NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Green: ‘This is not where we expected to be’— For all the wins the Golden State Warriors amassed in the regular season — 73 of them to be exact — what they wouldn’t give to have a win or two more this morning. After suffering another drubbing at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, the Warriors are down 3-1 after last night’s 118-94 loss in Game 4. After the game, many of the Warriors were in many ways in a state of disbelief that their dream season is just one loss away from being over. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski has more on the scene in Golden State’s locker room and how this series has affected the team’s emotional center, forward Draymond Green:
These Golden State Warriors are a rollicking, rolling party bus, the loudest and surest sounds forever coming out this corner of the dressing room. For now, Draymond Green gathered himself in the stillness of the air, uncomfortable with the morose mood surrounding him. He sifted through text messages on his phone and confessed the truth over a sudden and spectacular failure in these Western Conference finals.
“It’s stunning,” Green told The Vertical. “This is not where we expected to be.”
Alone in the corner of the locker room – only the sound of showers in the distance – Green considered the circumstances of the Oklahoma City Thunder train running through these wobbly Warriors. The Warriors are down 3-1, the greatest regular season in NBA history slipping away on a lost trip to America’s dust bowl.
“Yeah, it’s pretty stunning,” Green said.
Green should’ve had Chesapeake Energy Arena livid that the NBA passed on suspending him, livid that he fed upon all the anger and channeled it into the destruction of the Thunder. All his life, Green found a way to validate his villainous basketball self, and he failed on Tuesday night.
“It’s who I am,” Green told The Vertical. “It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I’ve thrived off. It’s frustrating, because I know that’s who I always am.
“And right now, I’m not myself. I’m thinking too much, and that’s leading to all the things that I’m not supposed to be doing.
“I just … I just have to be me.”
Stephen Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
For months, the Warriors were playing for history. Seventy-three victories, the best team ever and out of nowhere, Golden State is suddenly playing for its survival.
“Right there, that’s what it is,” Green told The Vertical. “We’re the leaders of this team, and we’ve got to be better. Last year, when we were down 2-1 (to Memphis), we talked and we said, ‘Hey, you and me have got to be better.’ And right now, we both have got to be better.”
Better won’t be good enough against this Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook monolith. Better will get them run out of Oracle in Game 5, run out of the season. The Thunder have been hungrier, sharper and constructed to force the Warriors to adapt to them. The Warriors have to be historic again, have to be one of the great teams in history to fight themselves out of this trouble, out of a 3-1 hole.
Money Green nodded late Monday night in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena, and agreed with it all. In the quiet of the losing locker room, in a private moment in the deep corner, he believed this too: “If anyone can do this,” Draymond Green of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors told The Vertical, “we can.”
No. 2: Roberson comes up big in Game 4 win — Just call him the Western Conference finals version of Bismack Biyombo … kind of. Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Andre Roberson, much like Biyombo, has made a name for himself in the playoffs thanks to a string of solid playoff performances in a series few gave his team a shot at winning. At the end of Oklahoma City’s drubbing the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 last night, Roberson finished with a solid night stats-wise (a career-high 17 points), but it was his defensive work that mucked up the Warriors’ offense and has OKC on the cusp of a Finals berth. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more:
Klay Thompson bricked a 3-pointer on one end, the sharpshooter drawing a rare blank as he tried to snipe his shell-shocked Warriors back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit.
Eighteen seconds later, Andre Roberson dropped in a corner 3 on the other, the non-shooter nailing a 3 for a fifth consecutive game, bumping the Thunder’s commanding lead to 16. It soon jumped to 18 to 20 and beyond, the cushion growing as Roberson’s point total kept rising.
“It’s funny,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “After Game 2 people are saying to me: ‘Is this guy going to even play anymore?’ Andre’s a good basketball player and I think sometimes the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays.”
During the layoff between Games 2 and 3, the Thunder watched plenty of game film. On it, there was no hiding from Golden State’s clear defensive scheme: ignore Roberson, roam completely off him and trust that he wouldn’t make Golden State pay.
“Definitely felt disrespected,” Roberson said.
So before Game 3, Donovan changed up Roberson’s role. He didn’t go away from Roberson, but instead utilized him more. Donovan started bringing him to the ball as a screener, diving him as a roller, sending him on different slashing assignments around the baseline and kept drilling into his head: If you’re open, shoot the 3.
So Roberson did, making three 3s in Game 3 and totaling 13 points in the blowout win. In Game 4, he one-upped that performance.
“I’m a basketball player, man,” Roberson said, a bit peeved at the notion that he’s a one-sided liability. “I can go out there and do it all.”
His stat-line on Tuesday night bore that out: 17 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, five steals and two blocks – becoming the only player in the past four seasons to reach those numbers against Golden State. In his 40 minutes, OKC outscored the Warriors by 25.
Roberson finished his fourth-quarter offensive spurt with a pick-and-roll dunk — essentially serving as OKC’s small-ball power forward on offense — and then an offensive rebound putback, which put the Thunder up 20 with 3:47 left.
The rout was on. The crowd was electric. The Thunder was up 3-1 in the series. Roberson was at the center of it all.
No. 3: Will Raptors be able to keep Biyombo around? — Seemingly every postseason, a player or two will step up in a contract year and give his current team reason to reassess what he may be worth in the looming offseason’s open market. This spring, one such player is Toronto Raptors center Bismack Biyombo, who set a team record for rebounds in a playoff game (26) and has keyed the team’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. As Game 5 of the series looms tonight (8:30 ET, ESPN), the Raptors have to wonder if Biyombo’s rise in the postseason means the unrestricted free agent will seek as much green as possible this summer. Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun has more:
In order to reel in Biyombo at a bargain-level price (just shy of $3 million) after Charlotte surprisingly let the 2011 No. 7 overall pick leave last summer, GM Masai Ujiri had to include a player option. That was a hedge Biyombo and his agent smartly made, betting he would have a good season and stand to make more as a free agent again this summer.
But nobody saw this season coming. Biyombo stepped in admirably for injured starter Jonas Valanciunas in the regular season, then came up with some huge performances in the first round against Indiana and then later against Cleveland as Toronto surprisingly squared the Eastern Conference final at two games apiece.
Biyombo is third in the playoffs in rebound percentage, leads everybody in offensive and defensive boards, is third in blocks and is even ninth in field-goal percentage. He’s also third in the playoffs in defensive win shares, first in post-play celebrations and is up there with Draymond Green, Matthew Dellavedova and Steven Adams in opponents annoyed.
He’s the spirit of the Raptors, the defensive lynchpin and, in just one year, one of the biggest fan favourites in franchise history.
But Toronto is not in a good spot cap-wise, even with the NBA’s salary cap taking another huge jump.
With big raises kicking in for Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, and counting a $15.15 million cap hold for DeMar DeRozan before he signs a potential max deal, the Raptors will only have about $5-7 million to offer Biyombo. On the open market, he’ll likely get somewhere between $10-15 million. They don’t own the Bird Rights on Biyombo that would allow them to exceed the cap to re-sign him.
That means someone would have to be moved to open up the space for Biyombo. The team’s brass loves Ross, despite his flaws, but his contract is the one that works if retaining Biyombo is regarded as a necessity.
With so much already committed to Valanciunas long-term and Lucas Nogueira signed for cheap, it will be tempting to let Biyombo enjoy his monster raise elsewhere, but this team would not be the same without the big man. Not defensively and not chemistry-wise.
This will be an extremely tough decision for Ujiri. A major test.
Biyombo is a fantastic screener, one of the NBA’s best, and his 4.1 screen assists per game in the post-season is second only to DeAndre Jordan, who was eliminated in the first round (Valanciunas ranks fifth at 3.5).
Biyombo even went out and locked down J.R. Smith, who was trying to launch a three-pointer at a pivotal moment in Game 4.
“Biz is one of our best athletes. He’s always teasing about chasing lions and everything in the Congo,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
“I’ve got to go over there this summer and see that. But he’s got great feet, and his length, he’s longer than you think, so that allows him to guard perimeter guys pretty well. That’s why we don’t mind switching with him.”
The Raptors boast an embarrassment of riches at the centre position. They can ride with just one of them moving forward, or they can take advantage of the outstanding combination as much as possible, though they are limited by the fact that Valanciunas and Biyombo can’t play beside each other.
If they do choose to keep both, it will take some juggling by Ujiri.
No. 4: Cavs’ Lue expecting bigger role for Frye in Game 5 — The Cleveland Cavaliers host the Toronto Raptors for Game 5 of their Eastern Conference final series tonight (8:30 ET, ESPN) with the series knotted at 2-2. The Cavs fought back late in Game 4 thanks to a play the Raptors couldn’t seem to stop until the last minute and a lineup change that seemed to pay dividends. Star forward Kevin Love has sat out the entire fourth quarter of the last two games in the series as coach Tyronn Lue has used Channing Frye (and his outside shooting touch) more. As Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reports, Lue expects more of Frye in Game 5 … and also wants to see Love rebound in his play, too:
Big man Channing Frye came into the game earlier than usual, replacing overmatched Tristan Thompson, as the Cavs were hoping Frye’s floor spacing would lessen Bismack Biyombo‘s impact, pulling the rim protector and relentless rebounder away from the hoop.
Frye also got the nod in the fourth quarter, as the Cavs were mounting a comeback.
“I liked it a lot,” Lue said of the lineup before admitting it would be used more moving forward.
But none of Lue’s changes worked — at least not well enough to keep the suddenly confident Raptors from evening the series.
The Cavs aren’t panicking and they aren’t looking to make major changes prior to Game 5. They have used a “take what the defense gives” approach, which will continue to be the plan, even after it led to 82 3-pointers in the last two games despite dominating the paint in the first two games.
That means Kevin Love upping his game after scoring 13 points on 5-of-23 from the field, including 3-of-11 from beyond the arc in back-to-back losses.
“He’s just missed shots,” Lue said of Love. “That’s part of the game. I mean, you know, he’s been playing great all playoffs and at some point you’re going to miss some shots.”
Following the film session, a few players stepped on the court for some light shooting. Love was one, working up a sweat with assistant Phil Handy, trying to focus on making quicker, more aggressive post moves and hoisting a plethora of elbow jumpers, switching between bank shots and going straight at the hoop.
The Cavs need Love to regain his form. He was expected to be a difference-maker during this postseason run after dislocating his shoulder last year. He was also supposed to be a focal point against Toronto, exploiting mismatches and making the defense pay for focusing too much on James and Kyrie Irving.
Instead, Love’s been a spectator in back-to-back fourth quarters. Lue gave a logical explanation, but it’s not what the Cavs expected, especially after Love’s playoff run began with eight straight double doubles.
“Did I talk to him,” Lue asked when addressing Love’s fourth quarter absence. “No, he understands that Channing was playing well and I just decided to ride with Channing. Kevin understands that.”
In the first two games, the Cavs did their job, protecting home court. The Raptors answered. Now it’s up to the Cavs to hold serve.
“We had the same momentum, we won two games and we went up there and they flipped the script on us,” Lue said. “They play well at home and we know they play great at home and now we got to come back and let our home crowd get behind us but we’ve got to give our home crowd something to cheer for. I think the guys are ready for that and we have to do it tomorrow.”
One day after losing Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals and giving the Raptors renewed belief, the Cavs were back to work, reliving all their errors, watching what went wrong in Toronto.
The series is even, the Raptors have won two straight. But the Cavs, who still have homecourt, learned plenty of lessons. And believe they now have the answers.
“I wouldn’t say desperation,” guard Matthew Dellavedova said when asked what’s required in Game 5. “I would just say more urgency.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Memphis Grizzlies reportedly have strong interest in David Fizdale as their next coach … A fantastic long read on Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant … Get to know Toronto Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia … TNT analyst Charles Barkley had some strong words about the state of the NBA … For the record, Dikembe Mutombo is fine with Bismack Biyombo copying his trademark finger-wag after blocking a shot … 39 fun facts about Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Russell Westbrook … The cost of building the Sacramento Kings’ new arena, the Golden 1 Center, has risen by $16 million … So Golden State is down 3-1 in its series. How many teams have come back from that deficit to win?