Zaza Pachulia

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James Harden, Russell Westbrook will be under load management next year

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It should be no surprise to anyone given what Kawhi Leonard went through last season, but both Russell Westbrook and James Harden will apparently be under load management next year with the Houston Rockets.

Load management will forever be in our lexicon thanks to Leonard. Because of this fancy term for “rest” the Toronto Raptors were able to mitigate his nagging injury issues, ones that showed Leonard still looking a bit gimpy through the 2019 NBA Finals. Leonard had been dealing with issues ever since Zaza Pachulia slid under him in the 2017 NBA playoffs.

Westbrook and Harden are both on wrong side of 30, and as the two main stars they will be expected to carry the load for the Rockets. But they will also need to make sure they can get all the way to the finish line, with the NBA Finals in June and being the end goal.

With that being said, Houston general manager Daryl Morey told Dan Patrick this week that both players will have a load management system in place to make sure they can go the distance.

Via Twitter:

This makes sense in a modern NBA where some teams are expected to have the amount of talent necessary to be able to win games without having to play all of its Stars.

The real question is whether Houston is actually that kind of team. Westbrook and Harden are great, but we don’t know how they will mesh together some years on from their time in Oklahoma City. Clint Capela had an… interesting year last season, and the Rockets aren’t as strong as they once were.

What this probably means is that Houston will try to win as many games as they can up front, then find a way throughout the spring to manage the load of both of its stars so they are healthy over the last few months of the year.

Is this the final series for the Warriors as we know them?

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The Golden State Warriors are trying to complete a three-peat. The NBA championship is there for the taking, if they can only get rid of those pesky Toronto Raptors. But the result of the Finals is not the only thing up in the air come June. With Kevin Durant‘s decision looming, and several players needing to be paid, the question is whether these Warriors will open next season intact.

Who Golden State will be next season — and if this iteration of the team will come to an end — requires us to start with a begining question: who are “The Warriors” to you?

Time has the effect of smoothing out the bumps and ridges, the detail that make up the storylines of every NBA season. Ask a Warriors fan and ask a Lakers fan this same question, the question of The Warriors, and you will get two different answers. But there is a core that isn’t debatable: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green.

The characters surrounding this core have changed over the year, and so too has the dynamic of Golden State stars and their importance to the squad. In 2014-15, Golden State won its first NBA title in this era. Everyone remembers the onslaught of Curry and Thompson from the 3-point line, the beginning of a revolution in the NBA. But what some folks forget is the impact that other players had. Marreese Speights, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes… all these players were once also considered core supporting members of what made this team great.

To that end, storylines for that supporting cast have changed as time has gone on. For instance, Speights played a significant amount of minutes for the Warriors in ‘14-’15 but posted a negative VORP for the season. Livingston, seemingly back from the dead after early knee issues in his career, had not yet found his stride with the Golden State. That wouldn’t come until the next year.

But time has a funny way of finding a narrative and running with it. For some it’s been “Speights was a great floor spreader” and “Livingston was instantly dominant for GSW” even though those things aren’t really wholly true. Time allows us less nuance.

Players have gone from important to overlooked during a Golden State’s run over the past half-decade. This season is no different than that first Finals appearance, and the Warriors have done what teams in the “Big 3” era do. That is, surround their stars with low-level players who can be a part of the system, do their job, and not commit crucial mistakes. Kevon Looney, Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell… the names change, but the roles remain the same.

The point is, supporting cast comes and goes in Golden State like it does for just about any championship squad. But now the Warriors are faced with real questions. Questions about whether they should re-sign their stars (Green); about whether they can re-sign their stars (Durant); and about how much they should re-sign their stars for (Thompson).

These are not easily answered for GM Bob Myers, either. Thompson seems like a no-brainer, even at a max deal that will put a serious crunch on the Warriors’ cap in a couple years time. But Green, who is 29 and will probably want a huge payday, is a riddle harder to answer. Will he decline in ability? Is Regular Season Draymond who you get on the next contract, or are you getting Playoff Draymond? Can he survive in five years without being able to shoot?

Then, hardest of all, is that of Durant. Never mind the fact that Golden State will have to weigh whether they want to spend the next half-decade assuaging Durant’s delicate feelings — Durant might not want to stay with the Warriors if he wins another championship. To change might not be up to Golden State to decide.

But in trying to answer these questions, it ultimately comes back to the most important factor of all: Curry. The superstar point guard is under contract for three more seasons after this one ends, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In fact, with Durant out with a calf injury during this postseason, Curry has shown that he still is who he was before KD flew in from OKC.

For that reason, there’s hope we will see “Golden State” — this Golden State, the Golden State we think of right now — in 2019-20 and beyond if major changes come to this roster.

The Warriors might not be inevitable in the coming seasons. If Durant leaves, the seismic shift that tilted the NBA off its foundation in 2016 might finally be repaired. Parity, however slowly, will come to the Western Conference. We’ve already seen what the vacuum left by LeBron James has done to the Eastern Conference. But just as Golden State adapted to Durant’s arrival, they will respond in kind if he happens to depart. The same will be said if Green takes a big payday elsewhere next year.

Because really, the Warriors have always adapted. They made up for Barnes when the Dallas Mavericks signed him in 2016, mostly with Durant but also with the minutes from Matt Barnes, Ian Clark, and better output from Livingston. They replaced Bogut with Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and David West. Then Looney was added, and Omri Casspi, and Cook. The list goes on.

The Warriors are about Curry and Thompson, and how the offense Steve Kerr has built for them operates. On the other side, Golden State is about how those same players are able to thrive thanks to Ron Adams’ defense, Green’s excellent play notwithstanding. Losing Durant would be big. Losing Green is inevitable, either to age or to free agent poachers. But Curry is the engine that makes this Warriors team go. Would losing both of them in the same offseason mean this team has a fundamentally different identity? I don’t think so.

It’s evident when you watch the team play, and it’s certainly exemplified in Golden State’s advanced statistics — Curry is the favorite son in the Bay, and as long as he is in blue and gold, the Warriors will stay The Warriors.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to NBA Finals

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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history DeMar DeRozan to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse mixed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays when he needed to.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments, and when he couldn’t get to the rim at will his lack of a jump shot he has confidence in showed. Those kinds of lessons come with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation — it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — and they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half, the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing in a run that got to 26-3 for Toronto, then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

It wasn’t pretty, but Warriors will take Game 1 win over Rockets behind Durant’s 35

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Fans may have been hoping for the beautiful game — Golden State’s dynamic ball movement, James Harden’s elite scoring.

What they got were two of the league’s best defensive teams who happen know each other well (this was their 12th meeting in a calendar year), and that meant a physical — and at times sloppy — game. The Rockets missed 33 threes, while the Warriors took only 22. The Warriors turned the ball over one in five times down the court (20 total), and 26 percent of their possessions in the first half. James Harden shot 9-of-28. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 10-of-25.

Those fans also got drama.

Kevin Durant had 35 points and was nearly unstoppable when the game was on the line. There was the obligatory frustration with officials over borderline calls (and what constitutes a landing spot). But when it mattered most Curry did this and iced the game.

Golden State took Game 1 104-100. Game 2 is back at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night.

“It’s just basketball at its highest level, along with competition at its highest level,” Kerr said after the game. “It’s intense out there, and both teams are just fighting for everything out there.”

Ultimately, the difference was Durant.

“Kevin’s run this past couple of weeks has been off the charts,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “I’ve said it a few times this week, he’s the most skilled basketball player on earth. He’s one of the most skilled players to ever…

“After we lost Game 2 to the Clippers he felt he had to turn it up and lift us up another level and that’s just what he did.

Kerr opened the game with his best lineup, starting Andre Iguodala and the “Hamptons five” — Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Durant, and Iguodala. That lineup had a +5.8 net rating, played nearly 25 minutes, and was +4 in a four-point win.

Harden struggled as the Warriors threw different defenders and different looks at him all night, but he still had 35 points (he got to the free throw line 14 times was the main reason).

The Warriors strategy to deal with Harden’s deadly step-back three was to crowd him — which left Harden looking for foul calls he did not get. The Rockets’ complaint was the Warriors’ defenders were taking away Harden’s landing spot, including on a shot to tie it in the final seconds of the game. Harden referenced the Kawhi Leonard injury from a couple of years ago where a series changed when Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia‘s foot in Game 1.

Chris Paul grabbed the rebound after Harden’s final miss, tried to draw a foul on Thompson he didn’t get, then got ejected with his second technical when he yelled at the referee for not giving him the call. CP3 will be writing a check to the league for this.

“[The referees] came to me at halftime and said they missed it, missed four of them,” D’Antoni said after the game.

D’Antoni was also questioned for having Nene in with the game on the line. On the previous two possessions Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala had grabbed offensive rebounds off misses, and D’Antoni didn’t want that to happen again. However, Nene being in gave Curry a target to exploit, and he did with the dagger to seal the win.

“He was playing great, he was guarding great,” D’Antoni said of Nene up to that point. “Rebounding could have been an issue. Now, looking back, I probably wouldn’t have done that knowing what happened.”

Eric Gordon had 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting for the Rockets.

All five Warriors starters had at least 13 points as they ended up with a more balanced attack.

Pistons’ Zaza Pachulia fined $25,000 for getting in face of official after call

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Zaza Pachulia was hot. Too hot.

On a shot late in the third quarter, the Pistons’ big man thought he was fouled by the Raptors Pascal Siakam, a push that allowed Marc Gasol to block the shot. Both Pachulia and Blake Griffin, pushed by Kyle Lowry, ended up on the ground. There was no call. Pachulia was yelling at a referee, appeared to bump the official to the eyes our own Dan Feldman who was in the building (although the video does not confirm that), and quickly got ejected.

Everyone knew what was coming next: Pachulia has been fined $25,000 by the league for “confronting and verbally abusing a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner upon his ejection.”

The Pistons went on to win the game in overtime. Detroit has won 9-of-11 and moved into the six seed in the East. Not that any of that impresses Blake Griffin.