Shootaround (Dec. 26) -- Warriors facing newest test
Curry’s sacrifice is Warriors’ new challenge | Westbrook’s joy, passion shows on Christmas | Lakers get right at shorthanded Clippers’ expense | Rugged Raptors ready for the road
No. 1: Curry’s sacrifice is Warriors’ new challenge — Forget Kevin Durant’s transition from Oklahoma City to Golden State. He’s handling it just fine. The Warriors’ greatest challenge is managing the sacrifice reigning and two-time KIA MVP Stephen Curry is making playing alongside Durant. As our Steve Aschburner pointed out after the Warriors fell to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers in their Christmas Day Finals rematch, these new-look Warriors are still very much a work in progress:
There were supposed to be three current or former NBA Most Valuable Player winners on the floor at The Q. Only two, Durant and James, were noticeable.
Steph Curry was an afterthought, a flickering light in a season that’s already gone dim for him, 32 games in.
Curry was one part decoy, one part bystander while Durant handled the star duties and Klay Thompson filled in as the Warriors’ second-best offensive option. Irving and Kevin Love from the other team played bigger roles than Curry, the two-time, reigning and first-ever unanimous MVP during his remarkable run the past two seasons.
Curry has been the NBA’s Everyman Sorcerer since the start of 2014-15, unassuming in appearance, spectacular in achievements. But he looked average at best with a 4-of-11 shooting performance that included 2-of-7 from 3-point range, and when he got to four fouls before he took his third shot, he was in danger of slipping below ordinary.
The instinctive reaction, based on the body of his work, was to chalk it up as an off game. But there was more than mere randomness involved, on a number of fronts.
Curry hasn’t been himself on Christmas generally, for example, averaging 11.8 points and shooting 18.2 percent on 3-pointers in six yuletide appearances.
He also has been held in check by Cleveland in ways that will loom large should these teams clash in a third consecutive Finals. Last spring, for instance, Curry (who also was banged up by June) averaged 22.6 points in the seven games against Cleveland, with 40 percent accuracy from the arc and an effective field-goal percentage of .532. His MVP numbers during the season had been 30.1 ppg, 45.4 percent success on 3-pointers and .630 effective shooting overall.
And so it went the year before, with Curry’s scoring perking up in the 2015 Finals but his accuracy flagging against the Cavs’ defense. In the two championship rounds combined, he managed 64 assists and 58 turnovers.
Then there’s the change Curry and the Warriors foisted upon themselves this season when they took to the Hamptons to recruit Durant. Just because people have been talking plenty about the sacrifice that was going to require on other Golden State players doesn’t mean it’s not the elephant still in the room. And Curry’s move from first chair to second represents the biggest sacrifice of them all, one that remains a work in progress.
“Everybody’s usage is down a little because KD handles the ball quite a bit, as he should,” coach Steve Kerr had said before tipoff. “That takes the ball out of Steph’s hands a little bit more and out of Draymond’s hands. Klay still just shoots it every time he gets it, so that doesn’t really change for him.
“Yeah, it definitely changes the dynamics. It’s harder, in some ways, to add a star player rather than a role player. It’s a great problem to have but it’s more challenging. So we are still not where we need to be in that regard. Steph, I think, will get more and more comfortable as the season goes. But it’s a little bit of a different vibe, for sure.”
The Warriors players didn’t want to go there after Curry’s lackluster performance Sunday. Thompson said the ball simply didn’t find Curry. Durant bristled, but then, he’s the latest bright shiny object whose shadow has crept over, well, the Warriors’ previous bright shiny object.
“We know how important he is,” Durant said. “Without him, we don’t have this record [27-5]. Whether he’s making shots or not, nobody in our locker room takes him for granted. He’s going to be aggressive, he’s going to do what he does. But for the most part, guys had it going. That’s why he’s a superstar. He defers and he plays within the offense. He hit a big shot late in the game, that should have took us over the top.”
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No. 2: Westbrook’s joy, passion shines on Christmas — Russell Westbrook’s ability to coper with adversity is pretty impressive. Kevin Durant bolts for Golden State via free agency, leaving Westbrook to take over as the sole face of the franchise in Oklahoma City, and Westbrook has been nothing short of amazing. His joy and passion shined on Christmas Day, when Westbrook and the Thunder knocked off Minnesota. Erik Horne of the Oklahoman explains:
With the Thunder ahead by 20 points with under four minutes to go, Russell Westbrook bobbed his shoulders up and down in front of the scorer’s table as Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” played on the loud speakers.
It was another gift of a game, a treasure for the fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but it was Westbrook who was having more fun than anyone this Christmas.
In the Thunder’s 112-100 win over Minnesota, Westbrook missed out on the second Christmas Day triple-double of his career, but finished with 31 points, 15 assists and seven rebounds, leading the Thunder to its third consecutive win.
“He always says he loves to play,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “He should enjoy playing. It’s good to see him enjoy how hard he competes.”
The joy carried over from pregame. When Westbrook shot his customary long 3-pointer and it fell, he ran off the court and back to the Thunder locker room. He screamed what he claimed was “Thank you, Jayme,” the name of Thunder trainer Joe Sharpe’s daughter.
Social media heard it as “Thank you, Kyrie,” and another possible hit at Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. Kyrie Irving was a catalyst of Cleveland beating Golden State on Christmas afternoon.
When asked about it in the locker room, Westbrook said he wasn’t going to keep talking about that. “I’m gonna keep my spirit up,” he said.
He did so with 10 assists in 17 minutes in the second half, teaming up with Steven Adams to put away the Timberwolves.
Adams had 22 points, two shy of his career high. The tandem was at the center of the Thunder’s distance-creating third quarter, combining to shoot 8-of-12 for 21 points.
Westbrook, who was even talking it out and smiling with officials after picking up a technical foul in the second quarter, was asked if this was the most fun he’s had playing basketball.
“Umm … I don’t know, man,” Westbrook said. He then paused before explaining.
“I don’t know if it’s the most fun I’ve had, but it’s definitely at the top just because of the group of guys we have. Everybody’s so unselfish. Everybody’s willing to do great things. Everybody’s willing to get better.
“We’re young and blessed to be able to play this game, and you can’t do nothing but have fun.”
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No. 3: Lakers get right at shorthanded Clippers’ expense — After a promising start to this season reality set in over the past month for Luke Walton’s young Los Angeles Lakers. Their Christmas Day matchup with the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers provided a small measure of hope after some trying times, injury-related and otherwise. Might it be enough to turn the season around for the Lakers? Perhaps. Either way, the win over the Clippers (who host the Denver Nuggets tonight at Staples Center, 10:30 ET, NBA TV) was much needed for the psyche of Walton’s crew. Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times has more:
The Clippers started fast Sunday, opening up an 11-point lead before the Lakers began to fight their way back in. The Lakers stayed close, though, trailing by only four when the first quarter ended by virtue of a floater by Lakers forward Thomas Robinson as the quarter expired.
At halftime the Clippers led 58-55.
In the third quarter, the game turned.
“In the third quarter, I thought we took our jobs very seriously,” Walton said.
The Lakers scored the third quarter’s first eight points, holding the Clippers scoreless for the period’s first four games. They broke off a 15-2 run to open the period. Though the Clippers threatened even after that, they never reclaimed the lead. That third quarter caused an 18-point swing in the game. In it, the Lakers outscored the Clippers 34-16, the Clippers made only six of 18 shots and five Clippers turnovers resulted in 11 Lakers points.
The Lakers’ largest lead of the game was 18 points.
Being home meant something to the young Lakers, who had just returned from a 12-day, seven-game trip. Not that coming home was easy.
Historically, the series is lopsided in favor of the Lakers, but the Clippers entered the game with the third-best record in the Western Conference, and had lately dominated the Lakers.
A reminder of that appeared on TV as Lakers guard Lou Williams watched the early NBA games Sunday morning with his family. In his kitchen surrounded by his kids, cousins, all the family that visited for the holidays, Williams saw the ticker note that the Lakers had lost 12 of their last 13 games against the Clippers.
“Something always happens the other way when “SportsCenter” puts something right there,” Williams said. “Tonight it happened again.”
The Lakers regained a feeling they hadn’t had in a long time.
“I think it was needed,” Walton said. “It was. It’s one win. We all know that’s not that big of a deal in the long NBA season, but for us, it felt nice to get this one back home. Been a tough couple weeks. We really had to come together to win that game tonight.”
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No. 4: Rugged Raptors ready for the road — The badge of honor for championship caliber teams in the NBA has always been their ability to win away from the friendly confines of home. The Toronto Raptors own their status as one of the best teams in the league and understand fully what their upcoming road trip will say about them to the rest of the league. In short, these Raptors, led by All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, are ready to be road warriors in the coming days. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star explains:
It is a long, hard and disjointed trip, to the west back to the east back to the west, hither and yon over the holidays.
It is a journey that will test even the best and most focused of NBA teams and the Toronto Raptors swear they are ready.
The six-game trip that began in Salt Lake City on Friday continues Monday night in Portland with the first of five remaining games in the longest trek of the year.
Portland to Oakland and then over to Phoenix. A quick trip back to Los Angeles — why they couldn’t go down the coast from Oakland before heading inland is a secret only the NBA’s schedule-making computer knows — before a side excursion to San Antonio to wrap it all up.
“This road trip we’re starting on is going to be a daunting one, just the style of play, the type of teams, the quality of the teams we’re playing,” Terrence Ross said. “So we could have had an easier schedule for Christmas break.”
Tough teams, tough venues, tough times.
Bring it on, they say.
“Once we go on the road, we get in the element where we feel it’s us against everybody else,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We carry that over to the floor, having that sense of urgency throughout the whole game, having the crowd against us, being on the opponent’s home floor and that seems to put us more mentally engaged in every thing we need to do.”
The Raptors have turned into an above average road team this season, which has to bode well for this trip. The win over the Jazz on Friday, fashioned by Kyle Lowry’s 19-point gem of a fourth quarter — was Toronto’s sixth straight road victory and established an all-time franchise record.
“I think we just like the pressure of it, the odds of going on the road,” DeRozan said. “We always get up for them type of games, it’s fun just to be on the road and you feel like it’s you against everybody.”
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Lakers will be without high-flying forward Larry Nance Jr. for at least four weeks … The Bulls roster “is what it is” and right now, that’s just not good enough … Rodney Stuckey is set to return for the Pacers tonight against the Bulls (8 ET, NBA TV) … Derrick Rose knows that defense is what failed the Knicks in their comeback bid against the Boston Celtics … Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon is sticking in an impressive rookie class … The Memphis Grizzlies’ veterans would love to be a part of the Christmas Day showcase but will have to settle instead for working on the day after (tonight at Orlando) … The Hawks will face the Timberwolves tonight without the services of Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr., but that could change before tip off … As well as they’ve played this season, back-to-backs have not been kind to the Houston Rockets …