No. 1: Fourth-quarter issues sting Warriors again -- The Golden State Warriors offense -- with or without Kevin Durant in the lineup -- is a force to be reckoned with. Yet even their stunning scoring ability has its weaknesses, which, of late has been found as the game wears on. Last night's loss to the visiting Boston Celtics was no different from the recent trend, writes Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle, as Golden State sputtered to the finish line:
With Kevin Durant watching from the locker room, the Warriors again were undone by fourth-quarter issues. They piled up nearly as many turnovers (eight) in those final 12 minutes as points (12) and shot 5-for-14 from the field. A 15-0 Boston run in three minutes, 18 seconds, midway through the period paved the way for Golden State’s third defeat in five games.
It all raises the question of just how vulnerable the Warriors are sans Durant. With the eight-time NBA All-Star sidelined at least another three weeks by a left knee injury, Golden State limps into a back-to-back set in Minnesota and San Antonio with a 1½-game lead over the Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference. San Antonio, which overcame a 28-point, first-half deficit Wednesday without Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge to beat the Kings, gets the tiebreaker if it wins one of its two remaining games against the Warriors.
“We still have the No. 1 seed, but I won’t run guys ragged to get it,” Kerr said. “We have to manage this stretch right here and get through this week.”
They had overcome off shooting from beyond the arc to seize a 74-72 lead. In their fifth straight game without Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson had combined for 47 points.
Then, after a Draymond Green dunk put Golden State up 79-78 with 7:18 left, old problems — stagnant offense, lackadaisical offensive rebounding, slopping passing — resurfaced. A Curry-Clark-Iguodala-McCaw-McAdoo lineup coughed up turnovers and allowed open driving lanes. By the time Thomas hit a three-pointer with four minutes remaining, Boston had a 93-79 lead.
It was just the latest fourth-quarter collapse for a Warriors team prone to such issues. Golden State has outscored teams by a combined 767 points in the first three quarters this season. In the final 12 minutes, it has been outscored by three.
“We only scored 12 points in the fourth quarter,” Thompson said. “That’s not going to do it.”
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No. 2: Smith returns to practice, is questionable tonight -- Andrew Bogut's time with the Cleveland Cavaliers lasted just 58 seconds before he broke his left tibia. His season is over after treatment for the injury and he will reportedly soon be waived soon by the Cavs. That downer of a news item was lightened a bit yesterday when J.R. Smith, who was out with a right thumb injury, returned to practice. According to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, Smith is questionable for tonight's game in Detroit (7:30 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS):
J.R. Smith returned to the practice floor on Wednesday afternoon, being cleared for full activity.
"It feels good," Smith said before hopping on a plane for Detroit. "I finally got my first practice in, full practice, so it feels good."
Smith, who has been sidelined since Dec. 20 with a fractured right thumb, is listed as questionable for Thursday night's game against the Pistons.
The signs of a return were there during the Cleveland Cavaliers' recent roadtrip, as he hoisted shots on the court prior to games and during shootarounds. But the official clearance didn't come until Wednesday.
Originally given a timetable of 12-14 weeks for his recovery, general manager David Griffin said recently Smith was a little ahead of schedule.
"I've always pushed, in this situation, I kind of pushed myself to the limit," Smith said. "When I was able to shoot and they told me not to dribble I was dribbling a little bit. Probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but I know my body.
"Honestly my confidence has gotten higher these last couple days. Being able to go out there and play the 3-on-3's and pickup so definitely the last couple of days my confidence has gotten higher."
Smith cautioned that Wednesday was just one full practice and there are still some hurdles he needs to clear before he returns to game action.
"Physically I'm fine," he said. "Mentally I just (am thinking about) going in there, swiping at the ball. Diving for loose balls. That plays a factor and you never really want to go into any type of game or whatever you're doing second guessing yourself. So, if I got to second guess myself, I won't play. If I feel like I'm not going to, then I'll play."
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No. 3: Holiday's game falters since Cousins trade -- Just yesterday, our stable or writers attempted to figure out what's been wrong with the New Orleans Pelicans ever since they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. The answers are varied and after last night's 94-87 home loss to the Toronto Raptors -- a game where All-Star Anthony Davis left with a wrist in jury -- the Pelicans' woes are continuing. William Guillory of The Times-Picayune points out that one key issue has been the regression in play from point guard Jrue Holiday:
The Pelicans -- now 1-6 in games with Cousins on the court -- are 4.5 games back of the Denver Nuggets for the eight seed with only 17 games left, and their postseason hopes continue to shrink with each passing loss.
While Davis' injury was a concern by the end of the night, the biggest issue the Pelicans have faced since Cousins' arrival has been the sudden regression in Jrue Holiday's play as he's struggled to figure out his new role.
Holiday, who was playing some of his best basketball of the season before the All-Star break, was held to seven points and six assists in Wednesday's loss, and has averaged 13.6 points and 6.1 assists on 38.9 percent shooting in the eight games since New Orleans acquired Cousins.
Excluding the 22-point outburst Holiday had when Cousins was suspended for Mar. 1's game against the Detroit Pistons, his averages drop down to 12.4 points and 6.3 assists on 35.8 percent shooting.
He's had back-to-back single-digit scoring performances in the team's past two contests, and the hopes that he would be able to fill out the "Big 3" along with Cousins and Davis have mostly gone unfulfilled up to this point.
"We've just got to continue to play and we can't overthink the game," Gentry said. "We've just got to play. All of these guys have played with instincts in basketball their whole lives, we've just got to go out and play.
"I just want him to be Jrue Holiday...just be Jrue Holiday and play how he plays, and he'll be fine."
The Pelicans were one of the bottom-10 teams in offensive rating before trading for Cousins, but that number has completely fallen off a cliff in the past few weeks.
In its eight games since the All-Star break, New Orleans is dead last with a 96.1 offensive efficiency and the only other team coming in at less than 101 during that stretch is the Los Angeles Lakers (97.9).
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No. 4: Ultra-confident Waiters fueling Heat's playoff push -- As good as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have been this season, over the last 24 games, they've got nothing on the Miami Heat. Miami improved to an NBA-best 20-4 in that stretch last night after defeating the Charlotte Hornets 108-101 thanks to some clutch baskets from Dion Waiters. His play on that night and throughout this Heat run has been more than crucial, writes Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:
Dion Waiters has a way with words.
Lately, he’s become a guy who has a way of hitting big-time shots late in games.
On Wednesday night, the player coach Erik Spoelstra said has an acute level of irrational confidence, powered the Heat once again. He scored 24 points and made three three-pointers over the final four minutes and 14 seconds of a back-and-forth tussle with the Charlotte Hornets to lift the Heat to a thrilling 108-101 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The victory pulled Miami — winners of 20 of its past 24 games and now 31-34 overall — within a half game of both the Chicago Bulls (31-33) and Detroit Pistons (31-33) for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
“If you don’t have no confidence I don’t think you should be in this league,” said Waiters, who after hitting the dagger to beat the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on the road Monday night has begun to put together a nice résumé of big shots late in games, including the off-balance three-pointer he buried Wednesday over Kemba Walker to put the Heat up 105-98 with 45.3 seconds left.
“I’m not going to sit here and say it was a bad shot because I work on them shots,” Waiters continued. “I’m not ever going to say that — even if it was.”
His coach had no problem with the shots either. Spoelstra said when his arms were flailing down the stretch of the game, he was trying to signal to his players to create better spacing for Waiters, who was pinned on the sideline.
“No matter what his percentage may be during the course of a game or for the season, you get down to those last couple minutes and he’ll think that his percentage is 60 percent,” Spoelstra said of Waiters.
“That’s more than half the battle in this league, your confidence and your ability to make plays over the top. But he actually had a couple other plays, too, not just the threes. We were dead in the water, their defense really got us flattened out, and he saved us on a couple of those possessions.”
“I’ve got total, 100 percent confidence in Dion,” said Wayne Ellington, who was 3 of 8 on three-pointers for the Heat. “He’s a gamer, man. When that clock is running down and he’s got it in his hands I know he’s going to do something good with it. He’s been coming up clutch for us. He’s a clutch player.”
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No. 5: Timberwolves' confidence surging -- After defeating the LA Clippers last night in Minnesota, the Timberwolves are 4-2 since the All-Star break. They're within that Denver Nuggets/Portland Trail Blazers/Dallas Mavericks grouping of teams battling it out for No. 8 in the Western Conference. Although the Wolves don't know what it feels like to be a playoff squad, they're enjoying the surge in success they've had of late, writes Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune:
Like that mythical guy pushing the boulder, the Timberwolves still have lots of uphill work to do before they reach the playoffs this season, but Wednesday’s 107-91 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers showed again that they’re beating the rock, step by step.
The Wolves won for the seventh time in 11 games, and they did so against a Clippers team featuring Chris Paul and Blake Griffin back in the lineup together.
The last time these teams played, the Clippers played without either superstar and the Wolves prevailed by a mere three points in L.A. in January. This time, the Wolves won in both measurable and immeasurable categories, starting with the lopsided scoreboard, of course, but also including rebounding (50-36) and points in the paint (62-40).
More importantly, they bent a veteran, playoff-bound opponent’s will to their own, building a 15-point, first-quarter lead and never allowing the Clippers to get closer than seven points in the third. They pushed on, all the way to a 20-point advantage in a tense, physical game in which they were tougher.
The Wolves now trail Denver by 2½ games for the West’s final playoffs spot after the Wolves won the three-game season series from the Clippers and the Nuggets lost at home to Washington.
Towns was asked if his team feels like a playoff team, despite the long odds with Portland and Dallas also between them and the Nuggets with 19 games left.
“I think we’re feeling like a team that’s playing with confidence,” Towns said. “I don’t know what a playoff team feels like, but my wild guess I think we right now are playing with the confidence, with the demeanor of a playoff team. We’ve got to continue to build. We can still be a playoff team.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau can see the improvement, particularly defensively, in the statistics: They’re now 13th in the league in points allowed, an improvement Thibodeau calls a “quantum leap.” Their pick-and-roll defense is better. They’ve also won their past seven games by an average of 16.2 points, a differential he calls “significant” but “not where it needs to be” for the entire season.
“When you look at the past couple years and where we are now, it says we’ve made a big jump,” Thibodeau said. “I think you have to get close to winning first, and then the winning happens. Right now, we’re starting to understand that. To me, it’s taking care of the little things. If we take care of all the little things, the big things take care of themselves. We say it all the time: The magic is in the work."
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: All seems to be OK in Atlanta after Hawks guard Dennis Schroder was benched on Monday night ... Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant says there's no timetable for his return to the lineup ... What does that design in Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert's hair mean? ... Giannis Antetokounmpo was simply doing Giannis-type stuff last night ... Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks is encouraging new addition Brandon Jennings to look for his shot more ... At least Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is being honest about his feelings ... Jimmy Butler took all the blame for the Chicago Bulls' loss last night ... Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is pushing his rookie guard, Rodney McGruder, for Rookie of the Year ... Speaking of the Heat, here's a pretty solid Q&A with their longtime play-by-play man, Eric Reed ...