Analysis: To get No. 1 seed, Warriors must summon inner junkyard dog

Analysis: To get No. 1 seed, Warriors must summon inner junkyard dog

OAKLAND -- With 14 minutes of profoundly spectacular basketball, the Warriors on Tuesday climbed from the brink of humiliating defeat to the momentary relief that comes with barely slipping past a vastly inferior team

The optimist might say they preserved any hope of earning the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

The pessimist might say they won a game on their home court, Oracle Arena, over a 76ers team that despite earnest effort ranks among the bottom-five in the NBA.

The realist, however, wonders if the Warriors are capable of making the multifaceted adjustments required to have a reasonable chance of finishing ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and, therefore, gaining the top overall seed.

There is legitimate concern within the Warriors organization, though less so in the locker room, about their ability to finish strong when their entire disposition has been altered by the absence of Kevin Durant.

“It’s on our staff to find the right combinations with the situation we’re in right now, with the changes,” coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. “With KD out, we’ve got to find the right combinations.”

Sure, Durant’s absence -- he has missed two weeks and is expected to miss at least eight more games -- robs the Warriors of their top scorer, top rebounder and top shot blocker. What’s more damaging, though, is the loss of swagger that came with the Warriors knowing they were riding with the most dangerous frontcourt scorer in the league.

The Warriors took a massive machismo hit when Durant went down, and machismo is an exceedingly valuable element in the NBA. It puts the A in Alpha Dog. It’s the difference between knowing you will and believing you can.

Between recognizing what Kevin Durant can do, and realizing nobody else on the roster, or the planet, is an adequate replacement.

The Warriors have played eight games without Durant, going 3-5. The wins were over the Knicks, the Hawks and, on Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, the 76ers, who blew a 16-point lead when the Warriors outscored them 32-14 over the final 14 minutes.

That stretch was among the most impressive the Warriors have manufactured this season, and easily the best they’ve looked since Durant went down on Feb. 28.

What they have to do now is prove that those 14 minutes are not merely indicative of a team desperate to avoid ignominious loss but a sign that they are making the adjustments -- mental, physical and psychological -- needed to get to the 65 or so wins required nab the No. 1 seed.

Reverting to the formula used last season, when Durant was in Oklahoma City, is not an option. The roster is dramatically different. Harrison Barnes is gone, and so are Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa, reserves that brought energy and scoring. The Warriors last season had nine players shoot at least 35 percent beyond the arc, and six of them were better than 38 percent. This season, they have five players above 35 percent, three over 38.

Expecting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson fill the scoring void created without Durant’s 25 points is irrational. The trio was combining for more than 70 points per game. No duo in the league is going to provide that.

“That just isn’t going to make itself up,” Draymond Green said late Tuesday night, referring to the lost scoring. “You’ve got to make some of that up on the defensive end. And we haven’t been doing that.”

Unless the defense tightens, and we’ve seen it happen, there is no chance to gaining the top seed. When the Warriors defend, the dictate the action at both ends. The offense comes easier. It won’t be easy without Durant, the team’s best rim protector, but it’s essential.

Getting offense from Green also is crucial. He doesn’t have to reach the 20-point mark, as he did Tuesday night, but he can consistently find his way into double figures, it will put additional stress on defenses.

“If Draymond gives us 15 a night,” said one team official, “I like our chances.”

Which brings us back to Curry and Thompson. Thompson tends to be a bunch scorer, unstoppable some nights, stopping himself on others. He’s going to score, though the game looks easier when he’s relaxed enough to avoid forcing his shot. If Thompson is able to round out his game, to mix in a few more assists and rebounds, that also would put defenders in a bind.

Curry? Well, we know his impact. When he is on, the team’s swagger is unmistakable. If he’s beating his chest, his teammates beat theirs. If Curry gets on a roll, Durant’s absence becomes much easier to mask.

Curry during that 14-minute stretch against Philly scored 12 points, including 3-of-5 from deep. The swagger surfaced even before the Warriors overtook the Sixers. There was a sense from fans and the team that the comeback was assured.

The Warriors summoned their inner junkyard dogs. They were ready to fight. We’re about to see, over these next four weeks, how much bite these dogs have. They’re at the point where they either fight or fall, scrap or sink.

“It’s got to be that way,” Green said late Tuesday night.

“It’s not going to be as pretty as it’s always been. Guys have to understand that and do whatever it takes to win games.”

 

LeBron doesn't care about long Finals odds: 'I only play blackjack in Vegas'

LeBron doesn't care about long Finals odds: 'I only play blackjack in Vegas'

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James says the challenge of facing the Golden State Warriors in the Finals is “up there” with any of his career.

Appearing in his seventh straight Finals, James knows the Cleveland Cavaliers are underdogs as they prepare to the play the Western Conference champions for the third straight year. This version of the Warriors is even scarier than previous ones as Kevin Durant is now playing with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

James was in a similar situation in Miami when he went up against San Antonio and a roster of future Hall of Famers.

The three-time champion said playing Golden State is “going to be very challenging not only on me mentally, but on our ballclub and on our franchise.”

Reminded that Las Vegas oddsmakers had made him an underdog in six of his eight Finals, James quipped, “I only play blackjack in Vegas anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

 

Cavs' Love on NBA Finals vs Warriors: 'I don't feel like we're underdogs'

Cavs' Love on NBA Finals vs Warriors: 'I don't feel like we're underdogs'

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Vegas is betting against them and the bookies are hardly alone.

Let's be honest, not many are giving the Cleveland Cavaliers much of a chance in the NBA Finals. They may be defending champions and they may have LeBron James, but against Golden State, they are definite underdogs.

Just don't try to tell them that.

"The whole underdog thing is funny to me, because yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title," Cavs forward Kevin Love said following Saturday's practice. "We're trying to repeat, which is so hard to do. I think we will use it as fuel. We will use it as motivation, but the idea of playing into it? It's tough for me to say that is the case. I don't feel like we're underdogs.

"We match up well with them and I think they'd say the same about us."

Maybe, but as the teams gear up for Thursday night's series opener in Oakland, comments made by Warriors forward Draymond Green in October are reverberating around Cleveland.

Still stinging after the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in last year's Finals against Cleveland, the vociferous Green, who was suspended from Game 5, said if given the chance again, he plans to "destroy and annihilate" the Cavs.

Love complimented Green's competitiveness and aimed a verbal volley at Northern California.

"He's a guy who said he wanted us," Love said, "and he has us - starting next Thursday."

Act III in this trilogy is overloaded with story lines, with the biggest being whether James and Co. have enough firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors, who added superstar Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 games a year ago before its Finals flameout.

Golden State has glowed in this postseason, becoming the first team to start 12-0 while winning by an average of 16.3 points per game - the highest margin league history. It's no wonder then that the wise guys have installed the Warriors as heavy favorites to beat the Cavs for the second time in three years and wrestle back the Larry O'Brien Trophy that slipped through their hands last June.

James referred to the Warriors as only "that juggernaut" and "a beast" following Thursday's Game 5 in at Boston, a night in which he passed Michael Jordan as the career postseason scoring leader.

James elected not to talk about the Warriors following the game, choosing instead to celebrate a third straight conference title in Cleveland and his seventh consecutive Finals trip. James didn't speak to reporters on Saturday either, leaving Love to serve as the team's unofficial spokesman as the sports world inched closer to a matchup that seemed destined from the moment last season's Finals ended.

Love was asked if the Cavs wanted the Warriors.

"Want the Warriors?" he said. "They've been right at the top, best team in the league for three years straight now. They've been super-impressive. It's kind of in our minds that that's who we were going to see. They played great basketball this year. Obviously adding an MVP to a team that already has a two-time MVP makes them even more impressive. It's tough to say that we didn't expect it; we knew they'd be right there."

After the team returned from Boston in the wee hours Friday morning, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue didn't go to bed and immediately began working on a game plan to stifle Golden State's powerful, multi-faceted offense.

Lue knows the Cavs are facing a difficult task, one made tougher with the addition of the versatile Durant, who can score down low, from the perimeter and free-throw line.

The Warriors are using Durant the way he envisioned, but Lue has noticed changes in the All-Star.

"He's moving around a lot more," he said. "Just watching him move without the basketball, getting easy baskets off of cuts and splits and when he passes the ball he's also relocating now. He's doing a lot more movement, which makes it even tougher to guard after being one of the tougher scorers I've ever seen."

Lue said didn't deliver any inspiring speech to his players before practice.

Words don't mean much now - not his, not Green's - and neither do underdog labels.

"We're not going to use that as motivation," Lue said. "We're in the NBA Finals. That's enough motivation alone. Not worry about what it says in Vegas or what people are saying about underdogs. We're not using that as an excuse. We've got to come out and play. Our goals were set at the beginning of the season, and that's to win a championship. So, that's what we're focused on."

And remember, the Cavs have overcome long odds before.