Monta, Warriors hold court in Las Vegas

540202.jpg

Monta, Warriors hold court in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Warriors owner Joe Lacob, co-owner Peter Guber, executive board member Jerry West and head coach Mark Jackson put on an impressive show for approximately 3,000 season-ticket holders on Wednesday night at Oracle.They talked boldly of future success, and how the Warriors are on the verge of a breakthrough. Lacob once again talked about a "world-class organization" and Jackson reiterated the same playoff promise he delivered on the day he was hired.But with all due respect to the four important men who held court at Oracle Arena on Wednesday, something far more impressive -- and dare we say more important -- was happening about 600 miles away in Vegas. That's where 10 Warriors players were starting to assemble for informal workouts and a get-to-know-you weekend.
The NBA lockout has taken away the team's downtown Oakland practice facility as any kind of basketball venue. So, instead, Stephen Curry, David Lee, Monta Ellis and Dorell Wright have gotten most of the team together to play some pickup basketball and to work out.Give the Warriors' players some credit: No other NBA team has had as many players show up here than Golden State."You can get closer as a unit, get that communication down a little bit," forward Louis Amundson said. "Any basketball player will tell you the more you play with somebody, the more you learn their habits, the kind of passes they're going to throw, how they play the game. The more we can be out on the floor together the better."The Warriors got together on Friday morning at 9 a.m., at the Impact basketball facility, and they played pickup basketball for approximately 90 minutes. Then, as more NBA players showed up -- like Corey Maggette, Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, T.J. Ford, Roger Mason Jr., Jared Dudley to name a few -- the Warriors gradually gave up the court.Ellis wound up playing almost 10 pickup games and stayed on the court longer than any of his teammates. He continued to play while they lifted weights."We're building a bond," forward Ekpe Udoh said. "We've got three rookies out here (Klay Thompson, Jeremy Tyler and Charles Jenkins) so everybody's got to get that chemistry going."For Thompson, Jenkins and Tyler it was their first real taste of pro basketball. They didn't get a chance to play in the Las Vegas Summer League, which was canceled by the lockout."This is a lot of fun," Thompson said. "Especially being out here for the whole weekend and getting to know each other. Unfortunately we missed summer league, but this makes up for it a little bit with getting to know everyone. I'm trying to make the most of each day I'm out here."And good for the Warriors, Thompson isn't the only one.

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 -- There's a four-headed, shot-making, scoreboard-breaking monster out West awaiting LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

The Warriors are stomach-churning scary.

James, though, can't run or hide. With eight NBA Finals appearances under his belt, he is ready to face a team he's called "a beast." After all, he has slayed behemoths before.

Pushing off any talk about the Warriors until after Sunday's practice, James was asked to assess the task at hand: beating Golden State's All-Star-studded lineup of Kevin DurantStephen CurryKlay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Is this the biggest challenge of his career?

"It's probably up there," he said. "I mean, it's up there."

And then, almost as if he was trying to remind himself that he's got three championship rings and is frightful in his own right, James recalled other fearsome postseason opponents - San Antonio and Boston.

"I've played against four Hall of Famers as well, too, with Manu (Ginobili), Kawhi (Leonard), Tony (Parker) and Timmy D (Tim Duncan) on the same team," said James, occasionally sniffling as he continues to fight a cold. "And if you add Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) in there, that's five Hall of Famers. So, it's going to be very challenging. Those guys are going to challenge me, they're going to challenge our ballclub.

"This is a high-powered team."

James also took on a Celtics team loaded with big-name talents.

"I've played against Ray (Allen), KG (Kevin Garnett), Paul (Pierce), (Rajon) Rondo and Doc (Rivers). So, it's going to be very challenging not only on me mentally, but on our ballclub and on our franchise."

Cleveland-Golden State 3.0 is the matchup fans worldwide expected and wanted, and James believes they're in for quite a show.

Both the Cavaliers and Warriors have upgraded their rosters from a year ago, when they went seven games in an epic series that spawned the first comeback from a 3-1 deficit in Finals history and resulted in Cleveland winning its first pro sports championship since 1964.

That Warriors team James conquered in 2016 won 73 games during the regular season and was being mentioned as one of the best to ever take the floor.

Hard to believe, but this version - with Durant - might be even better.

Golden State has been putting on a basketball clinic over the past two months, winning 27 of 28 games since March 11 and becoming the first squad to start the postseason 12-0.

Durant, who previously faced James in the 2012 Finals with Golden State, has taken a great team and elevated it to a nearly unstoppable level.

The Warriors are using Durant in every imaginable way on offense, and James isn't surprised to see his good friend and Olympic teammate more mobile than he was with the Thunder.

"You adapt to the culture," he said. "You adapt to the style and that's the same thing that happened to me when I went to Miami. I started to slash more and move more without the ball, shoot more standstill 3s and figure out ways I could be more productive than just having the ball in isolation. So, it's the right thing to do. He's one of the most dangerous guys we have in the world already. So it makes it even more dangerous when you equip that talent, that skill with those guys."

On the brink of becoming the first player since the early 1960s to play in seven straight Finals, James finds himself in a similar - and somewhat surprising - situation.

The Cavaliers are being given little chance to defend their title against the vaunted Warriors, who have been winning by an average of 16.3 points per game in the playoffs.

For the sixth time, James enters the Finals as an underdog, hardly a role he's accustomed to before June. The only time he won a championship as a Finals favorite was with Miami in 2013, when the Heat upended the Spurs for their second straight title.

James isn't worried about point spreads or any odds.

"I only play blackjack in Vegas anyway, so it doesn't matter," he said.

What does matter is that the 32-year-old is having one of his finest postseasons, and the Cavs are gelling the way they did at this time last year.

Maybe James has nothing to fear.

"I feel good about our chances," he said. "Very good."

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.