Warriors

In the frenzy of who gets LeBron, Warriors stay unfazed

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USATSI

In the frenzy of who gets LeBron, Warriors stay unfazed

The Cleveland Cavaliers are still sweeping the shrapnel left behind by their roster explosion Thursday, and all around the National Basketball Association, jaws remain agape at the size, sweep and potential impact of their work.

Except, of course, in Oakland, where the Golden State Warriors remain blissfully untouched by the short- or probably even long-term effect.

In other words, they'll worry about a rebooted Los Angeles Lakers team or a reconfigured Houston Rockets lineup when they have to, and not before. After all, the illusion of LeBron James has won no NBA titles at all, which the actual himself has won plenty.

The specuguesses about James' ultimate location in 2018-19 have been as advertised -- and in that way, we mean borderline insane. The Lakers? Maybe, but only with Paul George or another name brand. The Rockets? General manager Daryl Morey would exhume Wilt Chamberlain if he thought it would help, especially now that the Rockets have a new high-roller owner (Tilman Fertitta) who likes the ripples of a big splash. The Sixers? The Sixers are the answer to every question if you squint hard enough.

And the Cavaliers? Well, whether James stays or not, it is hard to see them not beginning the long slow decline that three days ago looked like a full-on plummet.

But the Warriors, even in their current struggles, worry about nobody but themselves and their standard of play. Their turnovers are up, their defense is down, and still nobody can catch them. They remained quiet at the trade deadline for the fourth consecutive year, and the biggest thing they could get in the leftover bin/buyout market is 36-year-old Joe Johnson. None of their most important principals are 30, unless you count the slumping Andre Iguodala as one of those principals, so they are pretty much at their zenith athletically. They are relatively healthy (they are only missing backup sparkplug Jordan Bell), and their greatest vice seems to be an unshakeable belief in their ability to turn themselves on and off at will.

And though they are too polite to put it in these terms, they don't think anybody can beat them when the chips hit the middle of the table. Not this year to be sure, and probably not next year either.

And we say "probably" only because the James wildcard, while more limited than it once was, would create a different standings dynamic if he changed conferences, and only if he ended up in Houston. The Rockets as presently constructed are their toughest opponent, and a James/Harden/Paul troika would at least cause people to speculate about how the balance of power might have been nudged.

There is, though, one other possibility, and it would be hilarious. Boston. Not that there is any indication that the Celtics would want him, mind you, but the agonized look on Kyrie Irving's face would be almost incredibly gif-able. 

In sum, the James Sweepstakes does not yet touch the Warriors' plans for continued galactic domination, but it could. And "could" doesn't interest a team whose only true enemy is itself.

LeBron leads Cavs to Game 7 victory in Boston, another Finals berth

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USATSI

LeBron leads Cavs to Game 7 victory in Boston, another Finals berth

BOSTON -- With another Game 7 victory at stake, LeBron James would not miss. He would not sit out. And he would not be denied an eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

The four-time league MVP scored 35 points with 15 rebounds and nine assists on Sunday night, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 87-79 win over the Celtics and eliminating Boston from the Eastern Conference finals in the decisive seventh game.

In the first close game of the series - and the lowest-scoring - James played all 48 minutes and had 12 of his points in the fourth quarter for his sixth straight Game 7 win.

The NBA Finals begin Thursday at either Houston or Golden State. The Rockets host the seventh game of the West finals on Monday night.

Jayson Tatum scored 24, Al Horford scored 17 and Marcus Morris added 14 points with 12 rebounds for the Celtics, who were looking to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

Tatum had a dunk over James with 6:41 left - and stared down the Cavaliers star and bumped him with his chest - and then followed it with a 3-pointer that gave the Celtics a 72-71 lead. But that would be Boston's last basket for more than five minutes while Cleveland went on a 15-2 run to put the game away.

James and Horford embraced after the buzzer, then the Cavaliers donned NBA Finals hats and Eastern conference championship shirts before shuffling off the court to receive their trophy.

It's not the one they want.

James has been in the finals every year since 2011 - four with Miami, and now four straight with Cleveland.

This might be his weakest supporting cast year.

He had to do it without Kevin Love - Cleveland's only other all-star - who sustained a concussion in Game 6 and was replaced in the lineup by Jeff Green. Making his first start since the first-round opener against Indiana, Green scored 19 points and added eight rebounds - the star of James' starless supporting cast.

The Celtics have had more time to get used to their injuries: Gordon Hayward has been out since the first game of the season, and Kyrie Irving has been sidelined since March. With the rookie Tatum and second-year Jaylen Brown, Boston established itself as the team of the future in the East.

But the present still belongs to James.

And, for now, that means Cleveland, too.

ADMIRING HIS WORK

The Celtics led by as many as 12 points in the first half, and they had a 51-47 lead midway through the third quarter when James hit a long 3-pointer and then Green made a 3 of his own. James hit Tristan Thompson for an alley-oop to give Cleveland a 55-51 lead, but then James threw the ball away and sent Terry Rozier off on a fast break.

James tracked the Celtics guard from the far sideline, timing his attack. When Rozier went up for the lay-in, James blocked it off the backboard and right to Green. James did not run back down the court, resting up while Green drew a foul at the other end and made one free throw to give the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the game.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Shot just 2 of 17 from 3-point range in the first half, making three of their first 22 shots from long range before James and Green connected on back-to-back attempts midway through the third quarter.

Celtics: Paul Pierce, whose number was retired by the Celtics this season, cheered the team on from courtside. ... Rapper 21 Savage was also at the game. ... Boston was 7 for 39 from 3-point range, with Rozier missing all 10 of his attempts.

May the toughest team win Game 7 of Warriors-Rockets

May the toughest team win Game 7 of Warriors-Rockets

HOUSTON -- It’s now about toughness, both mental and physical, because Game 7s are not won by the timid.

“Everybody feels more nerves, for sure,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Sunday night, on the eve of Game 7 against the Rockets. “You wake up that morning, and it’s like, ‘This is it.’ This is the culmination of everything that’s happened the last couple weeks.”

Though the teams are tied 3-3 through six games of these Western Conference Finals, Houston generally has been the grittier team, the desire and even desperation visible on the faces of its players.

They’ve looked the part of the hungry challengers, personified by Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker, while the Warriors more often depict the regal champs, basketball royalty epitomized by Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

Which largely explains why the only two close games in this series both went to the Rockets. It’s not that they wanted it more. It’s that when things got tight they were more resistant to giving in. They showed an eagerness to spill their own blood. Win or lose, they’ve already proved they are serious about being taken seriously.

For the Warriors to advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season, they’ll have to flip that script when the teams meet on Monday -- especially if Paul is able to suit up and somehow be a factor.

The defending champs have to be the more determined, purposeful team. They’ll have to do it at Toyota Center, where the Rockets have won 41 of their last 50 games, counting the postseason.

And it would behoove the Warriors to do it early, eliminating the need for the kind of comeback allowed them to forge a victory in Game 6 at Oracle Arena.

“I know for us, we're going to come out there and be ready to play from the start of the game,” Kevin Durant said.

“I guarantee if we start the game out like we did (in Game 6) and they jump out to the lead, it's going to be 10 times harder to make it a game,” Curry said, referring to the 17-point deficit the Warriors faced entering the second quarter. “So, for us, that's our challenge to have the same mentality we had for the last 36 minutes of tonight and bring that from the jump in Game 7.”

The Warriors of last postseason often played with that feral intensity. The deeper the series, the meaner they became. Being remorseless from the opening tip is how they won 15 in a row before Game 4 of The Finals. Out for vindication after their stunning loss in the 2016 Finals -- the first team ever to go out on three-game losing streak -- the Warriors spent eight weeks on the attack.

That’s how they looked in the second half of Game 1, over the final 45 minutes of Game 3 and over the final 36 minutes of Game 6.

In most all other instances, the Warriors have looked skittish or scattered or oddly disconnected, never more than in Game 4, when they coughed up a 12-point lead over the final 11 minutes.

“We didn’t execute well in Games 4 and 5, down the stretch,” Kerr said. “I give Houston a lot of credit; their defense was great. We just didn’t find a rhythm in either of those games, but particularly down the stretch.

“We’ve had to talk about that as a staff and think about what we would do differently, and we’ve got plans for that.”

Part of the plan, according to Kerr, is to limit turnovers, particularly the kind of unforced gifts mentally tough teams don’t hand out.

“The team that has won the turnover battle has won every game,” Kerr pointed out. “When we’re locked in and we take care of the ball, then we have a great chance of catching fire, like we did (in Game 6). So we’ve got to be dialed in.”

The team “dialed in” is another way of saying focused and fully engaged. Connected on defense, rhythmic on offense.

That’s a start.

It might be enough, as the Rockets without Paul definitely are a more fragile group. James Harden is going to win the MVP award, but he tends to do his best work when there is considerable room for error.

“It's what you play for, to be in a situation where you're one win away from going to The Finals,” Curry said. “It’s pressure both ways because of how big the moment is, and you've got to want it.”

Wanting to win a Game 7 is admirable, but leaves room for disappointment. The Warriors will need to be more emphatic than that, for Game 7s have to be taken.

Game Result/Schedule
Game 1 Warriors 119, Rockets 106
Game 2 Rockets 127, Warriors 105
Game 3 Warriors 126, Rockets 85
Game 4 Rockets 95, Warriors 92
Game 5 Rockets 98, Warriors 94
Game 6 Warriors 115, Rockets 86
Game 7 Houston -- Monday, May 28th at 6pm