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9:37AM

For Warriors, new faces, old result; ‘This team is the NBA champ’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — No Steph? No Draymond? No Zaza? Three starters missing because of injuries? Ehhh. Maybe if the entire lineup was on the bench, the Warriors might be in trouble. Repeat: might.

But as one of the guys who did play, Kevin Durant, reminded us après game, “This team is the NBA champion.” And, one implies, believes it will be again, a third time in four years.

But we get ahead of ourselves, a legitimate failing when dealing with the Dubs. No matter who’s on court or who isn’t, the script seems wonderfully boring — wonderfully if you’re a Warriors partisan.

On Monday, with three-fifths of the normal starting lineup unable to take part, the Dubs whipped the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-104, at the Oracle.

It was a bit of a bummer that Nick Young was elbowed in the head in the third quarter and incurred a concussion. Not to make light of the matter. Concussions are serious, but somehow a blow to the head, sprained ankles (Steph Curry) and sore shoulders (Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia) have little effect.

Not when there’s a rookie name Jordan Bell. Or veterans such as David West or Omri Casspi.

Strength in numbers. You’ve heard it and read it ad infinitum. But that’s what the Warriors have. Just swallow hard and accept the repetition. And the success.

That was the Dubs’ seventh win in a row, the previous six, of course, coming on an historic (for them) road trip when they swept through the country from La-La Land (Lakers) to the Atlantic (Miami) without a loss, if you don’t count losing Curry when he stepped not lightly but on an opponent’s foot.

The Warriors were up by 20 much of the second half Monday against the Blazers, but as so often happens in a sport governed by a 24-second clock, big leads are difficult to retain, especially when Portland has that Oakland kid, Damian Lillard, who scored 39.

Durant had 28, nine rebounds and three blocks. Bell had the block of the night and 11 points. Klay Thompson had 24 points, And the NBA's most senior player, 37-year-old West — “I like competing,” was his reason not to retire — had 10 points.

“David’s had a spectacular season,” said Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach. “Every night he makes five or six shots and blocks shots. He’s one of the smartest players on the floor. A guy who’s a been a star, this late in a career, is like playing with house money.”

At 22, Bell is 15 years younger than West, but as Kerr said when asked about integrating young and old(er), experienced and inexperienced, “It’s not hard when you have people with talent who are willing to work.”

Said West, about Bell, Young and Casspi, new this season, “Those guys figure it out. Bell is learning quickly. He’s been getting a crash course from all the coaches and the veterans. It’s a golden opportunity just being around such great players.”

Kerr said using Bell — the coach teased pre-game and waited to announce him as his fifth starter — becomes a trade-off between youthful exuberance and youthful mistakes. “We point them out,” the coach explained. “He’s been coming on fast.”

Kerr was particularly enthused by the Warriors’ defense, especially without Draymond, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for 2016-17. “Jordan was really powerful," he said. "That makes him feel good. That makes us feel good.”

Teams occasionally get sloppy in the first home game after a long trip. There’s a tendency to relax. But Durant said the two days off between the Friday night game at Detroit and Monday night game in Oakland allowed time to refocus.

He also pointed out that, no matter who couldn’t play, the people who did play were 6-foot-11, 6-7 and 6-6 and with plenty of reach. “We know how to play defense,” said Durant. “We’re not going to give up how we approach a game.”

No matter who can play or can’t.

10:08AM

S.F. Examiner: JaVale’s journey brings him to Golden State, benefitting both parties

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

OAKLAND — The pregame questions carried a sense of worry and a hint of panic. Kevin Durant wasn’t going to play, and my goodness, what were the Warriors going to do without him? Play basketball, of course, as brilliantly as demanded.

You thought otherwise?

Read the full story here.

©2017 The San Francisco Examiner 

8:23AM

And then there was Steph — who else?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — Steph. Who else? The game wasn’t supposed to be that close. But it was. The Trail Blazers wouldn’t fade, wouldn’t recognize they were beaten, even when they were. The Blazers just kept coming, like blazes, if you’ll accept the line.

There they were, within two points. And then there was Steph. Swish. We’ve seen it before. We’ll see it again.

A three-pointer. A step-back 26-footer with 24.9 seconds left. A dagger. “I mean, Steph is Steph,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “I think our fans are used to it. I’m used to it. He makes these incredibly difficult shots.”

Makes them when the team needs him to make them.

“He makes big-time shots,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “That last shot he made was well defended. He’s a special player who can do special things.”

He’s the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a second straight year, a unanimous choice this time, for the first time in history. He got the trophy in ceremonies before the game, and then with that basket, which put the W’s ahead by three, he helped get a thrilling, nerve-wracking 125-121 victory Wednesday night at Oracle.

So the Warriors, the defending champions, take the Western Conference semifinals as they took the first round, four games to one, and now will face the winner of the San Antonio-Oklahoma City series for the right to get to the NBA finals once more.

It wasn’t just Steph Curry, however, on this night that started late — tipoff was just before 8 p.m. — and ended very late, around 10:45. It was also the man who had been carrying the Warriors when Curry was out with a bad knee, Klay Thompson, who was 13 of 17 from the field and had 33 points. And it was Draymond Green, hustling, rebounding (11), scoring (13) and screaming, as he so often does. And it was Shaun Livingston, a sub once more, with 10 points.

“Klay’s shooting was incredible tonight,” affirmed Kerr. “Then the way Steph finished the game, that step-back shot to put it to a five-point lead, was probably only a shot he can make.

“It was like we were running on fumes a bit at the end, between Draymond’s ankle (Green was limping late in the fourth quarter) and (Andrew) Bogut’s not playing in the second half (he had a strained adductor). But we talk about our depth all the time.”

And display it all the time. “Strength in Numbers” is more than a slogan on all those gold T-shirts given to the fans. Curry was out for three games. Livingston got bounced two games ago on two technicals. Green plays forward — and center. And guard. Andre Iguodala is indispensable. Marreese Speights hit a big three-pointer.

The way the Warriors came back from the huge deficit Monday in game four at Portland — that TV shot of Blazers billionaire owner Paul Allen, who looked like he swallowed a lemon, told it all — one might have figured the Blazers wouldn’t be competitive Wednesday. Wrong, so wrong.

For so long, Portland, with Damian Lillard scoring 28 and C.J. McCollum scoring 27 — add Klay and Steph, and what a foursome of guards — was in charge, going in front by 11 points and hanging tough against a hostile crowd and a favored Warriors team.

“That’s a terrific basketball team,” Kerr said of the Blazers, and he was absolutely right. Portland led at halftime of games two, three, four and five. “That’s a tough team to guard and a tough team to play against.”

So, of course, are the Warriors, with their three All-Stars (Curry, Thompson and Green) and their relentless style. It’s just that against the agile, mobile Blazers, the W’s weren’t always effective with the defense that forces missed shots and enables the W’s to flow.   

“It wasn’t our best stuff,” agreed Kerr, “but we got it done.”

Which is what the best teams do, the best individuals do. Overcome the mistakes, the questionable officiating, the frustration and win.

“We know what it takes to win in the playoffs,” said Thompson. “It’s extremely hard. Give (the Blazers) credit. They’re an offensive powerhouse. It wasn’t an individual thing when Steph went out (with the injury). We did it collectively ... I’m just proud of my focus on defense ... I’m just trying to get myself in the flow of the offense.

“I’m not going to go out there and try and take the ball from Steph when he’s in the zone.”

Which he almost always is.

8:05AM

Ezeli gets Warriors to play like champions they are

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — This is what championship teams do. They play like champions. They find a way to win on a night when the other team’s shots fall but theirs won’t, when their coach gets so irked he hollers at one of his star players, when they fall behind from the opening moments and stay behind until it’s almost too late. This is what the Warriors do.

They weren’t just bad in the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night at the Oracle, they were awful. There was no defense — heavens, Portland scored 34 points the first quarter — and there barely was any offense. The Warriors fell behind by 17. For the first time in the postseason, the absence of Stephen Curry was all too evident.    

Curry, of course, still had the bad knee and was on the bench. So was backup center Festus Ezeli. His knee, the one on which he had minor surgery in January, supposedly was fine, but Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his staff decided not to play him through the first half — as they decided not to play him anytime Sunday in the first game of the Western Conference semifinals.

Then Kerr got smart. Or desperate. Whatever, he got the 6-foot-11 Ezeli on the floor, and Ezeli, along with Andre Iguodala (who had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists) and Shaun Livingston (14 points, four rebounds and four assists), got the Warriors a 110-99 victory.

They trailed 87-76 after three quarters, meaning the W’s outscored Portland 34-12 in the final 12 minutes. Meaning Ezeli, who had six rebounds and eight points in roughly 13 minutes, Iguodala and Livingston helped the Warriors make the stops as well as the hoops.

It didn’t hurt that Klay Thompson, after some early misses (he was 3 of 9 at the half), finally connected (he was 7 for 20 with 27 points) or Draymond Green (17 points, 14 rebounds) played his expected relentless game.

But Kerr, after the W’s took a two-games-to-none lead in this best-of-seven series, was all too willing to talk about the others, especially Ezeli.

“He changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense,” Kerr said of Ezeli. In truth, Kerr changed it by finally allowing Ezeli to get in the game. “And his presence around the rim. The energy he gave us. He played 13 straight minutes.”

After not playing one second through one full game and virtually three quarters of this second game.

“This is a guy who had been out most of the last part of the season,” Kerr said of Ezeli, "and didn’t play much in the (first-round) Houston series. So a phenomenal effort from Fez to really change the game.”

The Warriors were a frantic, stumbling group early on. The Blazers shot like blazes, 66 percent in the first quarter. Fans who were unfamiliar with such happenings chanted and screeched, but it didn’t do much good. Damian Lillard, the Portland guard who grew up in the East Bay, had 25 points through three periods, 17 of those after the half.

But Lillard wouldn’t get a point more. “We played a great three quarters, and they’re a championship team,” said Lillard, in the ultimate summation. "We were in control, and we slipped.”

Big time. The pathetic 12 points scored in the fourth by Portland (on 5-of-19 shooting) was the fewest the Warriors had ever allowed in a quarter since the NBA instituted the 24-second clock in the 1954-55 season.

“They got more aggressive,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said of the Warriors’ late-game effectiveness. “Ezeli came in and had an impact on both ends of the court. Because we couldn’t get the stops, we couldn’t play transition (offense).

“It was disappointing to lose a game that you’re in a position to be in. But we’ve got to close it out.”

This was a huge comeback for the Warriors as they defend the title they won last season. A loss would have left them at one-one and without the home court advantage. The next two games are in Portland, the first on Saturday, and who knows, they could have returned to Oakland down 3-1. Not now.

“Everybody deserves credit,” said Kerr. “Andre kept us in the game in the first half, and Klay stayed with it. Same with Shaun. I think he was one for seven, but on that fadeaway made one of the biggest shots of the game.

“Game twos always scare me, especially if you won the first one relatively easy like we did. It’s human nature. The other team comes out angry, and maybe you let your guard down a little bit.”

It was their backup center who got their guard back. Festus Ezeli was a key to the championship team finally playing like one.

5:46PM

Kerr on Klay: ‘He was awesome’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — If Steph were there ... Even Draymond Green, who had yet another triple-double, was moved to consider the impossible.

Yes, agreed Green, if Steph Curry had been in uniform, and not on the bench in that sharp, blue sport coat, the Warriors, Green’s Warriors, Steph’s Warriors, “could go toe-to-toe with anybody on offense and probably have the advantage.”

But it’s also understood that the NBA is a league in which success more often is determined not by who makes baskets than by who is unable to make baskets, determined on defense, as preached by Warriors coach Steve Kerr — and he’s hardly alone — andas displayed by the W’s on Sunday in the first game of the NBA Western Conference semifinals.

Again they didn’t have Curry, as was the case at the end of the first-round series against Houston. But again they did have pressure, smothering the Blazers, who made only five of their 21 shots in the first period, building up a lead that was as large as 20 and winning 118-106.

“Our offense, we had trouble scoring,” confirmed Portland coach Terry Stotts. “Their defense got into us.”

Their defense, the Warriors’ D, was Klay Thompson shadowing Damian Lillard, who scored 30 points but was a mediocre 8 for 26 shooting; it was Green blocking two shots and Andrew Bogut three; and it was Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston hindering passes with their extended reaches.

Yes, Thompson hit his shots, 14 of 28 (7 of 14 on threes), and had a game-high 37 points, needed in the absence of Curry. But it was at the other end of the court where Thompson impressed his coach.

“Not many guys could chase Damian Lillard around for 37 minutes,” said Kerr, “and score 37 points too. Klay is a tremendous two-way player, and this was a really amazing night for him just in terms of his all-around play, and obviously we got a lot of good performances from people. But that’s a big burden to have to play both ways like that.

“He was awesome.”

Thompson was an All-Star. Green, 23 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, was an All-Star. Sometimes we forget because of that All-Star and MVP — and product endorser and NBA scoring leader — Steph Curry.

Yet a team is more than one man, even if it’s a man who can throw in 30-foot jumpers in the blink of an eye.

Curry, restricted by that bad right knee, said in a TV interview he would be surprised if he couldn’t return by game three of this series, next Sunday at Portland. Until then, or even then, the Warriors have to do what they’ve been doing, use all their skills.

“Defense is the key against these guys,” said Kerr, knowing full well “these guys” could mean any team in the league.

“They,” Kerr said of the Blazers, “are a tremendous offensive team. They have a great system. They are hard to guard, and they spread out so much with their shooting that there are a lot of open lanes.”

Those lanes were closed Sunday, just as stretches of Interstate 880 are so often. The Warriors chased and harassed. The Warriors stymied and baffled. “We score a lot of points,” Lillard said of himself and teammate C.J. McCollum. “We’ve got to be better offensively if we want to have a chance against this team.”

That doesn’t come easily against the Warriors, schooled in the idea of taking the other team’s mistakes and pushing the ball down the floor. “Our offense,” said Kerr, “comes off movement. We can’t stand around.”

Green rarely is seen standing or heard silent. He’s the voice of the Warriors, cheering, chanting, hollering.  Still, it’s just as much a case of "do as I do" as it is "do as I say." Green leads by admonition. He leads by example.

“I don’t go out there saying, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do more of that,’” said Green. “We all have to. Everybody’s got to be more involved on the offensive end. Steph brings so much more to the table that one guy isn’t going to be able to do what he does.

“I just told the guys that we’ve got to come out with a defensive mind-set, and that’s pretty much it. I think we can pretty much just stay solid and get good stuff on the offensive end, but against this team we’ve got to get it done on the defensive end. We’ll get what we need on offense. We did that tonight.”

Absolutely.