Warriors shut down Rockets again | Blazers lose Nurkic for final two weeks | Trip home gives Cousins perspective | Durant thought he was done for the season
No. 1: Warriors shut down Rockets again -- While the other team that reached The Finals in the last two years struggles to get stops, the Golden State Warriors have had the league's best defense since the All-Star break. As they push to be the first team to rank No. 1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, they've held the league's No. 2 offense under a point per possession (and James Harden to 9-for-38 shooting) over two games in the last four days. And as Ethan Sherwood-Strauss writes for ESPN, Friday's win over Houston, the Warriors' 10th straight victory, helped make the case for Draymond Green as Defensive Player of the Year and Andre Iguodala as Sixth Man of the Year:
Green delivered perhaps the best performance for his DPOY case. In the end, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rockets finished 3-of-17 against Green as primary defender, coughing up two turnovers. They were 0-of-5 against him in the fourth.
"Some guys might think they have a mismatch or anything like that, but I kind of take it personal," Green said of his success in isolation defense. "So when I'm 1-on-1 with a guy, I kind of think it's a battle at that point, and it's personal to me."
Whatever the motivation, Green keeps winning these battles, again and again. Or, as McGee flatly framed his perception of an offensive player going at Green, "I just go with percentages and I don't think they're going to score."
Iguodala was no less brilliant, finishing with three blocks and a steal in the fourth quarter. He has proved himself quite the Harden-stopper, if there is such a thing. Over the course of this season series, when Iguodala is the primary defender on Harden, The Beard has managed four points on 2-of-10 shooting, with seven turnovers in four games.
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No. 2: Blazers must overcome Nurkic injury -- The Portland Trail Blazers are seemingly in control of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, holding a two-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Denver Nuggets. The Blazers have won eight of their last nine games and have an easier remaining schedule than Denver. But just when things were looking like the playoffs were a lock, the Blazers have lost starting center Jusuf Nurkic (who has averaged 16.8 points and 11.4 rebounds over the last nine games) for the rest of the regular season with a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula. The team announced Friday that Nurkic will be reevaluated in two weeks, which would be the eve of the playoffs. Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski writes that the Blazers are hoping their center would be available for a first round series:
After revitalizing the Portland Trail Blazers' season, 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic will miss the rest of the regular season with a non-displaced fracture in his right leg.
Nevertheless, there is a possibility that Nurkic could return should the Blazers reach the Western Conference playoffs, provided Nurkic, 22, is fully functional and pain-free, league sources told The Vertical.
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No. 3: Trip home gives Cousins perspective -- After some early post-trade struggles, the New Orleans Pelicans have won eight of their last 11 games. On Friday, DeMarcus Cousins led the way with 37 points in a win over his old team. A day earlier, Cousins told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that a quick trip home helped clear his head and gave him some perspective:
In search of a mental escape, the Mobile, Alabama, native took a two-hour drive to his hometown about two weeks ago during an off day. That home cooking was just what Cousins needed to get back to playing basketball on his NBA All-Star level and put his "rags to riches" life in perspective.
"I was stressed out two weeks ago, and I just drove home," a teary-eyed Cousins told The Undefeated after practice on Thursday. "It took two hours at the most. I saw my mom. Hung out at the house. I was mentally gone. I went back to my old neighborhood and hung out on the block. I saw some of my old people. I left there and felt amazing. I don't know if it was being around that genuine love, it just kind of humbled me.
"I see these guys, how it used to be and where I'm at now. It just put me in a better place. Being able to do that will always keep me in a good place. It will help me see the blessings I've been able to receive over the years, what I came from, where I'm at now. I hate to say it, but what I was reminded about is how I went from rags to riches. You basically see what you left and how far you've come. I'm like, 'How can I complain? How can I be mad about anything?'
"I'm mad about my job or whatever the case may be, and these people are struggling with real-life situations. They don't know if they will be able to eat tomorrow. Just thinking about it in that perspective, just being able to laugh and talk about old times, all that put me in a great place. It's been a lot. There was pressure coming in here and making things click right away. I believe after [visiting Mobile] I've been playing some pretty decent basketball. It helped out."
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No. 4: Durant thought he was done for the season -- The Golden State Warriors have won 10 straight games (including three in a row against the second and third best teams in the league) and could have Kevin Durant back for the last couple of games of the regular season. But the day after he suffered his injury, Durant was told that he would be out for 4-5 months ... and then was told something different. He described that harrowing half hour to The Ringer's Bill Simmons, as transcribed by Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Durant's worst fears were confirmed the next day when doctors told him he had fractured his left tibia. For the first time since that night in Washington a month ago, the eight-time NBA All-Star detailed to Simmons the aftermath of that initial diagnosis.
"The first diagnosis we got was that I broke my leg — fractured my tibia." Durant told Simmons. "And that's a four- or five-month recovery. … That's what he told me: 4-5 months. I just bust out crying. I'm like: 'Man, not again.' This is my first year with the team, we're playing very well at the time. I was playing well individually. It was definitely a good time for our team. And we were on an East Coast road trip, back home, playing in front of my family. Then on top of that I knew (me getting injured) is what everybody wanted to see. … Not everybody, the haters."
Durant admitted he was "in a dark place" as he tried to grapple with being sidelined the rest of the season. Then, as he got into the car to leave the hospital, his phone rang. It was his doctor, saying they got the results of the CT scan. Durant had a grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise.
Suddenly, he was facing a recovery of only 4-6 weeks. Returning by the end of the regular season was a possibility.
"That reaction in the car was like second to none," said Durant, a Washington-area native who had spent more than $10,000 on tickets to that Warriors-Wizards game for 70-plus family and friends. "That emotional roller-coaster was something out of a movie."
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No. 5: Maker comes up big with rare late-game playing time -- Rookie Thon Maker has been the Milwaukee Bucks' starting center for the last 24 games, but had played just 16 fourth-quarter minutes over that stretch before Friday night. Then, with the Bucks fighting for one of the last four playoff spots in the East, Maker got some late-game playing time and made the most of it, scoring 12 points and making big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Bucks held onto fifth place and pushed the Detroit Pistons toward elimination. Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the story:
After Antetokounmpo had scored 10 of the Bucks' 12 points during that stretch, the Pistons were hip to his plan and stripped the Bucks' star on this particular slash to the hoop. The ball wobbled along the court in the paint and with the shot clock winding down Maker came up with it and deposited a layup to tie the score at 95. At the other end, Maker contested a Marcus Morris shot to give the Bucks a chance for the last shot, but Khris Middleton couldn't get a fadeaway jumper to fall.
"He picked up his teammates," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said of Maker, whose strong play made up for lackluster nights from Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes. "He took advantage of his minutes. … He did a lot of the little things, but I thought, again, he shot the ball when he was open and he made plays on the defensive end."
In the extra frame, Maker's impact only grew, possibly buoyed by a pep talk from Antetokounmpo during the break in the action between periods.
"If you hesitate I'm going to punch you, so shoot the ball whenever you get it," Antetokounmpo told Maker.
Maker went on to score five points in overtime. First, he finished a fast break with a finger roll after Antetokounmpo threaded the needle to hit him in stride. Then, with 1:58 remaining, Maker took Antetokounmpo's threat to heart, catching a pass in the corner, quickly setting his feet and hoisting a three-pointer that caught nothing but net and put the Bucks up, 102-99.
"He definitely said that and I let the next one go," Maker said of Antetokounmpo's pre-overtime instructions. "Money."
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Millsap will miss his eighth straight game when the Hawks visit Chicago on Saturday, but the All-Star is closer to a return ... Living through Hurricane Katrina forced Isaiah Canaan to grow up quick ... His teammates believe that Tony Parker can flip the switch in the playoffs.