Philadelphia 76ers enter offseason at a critical crossroads

Philadelphia 76ers enter offseason at a critical crossroads

And so the most fascinating offseason in the NBA begins.

The Philadelphia 76ers lost Game 7 in Toronto in heartbreaking fashion, falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season, this time by the hand of Kawhi Leonard. With 4.2 seconds left, after evading Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Leonard hit a fall-away go-ahead jumper from the corner that brought tears to Embiid’s eyes and the Sixers’ season to an abrupt close.

Embiid was emotional for good reason. The Sixers put up a much better fight in this series compared to their five-game loss to the Boston Celtics last year. These Raptors are a much stronger team than last year’s Celtics, and still, Philly extended it to the very last possible second.

It’s a cold, harsh ending that perhaps only the steely Leonard could bring. And now, the next chapter begins. With seven of the Sixers’ top nine players able to be free agents this summer, including Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick, this figures to be an explosive summer in the City of Brotherly Love.

Let’s go through the three big questions surrounding this franchise.

1. What happens to Brett Brown?

By NBA coaching standards, Brett Brown is an elder statesman. Only six coaches have longer tenures with their team than the Sixers’ coach. Among them, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle have won championships with their their respective clubs; they’ll coach their teams as long as they please. Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens and Doc Rivers are the others, and they have only missed the playoffs once each in their six-plus years with their clubs.

And then there’s Brown, who hasn’t had nearly the same success as the six ahead of him. Part of that was by design. Hired by a different decision-maker than the current one to oversee one of the biggest teardowns in NBA history, Brown accelerated the playoff timeline by getting the Sixers to the playoffs in Simmons’ rookie season in 2017-18. But even still, Brown might be the first domino to fall after the Game 7 loss to the Raptors, a team that also shouldered enormous expectations going into these playoffs.

It’d be extremely hasty to evaluate Brown’s capabilities over one Game 7, but there’s been plenty of smoke surrounding Brown’s position and no one has extinguished it. Owner Josh Harris, speaking at the MIT Sloan Conference in early March, made headlines by saying it’d be “very problematic” if the Sixers lost to Boston in the opening round of the playoffs. He later told ESPN, “we have enough talent on our roster that if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat any team in the East.”

It’s not hard to read between the lines there. Brown’s job security seemed even more tenuous after Harris and general manager Elton Brand held an impromptu press conference before Game 1 of the first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. Harris wouldn’t commit to Brown beyond the season in that surprise session. When asked if Brown would keep his job no matter the outcome of the playoffs, Harris credited Brown for “a tremendous job” after two 50-win seasons and then later summed it up by saying, “right now, we’re supportive of Brett.”

Executives around the league have been surprised by the lack of external support Brown has received from the organization -- most alarming is Brand’s silence on the matter. Said one long-time executive: “Elton could have killed all that talk and hasn’t.”

It’s reasonable to wonder if Brand has that kind of power at all. It took the Sixers three months to decide that Brand was the right replacement for Bryan Colangelo after his resignation in June 2018 amid a social media scandal. Brand had just been named the vice president of basketball operations and ran the G League affiliate Delaware Blue Coats before being hired to run the big-league club.

Brand was chosen, in part, because he would be a collaborative decision-maker whose relative inexperience (he was playing for Brown in 2015-16) would lead to stronger partnerships in the organization. In other words, Brand wouldn’t have full autonomy. League sources have long suspected that if Harris feels disappointed this postseason, organizational changes may be in order, going deeper than just the head coach.

It’s been a confusing power structure ever since Colangelo stepped down. Remember, it was Brown who was the interim GM in Colangelo’s place and was heavily involved in the hiring process that led to Brand becoming the full-time leader. Some around the league saw it as a cost-effective placeholder move that would be, as one executive described it, “easier if you have to do a total reset.” From that perspective, the question is not whether Brown is let go, but if Brand’s job may be in jeopardy, too.

Said one source with knowledge of the situation: “I think there’s a chance it’s wholesale changes top to bottom. It’s a strange situation.”

In that pre-playoff press conference, Harris did call for Brand to be voted as the NBA’s Executive of the Year, which is notable considering the non-committal he gave for Brown.

But the real question is whether Brown is the right person for the job. Yes, the Sixers didn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s hard to blame Brown for that unless you want to accuse him of infecting Embiid with multiple illnesses. Really, Embiid’s gastroenteritis and upper respiratory issues, which clearly limited him and his minutes in this series, are what separates the Sixers from this exit and reaching the conference finals. The Sixers were plus-90 in the 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor this series and minus-109 in the 99 minutes he sat.

Against Brooklyn, maybe the Sixers survive their best player getting what amounts to the flu. But Leonard and the Raptors are too good to not capitalize on Embiid needing overnight IVs. The Sixers were expected to improve the depth of the roster with buyout candidates, but the front office didn’t land any significant pieces this season like it had with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in ’17-18.

Though Brown wasn’t handpicked by this front office, he deserves another shot next season. The Sixers remade the roster twice midseason on the fly. The starting lineup -- without a preseason or training camp -- ended up being the most effective starting five outside of Golden State. Maybe the organization determines he’s not the right person to lead the next phase. But give any coach the cards he was dealt, and I’m not sure they do any better.

Even if Harris believes Brown did a fine job, he may want a different voice than Brown to lead the team in this next chapter. Toronto did that last year, and look at where it got them. Like Dwane Casey, Brown wouldn’t be without a job long if that’s the direction Philly goes.

2. Will Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris be back?

Though Josh Harris hasn’t extended a strong vote of confidence toward Brown, the owner has made it clear: He wants Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris back. At every turn, he’s all but said he will offer max contracts to both of them.

Harris will be an unrestricted free agent and figures to be a max guy in this seller’s market. Sources around the league expect Brooklyn, Dallas and New York to be in line for his services if he decides he wants out of Philadelphia. Like Butler, Harris is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million contract with the team. Outside suitors can only offer him, and Butler, a four-year contract for less annual money.

It’ll be costly, especially in 2020-21 when Simmons’ expected max-level extension kicks in. Keeping Butler, Simmons, Harris and Embiid will cost about $130 million that season, when the salary cap is projected to be at $118 million. That’s the cost of keeping four All-Star players in their prime.

Butler, who will be 30 years old next training camp,  won’t be in his prime for long. How quickly he ages will determine how prudent offering a max contract will look. But right now, he deserves it. Depending on who you ask around the league, Butler is a top 10-to-20 player in today’s NBA, excelling on both ends of the floor. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric placed Butler as the 18th-most impactful player in the league this season and one of just three wing players who registered at least 2.0 RPM rating on offensive and defense (Paul George and Pascal Siakam were the others).

Butler didn’t pick his trade destination and may have his sights set on brighter stages in Los Angeles and New York. But Philadelphia offers him a chance to be, as Brown reminds every other game, “the adult in the room” while not having to play 40 minutes a night. He can age gracefully next to Simmons and Embiid rather than having to play the alpha gunner role that can grind a body to a pulp. It’s not my money, but I’d be confident in paying up for the Philly Phive going forward.

Yes, there’s considerable risk in giving Butler a five-year max. He has played more than 67 games in just two of his eight seasons in the NBA. Those seasons have been riddled by injuries that may or may not be related to the fact that no player has averaged more minutes per game than Butler since he became a full-time starter in Chicago in 2013-14. That’s a lot of mileage on those tires.

But the Sixers have taken matters into their own hands, slicing his minutes down to 33.4 minutes per game, considerably lower than it was in Minnesota before the trade (36.1) and last season (36.7). The Sixers are certainly not playing him like a rental. They have the long-term in mind. With Chris Paul, John Wall, Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin all making more than $30 million in each of the next two seasons, Butler’s contract would hardly be untradeable if he drops off.

As for Harris, it’s a myth that max players have to be No. 1 options on a championship-caliber team. What is true is that every championship team needs three or four max guys on its roster. Harris’ skill set as a big pick-and-roll scorer and an elite shooter is befitting of that role, even if his percentages dipped in the short 39-game stint with Philly. He’s better than he showed in the playoffs. At 26 years old, Harris has improved his scoring average in each of the last four seasons and still has room for improvement.

If the starting five hadn’t been so successful this season, I’d save the money and move on. But with it already being a top five-man unit despite Simmons’ age and no training camp, it’s worth paying well into the luxury tax.

3. Is Ben Simmons still a franchise pillar?

Simmons is one of the best young players in the NBA. He’s an All-Star at 22 years old, capable of one day being the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and already a nightly triple-double threat.

It’s also true that he took zero shots outside of 12 feet this entire postseason, per Basketball-Reference. He took eight such shots last postseason. It’s not that he doesn’t have a reliable jump shot. It’s so raw that he hasn’t had the confidence to even try on the playoff stage.

For some league executives across in the NBA, this is not just a flaw in his game; it’s a sign that he isn’t serious about improvement. This was the one thing that he had to work on this past summer, the one skill he lacked in the sport. How can someone be so talented and yet so limited in this vital area of the game?

Well, he’s 22 years old and already one of the best players in the game. Fair or not, Simmons failing to add some semblance of a jump shot in Year 2 of his career is seen as a reason that Philadelphia has to put him on the trade block. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking by rival executives. There has been no indication from the Philly side that Simmons is being floated or will be this summer.

It’s early in that process. Leonard’s shot just fell through the net. But one Western Conference executive brought up a name that could be a Simmons trade target: LeBron James.

“I think they very well might explore that,” said a rival executive of Philadelphia.

James doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but he shares the same Klutch Sports agent with Ben Simmons in Rich Paul. James has two seasons left on his deal before he can become a free agent. After a disastrous offseason in which their president of basketball operations abruptly resigned and they struck out on their top two head coaching targets in Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue, do the Los Angeles Lakers honestly believe they can put together a championship contender in the next two seasons?

If the answer is no, trading James has to be on the table. And if you’re going to do that, there’s a short list of players that would be worthy of being traded for the King. Simmons is certainly good enough to be on it.

A Simmons-James swap becomes tricky because Simmons makes $8.1 million next season, before his rookie extension kicks in beginning in 2020-21 (he will be eligible for extension this summer). Because of that comparatively low salary, Simmons will have to be packaged with another max-level player, or near it, to match James’ huge $37.1 million salary for 2020-21. The Sixers could ink Harris to a sign-and-trade, but not for the five-year max. The new collective bargaining agreement removed that option from the toolkit. Harris would only agree to that if the Lakers were over the cap, which they’re not currently, and Harris desperately wanted to go there. The same goes for Butler in a potential blockbuster trade. Again, this is tricky.

There’s another wrinkle to this: Ty Lue turned down the Lakers job for a reason. He felt he could get a better job elsewhere. He’s holding out for something. Could that job be Philly? It’s not available at the moment. But there’s more than just a little chatter about the Sixers and the Lakers being potential trade partners this summer. Crazier things have happened in this league than Lue and James on a Sixers sideline next to Embiid.

Several executives see a major shakeup in Philadelphia this summer. Harris has already signed off on two blockbuster moves in the past seven months and a third blockbuster if you count trading former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. Is another on the way? Many around the league believe so. Said one long-time executive: “Harris won’t be able to resist.”

The safe money is that the Sixers brings the Philadelphia Phive back for redemption. The opinion here is that Simmons is too good and too young to bail on now. We just saw Portland break into the Western Conference Finals with their same core after two humiliating postseasons.

But then again, Toronto traded their beloved star in DeMar DeRozan this past summer and look where it got them. Which way will Philly go? There may be no bigger question in the NBA this summer.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

2019 NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Pelicans, Tanking for the W; Bulls, Knicks take an L

2019 NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Pelicans, Tanking for the W; Bulls, Knicks take an L

And there you have it. The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, the most bizarre ritual in the four major American sports, has taken place and the New Orleans Pelicans have won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

But that’s not the only ramification from Tuesday night’s ping-pong grab. The entire NBA landscape shifted when the Pels came out on top. 

Here are the winners and losers from draft lottery night in Chicago:

WINNERS

New Orleans Pelicans

In early February, former Cavs general manager David Griffin tweeted that the Pelicans should drive a hard bargain in trade talks for Anthony Davis because the Pelicans, in Davis, “have a Top 3 most attractive trade asset in the league.” At the time, Griffin was an NBATV analyst and SiriusXM host, and was responding to an ESPN report that the Lakers had upped their offer to the Pelicans.

I bring this up because Griffin is now the decision-maker for the Pelicans and might have an even bigger asset on his hands. In addition to inheriting Davis, Griffin won the right to select uber-prospect Zion Williamson. Before Tuesday’s lottery prize went to the Pelicans, I asked another general manager how valuable drafting Williamson is for an NBA franchise. 

His response: “A top five asset from Day 1.” 

So, in a hypothetical world, if he was a free agent, he’d get the max, right? 

“Yes,” the GM told me. “Way, way more than the max … if allowed.”

In just two months, Griffin managed to land in a position where he controls two of the most prized assets in the NBA. Davis, as Griffin outlined, is one of the best players in the world and is just entering his prime. While Williamson isn’t at that level, the value on him is mind-boggling.

In addition to potentially being a better prospect than Davis was when he entered the league (as outlined on this week’s Big Number!), Williamson will be playing on a contract that can pay him $9.7 million next season, just about Matthew Dellavedova’s salary. For the next three seasons, Williamson is is set to make $30.4 million total, which is basically the same as Toronto bench wing Norman Powell’s contract. Considering the buzz, the eyeballs and the marketing value he brings to New Orleans, Williamson will be an absolute steal before he steps on the floor.

But will Davis ever step on the floor with Williamson as teammates? Executives around the league are skeptical. It may be hard for outsiders to understand, but established stars aren’t always thrilled at the prospect of co-starring with a rookie phenom. Not only is it not overly appealing to share the spotlight with a teenager, but they want to win now.

Griffin knows this first-hand. Shortly after Cleveland won the lottery in 2014, Griffin and the Cavs’ front office traded No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Why? LeBron James, who had just signed in Cleveland, wanted to win now.

In this case, the situation is flipped. Executives around the league expect the superstar veteran in Davis to be traded before next season, not No. 1 overall pick. The safe bet is that Davis won’t play a game with Williamson. 

Like the Wiggins situation with James, it’s not ideal that Davis and Williamson play the same position; again, stars typically aren’t fans of splitting roles. If Williamson was a star point guard or wing, maybe Davis thinks twice about his trade demand. But it’s unlikely that Williamson’s starpower and positional overlap will make Davis change his tune and want to sign a supermax extension in New Orleans. If anything, it might hurt the Pelicans’ chances of keeping Davis.

For the record, I love the idea of Williamson and Davis playing together. Williamson is a bruising big man with a high motor and can do just about anything on the floor athletically and skill-wise. Davis is similarly skilled but with longer limbs and a smoother touch. While at Duke, Williamson shot 44 percent on 3.3 3-point attempts per game in conference and tournament play. Put those two guys together and they could terrorize the league.

I just wouldn’t bank on it happening. So where will Davis end up, if not New Orleans? It’s too early to say. A lot depends on what happens with the rest of the playoffs. If the Warriors win the title, does Kevin Durant stay? And what does that do for Kyrie Irving? If the Toronto Raptors reach the NBA Finals, does that change Kawhi Leonard’s thinking? 

Don’t count out Boston. Their Memphis pick rolled over to 2020 and is top-six protected, but becomes fully unprotected in 2021 if it rolls over again. That pick became extra tasty on Tuesday night because the Grizzlies may be more motivated to trade Mike Conley and make room for expected No. 2 pick Ja Morant. In other words, an unprotected 2021 pick could be headed Boston’s way … or whomever they want to trade it to.

Would the Celtics trade Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for Davis if it knew they could pair him with Kyrie Irving? Would New Orleans bite if the Memphis pick isn’t tossed in? After Irving’s disappointing finish to the season, would Boston fans revolt or rejoice at the prospect of an Irving-Davis pairing?

The Knicks remain an intriguing suitor for Davis, despite not winning the lottery. Would the Knicks’ No. 3 pick in 2019, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and the Dallas 2021 first-rounder get it done? The Pelicans would likely want an established young player with star potential. Knox has a long way to go before he’s considered that, but Robinson is intriguing and wildly productive.

Another team to watch is the L.A. Clippers. With the Miami 2021 unprotected pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell in tow, the Clippers are a real contender for Davis’ services. Remember, teams in glamour markets are more likely to fork over appetizing assets for Davis because they have an inside track to signing him long term. The Clippers have generated a lot of buzz around the league. Wouldn’t that be something if the Pelicans traded Davis to the other L.A. team? Oh, this is going to be a fun summer.

Los Angeles Lakers

Be honest: you thought about LeBron and Zion in purple and gold, didn’t you? That was quite the commercial break on Tuesday night heading into the final reveal. The most important thing about this pick might be its impact on potential Davis talks.

The Lakers may think they have the missing piece after jumping up to the No. 4 pick in the draft on Tuesday. But from what I’m told, the Pelicans’ brass still feels icy toward the Lakers after what went down last season. And more importantly, holding the No. 4 pick in a two-, maybe three-player draft is not some golden ticket. If this was 2003 and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were sitting there, it would be a different story. But this isn’t the draft to be in the No. 4 slot. Still, it’s a huge win for the Lakers to jump from No. 11 all the way to the top-four, the biggest leap of the night by sheer distance.

Memphis Grizzlies

I love Morant for the Grizzlies. He’s a sensational talent that would be a worthy No. 1 prospect in a non-Zion draft. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., is a tremendous building block for a franchise. Now, they just have to figure out who will be the head coach to lead that tandem.

There’s also the Conley factor. I expected the Indiana Pacers to get in on Conley last year at the deadline, but I still think they could be suitors for the former Mr. Indiana Basketball. The Pacers will have loads of cap space this summer and will have the ability to absorb his contract. If not Indiana, keep an eye on Detroit and Utah, two other teams that may be looking to make a splash after first-round exits this postseason.

The Sneaky Tankers

There's a lot of talk out there that Tuesday's lottery results have effectively killed tanking. Team sources say such talk is premature. If anything, Tuesday confirmed what I wrote back in January: There's going to be tanking, just not at the very bottom. When the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, I said that the Pelicans could really get Williamson, but only if they were serious about tanking to get from the 11th spot down to the sixth spot. Right around there is the sweet spot, where odds of getting the No. 1 pick had just about doubled from the previous system.
 
The team didn't shut down Davis outright. That would be a blatant violation of league rules. But the New Orleans star sat the bench for 77 percent of the team's minutes after that post on Jan. 31, thanks mostly to some timely load management (he didn't play a single fourth quarter after the All-Star break) and late-season "back spasms" that caused the team to list the disgruntled big man as "probable" for each of the team's final seven games; he didn't play in any of them. I'm sure the betting markets loved that.
 
With Jrue Holiday (abdominal surgery) and Davis effectively out since early March, the Pelicans went 3-13 in their final 16 games and earned the No. 7 slot in the draft lottery. That late-season slide tripled their odds of getting the No. 1 pick and tripled their odds of landing in the top four spots. Memphis, who landed the coveted No. 2 overall pick from the eighth slot, sat its star Mike Conley for the final six games with an ankle sprain and started a glorified G League team down the stretch. The Lakers, who jumped from the 11th slot to the fourth pick, shut down LeBron on March 30 once the playoffs were out of reach.
 
To recap, the teams that jumped in the lottery -- Memphis, New Orleans and the Lakers -- didn't play their stars in April and ended up with big rewards. If the league doesn't want teams to rest its stars at the end of the season, Tuesday's draft lottery results did nothing to dissuade them.

LOSERS 

Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns

Hey, you got John Beilein and Monty Williams. That’s … not nothing.

New York Knicks

The Knicks held the top odds to land the top pick of the NBA draft, but as I pointed out on Twitter, 14 percent is not a lot when you consider that it’s … the same percentage as Ben Wallace’s career 3-point rate. Putting it that way, it’s a wonder Knicks fans got their hopes up at all. 

The Knicks could have had it much, much worse. You could be Cleveland or Phoenix. Landing at No. 3 isn’t a horrible outcome if you’re an R.J. Barrett fan (I’m not). As I mentioned up top, falling to No. 3 likely won’t preclude them from getting into the AD sweepstakes this summer. If that pick dropped to No. 4 or No. 5, that might be a deal-breaker. That’s how top-heavy this draft class is. 

Big picture, nothing that happened on Tuesday night hurt their chances of getting a top free agent or two this summer. That’s something to rest your flat-brimmed hat on.

Chicago Bulls

Well, that’s unfortunate. The Bulls had dreams of landing No. 1 overall just like they did in 2008 when they turned a 1.7 percent chance into Derrick Rose. Instead, they fell to No. 7. Again, it could be worse. You could be the Cavs and the Suns.

A lost season for the Bulls didn’t lead to the reward that many would have liked. You have three ways to build a contender in this league: Through the draft, through free agency or through the trade market. The Bulls may be striking out in the first two, but they did get Otto Porter Jr., last February, and he showed out in the 15 games he was in uniform. Not all is lost. 

With their hole at point guard, there might be some motivation to target someone like Coby White to fill a need. But this far down the draft, there’s no sense in drafting for position. Just pick the best player available. For them, I really like Brandon Clarke out of Gonzaga. He fits head coach Jim Boylen’s defensive-minded system and has the maturity to step in right away.

Washington Wizards

A list for bummed-out Wizards fans: Dirk Nowitzki. Tracy McGrady. Shawn Marion. Kemba Walker. Amar’e Stoudemire. Gordon Hayward. DeMar DeRozan. Andre Iguodala. Andre Drummond. Joakim Noah. All former No. 9 overall picks.

The Wizards should be targeting a high-upside player like Bol Bol or Kevin Porter Jr., here. Evidenced by the names above, this is the sweet spot for top-five talents that have question marks related to NBA-ready skills and immaturity. 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Underdog Warriors regain respect in Game 6 victory

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USA Today

Underdog Warriors regain respect in Game 6 victory

HOUSTON -- Steve Kerr benched his two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, in the biggest game of the Warriors’ three-peat quest, a Game 6 on the road against a Houston Rockets team starving for redemption.

Curry was not the least bit happy about Kerr’s decision and didn’t hide it during a timeout at the 7:12 mark in the first quarter after picking up his second foul.

Curry stormed into the coaches’ huddle and got in his coach’s face, pleading for him to reverse his decision to put backup Quinn Cook into the game.

“Come on, Coach,” Curry said. “It’s Game 6. I gotta be out there.”

Kerr looked him in the eye and didn’t hold back.

“Steph,” Kerr told him, as he relayed to NBCSports.com after the game. “You just fouled James Harden on a jump shot. You’re going to do it again. And you’re going to get your third foul, so you’re not going to play the rest of the quarter.”

It might have been hard to understand then, but this was all about respect -- for Curry and for his teammates. Since Kerr took over as head coach in 2014, the franchise’s motto became “Strength In Numbers” -- a rallying cry emphasizing the team above the individual. It’s a message that Kerr had come back to repeatedly after Durant got injured at the end of Game 5. Everyone on the roster had to stay ready.

But Kerr had seen the numbers, too, and kept thinking about this statistical fact: Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Warriors were 30-4 in games in which Durant sat but Curry played. He reminded himself of those numbers in that timeout. As long as they kept Curry available for the second half, they’d have a chance. Thirty and four.

“How can I trust you,” Curry recalled Kerr telling him, “to not get your third foul, when you know how big this game is right now and you put yourself in this predicament?”

Curry stood down and reluctantly took his seat on the bench. He respected it.

“He keeps it real,” Curry said after the game. “Obviously, I didn’t like [his decision]. But we have a strong relationship where I’m not going to lose confidence in that moment. That’s built over time.”

Respect is earned in this league, not given. The Warriors earned it across the league by winning the 2015 NBA Finals with homegrown talent, defeating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the peak of his powers.

But that respect turned into something else over the last few years: Some parts jealousy, some parts bitterness, some parts contempt. In an April 2016 profile by New York Magazine, Warriors principal owner Joe Lacob declared, “We’re light years ahead of everybody.” When they lost the 2016 Finals, any sort of glee around the league was short-lived once Durant came to the rescue. They won back-to-back championships, and that was before DeMarcus Cousins hopped aboard. It’s not a stretch to say that the Warriors lost their initial identity and some respect along the way.

But when Curry sat in the first quarter Friday night, there was no Durant to step in. It was Quinn Cook, an undrafted free agent who was waived by four teams before he got to the Warriors in 2017.

Later in the quarter, when Andrew Bogut hit the bench, Cousins didn’t replace him. It was Kevon Looney, a player that every team passed on in the 2015 draft before the Warriors picked him 30th overall.

When 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala left the game at the 3:16 mark, another undrafted free agent stepped onto the floor in Alonzo McKinnie. Jordan Bell, a second-round pick in 2017, would later replace Draymond Green.

At the end of the first quarter, Klay Thompson wasn’t surrounded by four All-NBA players like he was at the start of the playoffs. Instead, it was two undrafted free agents, a second-rounder and the last pick of the first round—every one of them signed for the veteran’s minimum. This wasn’t the Warriors team that Cousins called the most hated team in all of sports. Suddenly, these were underdogs, heavy underdogs. Before the game, betting markets favored the Rockets over the Warriors by seven points.

To make matters worse, Curry had probably his worst half of playoff basketball. He had never gone scoreless for an entire half in a playoff game. But Kerr’s respect for Curry, his confidence in his point guard, never wavered.

“Every time something like this happens, we all look at each other and say, ‘He’s still going to get 30 and hit the biggest shot and win the game,’” Kerr said. “Like, that’s who he is. He makes some plays that you just can’t even believe … good and bad.”

Oh, yes, there was bad Steph in this game. The foul on Harden to pick up his second of the game was entirely avoidable, but Curry impeded Harden’s landing zone on a 3-point shot and got himself in foul trouble in a game he absolutely couldn’t get himself into foul trouble. Then, he carelessly bulldozed through P.J. Tucker in the lane and picked up his third foul with 5:44 left in the second quarter.

Curry hit the bench again, finishing the first half with 0-for-5 from the floor and more fouls (three) than combined points and assists (two).

“I was pretty, pretty terrible,” Curry said. “The only thing I did well was not turn the ball over in the 12 minutes I was out there.”

(He actually did. The charge.)

Instead of folding underneath the weight of Durant and Cousins’ injuries and early foul trouble that burdened Curry and Green, the Warriors’ unheralded supporting cast hung with the Rockets, earning a 57-57 tie at halftime. Kerr sat his stars longer than they wished and trusted the bench more than he had in weeks.

Once the second half started, the Warriors were unleashed. Curry made his first shot -- a 27-foot 3-pointer assisted by Green -- at the 9:49 mark of the third quarter. That started a Splash Brothers waterfall that seemed almost inevitable. Curry dazzled his way to 33 points after the break, while he and Thompson finished off the Rockets by scoring the Warriors’ final 19 points.

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “NEVER underestimate the heart of a champion.” Dwyane Wade, a three-time champion himself, typed out these words to Twitter: “Y’all better stop disrespecting @StephenCurry30 just because he’s a team first guy and is willing to sacrifice in moments doesn’t mean he’s not still a beast.”

Underestimated. Disrespected. Did Curry feel that way coming into Game 6 without Durant?

“I’ve heard a lot of noise in this series for sure; I’ll leave it at that,” Curry said. “Obviously I appreciate those words (from James and Wade). Champions recognize champions and what it takes to win games like tonight and do what we’ve been able to do these last five years. Hopefully more of that to come.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. The Warriors didn’t win the title on Friday night, but there was no shortage of celebration after the game. When the buzzer sounded, Thompson ran around in a frenzy hugging everyone in sight. Some team executives, some random bystanders.

Lacob sprinted toward Kerr, grabbed his shoulders and screamed “Brilliant! Brilliant!” in his ear and then hugged him. Curry found his father Dell and hugged him. Then, Steph found his mother Sonya and noticeably hugged her for a few beats longer. Sunday was Mother’s Day, and he’d now have the opportunity to spend it with her and his wife rather than playing in a Game 7 on the same day as his brother Seth, who will face the Denver Nuggets.

There was something else in the air on Friday night. Relief, sure. But it felt more like respect had been refilled, like the Warriors had regained something they lost. One rival general manager who watched the game described the Warriors’ performance over text as “so, so good. Fun to watch them rely on movement when Durant is out.”

There’s no loss of respect for Durant in the Warriors’ locker room. After the game, Thompson called Durant “one of the greatest players to ever play, the best scorer in the world.” He went on, “If we want this three-peat, we desperately need him back. He’s our best player. We dearly miss him. We’ll hold it down without him. It’s not the same without him.” Curry, later on SportsCenter, echoed that sentiment, calling Durant “the best player in the league” unprompted.

While the Warriors wait for Durant to rejoin their three-peat quest, the Rockets, and their stars, search for answers yet again. Harden, for the fourth time in five years, exits the playoffs at the hands of the Warriors despite a potential second straight regular-season MVP season. Chris Paul, who so desperately sought validation after last year’s ill-timed hamstring injury, remained healthy for the entire postseason and finished Friday with his best game of the postseason: 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

He wanted this one badly. This is a guy who, before Game 6 last year at Oracle Arena, needed to leave the court because he was hyperventilating -- a revelation he made on a recent episode of The JJ Redick Podcast.

“I was close to throwing up or damn-near pass out,” Paul said. “I was so nervous and so anxious. And I never feel that when I play, but it was the simple fact that I had no control over what was about to happen.”

There were opportunities for Paul and the rest of the Rockets to take control of Friday’s game and turn the series. It’s hard to imagine them getting dealt a stronger set of cards. Curry sat for long stretches with foul trouble. So did Green. But Harden uncharacteristically missed five of his 12 free throws, the first time he missed that many at the line in a playoff game since 2013. Eric Gordon only took two 3-pointers and never got to the free-throw line.

Internally, there were some in the Rockets organization that felt that this was a better opportunity to take down the Warriors than last year, even though they were the No. 1 seed in 2018. This year’s Warriors team seemed disjointed after a first-round series with the L.A. Clippers and belabored with the cumulative fatigue that comes after four straight Finals runs. But still, the Rockets squandered that opportunity in Game 6.

Maybe Durant leaves the Warriors this summer and levels out the playing field out West a bit. But how can the Rockets feel any better about taking down the Warriors after losing to this Durant-less team in a must-win at home? Paul will be 35 years old this time next year, and Clint Capela didn’t take the step forward many expected this postseason. With a bloated payroll, it seems the Rockets have no choice but to run it back next season and hope they break through like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ swagger of old returned on Friday night. For the first time in a long time, it seemed respect was earned around the league again, a reminder of what this team is capable of -- with Durant and Cousins or without them. But to get respect from others, the Warriors first had to trust each other -- the coaching staff and players.

“It’s just a great vibe,” Curry said. “They bring the best out of us. That’s why we are who we are.”

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