Warriors

As balance of power shifts slightly in East, should Warriors be worried?

As balance of power shifts slightly in East, should Warriors be worried?

The pursuit of the Warriors got considerably noisier Tuesday, when the Cleveland Cavaliers granted Kyrie Irving’s wish to be traded by sending the All-Star point guard to the Boston Celtics.

Boston is slightly improved, Cleveland is roughly the same and the two teams are set to meet in the juiciest Eastern Conference Finals since James left Miami three summers ago.

As for the Warriors, they’re still holding the Larry O’Brien trophy and smoking fine cigars and waiting for rings to be presented in two months.

While not exactly yawning, they’re not sweating any more than they did last week or last month. The Warriors have good reason to remain confident in their status as the most dangerous team in the NBA.

Granted, only one team had the assets and established contender status to acquire Irving and immediately get within seeing distance of the Warriors. That team is the Celtics, who suddenly are built to challenge the champs in ways the Cavaliers no longer could.

Even with their loss to Cleveland in the 2016 Finals, the Warriors over the past three seasons fairly owned the Cavs, going 4-2 in the regular season and posting an 11-7 record against them over the past three Finals. The Warriors dominated the 2017 Finals, winning in five games.

Furthermore, the Warriors over the last six regular-season meetings have outscored Cleveland by an average of 13.5 points. Though the average margin shrinks to about 7 over 18 games in The Finals, it’s still relatively decisive.

Despite the magnified glorification of the Warriors-Cavs trilogy, the Warriors generally were superior.

Cleveland will be a factor in the East, if only because LeBron James will ensure it and Isaiah Thomas -- acquired in the Irving deal -- will provide capable assistance. But the blockbuster deal sending Irving to Boston blows a massive hole through what was left of the three-year-old rivalry between the Warriors and Cavs.

In its place are intriguing matchups between the Warriors and the Celtics, who over the past three years have played the Warriors tougher than any other team. Though the Warriors also are 4-2 against Boston over the last three regular seasons, the overall scoring difference is only 2.2 points in favor of the Warriors. Each team has a double-digit win, with the other four games decided by five or fewer points.

And that was before All-Star forward Gordon Hayward signed with the Celtics last month, before forward Marcus Morris was acquired and before Irving was brought into the parquet posse.

Hayward at small forward is a huge offensive upgrade over Crowder, who will take his solid defensive game to Cleveland. While the Warriors could sag off Crowder, Hayward will have to be guarded. Gone are the days of Boston’s offense occasionally lapsing into Thomas and four guys in spectator mode.

Irving is a better offensive player that Thomas only in that he is six inches taller. Both are among the top five players capable of breaking down defenses. Both have tremendous shooting range, though Irving is slightly more accurate. Both are 90-percent free throw shooters. Irving has a modestly better assist-to-turnover ratio. Both thrive in the clutch.

So why is Boston better with Irving than with Thomas? Defense. Irving’s poor defense is an upgrade over Thomas’ atrocious defense.

Why aren’t the Warriors more worried about a Boston team that has found ways to exploit them? It’s because the loss of Avery Bradley, a truly great backcourt defender, is going to sting the Celtics. Any defense devised by coach Brad Stevens is going to be compromised if Hayward and Irving are on the floor. That’s where Crowder and Bradley will be missed.

And that’s where the Warriors will go to eat.

This trade signals that the Celtics are serious about chasing Eastern Conference superiority and the Cavs officially are operating on a one-year plan.

The balance of power in the East shifts ever so slightly. About as slightly as the balance of power in the West when the Thunder acquired Paul George.

The Warriors, however, remain well in front of the pack. Yes, there are more and more footsteps behind them, but all of them are in the distance.

One thing is pretty clear about these Warriors after 2-2 road trip

One thing is pretty clear about these Warriors after 2-2 road trip

The Warriors are not ready to flip their seek-and-destroy switch. Not yet.

They’re closer to being ready than, say, their longtime rivals in Cleveland, but in going 2-2 on this four-game road trip the Warriors showed they are nowhere near full annihilation mode.

They went into Oklahoma City Wednesday night and, in gulping down a 108-91 loss on national TV, came away looking more vulnerable than they have in any game this season. The 17-point loss was their largest margin of defeat and this was awful close to being a wire-to-wire rout.

The Warriors defense, so splendid during the seven-game win streak they took out of town last week, was inconsistent throughout and downright atrocious by their standards as they concluded the trip.

Their offense, which had begun reducing the turnovers to acceptable levels, came apart like a pair of $3 sneakers.

Even their body language, aside from two well-deserved technical fouls, seemed to mostly vacillate between whispers and a whimpers.

“We didn’t have any focus or concentration,” coach Steve Kerr said. “The ‘millennials’ couldn’t lock in tonight. And their coach couldn’t do much either. Long night for us.”

These were not the Warriors who posted seven consecutive double-digit wins, and they’re certainly not the team that found its competitive blowtorches last April. They weren’t visible in this game, nor were they seen for most of this road trip.

This, ahem, regular-season road trip.

That’s the catch. Last April is when the playoffs got underway, and next April is when the 2018 playoffs begin. The time between now and then is for experimenting, fine-tuning and fighting through the monotonous joys of victory -- a factor on vivid display Wednesday night.

“We played with some decent energy,” Stephen Curry said. “We just didn’t play smart.”

“They completely outplayed us, outcoached us,” Kerr said. “It was just their night. It was absolutely their night. They brought the energy, they brought the juice, they brought the intelligence. And we didn’t bring any of that.”

The Warriors entered the game after studying video and stats that illustrated OKC’s ability to disrupt an offense. The Thunder leads the NBA in steals, deflections and -- this one punches the Warriors in the gut -- forcing turnovers.

The Warriors committed 22 giveaways, leading directly to 34 Thunder points.

“Thirty-four points off turnovers, you can’t win like that,” Draymond Green said.

“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them ready to play,” Kerr said. “We have a pretty loose, fun atmosphere around here. That’s great, but there are certain times where it’s like, ‘All right guys. Let’s throw it to our team. Let’s execute the play. Let’s remember the play.’ ”

Kevin Durant bemoaned the “silly turnovers” that were such a factor in the game, blaming it players rather than Kerr and his staff.

“For the most part he can’t control that type of stuff,” said Durant, whose four turnovers were second to Curry’s team-high six. “We’ve got to be better at keeping the ball in our hands, shooting more shots than our opponents and playing defense.”

Added Green: “We were pretty well-prepared. We just played bad.”

That happens to even the best of teams, a category in which the defending champions fit quite snugly. No team, not even the Chicago Bulls of the maniacally competitive Michael Jordan, is able to bring its best for 82 games a season.

The Warriors blew two 17-point leads, one in second quarter and another in the third, in losing at Boston.

They fell behind by 24 in the third quarter to the 76ers before coming back to win in Philadelphia before recovering the next night to submit their best performance of the trip in routing Brooklyn.

And in OKC, against a Thunder team that would seem to get their full attention, the Warriors were outhustled, outsmarted and played with considerably less fury.

“Right now, we’re just in a little bit of rut, where we’ve got to focus,” Kerr said. “And I know we will. We’ve done this many times in the past and bounced back. And we’ll bounce back. We need to lock in and tighten up everything.”

They will, eventually. It could happen next week, or next month, or after the calendar turns to 2018. They’ll turn it on and become the team of terror, punishing all before them. It might be April, though.

This road game indicated some truth, though, which is there will be games over the next four months in which they will lose the battle with themselves.

Durant addresses scuffles with Westbrook after Warriors' loss: 'That's just ball'

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AP

Durant addresses scuffles with Westbrook after Warriors' loss: 'That's just ball'

As you might expect when Kevin Durant returns to Oklahoma City, things got chippy at several moments Wednesday.

Once during the second quarter and again in the third quarter, Durant and former running mate Russell Westbrook could be seen yapping at each other. During the latter incident, the two literally went nose-to-nose, touching foreheads before being sperated.

After the Warriors' 108-91 loss to the Thunder, Durant was asked about the exchanges.

"Man, that's just ball. That's just ball me. He's competitive, I'm competitive. We like to go at it. Both of us. That's just part of the game, so I respect it. I got nothing but love for him. I'm expecting it again when we play them again. All fun and games to me," Durant told reporters.

Despite what the cameras caught, Durant tried to downplay the level of emotions between the two teams on the court.

"Can't let emotion seep into business. Can't do that. So I think on our end, we were just playing our game. They just played better than us tonight. The emotion around the court, around the arena, around the city I'm sure was a little higher than it was on the court. can't let emotion seep in. Just have to play better than that," Durant said.

When a reporter kept pressing about the incidents between Durant and Westbrook, the Warriors forward pushed back.

"Did you watch the game? Or did you watch for the scuffles? The story is about the game. We lost, they kicked our a**, they played a great. You should give them credit for how they played. We should be better. It's not about who's in each other's faces. That stuff is not real. So please, don't believe it. All the fans, they are lying to you. It's all about basketball. They played a great game. We didn't," Durant retorted.

So how did returning to his former home for the first time this season compare to his first trip back last year?

"It was a little better. Nothing like the first. I'm sure everyone in the arena said what they had to say," Durant said.

The next two times Durant and Westbrook meet up, it will be in Oakland (Feb.6 and Feb. 24). The Warriors don't return to Oklahoma City until April 3, 2018.