Warriors

Eastern powers go all in at NBA trade deadline in pursuit of Warriors

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AP

Eastern powers go all in at NBA trade deadline in pursuit of Warriors

OAKLAND -- While much of the league spent the past few days trying to upgrade now or later, the Warriors sat tight at the trade deadline, as they’d indicated. Why make another deal after the steal of three weeks earlier?

They got their man in DeMarcus Cousins, acquired Jan. 18. It’s not possible for an NBA team to do better, or as well, without sending back present or future assets.

So the movement was left to their pursuers. Those in the Western Conference, perhaps capitulating to the widely perceived inevitable, didn’t do much. The only legitimate threat to the Warriors the last two postseasons were the Rockets last year, and they haven’t even approached that level this season,

Most of the contenders in the Eastern Conference, however, were hustling up a sweat to get at each other and, eventually, the Warriors. No fewer than four teams seem to consider the defection of LeBron James to the West as an invitation to the vacated seat atop the conference.

Have any of them improved their chances of taking the East and perhaps toppling the defending champs? Yes. Here is a look at the top four teams in the East, their recent moves and, in order, the probability percentages of becoming the next NBA champion, should the Warriors be the opponent in The Finals:

Celtics

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Boston, with good reason, was the least active of these teams, trading only guard Jabari Bird, who had not played a minute this season, to the Hawks for a second-round pick.

The Celtics are 14-4 in 2019 and currently in a third-place tie with Indiana, have won 10 of their last 11, with the only loss coming to the Warriors. Boston has beaten the Raptors and the Thunder in that stretch. The offense that struggled early has been the sixth-best in the league since Jan 1. The defense, always there, is No. 2 in the league since then. They are coming together.

More to the point, the Celtics are playoff tested. That matters. Kyrie Irving is a postseason animal and the youngsters learned so much last season.

Chance of winning it all: 35 percent.

Raptors

The Raptors, currently in second place, shuffled hard. They acquired Marc Gasol from Memphis, and were lukewarm on the move. While still very skilled, Gasol no longer is a top-5 center. He came at great cost: Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. That’s 2.5 rotation players gone. They also rid themselves of benchwarmers Greg Monroe and Malachi Richardson for future second-round picks. OK. They shopped Kyle Lowry but he remains.

The Raptors were lightning out of the gate, champions of November, going to 20-4 on Dec. 1. Since then, they are 19-12. The offense that was so terrific for two months has since fallen behind those of the Celtics, Bucks, and 76ers. The defense had slipped just a bit.

These are the reasons Raptors GM Masai Ujiri felt the need for a significant deal. Will they work? We will see. They’re still a deep squad.

Chance of winning it all: 25 percent.

Bucks 

They added George Hill last month, sending away John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova. This week they made a couple moves that essentially amount to dealing Thon Maker for Nikola Mirotic.

That’s a lot of action for a team that has MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best record in the league -- and has won 18 of its last 21 games. Mirotic will hurt their defense, but is an elite 3-point shooter and will help on that end.

Milwaukee may well post the best record in the conference, maybe the league. That’s nice to have, but the core of this team has never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. The water gets deep. Experience matters.

Chance of winning it all: 20 percent.

76ers

They’ve been very busy. After dealing for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic on Wednesday, they added wings Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis on Thursday. They gave up two shooters (Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala), a solid defender in Wilson Chandler and the mega-mystery that is Markelle Fultz.

Harris is having a fine season and gives Philadelphia a new look. He’s much more of an offensive threat than Chandler, but also more of a defensive liability.

The 76ers have the most explosive starting five in the conference, five players capable of putting up 25 on any given night. But the chemistry is fragile and the defense has been a problem Harris won’t solve.

Chance of winning it all: 20 percent.

After a suspense-free first round of the playoffs, the next two rounds could be as good as any in the history of the NBA.

[RELATED: NBA championship odds shift after trade deadline concludes]

So credit Boston for holding tight while the other three franchises -- that have spent the past 18 years, or longer, watching The Finals -- were crossing their fingers and navigating the mad maze of phone calls, roster manipulations, salary-cap machinations, future draft picks and hypotheticals, all with the clock ticking.

As for the Warriors, there was no need to join the parade when they’re leading it.

Giannis' NBA All-Star Game block on LeBron James had Steph Curry hyped

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USATSI

Giannis' NBA All-Star Game block on LeBron James had Steph Curry hyped

Here's a sentence I didn't think I would write Sunday: Officiating decisions in the NBA All-Star Game brought out plenty of passion.

Not just for degenerate gamblers, mind you. The NBA's format change, where the winner had to score 24 more points (in honor of Kobe Bryant) in the fourth quarter than the leading score of the third, led to one of the best finishes to an All-Star Game in recent memory. The All-Stars brought it on defense, with Kyle Lowry drawing multiple offensive fouls. The intensity was perhaps best defined by Giannis Antetokounmpo guarding fellow All-Star captain and namesake LeBron James in isolation. 

Antetokounmpo's block on James originally was ruled a goaltend, prompting vehement disagreement from injured Warriors star Steph Curry watching with his wife Ayesha on vacation. Steph's reaction, posted on Ayesha's Instagram story, was catnip for Giannis-to-the-Warriors truthers. 

"Review it!" Curry, who played for Team Giannis in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, shouted. "That's not goaltending!"

Curry hasn't played since breaking his left hand just before Halloween, but the two-time MVP sent Warriors fans into a speculative frenzy when he appeared to say "Let's do it" to Antetokounmpo after Bucks beat the Dubs at Chase Center last month. Curry insisted he wasn't recruiting another lanky swingman, telling Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes he talked to Antetokounmpo about playing "Player Unknown's Battlegrounds."

Antetokounmpo, in case you haven't heard, can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. Teams reportedly already are clearing the decks ahead of his free agency, including the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors. NBC Sports Bay Area's Monte Poole wrote last month that the Warriors will be among the Greek superstar's suitors and do all they can to clear enough salary-cap space beforehand. 

[RELATED: Siakam jokes about Raps' anti-Steph defense in All-Star Game]

There are hurdles to clear. The Warriors already have four players (Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins) signed to max contracts, for one. They can't exactly bet on the same salary-cap spike that left enough room to sign Kevin Durant in 2016, either, considering the league's television contracts are a half-decade away from expiring and commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA expects to lose "hundreds of millions" of dollars China's backlash to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's support of Hong Kong protestors. 

Still, after seeing Sunday's shockingly competitive fourth quarter (this was an All-Star Game, after all), anything is possible in the NBA. 

Pascal Siakam jokes about using box-and-1 defense in NBA All-Star Game

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USATSI

Pascal Siakam jokes about using box-and-1 defense in NBA All-Star Game

Pascal Siakam was ready to pull from the playbook his Toronto Raptors used to try to slow down Warriors guard Steph Curry ... in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game? 

Kawhi Leonard, Siakam's former Raptors teammate, channeled Curry at the United Center on Sunday. The 2019 NBA Finals MVP made eight 3-pointers Sunday, and a mic'd-up Siakam joked that the Nick Nurse-coached Team Giannis would turn to a strategy Nurse's Raptors briefly used against Curry last June: The box-and-1 defense. 

"No more 3s, bro!" Siakam joked. 

"Y'all gonna deny me?" Leonard laughed. 

"Box-and-1!" 

The Raptors used the strategy against Curry in Game 2 of the NBA Finals after Klay Thompson left with an injury. Kevin Durant hadn't returned at that point, either, leaving Curry as the Warriors' best -- and, arguably, only -- offensive option. 

Curry was held off the scoresheet in that fourth quarter, and the two-time MVP didn't attempt a single shot. He called the defense "janky" after the Warriors' win to even the series, but the Raptors again used the box-and-1 in a Game 4 win and kept Curry occupied with multiple defenders all series. The Warriors' depleted roster didn't help matters, but the Raptors' containment of Curry -- along with Leonard's MVP performance -- allowed Toronto to win its first NBA title. 

[RELATED: Dubs' Toscano-Anderson visits pivotal stop on NBA journey]

Siakam's joke didn't come to fruition Sunday, and it might not have worked anyway. Leonard led Team LeBron to a 157-155 All-Star Game win under the new format, scoring a game-high 30 points and winning the first-ever Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP. 

The fourth quarter got pretty competitive Sunday, with the All-Stars playing to a set score -- "first to 157," just as you did growing up -- rather than counting down the clock. Raptors guard Kyle Lowry even took multiple charges! We'll have to wait until (at least) next year to see if that competitiveness extends to truly employing a Steph-stopping defense.