attack and Draymond Green will be waiting. Green will get his time on Davis, too. The Warriors’ secret weapon is they can go to Green on Davis with a small, floor-spacing lineup and not lose anything defensively.

LeBron James will make plays and put up points this series, but he was not his peak self against the Grizzlies and doesn’t have the same explosion due to the foot issue he returned from. He settled — nearly a third of his shots against Memphis were above-the-break 3-pointers. Plus, the defense on LeBron is about to get a lot tougher — Andrew Wiggins is as good a one-on-one defender of LeBron James as there is. The Warriors aren’t going to scramble defensively the same way as Memphis, which LeBron then picked apart with his passing and IQ.

LeBron will get his, but he will have to work for it. The Warriors will dare him to beat them with his scoring, not his passing.

One other thing on the Lakers’ stars: With this series going every other day — and the Lakers having to chase the Warriors through their player and ball movement offense — will LeBron and Davis wear down as the series goes along? This series will be a test of their conditioning and bodies.

2) The Lakers have a math problem they need to overcome

The Lakers want a grinding game, and they will pound the ball inside on the Warriors — Los Angeles takes 3-pointers (38.6% of their shot attempts) but hit just 31% of them in the first round. Even with the roster moves adding D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and just more shooting at the deadline, the Lakers want to score inside and win with defense.

The Warriors took 6.4 more 3-pointers a game in their first-round playoff series than the Lakers did, and that number is likely to climb (and the Warriors shot just 32.8% on those 3s in the first round, expect something closer to their 38.5% regular season average this series).

The Lakers are in for a culture shock trying to guard the Warriors’ ball movement, off-ball player movement, split actions and constant motion after facing a Grizzlies team often looking to isolate a mismatch. Curry never stops, and while Jared Vanderbilt and Dennis Schroder (with some Austin Reaves) mixed in will get the primary assignment, guarding him is a five-man job. The Lakers could pay for the drop coverage they used last season and against the Lakers in the regular season. There is no Dillon Brooks to just leave wide open and dare him to shoot (although Jordan Poole approached those levels last series).

Curry and the Warriors will launch 3-pointers — they will trade their 3s for the Lakers twos all game long. The math works in their favor.

That said, the Lakers played heavy drop coverage against the Warriors in the regular season and it worked. The Lakers clogged the lane and used their length on the wings to contest shots, and the Warriors’ offense stalled out in those games. The Lakers are going to live by this plan again until the Warriors hit 3s and make them come out of it.

Styles make fights and that’s part of the fun of this series. If it is a grinding, slow, physical series the Lakers can win. But if and when the Warriors get loose and start hitting 3-pointers the math does not favor the Lakers.

3) Sure LeBron vs. Curry, but what role players step up?

These teams have thrived over the years because of depth and role players stepping up. It will matter in this series.

Austin Reaves has evolved into the secondary playmaker the Lakers hoped Russell Westbrook would be for them. D’Angelo Russell can step up with big games, like his 31 in the Game 6 closeout of the Grizzlies. Dennis Schroder has played an increasing role because Darvin Ham trusts his defense. Rui Hachimura can get hot from 3 if you leave him open.

The Lakers after the All-Star break are a much deeper, better team that fits around LeBron and Davis. They defend, and they provide some depth of scoring. If the Lakers are going to win this series, those role players will have to come up with some monster games.

For the Warriors, Jordan Poole was dreadful last series (and frankly has taken a step back all season, we can debate the reasons for that). They need more out of him. Looney and Wiggins will land key defensive assignments but can get rebounds and buckets as well. Donte DiVincenzo almost fell out of the rotation last series, and the Warriors need better from him, Gary Payton II and Moses Moody. This has been a top-heavy Warriors team all season, but they need someone to step up.

What the Warriors also likely get this series that they didn’t against the Grizzlies is a Klay Thompson game. He’s not a role player, and he had several games scoring 20+ points against the Grizzlies, but he didn’t have that signature game that we all know will come at some point.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. As improved as the Lakers’ defense has been, this is a rough matchup for them stylistically. The Warriors can slow the Lakers’ stars one-on-one better than most teams. The matchups favor the Warriors, but if the Lakers can make this a grinding series they have a chance, I’m just not sold they can. Plus, I expect the Lakers to wear down as the series progresses.

Coaching updates from around NBA: Stotts to Bucks, Young paid to stay with Suns

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

In the 24 hours since the last time we put together a list of coaching updates from around the NBA a lot of things transpired, some expected, some not.

Here’s an update on the NBA coaching carousel.

• As was rumored to be coming, former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts will join Adrian Griffin’s staff with the Milwaukee Bucks. This is a smart hire, putting an experienced coach known for creative offense next to the rookie coach on a contending team. With the Bucks getting older and more expensive quickly — 35-year-old Brook Lopez is a free agent this summer — the Bucks don’t have time for a rookie coach to figure things out on the job.

• Kevin Young will stay in Phoenix on Frank Vogel’s staff after new owner Mat Ishbia made him the highest-paid assistant in the league at $2 million a year, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Devin Booker reportedly backed Young to get the head coaching job, although how hard Booker pushed is up for debate. Keeping Young on staff — likely in an offensive coordinator role — next to the defensive-minded Vogel could be a good fit.

• Former Hornets coach James Borrego was in the mix for several jobs but has settled in New Orleans, where he will be on Willie Green’s staff. This team is stacked with offensive talent — Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum — if they can just stay on the court.

• There is now just one head coaching vacancy open around the league, the Toronto Raptors, and they are entering the final interview stages, reports Josh Lewenberg of TSN. Among the finalists for the job are Kings assistant coach Jordi Fernandez and highly-respected European coach Sergio Scariolo (the head coach of the Spanish national team and Virtus Bologna of the Italian league).

• The makeover of the Celtics coaching staff could go even deeper than expected because Ben Sullivan, Mike Moser and Garrett Jackson are all leaving Boston to join Ime Udoka‘s staff in Houston, reports Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

• Former Pacers player Shayne Whittington is now a part of Rick Carlisle’s coaching staff in Indiana.

Hawks’ Trae Young plans to shoot more 3s… is that a good thing?

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Quin Snyder wants his teams to shoot 3-pointers. A lot of them. In his final season as coach of the Utah Jazz, they took 10 more 3-pointers a game than his new Atlanta Hawks team did last season after he took over.

Trae Young has heard his coach and is ready to get up more than the 6.3 attempts a game he took last season.

That’s a good thing… but only if they are “good shots.” It’s good only if Young hits more than the 33.5% he shot from 3 last season.

While he has a reputation as a 3-point marksman, Young is a career 35.1% shooter from 3 and has been below that 35% number in three of his five NBA seasons. (Also concerning for the Hawks and Young’s fit with Dejonte Murray, he shot just 20% on the less than one catch-and-shoot 3 he took a game last season.)

Young has had better years, he shot 38.2% in 2021-22 and he is an offensive force as a creator capable of doing that again. That is the Young Snyder needs.

He also needs Young to buy into his system of ball and player movement more. Last season, 45% of Young’s shots came after he had at least seven dribbles — he pounded the ball into the ground and jacked up a shot without getting teammates involved far too often (77.9% of his shots came after at least three dribbles). Young shot 33.3% on the 3s he took after those seven dribbles, and less than that percentage on 3-pointers taken after three dribbles or more, which were the majority of his attempts.

This coming season will be an important one for Young, who has proven he is an All-Star who can put up numbers and drive an offense — he’s made an All-NBA team for a reason. The question facing him is whether he will fit into a team system that balances multiple shot creators, off-ball movement, willing passers and selflessness — what you can see in the two teams playing in the NBA Finals. Snyder will call pick-and-rolls, he wants his team to hunt mismatches at times, but there has to be more of a flow to what is happening. There can’t be many shots after seven dribbles (and that’s not touching on the defensive concerns around Young).

The Hawks will evolve over the next couple of seasons under Snyder. Where Young fits in that will be something to watch.

But we will see more 3-pointers.

Three things to watch, plus betting tips, as Heat try to drag Nuggets into mud


DENVER — Game 1 was what Denver fans wanted after waiting 47 years for the NBA Finals to come to town: Nikola Jokić was dominating with a triple-double, Jamal Murray was attacking downhill, Denver played to its size advantage and got out to a lead that was up to 24 at one point, then coasted in for a 104-93 win and series lead.

It feels like Game 2 will be different.

The Heat had a rough Game 1 (at least for three quarters) and know they need to be more aggressive in Game 2. The Nuggets played what felt like an average game for them, although coach Michael Malone didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Malone said. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic.”

Here are two things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Can Miami force this game to be played in the mud?

As fans, we have been spoiled watching NBA Finals games over the last decade. There has been a lot of Stephen Curry and the Warriors with their off-ball movement, passing, shooting and beautiful game. There has been the GOAT-level brilliance of LeBron James (complete with his passing skills), the overwhelming athleticism of Giannis Antetokounmpo, There has been beautiful basketball played at the highest level.

If Game 2 is beautiful, the Heat are in trouble.

If Game 2 is free-flowing and up-tempo, it means Nikola Jokić is orchestrating another symphony. If the Nuggets’ off-ball-movement, transition game, passing and shooting run relatively unchecked, the Heat simply cannot keep pace.

The Heat need this to look like a 1990s rock-fight game against the Knicks. That is how Miami got here, by doing exactly that to Boston and Milwaukee, making those powerhouses play a grinding, defensive game. The Heat need to throw sand in the gears of the Nuggets’ offense and drag the game into the mud with their physicality and tenaciousness. Fewer jump shots, more shots at the rim and more trips to the free throw line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1).

Jokić only had to defend two shots at the rim in Game 1, the Heat can’t let that happen again.

“I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” Jimmy Butler said. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”

The challenge a more aggressive Heat team faces is part of what led to all the jumpers in Game 1 — Denver is just a physically bigger team. That size can deter trips to the rim. It can’t if the Heat are going to win this game and even the NBA Finals.

The Nuggets know what is coming. What appears to separate them from the teams the Heat beat before is Denver seems far less likely to get sucked into Miami’s game.

“You just can’t be complacent with this team. You can’t be lackadaisical,” Aaron Gordon said. “You can’t sleep on this team. This team has no quit. They will continue to fight through the entirety of the game. You’ve got to understand that about this team.”

2) Which team hits its 3s

. Much has been made of the Heat’s shooting struggles in Game 1` — Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin combined to shoot 2-of-23 from 3. As Malone noted, the Heat had 16 open 3-pointers in Game 1 (using NBA tracking data) and hit just five of them. Miami bounced back in the fourth and hit 6-of-12 3-point attempts, but finished shooting an unimpressive 13-of-39, 33.3% from beyond the arc.

That’s better than the Nuggets.

Denver was 8-of-27 from 3, 29.6% in Game 1. Michael Porter Jr. was a dreadful 2-of-11.

“I thought I had great looks,” Porter Jr. said. “Ball felt pretty good coming out of my hands, but yeah, I can’t worry too much about percentages. They were good looks. I’ve got to keep shooting those, work on my shots on these couple days off. Hopefully some more fall next game.”

It’s simplistic but true — whichever team can find its 3-point stroke will win Game 2. Miami is in the Finals partly because of spectacular shotmaking, particularly from their role players, throughout the postseason. A regression now dooms them.

Both coaches told their shooters not to hold back.

“Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters.”

3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Over 214.5: The Under hit in Game 1 thanks to a 96-point second-half, but more importantly, an NBA Finals record low two free-throw attempts from the Miami Heat. Dating back to 2002-03, Game 2’s are 43-25-1 (63.2%) to the over when Game 1 went under the total. With both teams struggling from three and Miami expected to be more aggressive, the over 214.5 is a good value play, especially since Game 1’s total was 219.5.

Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. props: With Denver having so many weapons, take a look at Nikola Jokic’s triple-double prop and Michael Porter Jr.’s three-point props. Jokic triple-doubled in Game 1, giving him a triple-double in six of the last seven games. With Jokic hunting for Finals MVP, take a look at Jokc’s triple-double prop yet again. Porter Jr. struggled from deep in Game 1, knocking down two three-pointers on 11 attempts. MPJ has now attempted at least 10 three-pointers in three-straight games and six or more in eight of the past nine. MPJ’s Over 2.5 made three-pointers also has value in Game 2.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

Malone’s message clear to Nuggets: ‘I don’t think we played well in Game 1’


DENVER — Game 1 was a coach’s dream in some ways for Michael Malone and the Nuggets staff.

They got three-quarters of dominating play — the Nuggets were up by 21 entering the fourth quarter — and they got the win. But they also have one quarter of struggling, sloppy play that gives Malone a valid reason to call guys out and have a candid film session.

“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Michael Malone said, despite his team picking up an 11-point victory. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic, and if you think that Max Strus is going to go 0-for-9 again or Duncan Robinson is going to go 1-for-5 again, you’re wrong. The fourth quarter, we gave up 30 points, 60% from the field, 50% from three, 6-of-12 from the three-point line.”

Malone added he thought the Nuggets offense struggled in the fourth quarter because they didn’t get stops so they were constantly going up against the Heat’s set defense.

“That fourth quarter, you know, we came out in the flat,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We had a great looks at the basket, we just didn’t knock them down. But we want to get into our offense a little bit earlier than like :14 seconds on the clock and just play normal basketball, our basketball.”

It was all part of a theme Malone wanted to drive home: They are still three wins from a title and those will not be easy to get.

“I told our players today, don’t read the paper,” Malone said (do any of those 20-somethings get an old-school paper?) “Don’t listen to the folks on the radio and TV saying that this series is over and that we’ve done something, because we haven’t done a damn thing.”

There were positives for the Nuggets to take away from Game 1, particularly on the defensive end. Jokić, who does not have the reputation of a strong defender, played well on that end.

“I think when you see the last game, us against Miami, in the first three quarters, they score 65, 68 points [Ed. note: it was 63]. I think that’s really amazing,” Nikola Jokić said. “And then you can see the fourth quarter, they scored 30-something. When we are collectively really good, then I’m really good [defensively], too. But when we are collectively not good, I’m not really good.”

Jimmy Butler had praise for Jokic’s defense.

“He moves his feet well. He’s constantly making guys make decisions whenever they get into the paint. Then his outlet passes from a defensive rebound are very, very elite; that, he’s been doing his entire career,” Butler said. “As much as everybody looks at what he does on the offensive side of the ball, he’s a hell of a defender, as well.”

“I think overall, I think Nikola’s defense has been a real positive,” Malone said. “I think you have to get past the eye test with Nikola because I think most people just think of great defensive players as a guy who is blocking a shot or just making a great athletic play. Nikola does it differently. He has a tremendous IQ. He’s got great anticipation. He’s got unbelievable hands for deflections, blocks. He’s got unbelievable feet for deflections.”

In the postseason, the Nuggets have held their own in the non-Jokić minutes and that continued in Game 1 — the Nuggets were only -3 in the non-Jokić minutes in that game (-1 in the first half and -2 in the fourth quarter).

“Defense,” Aaron Gordon said of the focus in non-Jokić minutes. “So, when he’s sitting on the floor we need to lock in on defense. That’s probably the most important, crucial aspect of the non-Nikola Jokic minutes because that’s how we get our offense, as well.”

In its last couple of series, the other team had to be aggressive with adjustments because the Nuggets were forcing them to. The Finals may prove a little different, we could see some defensive tweaks early from the Nuggets.

Denver’s offense is going to get points, if its defense can be as good as Game 1, Malone is going to have to look hard to find things before the Game 3 film sessions.