No. 1: Warriors more than pretty shots — The game was instantly unforgettable, some of the shot-making was remarkable. But the Golden State Warriors’ ability to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals – it will be played on their home court Monday night in Oakland (9 ET, TNT) – owed as much to the defending champions’ ability to grind their way back from the brink against Oklahoma City Saturday. That was the take of our man Fran Blinebury:
OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s hard to take your eyes off Steph Curry and Klay Thompson when they’re doing their tricks with the basketball way up on the high wire.
Curry paints the canvas with equal parts imagination and sheer fearlessness. Thompson just fires like a machine-gunner with a hair trigger.
Spectacular to watch, it can take your breath and vocabulary away.
Thompson set an NBA playoff record with 11 3-pointers, firing in five of them in the fourth quarter. Curry tossed in a half dozen that included the one that finally dropped the hammer.
Yet in order for the pair of All-Star guards to flap their wings and soar like eagles, it was the ability of the Warriors to wrestle in the dirt that set up the incredible come-from-behind 108-101 win that now forces a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals on Monday night.
“We battled,” said Draymond Green.
“We fought for every opportunity,” said Andre Iguodala.
“We stuck with it,” said Andrew Bogut.
This was another game that could have gone like that last two times the Warriors stepped out onto the court in OKC, where a leak in their defense and ball handling became a raging flood and the defending champs were swept away by 28 and 24 points
But instead of sinking on Saturday night, the Warriors found a way to paddle their arms and kick their legs and kept popping their heads back up above the water.
They were frustrated time again and by the Thunder getting second shot opportunities that produced putback baskets. And yet they went right back to work on the backboards and down in the paint and out on the perimeter, swinging their axes with the resolve of coal miners.
“Game 5 was a battle,” Green said. “This was a war.”
The TV highlights that will run in an endless loop between now and Game 7 will show the Splash Brothers doing the act. It is the part of the show for which everybody buys their ticket. But it is often only possible if the Warriors are playing the kind of high-level, high-intensity defense that carried them to the title a year ago and built a large portion of that historic 73-9 record during the 2015-16 regular season.
The idea is to keep doing enough of the dirty work with the shovels in order to give Curry and Thompson a chance to come out and play. They never gave the longer, more athletic Thunder a chance to run away and hide.
In closing, here were a couple of pertinent Tweets overnight:
No. 2: Fourth-quarter woes return for Thunder — One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And, of course, vice versa, which is the side of Saturday night’s outcome on which the Oklahoma City Thunder landed. Seemingly within reach of The Finals for the first time since 2012, they wound up with a closing performance worthy of some failed bullpen ace nicknamed “El Gasolino.” The Thunder’s two stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, found themselves in the he-who-giveth, he-who-taketh-away dilemma: Without their heroics, OKC wouldn’t have been in position to nail down Game 6. But without their gaffes, the Thunder wouldn’t have been forced to head back to Oracle Arena for the Game 7 showdown. Our own Lang Whitaker reported on the OKC side:
For the Thunder, the loss brought about more questions than answers. Despite not shooting the ball particularly well — the Thunder finished 3-for-23 on 3-pointers — they had every opportunity to close out the series. Yet when it came time to make a closing statement, the Thunder were mostly mute.
During the regular season, fourth quarters were not always the Thunder’s happy place: they lost a league-high 14 games where they’d entered the fourth quarter holding a lead. While they had only lost one playoff game in similar situations, Saturday’s game doubled that total.
“I felt like we didn’t do a great job coming down the stretch,” said Thunder coach Billy Donovan, “and I think we’ve made such great improvements coming down the stretch in terms of just on both offense and defense of doing a better job of executing and that really wasn’t — hasn’t been us the last month and a half. I thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch.”
Historically, whenever things get stagnant for the Thunder they can usually get help on the offensive end from either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, their two transcendent offensive stars. But neither shined particularly bright tonight, at least by their standards, combining for six fourth quarter turnovers and going 3-for-14 from the field when the Thunder were most desperate for baskets.
“I like my shots,” said Durant, who finished 10-for-31 overall, including 1-for-8 on 3s. “It’s just a matter of them going in. When I drive to the rim, they’re bringing extra guys at me, so I’ve got to do a better job making the extra pass. I wish I could have got a lot of those shots back. I felt great on a lot of them, but that’s just how it is.”
“We want [Durant] to be everything he can,” said Thunder center Steven Adams. “He’s one of the best players in the world, so we want him to be aggressive and he can. We as a team support and trust him, him and Russ. So we give him that freedom. Hopefully we make a play and we do the best we can to put them in the situation we need to be in.”
With their offense sputtering, the Thunder’s defense, which has been terrific throughout the series, also hit a rough patch, giving up 60 second half points to the Warriors. While the Thunder’s athletic roster has presented problems for the Warriors’ high-octane offense, particularly with their ability to switch picks and bother shots, tonight the Warriors basically ran a shooting clinic, finishing 21-for-44 on three-pointers. Golden State’s vaunted Splash Brothers, Thompson and Stephen Curry, totaled 70 points.
No. 3: Tyronn Lue, reluctant head coach? — One team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, already has taken care of its conference championship business and is patiently waiting for the West to deliver its champion to The Finals. That team is coached these days by Tyronn Lue, a rookie head coach thrust into that job when Cavaliers GM David Griffin fired David Blatt four months ago. Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com filled the gap between Cavs games this weekend to pull back the curtain on Lue’s hiring and how – even though he aspired to be a head coach someday – Lue didn’t enjoy the manner in which this promotion came:
Tyronn Lue was enjoying a peaceful, rare afternoon off when his phone begin to ring. There would be little peace for the rest of the day.
Eventually, that one call led to others. It sparked conversations between Lue and every member of the Cavaliers roster that eventually reset a season. But it was that initial call that changed everything. General Manager David Griffin was on the line.
In speaking with numerous sources close to “The Call,” cleveland.com learned the details. There were no initial pleasantries. Griffin got right to the point — David Blatt was being relieved of his duties.
Lue’s response was candid and immediate.
“This is f—– up, Griff.”
That didn’t prevent Griffin from calmly asking Lue if he could take over. Hired as the associate head coach a year and a half earlier, becoming the head of a franchise was Lue’s eventual goal. But this didn’t seem right.
Lue pleaded with Griffin, arguing for several minutes that firing Blatt was an excessive move for a team carrying a conference-best 30-11 record. Griffin listened to Lue’s pleas. When they ended, he told Lue the decision has already been carried out.
Griffin circled back to his original question.
“What’s done is done. I’m asking you if you can lead this team?” It had taken a few minutes, but Griffin got the response he sought.
“Yeah, I can f—ing lead this team.”
Griffin then congratulated him.
January 22 marked the birth of a rejuvenated culture that catapulted the franchise to securing its second consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
“I was like, ‘what the f—.’ That was my initial thought,” Lue told cleveland.com. “I didn’t see it coming. I couldn’t believe it. But, you’re prepared because you’ve done the coaching interviews and you have your philosophies. But to fire the head coach and you take over the next day with no practice or anything and you have the Chicago Bulls coming in. It was overwhelming.”
Owner Dan Gilbert has been reluctant to speak about Blatt’s departure and Lue’s promotion. However, after his team eliminated the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals in Friday night’s Game 6, Gilbert took in the sight of a revived and confident roster. He felt it was the appropriate juncture to comment.
“I just think it was a great decision that was made,” Gilbert said to cleveland.com. “You never know what would happen any other way, but I think [Lue is] fantastic. It’s rare that a guy knows the game and has people skills. You get both with him, like offense and defense almost. He’s a special guy.”
No. 4: DeJean-Jones’ death hard on coach — Followers of the NBA were just getting to know Bryce DeJean-Jones, given his brief stints on 10-day contracts this season with the New Orleans Pelicans and the multi-year deal he signed with the team to stick around for 2016-17 and maybe more. But there were plenty of people who knew DeJean-Jones and were stunned by the news of his death in a tragic shooting in Texas. One of those was Dave Rice, who had coached the young wing player during their time together at UNLV. Rice spoke with The Sporting News‘ Mike DeCourcy:
The news came to Dave Rice as a question more so than a statement. A friend from Las Vegas checked in to ask if it were true: Was Bryce Dejean-Jones really dead?
It did not take long for Rice to confirm. Dejean-Jones, 23, had been shot to death in Texas. The Dallas police stated Jones broke into an apartment, kicking in the front door and a bedroom door, and a startled resident had grabbed his gun and shot. The apartment owner released a statement indicating Dejean-Jones had been attempting to break into the home of an “estranged acquaintance” — multiple reports indicate it was the mother of his child — but had entered the wrong home
Rice had coached Dejean-Jones at UNLV for three seasons, after he transfered from Southern California. It was a challenge at times, and Dejean-Jones spent his final season of eligibility elsewhere. But they never lost touch.
“It’s just tough when you lose a former player that was special, that went through quite a bit of adversity — and Bryce would be the first one to say he was responsible for a lot of that adversity,” Rice told Sporting News on Saturday. “But he’d made a lot of progress.
“When you see someone you’ve tried to help and you see that person making progress, becoming a man and doing well, and then something like this happens it’s — tough is not the right adjective, but you know what I’m trying to say.”
A 6-6 forward from Los Angeles, Dejean-Jones spent a redshirt year at UNLV after transferring from Southern California, then played two years for the Rebels and produced scoring averages of 10.3 and 13.6 points a game. He was suspended for a violation of team rules and missed UNLV’s final regular-season game in 2014. He reportedly was heard yelling at teammates following the team’s conference tournament loss to San Diego State. It was time to move on.
Rice, now an assistant coach at Nevada, said the rough end to their time together did not diminish their relationship. The UNLV staff worked with Dejean-Jones to assure his graduation and transfer would go smoothly, and at Iowa State he averaged 10.5 points for a team that won the Big 12 tournament.
When Dejean-Jones was called up from the NBA Development League to play for the New Orleans Pelicans, he called Rice to share the joy. When UNLV made the impetuous decision to fire Rice last January, Dejean-Jones was among the former players who called to commiserate.
“We had a very special relationship,” Rice said. ”He knew that I always had his back. I think that was his way of saying ‘Coach, I’ve got yours.’ “
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Anthony Slater of the Daily Oklahoman provides a forensic breakdown of the Thunder’s Game 6 meltdown. … Luke Walton isn’t talking about the Lakers job for now and certainly isn’t inclined to delve into his interview with Phil Jackson. … New Memphis coach David Fizdale may be close to adding a top-notch lieutenant to his staff. … If you want more Klay Thompson — apologies to Thunder fans — here’s a story from last June on the Warrior guard’s high school roots. … For some reason, that Yahoo! site The Vertical treated Thompson’s Yoda socks as if it was breaking news about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping or something. Here’s what all their fuss was about.