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D'Angelo Russell presents Warriors with unique dilemma in lost season

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D'Angelo Russell presents Warriors with unique dilemma in lost season

Come Sunday afternoon, the Warriors should receive considerable relief from the despair that has plagued their offense during a frustrating six-game losing streak.

For one, they’re playing the Grizzlies, whose 112.4 defensive rating is 27th in a 30-team league. Memphis is where NBA teams go to pad their scoring stats.

In addition, guard D’Angelo Russell, who has missed the last six games, is expected to play. He’s the Warriors’ leading scorer (23.2 points per game) and most proficient closer on a team that averaged 99.5 points, on 42 percent shooting, over the last six games.

D-Lo’s return is the most convenient way to defibrillate this comatose offense.

But if the D-Lo who takes the court at FedEx Forum is the D-Lo that we’ve seen most of this season, there is a steep price for the Warriors to pay.

Russell’s defense tends to range from half-hearted to indifferent to utterly negligent, which makes him as capable of sabotaging the defense as he is of fortifying the offense.

In the 29 games since coach Steve Kerr expressed undiluted disappointment in his team’s defense -- their 117.0 rating was dead last at the time -- the Warriors steadily became respectable. They’ve moved up 10 spots, to No. 20 (111.8).

Here’s the truly revealing part: Over the six games that Russell has missed since Dec. 28, the Warriors are, gulp, ninth in defensive rating (106.0). While D-Lo was observing from the bench, always in stylish attire, they fixed their defense.

The latest proof came Friday night in Los Angeles, where the Warriors limited the Clippers, who this season have entered the fourth quarter with at least 100 points on nine occasions, to a mere 73 through three quarters. The Warriors took a 10-point into the final quarter but couldn’t hang on.

The defense that held through the first 36 minutes was not up to the task of containing LA stars Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell over the final 12.

The Warriors’ offense, however, betrayed them the entire game. Though Omari Spellman responded to his first start as a Warrior with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 4 of 8 from deep, his teammates were 31 of 84 (36.9 percent) overall and 4 of 31 (12.9 percent) from distance.

“They overwhelmed us,” Kerr said of the fourth quarter, when the Warriors were outscored 36-17. “They played a great quarter and got downhill. Kawhi and Lou Williams both got going. Harrell got going. We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”

Which brings us back to Russell, who was sitting on the bench, at times flanked by disabled teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. D-Lo has scored at least 30 points in eight games this season, with a high of 52. The man can get buckets with the best of them.

The man can give buckets, too. With the worst of them.

Back in October, as the Warriors were wrapping up the preseason and preparing for the opener, Draymond Green, who knows a bit about defense, responded to question about D-Lo’s defensive ability with a low-key dart.

“Watching him in practice yesterday, I told him, ‘Oh you showed me you can defend. I didn't know you could. So that's the expectation now,’” Green said.

"It's interesting because you just never know what's been asked of someone. You can easily judge a situation and say, ‘Oh man, he hasn't really defended much,’ or, ‘He's not that good on the defensive end.’ But if he's never been asked to defend, it's kind of hard to make that judgment.

“Obviously, we're going to ask him to defend. Yesterday, he was asked to defend, and he showed that he can. I told him that'll be the expectation moving forward. Sorry, buddy, you showed it."

Now, 40 games into the season, Draymond still is waiting to see defense at the level he believes Russell is capable of playing. The coaching staff also is searching for it. Those who evaluated Russell during his first four NBA seasons are skeptical that it will come.

[RELATED: Warriors' Spellman possesses newfound belief, 'playing free']

Until it does, if ever it does, the Warriors don’t have much of a choice. They will have to live with D-Lo’s defense if they want his offense.

They surely need it -- at least until Curry and Thompson are ready for re-entry.

Warriors' first game after Kobe Bryant's death doesn't ease their pain

Warriors' first game after Kobe Bryant's death doesn't ease their pain

NBA games in January typically come armed with enough mid-season monotony to garner "dog days" comparisons. The hour leading up to the Warriors' 115-109 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday mirrored that of a precession without a casket. 

Two days removed from Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant's sudden death, his hometown team honored him with familiar memories. Pregame introductions and hype videos were replaced by darkness. Both teams stood side by side during the national anthem, while the Sixers wore No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys as light shined on Bryant's No. 33 Lower Merion High School jersey midcourt.  

By the end of the evening, the night's most valuable player didn't don a jersey nor did he have a life left to live, leaving the players to reconcile a future without their hero.  

"Beginning of the game was tough," Warriors forward Draymond Green told reporters in Philadelphia following the loss. "We all want to honor Kobe, and then you go into a basketball game. That's a switch you can't flip. Those are real emotions." 

Green's emotions, like the rest of the league, originated Sunday morning, when news trickled out that Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers, were killed in a helicopter crash while flying to a basketball tournament at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Bryant's death reverberated throughout the league, including in Los Angeles, where crowds flooded the streets around Staples Center -- a building Bryant arguably built -- in remembrance.

In response, the league postponed Tuesday's scheduled matchup between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. 

The Warriors got the news before Sunday's practice, prompting its cancellation ahead of the team's longest road trip of the season. By Tuesday morning, the team finally gathered enough strength to talk about Bryant.

In a team meeting, Warriors coach Steve Kerr spoke and Steph Curry followed, beginning a roundtable discussion. 

"Today was the first day I could really reflect a little bit and talk about it," Kerr told reporters. "But the last two days, I don't think anybody could even begin to reflect, just because of the pain of what just happened and the pain we know so many people are dealing with."

By game time, Bryant's influence was recognized throughout the arena. Perhaps no one on Golden State's active roster was affected more than Green. 

Nearly four years ago, the Bryant gave Green his game-worn pair of sneakers, writing "make history" along the toebox following Bryant's last game at Oracle Arena. Months later, Green's Warriors won a league-record 73 regular-season games.  

When Green was suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, he sought Bryant's advice in the wake of criticism that became “probably the lowest point of my NBA career.” Bryant responded with a poignant message.

"Draymond, 99 percent of the world is OK with mediocrity -- or worse," Green recalled Bryant telling him in a conversation with reporters Monday night. "But, at best, mediocrity. You’re chasing something so much bigger. How do you ever expect anyone to understand you?" 

"That meant the world to me because Kobe said f--- everybody, so f--- everybody," Green said. "I was able to hold onto that and rally and keep going and build on it.”

The biggest sign of Bryant's importance to Green was seen pregame, on the forward's feet. Since 2016, Green has made a point not to wear the signature shoes of other players. The protest began after Green -- who wore LeBron James' signature Nike shoe -- faced James in The Finals.

On Tuesday, he broke the protest, donning Bryant's first signature sneaker with Nike, displaying the sentiment his peers throughout the league share. 

"There's an era in this league right now or an age group that Kobe was Michael Jordan," Green said Tuesday. "Some guys aren't old enough to remember Jordan, but they remember Kobe. That was our Jordan."

While Green admired Bryant as an opponent, Warriors guard D'Angelo Russell came into the league under Bryant's tutelage. As a Lakers rookie, Russell's first season in the league in 2015-16 coincided with Bryant's last, bringing Russell a unique perspective.

When Russell scored 23 points in a loss, including nine of his team's last 11 points in regulation, Bryant told the rookie 'you got this', providing a push in his young career. When Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his career, Russell was among the players to congratulate the Lakers great, providing a surreal experience for the 23-year old. 

"I was just thrown into the movie almost. I got to see how people treated him," Russell said. "The power that he had around this league. I've seen conversations with my idols and how they would talk to him, it was almost like they were looking up to him. It was weird. It was something you always wanted and then being right next to him, you felt like if you touched him or tried to shake his hand, your hand would go through him. He wasn't a real person almost. But it was cool. I cherished every moment." 

Across the court, Bryant's influence exhibited in Sixers big man Joel Embiid. Ten years ago, Embiid -- who wore Bryant's No. 24 on Tuesday night -- watched Bryant's performance in the 2010 NBA Finals from his native Cameroon. Bryant won his fifth title, inspiring Embiid along the way. 

"If it weren't for Kobe, I would probably be playing volleyball somewhere, or be a doctor," Embiid told reporters in Philadelphia. "I wanted to be the president of my country. But if it weren't for Kobe, I wouldn't be here."

But it was Bryant's actions post-retirement that elicited the most praise from Green postgame. Since leaving the game, Bryant immersed himself into his children, coaching his 13-year old Gianna's AAU team. On Sunday, his helicopter was en route to Thousand Oaks for the Mamba Cup -- a tournament his daughter's team was playing in. Following Tuesday's game, Green said Bryant's presence in the crash left an indelible mark. 

"I think about Kobe," Green said." Like in that situation, especially the man that Kobe was, like Kobe will try to build a mountain, and there's no one in the world that will tell them that he can't lift that mountain up. And you think about him in this situation, which is extremely graphic to think about, he's right there with his daughter. And he's probably telling her that everything is OK and in his mind, he knows it's not. So for me, I just think of that and believing in my heart that, no, I was nowhere near that helicopter, but I know how he went out."

[RELATED: How story of Kobe warming up vs. Dubs defined his greatness]

By the end of the night, the Warriors and 76ers reconciled a new world without an NBA pillar, one that Golden State still is adjusting to. 

"It just doesn't seem real," Kerr said. "But it is real. And it's always going to feel just shocking." 

Warriors takeaways: What we learned in emotional 115-104 loss to 76ers

Warriors takeaways: What we learned in emotional 115-104 loss to 76ers

BOX SCORE

Perhaps inspired by the memory of Kobe Bryant, the Warriors played with fire and fury Tuesday night in his hometown.

It wasn’t quite enough to take down the contending 76ers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

After trailing by as much as eight, the Sixers opened the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run and wound up slapping a 115-104 defeat on the Warriors.

Despite four players scoring in double figures, led by D’Angelo Russell’s game-high 28 points, and a near triple-double from Draymond Green, the Warriors (10-38) fell for the 14th time in 15 games.

The 76ers (31-17) pushed their home record to an NBA-best 22-2.

Draymond brought it

There have been a few occasions this season when Green, who has coped with an assortment of aches and injuries, was unable to summon his typical energy and production.

This was not one of them.

In 10 first-quarter minutes, Draymond tracked down six rebounds and recorded three assists. He totaled nine points, 12 assists and nine rebounds -- just short of his third triple-double this season -- and also added three blocks and one steal.

It was, effectively and statistically, his strongest game in four weeks.

As someone who had a strong relationship with Bryant, there is no doubt that he wanted to make his mentor proud. He succeeded.

Failures of the bench

Their last game coming last Friday, the Warriors were coming off their longest inactive stint of the season. The starters appeared rejuvenated. The reserves did not.

With the Warriors bench scoring 26 points on 9-of-28 shooting, Philadelphia posted an 11-point advantage in bench scoring.

The individual numbers were, um, ghastly.

Alec Burks, the team’s most reliable bench player, scored 11 points but finished minus-31. Eric Paschall, returning to the city where he played college ball (Villanova), was restricted to 10 minutes because he was whistled for five fouls. He finished minus-12. Backup center and occasional power forward Omari Spellman, another Villanova product, had five points on 2-of-7 shooting and finished minus-20. Rookie guard Jordan Poole shot 1-of-5 over 15 minutes and ended the game minus-12.

Meanwhile, Philly backup point guard Raul Neto scored 19 points in 21 minutes.

A night for the bench to forget.

The Kobe moment

In a prearranged agreement, each team opened the game by taking a turnover as a nod to the late Kobe Bryant.

The 76ers won the opening tip, with center Joel Embiid tapping the ball to guard Ben Simmons, who placed the ball on the floor until eight seconds ticked off. A backcourt violation was whistled, with the turnover giving the ball to the Warriors.

It’s probably the first time in the long history of Philadelphia basketball that the home crowd responded to a Sixers' turnover with a standing ovation.

Russell inbounded in the frontcourt to Green, who immediately placed the ball at his feet. For the next 24 seconds, all 10 players stood silently, each man with his thoughts.

[RELATED: Embiid wears No. 24 as 76ers, Warriors pay tribute to Kobe]

The Warriors took a 24-second possession violation, giving the ball back to the 76ers.

It is safe to presume neither team has any regrets.