Warriors

No Part IV: NBA Finals come early with Warriors vs Celtics in November

No Part IV: NBA Finals come early with Warriors vs Celtics in November

Programming note: Warriors-Celtics coverage starts today at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area and streaming live right here

If it’s not already apparent the 2017 NBA Finals will not feature Warriors-Cavaliers IV, it should start coming into focus Thursday when the Warriors confront the team most likely to win the Eastern Conference.

That would be the Boston Celtics, who during their 13-game win streak are proving themselves ready to flip the script with which we’ve become so familiar.

With a single request to be traded out of Cleveland, Kyrie Irving changed all of that.

“It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday. “With their assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie is amazing. That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come.

“Whether their time is now or in the future, that’s to be determined. But they sure look like they want it to be right now.”

Irving and his All-Star act landed in Boston, joining forces with newly acquired free agent Gordon Hayward, also an All-Star. Those two moves, along with the physical realities invading LeBron James’ body, have changed the landscape and opened the door for the Celtics to reach The Finals for the first time since 2010.

And what a refreshing development that would be. Warriors-Celtics in June would have that new-car smell and also would be a closer series than one would think -- surely much, much, much more competitive than would be Warriors-Cavs IV.

Which is why Thursday night is so intriguing, even though Hayward is on the sideline, left ankle in a protective boot, with a likely season-ending injury.

Consider that no team in the league in recent seasons -- not the Cavs, the Spurs or the Grizzlies -- has played the Warriors tougher than Boston. They’ve split two games in each of the last two seasons, with the Celtics winning both games at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors routinely smash opponents.

And that was with Isaiah Thomas at the point instead of Irving, who has some Warriors skin on his wall.

Consider the work of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, particularly on defense. In eight games against Boston since Stevens arrived in 2013, the Warriors have yet to shoot 50 percent. Their high, 48.9, came last season when Al Horford and Jae Crowder were out of the lineup and it was the only time in the last four games the Warriors outshot the Celtics.

Boston, by the way, enters Thursday with the NBA’s top-rated defense, and with the four starters not named Irving wielding 7-foot wingspans. Horford has been spectacular at both ends, as have youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Consider that Horford, coming off an uneven first season in Boston, has been a beast at both ends -- by any metric, from real-plus minus to basic plus-minus to Player Efficiency Rating to 3-point shooting, where his 48.8 percent ranks 10th among all NBA players.

With Horford sidelined last Nov. 18, the Warriors dropped a 104-88 anvil on Boston. With him back for the rematch four months later -- and Kevin Durant out injured -- the Celtics came to Oakland and won by 13, holding the Warriors to 86 points.

Consider, finally, the presence of Irving. Though slightly hindered by wearing a plastic mask to protect his face as it heals from a fracture, he is coming into full bloom. He has the best handle in the league, All-Universe hubris and is discovering the benefits of playing actual defense. He has been fabulous even while shooting only 32.6 percent from deep, well below his career average.

The Cavaliers beat the Warriors twice last season and both times Irving was the difference. He went for 40 points, seven rebounds and four assists as Cleveland won Game 4 of the 2017 Finals to avoid a sweep. Last Christmas in Cleveland, he posted 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds -- and drilled the game-winning shot to punctuate a Cavs comeback.

Hmm, remember which Cavalier made the game-winning, series-ending shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals?

The Warriors respect the LeBron Monster, but they’ve never feared it. Even during the ’16 Finals, they knew they had answers for it. They have more answers now that LeBron’s NBA mileage is beyond every active player other than 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

It’s unreasonable to expect James, an incredible specimen, once again leading the NBA in minutes per game, to sustain greatness. And anything less leaves Cleveland vulnerable to Boston.

"They're really sound, and they're motivated," Kerr said of the Celtics. "It's a team that's been on the rise the last couple of years. They lost in the conference finals. They want to win a championship, and it looks like it. Even without Gordon Hayward and that awful injury, Boston is just crushing people. So, it's going to be really fun to go against them on Thursday. We know how tough it's going to be."

How anticlimactic would it be to have LeBron and the Cavs show up next June, gray at the temples and tender about the knees, trying to keep up with the Warriors?

So enjoy Warriors-Celtics. It’s the marquee game of the month, and quite probably your NBA Finals preview.

'Pissed off' Warriors confident they will respond with backs against the wall in Game 5

'Pissed off' Warriors confident they will respond with backs against the wall in Game 5

HOUSTON -- It was a single two-word phrase, flying off the tongue of Draymond Green. And it matters because no one on the roster is better than Green at accurately reading the thoughts and emotions of the Warriors.

Pissed off.

That’s how Green described the team’s reaction to experiencing and reviewing its deeply lamentable 95-92 loss in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Rockets.

If Green is on target, and he usually is, the Warriors won’t allow themselves to give away any more games, certainly not after building double-digit second-half leads against the team that presumably poses the greatest threat to their goal of repeating as NBA champs.

“We know we let one slip away,” Green said after an evening practice in Houston. “So definitely, guys are pissed off.

“But encouraged as well. I love the way this team responds when our back is against the wall. I don’t mind our backs being against the wall, because I know what we’re capable of and I know the level of focus and intensity that this team brings when that is the case.”

The Warriors are at their best when they curl their lips and furrow their brows and summon an exquisite blend of rage and intellect and remorselessness. With the resolve being displayed by Houston in this series, the Warriors are going to need all three of those components to get beyond the Rockets and make a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

This version of the Rockets is not like the previous versions, those emotionally fragile and defensively challenged squads the Warriors eliminated in five games in 2015 and again in 2016. These Rockets are showing backbone and a level of moxie not visible in a Houston team since Hakeem Olajuwon was laying waste to centers a quarter century ago.

These Rockets are not leaving the court unless the Warriors blow them off, as they did in Games 1 and 3.

The Warriors enjoyed crushing them both occasions, and both games demanded a statement. Game 1 was about establishing a hierarchy and proving they could win in Houston. Game 3 was about going back home and putting on a show.

Game 4 was about putting on a show . . . but fumbling the finale.

“When you don’t win, you play every possession back in your head,” Stephen Curry said. “You play the whole fourth quarter back to figure out ways that you could do something better to help the team get a win.

“It’s a frustrating feeling, obviously, but we’re great at turning the page and being resilient and finding a way to bounce back.”

The Warriors have played 14 postseason series under Steve Kerr and only twice have they been 2-2 after four games. Both times, in 2015, the recovered to win Games 5 and 6, first against Memphis in the conference semifinals and then against Cleveland in the NBA Finals.

This is the first time, though, that they have been locked in a 2-2 tie without homecourt advantage. It’s a new experience, an unfamiliar sensation, but one capable of bringing them together.

Common unrest can be a powerful force.

“Yeah, if use it in the right direction,” Kevin Durant said. “If you want to correct the mistakes, play a little bit more aggressive and angry, but smart, you can channel in the right direction.

“We know that this team is tough to beat, especially at home. So we’re looking forward to going out here and seeing if we can get it done. And we’re confident that we’ll go out there and play well.”

They’ve replayed Game 4 because it was too distasteful to ignore. They let it burn, and it hurts. Losing is supposed to be painful, and always is to the true competitor.

“Every single game that I coach,” Kerr said, “I look back at the tape and second-guess myself. But it’s exposed during the playoffs because the stakes are higher. I didn’t sleep very well (after Game 4). There were some things that I could have done a better. Our players feel the same way.”

So it should be a “pissed off” Warriors team that takes the floor Thursday night at Toyota Center. Game 4 is gone, but it serves as a painful reminder that winning at the highest levels requires ruthlessness, a useful by-product of anger.

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 Houston -- Thursday, May 24th at 6pm
Game 6 Oakland -- Saturday, May 26th at 6pm
Game 7 Houston -- Monday, May 28th at 6pm

Cavs on the brink of elimination after losing Game 5 to Celtics

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AP

Cavs on the brink of elimination after losing Game 5 to Celtics

BOX SCORE

BOSTON -- Rookie Jayson Tatum scored 24 points and Al Horford had 15 points and 12 rebounds to help the Boston Celtics beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-83 on Wednesday night and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics remained perfect in Boston this postseason with their 10th straight victory at home and moved within one win of their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010.

Game 6 is in Cleveland on Friday night, with the decisive seventh game back in Boston on Sunday if necessary. The home team has won every game so far in the series, and none has been closer than nine points.

"To do what we want to do we still have to beat this team one more time," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "And it's hard to do in the NBA."

LeBron James had 26 points and 10 rebounds and Kevin Love scored 14 for the Cavaliers, who are trying to reach the finals for the fourth consecutive season. James has played to the end in seven straight seasons.

"Our focus, LeBron's focus is to win," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. "That's the only thing that matters."

The Celtics opened a double-digit lead in the first quarter and nursed it the rest of the way, holding on through a four-minute scoring drought that saw Cleveland score nine straight points to cut the deficit to 83-71. But Terry Rozier hit Horford with an alley-oop to snap the skid, and that was as close as the Cavs would get.

James seemed to tire in the fourth, scoring just two points on four shots. He finished 1-for-6 from 3-point range in the game; the Cavaliers made just 9 of 34 attempts from beyond the arc and shot just 42 percent overall.

"He did look a little tired to me," Lue said. "No concerns. You've got to be ready to play now."

Jaylen Brown scored 17, and Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart each scored 13 as reserves. Tatum added seven rebounds, four assists and four steals one day after finishing one vote shy of a unanimous selection to the NBA's All-Rookie team.

"Everybody's anxious after you get beat," Stevens said. "But I think Jayson was especially anxious after Game 4."

Boston went on a 15-3 run in the first quarter to turn a three-point deficit into a nine-point lead. The Celtics scored nine in a row at the end of the first quarter and into the second to take a 36-19 lead, their biggest of the game.

That's when the Cavaliers fought back.

After a hard defensive play by Morris sent Larry Nance Jr. into the first row of seats, Morris appeared to wander over and say something. Nance to jump up and body checked him; Morris responded with a one-handed shove to the face.

Aron Baynes and Brown came in to break it up, and Terry Rozier put a body on Nance. After a review, the referees called technicals on Rozier, Nance and Morris. Kyle Korver made the foul shot to make it 36-20 and Cleveland went on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to eight points, 36-28.

But Morris made a long 3-pointer to stop the scoring drought, and soon hit another to cap an 8-2 run that made it a double-digit lead.

TIP-INS:
Teams that win Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven series win 83 percent of the time. ... James had 16 points, four rebounds and three assists at the half. Tatum had 13 points, and Horford had 10 points and seven boards at the break. ... Baynes made his first start of the series, subbing for Morris. ... It took until midway through the third quarter for a Cavs starter other than James or Love to make a basket. J.R. Smith sank a floater to make it 63-50, and George Hill followed with a jumper of his own. ... The Celtics were 10-0 in the playoffs at home in 1986.