Shootaround (April 23): Golden State Warriors concerned about Steve Kerr's health

Plus the Bulls prepare for Game 4, LeBron on his free throw struggles, and more

NBA.com Staff

No. 1: Kerr, not Durant, is Warriors’ biggest health concern — Kevin Durant’s health might not be the deciding factor for the Golden State Warriors during this postseason run, wherever it ends. That distinction might belong to Steve Kerr, who like Durant missed the Warriors’ Game 3 win over Portland Saturday night and could miss the remainder of the series dealing with an undisclosed “illness.” Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group explores the uncertainty surrounding Kerr’s situation going forward:

The Warriors biggest worry is not the injury to Kevin Durant. He is all but ready to take the court again, even though the Warriors held him out of Game 3. It’s Kerr’s health that is now the biggest concern.

His sudden and mysterious absence from the Warriors bench, which came to light at shootaround on Saturday morning, didn’t come with much explanation. Vague descriptions like “illness” and “not feeling well,” are usually a sign something is wrong. In this case, according to sources, it is.

At the worst of this current illness, Kerr was in excruciating pain, according to the sources, and he could barely walk. It was scary because it wasn’t a feeling he’s had before.

The worst part, the Warriors don’t yet know what is going. They had to say “illness” because there are no answers yet.

Kerr hasn’t felt well all series, according to people around him, and recently it become unbearable. It is unknown if these issues are even related to his past well-known health problems.

As competitive as Kerr is, we know this: it must be pretty bad if he is missing a playoff game. He is expected to miss the remainder of this Western Conference series.

“Oh no,” one source said about Kerr returning this series. “He thinks like a player does, wanting to get back. But he’s got to get right.”

Moving forward, the health of Kerr is the one to watch. Not Durant. Not guard Shaun Livingston or forward Matt Barnes, whose second straight missed game leaves the Warriors’ bench shorthanded.

The Warriors are loaded so they can survive in the early rounds without Kerr. They have the talent, the schemes and the rotations set. So lead assistant Mike Brown can hold the fort.

“He was the MVP,” Draymond Green said of Brown after the Warriors’ comeback win.

But over this long championship pursuit, pushing buttons will matter. Fighting against the adversities will matter. Motivating individual players, managing the roller coaster of emotions, will matter. And that is Kerr’s specialty, his responsibility.

His absence would be a big deal in the later rounds. Even though the Warriors have veterans with championship experience, removing his presence at this juncture is a significant change.

But Kerr’s health is a sensitive subject for the Warriors. They are acutely aware of how devastating his surgery-gone-wrong has been for his life and how admirably he’s fought through it.

Kerr missed the first 43 games of the 2015-16 season due to complications from back surgery. A spinal fluid leak left him with debilitating headaches and nausea, among other ailments. Even when he returned, he wasn’t 100 percent. His suffering was just manageable.

That’s why Brown is here. The Warriors selected a top assistant with head coaching experience, instead of another bright offensive mind such as Stephen Silas, presumably because of the potential for Kerr to miss time again.

Brown has not only coached a team to the NBA Finals, but he has experience with elite talent — having coached LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. But Brown, unlike Walton, didn’t get a training camp to establish his presence. He didn’t get regular season games to build critical rapport as head of the roster.

* * *

No. 2: Butler all in for whatever drama comes next against Celtics — To trip or not to trip? That was the questions facing Rajon Rondo and the Chicago Bulls after what appeared to be a potential incident involving a suited (and sleeveless) Rondo and Celtics forward Jae Crowder after Game 3 of that series. Bulls forward Jimmy Butler is ready for whatever drama comes next in Game 4 today (6:30 p.m. ET, TNT) and beyond. Joe Cowley of the Sun Times has more:

Even after watching film, coach Fred Hoiberg said he wasn’t aware of the play from the first quarter of Game 3 on Friday.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ Hoiberg said. “I honestly didn’t even see it.’’

Most of the Bulls took the same tack.

“No,’’ Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t [go] on the internet.’’

If Butler and Hoiberg ever check the video, they’ll see Crowder make a shot and loop toward the Bulls’ bench to let them know about it. Rondo, in street clothes because of a fractured right thumb, appears to stretch his leg out to obstruct Crowder’s unnecessary fly-by.

Rondo was asked about the incident after the game and left the door open for interpretation.

“When you tear an ACL, your leg gets stiff on you once in a while,’’ Rondo said straight-faced. “I stretched my leg out.’’

In Game 2, Rondo had been yelling up and down the court that the Celtics had quit.

It was mental warfare from one of the league’s finest practitioners, who was trying to make an impact even when unable to play. It’s an attitude Butler said the team needs to embrace moving forward.

“Rondo has a problem, first off,’’ Butler said with a smile. “That’s just ’Do for you. He’s been

through this countless times. He’s won. He knows what he’s doing. I just think, overall, we have to take his edge, especially mentally — older guys, younger guys, everybody. We have to think the game like he thinks it, study it the way he studies it. Take note and take after him because he does everything the right way.’’

If that means making the series a bit feistier, Butler is all in.

“I like that type of stuff,’’ Butler said. “We all know that. I like confrontation, stuff like that. Makes me smile. Gets me going and everybody else. I’m excited for what’s next. I woke up smiling [Saturday] morning. I don’t like to lose. But I’m fortunate enough to wake up and still be able to play this game.’’

But is there enough time to get all the Bulls to take that Rondo edge, that Rondo approach, and make it work for them on the court?

“I hope so,’’ Butler said. “I can’t say yes. I can’t say no. I guess we’ll find out Sunday in Game 4.’’

* * *

No. 3: LeBron on free throw woes: I’m not perfect — Leave it up to the critics to find something to poke LeBron James about after his jaw-dropping effort in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ epic Game 3 comeback against the Indiana Pacers. A superhuman performance is apparently not enough for the reigning Finals MVP, whose continued struggles at the free throw line this season remain a sticking point. Never mind the fact that the Cavaliers have a chance to sweep the Pacers with a win today (1 p.m. ET, ABC) in Indianapolis. Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com explains:

LeBron James’ virtuoso performance in Game 3 against the Indiana Pacers — recording his 17th postseason triple-double and rescuing the Cleveland Cavaliers after a frightful first half — had one Cavaliers front office member reminiscing about James’ 2015 NBA Finals heroics, when the four-time MVP somehow pushed the undermanned roster within two games of a title.

But even while he posted a snazzy stat line (41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists) and led a 25-point comeback, James appeared frustrated with himself at times during the second half, especially after going 2-of-4 from the free-throw line in the final minute and 4-of-8 in the fourth quarter. It’s an issue that has carried over from the regular season.

“I’m not perfect,” James said Saturday afternoon following the Cavs’ practice at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of nearby Butler University.

It’s about the one area where James hasn’t been perfect. He’s done everything else, leading the Cavs to a 3-0 series lead, with a chance to sweep Indiana Sunday afternoon.

In three games this series, James is averaging 32.7 points on 55 percent from the field, including 47 percent from 3-point range to go with 10.7 assists, 9.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 2.7 steals. But he’s also shooting just 55.2 percent from the stripe after going 7-of-14 on Thursday night.

“He just has to go up and shoot ’em,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “I’m not sure about being mental. Just have to step to the free-throw line and make ’em.”

Prior to the playoffs, James vowed to shoot a better free-throw percentage than he did in the regular season when he made a career-worst 67 percent of his attempts. The three-time NBA champion said his mark would be around 80 percent. He worked with sharpshooter Kyle Korver on his stance and altered his form. The initial results were positive, as James made four straight to open the series.

Since then, he’s 12-of-25 and even went back to his old stance in the second half of Game 3.

Following Saturday’s practice, he was briefly working with Korver again, practicing the form and release he unveiled in Game 1.

Despite James’ continued struggles at the line, he said he wasn’t worried. He also dismissed any idea that the Pacers went to some version of Hack-a-Bron strategy at the end of the game, as he was fouled with 47 seconds remaining and the Cavs ahead by five.

“Nah, they was fouling because they needed more possessions,” James said. “It’s a totally different thing.”

James was fouled again with 33 seconds left, splitting the pair and keeping the Pacers alive.

“I don’t find it offensive,” Lue said. “Just think it’s a strategy, part of the tactics and if they can’t stop you any other way then they have to try anything. But I don’t think it was Hack-a-Bron. Just think (Pacers head coach Nate McMillan) was trying to extend the game and that’s what they did.

“It basically turned into a college game. It was smart on his part.”

* * *

No. 4: Life as James Harden’s “shadow” a wild ride for Roberson — James Harden hasn’t been able to move against the Oklahoma City Thunder without Andre Roberson shadowing his every move. That’s by design, of course, a strategic move from Thunder coach Billy Donovan to try and bother Harden in any way possible in this series, which resumes with Game 4 today (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and the Thunder eager to even the series at two games apiece. It won’t happen without a stellar effort from Roberson, writes Erik Horne of the Oklahoman:

What’s it been like for Roberson? Harden’s played 110 minutes this series to Roberson’s 111. They’ve been on the court together for all but 54 seconds.

With Roberson as the primary defender against him, Harden has shot 43 percent (13-of-30 overall, 4-of-12 3-pointers) compared to 55.6 percent on all other defenders or no defender (20-of-36).

“I feel like I’ve done a good job, but I feel like I can do better,” Roberson said Saturday. “It’s tough to completely take him out of the game.”

Roberson’s work this series is contrary to the box score. When the 24-year-old sits down with Thunder staff and sees Harden is averaging 38.7 points, he also takes into account the Rockets’ lead guard is averaging 14.6 points per game on free throws – more than every Thunder player combined (8.6) excluding Russell Westbrook (10.7).

Roberson feels like the job the Thunder has done trying to keep Harden out of the paint and off the free throw line will wear on the Rockets guard over seven games. OKC has to get there first.

“We’re still figuring it out, not reaching, keeping our hands out of there,” Roberson said. “We don’t feel like he can do it for all seven games. If he does, pat him on the butt and move on.”

Roberson can’t find comfort in Harden’s gaudy numbers, so he has to look to key sequences. In Game 1, Harden gave Roberson a vicious crossover that had the Toyota Center crowd standing mid-play. But as Harden drove left, Roberson recovered quickly for a blocked shot that was equally as impressive.

By design, Roberson is on what Donovan describes as an “island” against Harden more than any other Thunder player. It’s a situation Taj Gibson found himself in more in Game 3.

But that was for less than a handful of possessions. Gibson marvels at what it’s been like for Roberson to guard Harden nearly two hours over the last week.

“It’s tough to be locked up with one player the entire game, but it’s even tougher when that one player has the freedom to do whatever he wants, take whatever shot he wants,” Gibson said. “(Harden) can go iso 110 times, and he’s never really tired.

“It’s frustrating sometimes being a defensive player doing that. Andre understands that’s his role and he does it well.”

When Roberson was young, his father, John – who played professionally in Europe for 12 years – knew a lot of players didn’t specialize in the nuances of defending. He saw that innate ability in Andre and took it upon himself to teach his son how to defend. “He has a nose for the ball,” said John, who also stands 6-foot-7.

“I’d like to see him get a little more ferocious.”

Roberson has picked up his aggressiveness this series, cutting more to the basket on offense, leading the Thunder in blocked shots (nine), and often snatching the ball from Harden outright in those isolation situations. Roberson is averaging 14 points, 7.3 rebounds, two steals and three blocks per game, an uptick in postseason production similar to the one that Steven Adams parlayed into a $100 million payday last season.

Roberson’s not in line for a nine-figure contract, but he’s playing elite defense against a nine-figure player with not a minute to be spared.

Heard of 48 minutes of hell? How about trying 38 minutes of Harden? Welcome to the Roberson experience.

“He’s got a lot of endurance,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott said, shaking his head while talking about Roberson. “It definitely makes you tired just from watching him on film and from the bench.

“That guy, he’s gotta sleep well at night.”

* * *

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Is this the end of Lob City? They are asking the question in Los Angeles and beyond with free agency looming and yet another injury to Blake Griffin … Nothing tops the collected wisdom of our very own David Aldridge … John Wall has been a one-man highlight reel for the Wizards, and that’s a problem … Grizzlies can add overtime epic against Spurs to growing list of highlights in David Fizdale’s first year at the helm in Memphis … Lineup tweaks, new attitudes provide boost for Raptors in battle with Bucks …