Maybe now Warriors will get more credit for defense

OAKLAND — The value of Draymond Green being named first-team All-Defense and Andrew Bogut making second-team?

“The value for Andrew is $1.9 million,” said their Warriors coach, Steve Kerr.

Yes, there is that. When Bogut finished with the second-most points at center in voting announced Wednesday, behind only DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, it triggered a $1.935-million bonus in the extension Bogut signed in October 2013. Money matters and it particularly matters to Bogut in this case since he accepted a smaller guarantee in exchange for the possibility of greater incentives.

Beyond that, though, there is the visual of two Warriors making All-Defense, and with Green receiving the second-most votes and Bogut the eighth-most. The Warriors.

Maybe now the lazy narrative will end and people will see Golden State as more than a jump-shooting team that relies solely on out-racing opponents. That has not been the case for years. The Warriors were very good defensively last season, with Mark Jackson as coach, and they were very good again this season, under Kerr, finishing first in defensive rating and first in shooting defense.

The perception value.

“I think it’s just great that our guys were recognized for their efforts,” Kerr said. “The strength of this team, really the last couple of years, not just this year but the last two or three years has been the defense. No. 1 in defensive efficiency this year. Our work in the Memphis series the last three games defensively changed the series. A lot of people talk about us being a jump-shooting team. We are. But all those jump shots are really set up by our defense. Our defense allows us to stay in games like last night, where maybe we’re getting blitzed early, we usually can count on making five or six stops in a row, getting out and running and making some of those jump shots. That balance of the perimeter shooting with really good defense is kind of our identity.”

Trailing only Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs in first-place votes and total points is the latest moment in Green’s push to the forefront that had already included taking over the as the starting power forward after previously playing behind David Lee, finishing second in balloting for Defensive Player of the Year, also behind Leonard, and second for Most Improved Player. The only thing that makes it better is the timing — Green becomes a restricted free agent on July 1.

Bogut’s defense has been an obvious key as Golden State progressed from playoff newcomer in his first full season with the Warriors, 2012-13, to the top-seeded team in the Western Conference this season. Now comes the official acknowledgement.

“Financially it was really good,” he said. “I’m kind of used to kind of always just missing out, playing in Milwaukee for so many years. But it’s nice to be recognized. I really take pride in my defense and I think that’s the main role on my team, is to be a rim protector and to be a good defender. To get recognized for it is good. Hopefully the referees read the All-Defensive teams and I can get a few more calls going my way.”

The All-Defense announcement came the same day Golden State’s Stephen Curry was fined $5,000 by the league for flopping on offense in the fourth quarter of the 110-106 victory Tuesday in the opener of the Western Conference finals.

“These plays happen every day,” Kerr said. “I don’t think a game goes by where Jamal Crawford doesn’t flop six times on his three-point shots. It’s part of the game. And I don’t blame him for doing it because a lot of times the refs call it. Russell Westbrook does it. Everybody does it. To all of the sudden just randomly to fine Steph just seems kind of strange. Are we just choosing one time to do this? You can pick out flops every single game, half the guys out on the floor. It just seems sort of random.”

 

Rockets, Howard can only be hopeful

VIDEO: Dwight Howard injury update.

OAKLAND, Calif. — They played exactly half the 82-game regular season schedule without Dwight Howard and still were able to secure the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. So the Rockets will not feel overwhelmed or over matched against if they have to take the court Thursday night without their eight-time All-Star center.

“We hope he plays,” said swingman Corey Brewer. “But if he doesn’t play, we’re just gonna be ready to go.

“Nothing changes. Clint (Capela) is gonna step in. We still have T.J. (Terrence Jones) and Josh (Smith). We still have big guys. We just have to keep playing our game.”

Howard sat out practice to get treatment and put keep ice on his left knee that was injured in the first quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference. Following an MRI Wednesday morning, Howard’s injury was changed from a bruised to a sprained knee and his status to play in Game 2 is now listed as questionable.

“I won’t know till tomorrow,” Howard said. “(The doctors) just said we’re gonna wait till tomorrow. It’s too early…Today I was in some pretty good pain.

“I’ll just stay positive and not allow it to defeat me. I’ve gone through so much this season that I won’t allow this to stop me from doing what I have to do to stay healthy.

“Don’t allow any doubt or negativity to run through my mind. It’s just a freak incident that happened and I’m not going to allow this to change my energy or my mood toward our goal and the positivity we have brought to this team.”

Howard was hurt when teammate and best friend Smith fell into his left knee midway through the first quarter when the two of them were trying to chase down an offensive rebound. He wound up playing 26 minutes in the game, but never had the ability to move around or jump after the injury.

“It was very painful to play last night and the coaches felt like it was best that I sat out the rest of the game,” said Howard, who was on the bench for virtually the entire fourth quarter. “I tried to play on it, but there was really nothing I could do last night.”

Howard missed 41 games during the regular season with painful swelling in his right knee, including a six-week stretch from February through March after undergoing platelet rich therapy. He’s averaged 16.4 points, 13.8 rebounds and is shooting 58 percent in the playoffs.

If the Rockets are going to have a real chance of taking down the No. 1 seeded Warriors — who are now 5-0 against Houston this season — they’ll need to use superior size and strength to hammer away at the middle of the Golden State defense.

But Howard said if his knee doesn’t feel different than the latter part of Game 1, he won’t have a choice.

“I’d have to sit,” he said. “I have to listen to my body. The most important thing is I’m healthy. Nobody can understand an injury but the person that’s injured. This is gonna be on how I feel. If I feel I can tolerate it and go out there and play on through, then I will. But my career’s the most important thing. I want to do whatever I can to help this team, but I can’t help the team if I’m hurting.

“Thank God we don’t have to play tonight (Wednesday).”

New stats tools helpful in heralding league’s defensive best

Capturing defensive value and impact through analytics, most NBA numbers-crunchers will acknowledge, still is pretty challenging. Compared to how those folks feel about their ability to track, measure and assess a player’s or team’s offensive components, the other side of the ball remains an inexact science.

But the NBA clearly is trying, as evidence by the supporting info provided with the release of its All-Defensive teams for 2014-15.

Consider what was noted about San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard‘s finish as the first team’s top vote-getter. The league’s release read:

Leonard teamed with [Tim] Duncan to help San Antonio hold opponents below 100 points per game (97.0) for the 20th consecutive season. Leonard averaged career highs of 5.9 defensive rebounds and a league-leading 2.31 steals for the Spurs, who were 5.1 points better per 100 possessions on defense when he was on the floor than when he was off the floor, according to NBA.com/stats.

Most of those are old-school stats, no big deal. But the use of defensive rating and on/off numbers is an indication that even the so-called expert voters don’t have to guess, go by reputation or rely solely on anecdotal observations anymore.

Similar numbers were invoked supporting Golden State’s Draymond Green and Memphis’ Tony Allen as elite defenders:

The Warriors allowed a league-low 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating that dropped to 96.0 with Green on the court and increased to 102.1 with him off the court. Memphis’ defensive rating was 8.7 points better with Allen on the floor (94.9 per 100 possessions) than with him off the floor (103.6 per 100 possessions). Green ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive rebounding (6.7 per game), and Allen finished third in steals (2.05 per game).

Also of interest in the announcement of the honors was the order of finish. The top three finishers in DPOY balloting – Leonard, Green and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan – all made the first team, but because positions are specified on the all-defensive ballots, Allen actually had the third-most points. First-team votes count two points and second-team votes count one.

With four guard spots available vs. two center spots, Allen had a better chance to appear on more ballots overall. Allen received 88 firsts and 31 seconds for 207 points, while Jordan went 84-19-187.

None of the breaks between first-team and second-team selections, or second-team and “others,” was close on points. But there were a couple quirky finishes. For instance, LeBron James received six first-place votes at forward to Duncan’s five, but missed a second-team forward spot on points, 64-47. Russell Westbrook got 13 first-place votes at guard, more than John Wall‘s seven, but also lost on points, 67-35.

Finally lucky, next challenge for Timberwolves is to be smart


VIDEO: Wolves owner Glen Taylor on winning top pick

It’s better to be lucky than good, the saying goes. But once lucky, it helps to be smart if one hopes to get or stay good.

That’s nobody’s saying, actually, but it is the challenge now facing the Minnesota Timberwolves and specifically Flip Saunders. Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations, a part-owner and the Wolves head coach, got lucky at the NBA Draft lottery Tuesday night largely by being the opposite of good. The Wolves were b-b-b-b-bad to the bone this season, diving to the bottom of the league’s standings (16-66) with the single-mindedness of a bomb squad. They got rewarded when their 4-to-1 bet came in.

Now Minnesota not only has the No. 1 pick in the 2015 Draft for the first time in its 26-year franchise history, it likely will become the first team in NBA annals to have on its roster the three most recent No. 1 picks overall: Anthony Bennett (2013), Andrew Wiggins (’14) and either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns, the two big men projected as this year’s top prospects.

All of which guarantees nothing. Since 1995, only two of the 20 players taken No. 1 overall have won NBA championships: Tim Duncan (1997, five) and LeBron James (2003, two). Eight never made it to an All-Star Game (six if you don’t count youngsters Bennett and Wiggins).

Stockpiling top picks is less important, it seems, than seeing talent and fit where others do not with later picks. It’s a formula executed masterfully by San Antonio and, as Britt Robson of MinnPost.com points out in a piece citing past misguided Wolves decisions, it looks to be working well for current title favorite Golden State:

It is by now an infamous part of Wolves lore that the team passed on Golden State guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry (twice!) in the 2009 draft, taking Ricky Rubio with the fifth pick and Jonny Flynn with the sixth before the Warriors gleefully snapped up Curry.

But it is more instructive to look beyond Curry on the Golden State roster to appreciate how shrewd drafting fostered the 67-win team that now leads Houston in the conference finals and is the favorite to become NBA champions this season. You can go back to 2005, when the Warriors plucked Monte Ellis in the second round with the 40th overall pick. Seven years later, Ellis had become such a dynamic scorer that Golden State offered him as the main bauble in a five-player deal that enabled them to acquire Andrew Bogut, the top pick in 2005 and a current anchor of their low post defense.

Or go to the 2011 draft, when the Warriors, choosing eleventh, grabbed the shooting guard, Klay Thompson, who made Ellis expendable. The Timberwolves picked second in that draft and chose forward Derrick Williams, who was traded away for peanuts (specifically, Luc Mbah a Moute, who lasted 55 games in Minnesota) two years later.

Then slide up a year to the 2012 draft. The Warriors took their current starting small forward, Harrison Barnes, with the seventh pick. They acquired their current backup center, Festus Ezeli, with the 30th pick. And they grabbed their current power forward, Draymond Green — who just finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting — with the 35th pick in the second round.

After recounting Minnesota’s sorry history of botched personnel calls, Robson snaps back to the present. On the heels of two fortunate outcomes – getting Wiggins last summer for one final season of Kevin Love and landing the No. 1 pick next month – he says it’s now on Saunders to maximize return from draft positions where hard work and keen eyes get rewarded against long odds. Specifically, the Wolves need to upgrade from dead last in 3-point attempts and 25th in accuracy.

In his season-ending meeting, Saunders himself brought up the need to become better from long range, and, in answer to my question, said that one of the later draft picks could be a good way to remedy that need. The Wolves currently own the first pick in the second round (31st overall), as well as the 36th overall pick, acquired in the Corey Brewer trade.

[Curry] is the reigning MVP, and had a wonderful game in Tuesday night’s win over Houston. But the most important player on the floor was …Green, the 35th pick in 2012, who keyed the surge with his defense and quickness after Golden State went to a smaller lineup.

Saunders and the Wolves have been uncommonly bold and uncommonly lucky in the past twelve months. At this propitious moment, it is time for this franchise to be uncommonly smart with all of the resources at its disposal.

Blogtable: Advice for Doc Rivers?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Who wins it all (and why)? | Advice for Doc Rivers? | Lottery team that must get it right?



VIDEOAssessing the state of the Clippers after their ouster

> Your nameplate says Doc Rivers, President of Basketball Operations, L.A. Clippers. So tell me Mr. Rivers, what needs to happen this summer for your team to advance past the conference semifinals next season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: First of all, remember it’s only a nickname, so my prescribed remedies aren’t Hippocratically approved. I already blew the “Do no harm” thing when I signed Spencer Hawes to that four-year deal last summer when I could have had Paul Pierce. Anyway, as much as I like Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick, I know they ought to be coming off the bench rather than starting – maybe then our backups wouldn’t look quite as motley. But we’re capped out with DeAndre Jordan about to get his max deal this summer, so I’ll need to sweet-talk some free agents to consider us on exceptions or minimum contracts, and that’s a hard way to plug two of the skill positions. Hawes? Hey, he’s low mileage, clean, a stretch-four willing and able to help (OK, ya got me. That is my early version of a Craigslist ad, because I’ve got to move him). As for Chris Paul, get out the bubble wrap; no way he’s playing 82 next season, when we need him at his healthiest in May.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: First, I’ve got to convince DeAndre Jordan to take our max contract offer and stick around and I’ve got to beat the bushes somewhere, somehow to get somebody to provide some offense at small forward. I really can’t afford to have my starter (Matt Barnes) go scoreless there in a Game 7.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’m seriously out of answers. I think I have to do something bold, but what? I don’t want to trade Chris Paul. I don’t want to trade Blake Griffin. And I don’t think I will do either. I don’t want to let DeAndre Jordan go in free agency. But something has to be done. Playoff meltdowns two years in a row is a screaming sign something is wrong and needs to be addressed, because this wasn’t about the disappointing bench or anything that requires tinkering. This is about an inability to come through in the clutch. My leaders, my best players, have let me down.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Clippers just need another crack at it. I know that sounds so routine and so simple, but that’s it, really. They’re a 50-win team in a tough conference that needs a break or two along the way, just like three or four other contenders in the West. They can’t make wholesale changes even if they wanted to. Doc needs to find some cheap talent the way the Rockets did with Josh Smith and Corey Brewer and what they got with Jason Terry  a role player with experience who can add punch off the bench.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I need Steve Ballmer to tell me focus on coaching and hire somebody else to manage the roster. That person then needs to re-sign DeAndre Jordan and find some way to undo the damage I’ve done to our bench, because we need help in the backcourt and up front. If there’s a chance of getting two or three rotation players (who can shoot and defend) for Blake Griffin, we should explore that. We can still have a top-five offense with shooting around Paul/Jordan pick-and-rolls, and we we need to have more than six players that can be trusted to keep a lead.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The first thing we have to do is take care of DeAndre Jordan. Get him signed and then lock him in the gym until his free throws roll off his fingertips like butter. He has to improve that part of his game if he’s going to be worth the $109 million deal he’s due to sign this summer. Then, I’m taking the carving knife to this roster and finding better supporting players to make sure we don’t stall out again in the conference semifinals. We ran out of gas physically and emotionally, which tells me we need a different breed of player to fill out the starting lineup and the playing rotation. There are upgrades needed all over the roster and they will be made this summer.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I’m recognizing, as I’m sure he does, that organizations win. It’s not just a matter of shoring up the bench. There was no way a franchise known for years as the worst in pro sports could instantly become NBA champion. You need everybody along the chain to be pulling in the same direction, and it starts with Rivers in his relatively new role of leadership. The way he responds to the disappointment can show the way forward.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogIt is so tempting to sit there and say the Clippers need to make major changes, in the afterglow of getting ushered out in the second round of the playoffs and half of California making “they’re still the Clippers jokes.” But I honestly don’t think the Clips were that far away. If the regular season ends differently, for instance, and the Clippers don’t have to play the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the postseason, I’m guessing things would have gone differently against the Rockets. So I think you keep DeAndre, teach him how to shoot free throws, let Blake continue to develop, and maybe swap out Hedo Turkoglu for a more useful body, and then just see how things shake out next season.

Blogtable: Lottery team that must get it right at the 2015 Draft?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Who wins it all (and why)? | Advice for Doc Rivers? | Lottery team that must get it right?



VIDEORelive the 2015 Draft lottery

> Which lottery team is under the most pressure to nail it on Draft night?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com No reason to scan the list or break a sweat on this one. It’s Minnesota. Whoever they pick – Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns – has to be a hit, a star, eventually an All-Star. This franchise can’t afford a Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, Greg Oden or Anthony Bennett at No. 1, not after waiting the entire 27-season history of the franchise for the right to select first in the Draft, not after a playoff drought dating back to 2004. And whichever of the two the Timberwolves select, he needs to be as good or better than the guy they don’t, because second-guesses have piled up higher than snow drifts at Target Center through the years. After having only two No. 1 picks even play for the franchise (Joe Smith and Olowokandi) Minnesota will have the top guys from the past three drafts — Bennett (2013), Andrew Wiggins (2014) and this year’s choice — on its roster come October. Time to howl for the right reasons, Wolves.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com The Lakers. Nobody really wants to see Kobe Bryant‘s head literally explode from another losing season.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com Like it’s possible to pick one. I could barely narrow it down to half the lottery. The Timberwolves have to nail it because picking No. 1 comes with a scrutiny that will never go away. The Lakers have to nail it because they have so little to build on heading to the future. The Knicks have to nail it because they have even less than the Lakers. The Kings have to nail it because it’s the first big decision for Vlade Divac as head of basketball operations. The Pistons have to nail it because it’s time to make a move up the East standings. The Hornets have to nail it because this season was a step backward and must be fixed. Against that backdrop, the 76ers already have a future even without knowing how the 2015 pick develops. Talk about strange.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comUh, is this a trick question? After getting squeezed out of the top three, and out of the Big Man Sweepstakes, the Knicks need to make this one count if only to justify such a stinky season. At No. 4 there’s really not much of a decision to make. Just take whomever’s left over between D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, because the Sixers at No. 3 will take one of them. Phil Jackson doesn’t need to overthink it unless he gets a sweet trade offer. Then it gets dicey.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Lakers have Julius Randle and, at the No. 2 pick, the easiest choice in the Draft. The Knicks don’t have any serious talent under the age of 30 on their roster, and, at No. 4, might have a difficult decision. It seems like Emmanuel Mudiay could be the best player available when they draft, but it’s not clear that he’d be a good fit for the triangle offense. This is the first top-five pick the Knicks have had in 29 years and Phil Jackson‘s record as team president doesn’t look so hot right now. That’s some pressure.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Los Angeles Lakers are off the hook with that No. 2 pick. You simply sit there and let the stud big man the Minnesota Timberwolves pass up fall into your lap. So that leaves the New York Knicks at No. 4 with all of the pressure on Draft night. They’ll have their pick of talented players but not necessarily any transcendent talent. The Knicks don’t have the luxury of just selecting the best available basketball talent at No. 4. They need to identify the one player who projects as both a true difference-maker and one who can come in and pay immediate dividends alongside whatever free-agent haul Phil Jackson is able to round up. But finding a role player at No. 4 won’t do it. The Knicks need to find a future star, an All-Star even, with this lottery pick.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: It’s the Lakers, because they’re used to winning, they expect to win again, and they absolutely need a transformational player to emerge from this pick. The other teams at the top of the lottery are not faced with such high expectations.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I can’t believe we’re here again, but right now, the answer to this question is the Knicks. They’re rebuilding, sure, but they’ve traded away some good assets — Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith — and haven’t really gotten much in return. They needed a home run in this Draft, with two potential franchise centers available, and now it looks as though they won’t get either one. Who can they get at the four spot? There are potentially terrific selections available, but the stakes are much higher. Considering this is their only first-round pick in the next two years, they need to get this right.

Blogtable: Who wins it all (and why)?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Who wins it all (and why)? | Advice for Doc Rivers? | Lottery team that must get it right?



VIDEOThe Starters make their picks for the West finals winner

> The _________ will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. And here’s why.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Boy, this is going to be a controversial pick: the Golden State Warriors. They’ve been the best team at both ends all season, they continue as that in the postseason. They have the MVP in Steph Curry, they have the versatility, they have the depth. They have the greatest home-court advantage in the league and they’ll get any Game 7s on that court. I’ll stop here, because we’re going to be at risk of redundancy as the rest of our crew weighs in.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Warriors. They have been the best team in the league from opening night till now and a relentless sense of purpose and who they are. They also passed a big test in the conference semifinals when the Grizzlies put them in a 2-1 hole and they came back to win three straight. The Western Conference finals promises to go the distance to seven, but home court makes the difference and this is a tougher test than anything that comes from the East.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Warriors. Why? The usual reasons. They score and defend. They have the best home-court advantage still going. The versatility of mixing lineups. And no one is better equipped to withstand four to seven games of LeBron James if it comes to that (which I think it will). Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson, with Andrew Bogut waiting inside. Golden State of the first six or seven games of the playoffs was vulnerable. Golden State since then, playing with much better focus, will be very tough to beat four times.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Warriors. They seem incapable of playing two bad games in a row, and of course it takes four to beat them. The other three remaining teams are all hopelessly flawed, at least more than the Warriors. Their balance on offense and their rotation quickness on defense seems just too much for anyone in the field. And as you know, the Warriors win titles every 40 years.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Golden State Warriors. Quite simply, they’ve been the league’s best team all season long, by a pretty wide margin. They had the No. 1 defense and the No. 2 offense (best remaining of the four teams). They have multiple defenders who can take on tough assignments and they move the ball well enough to take advantage of defenses that try to take their first option(s) away. They have home-court advantage, a 44-3 record at Oracle Arena, and, as we’ve seen multiple times already in this postseason, an ability to erase big deficits pretty quickly.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Golden State Warriors will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. They’re the best team in basketball, on both ends of the floor, and have been for so long now that I cannot remember who held that distinction before they did. The Warriors have the balance, depth, star power and a coach with a wealth of championship experience steering the ship. The MVP, Stephen Curry, has plenty of help and the Warriors have home court advantage on their side throughout the remainder of the playoffs. That’s always a solid recipe for hoisting a title.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The Warriors are in charge, though the Cavs have two things going for them: They’re suddenly playing lockdown defense, and LeBron has the championship experience that Steph Curry has yet to earn. Is that enough to make up for the front-line absences of Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao? Probably not.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: The Golden State Warriors will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. Playing against the Warriors is like trying to run uphill while waist-deep in water. They have too much depth, too much talent, and as soon as they get ahead of you, they press down on the gas. We should also mention that at this point, the Warriors seem to know that they’re good. They’re playing with the confidence of a champion, which is something no coach can teach.

The Cavs-Hawks style referendum


VIDEO: Can the Hawks’ team-first approach defeat the Cavaliers’ star-first approach?

ATLANTA — Much will be made of the contrast in styles between the combatants in the Eastern Conference finals.

The ultimate superstar in LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers versus the ultimate team in the Atlanta Hawks and arguably the best starting unit in basketball this season. It sounds good and lends itself to the underlying drama every playoff series of this magnitude requires.

Whether or not there is any actual validity to that theory, however, remains to be seen.

We’ll know better after Game 1 tonight at Philips Arena (8:30 ET, TNT), when we get our first look at these two teams and their styles that have led them to the brink of fighting for a championship. There is no need in rehashing the particulars of how these teams have arrived here. The Cavaliers rely heavily on LeBron to trigger all things, on both ends of the floor. He is at the center of everything they do, the same as he’s always been on whatever team he’s played on, dating back to his biddy ball days in his native Akron.

The Hawks — their four All-Stars (Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver) and playoff MVP (DeMarre Carroll) — are focused around that five-man unit that has excelled all season long. When they needed to surge past Brooklyn in the first round, they took turns playing hero. Same goes for the way they handled things in the conference semifinals when they needed to squeeze past Washington.

While the Hawks’ main focus will be on LeBron and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers know that they won’t have the luxury of locking into any single player in an effort to slow the Hawks down.

“For us defensively, we have to be in tune,” LeBron told reporters in Cleveland after practice earlier this week. “First of all, the most important thing is the ball and the ball is going to start in Jeff Teague’s hands and then from that point on to Kyle Korver to DeMarre Carroll to Al Horford to Paul Millsap on to the guys that come in after them.”

Cleveland’s role player have stepped up, particularly J.R. Smith, Iman ShumpertTristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavadova, but they still won’t draw the focus of the Hawks the way LeBron and Kyrie will. The Hawks don’t change who and what they are based on the opponent, choosing instead to stick to the principles on both ends of the floor that produced their franchise-record 60-win season and breakthrough to the conference finals.

So even if there are some who are trying create the narrative that this series is a referendum on which style of play will prevail, the Hawks aren’t necessarily interested in playing that game. This isn’t a battle between the pace-and-space style and the hero ball style that has ruled the roost for years.

“Hero, that word,” Korver said. “It is unique. There’s only so many elite, elite superstars. The rest of us have to figure out how to win. So this is how we do it. And we feel like it’s a good way to play, a fun way to play. And a fun game to watch. This is who we are and we’ve all kind of taken turns taking and making shots at the end and it’s probably going to continue to be that way. The last series it felt like every game was down to the wire and different guys made different plays in different games. Gonna be the same thing this time around.”

Even if they don’t want to dive in on the narrative, Korver is well aware that the trial of this style versus that style will rage on.

“It feels like it’s been on trial for a while, huh?” he said. “Feels like we get asked this question a lot. Obviously, the fire keeps burning brighter. And that’s okay. That’s what we play for. We’re not here trying to sell the world that this is better than hero ball or whatever. This is just who we are and how we have to play and it gives us our best chance to win. And we’re just trying to do it the best that we can.”

Morning shootaround — May 20


VIDEO: Highlights from Game 1 of the Western Conference finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rockets try not to fret Howard’s injury | Presti: Durant healing up so far | Dellavedova steps up | Knicks have a plan for No. 4 pick

No. 1: Rockets not fretting Howard’s injury too much (yet) — Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard had limited effectiveness in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last night after teammate Josh Smith rolled into his left knee on a play. Howard’s status for Wednesday’s Game 2 remains unknown, but based on the postgame buzz our Scott Howard-Cooper was able to sniff out, Houston is trying to remain optimistic as it awaits further updates:

The good news, because there actually is some: It was the left knee this time, not the one that cost him 41 games in the regular season, and the initial diagnosis on Tuesday night was that Dwight Howard had suffered a bruise when the impact from Josh Smith crashing into the leg in the first quarter could have been much worse.

The bad news: Almost everything else.

The Rockets lost the opener of the Western Conference finals to the Warriors on Tuesday at Oracle Arena, lost Howard for most of the night because of another knee injury, are unsure of his availability heading toward Game 2 on Thursday, and all while facing a team that never needs a second invitation to jet around the court playing small ball.

There was no telling in the aftermath of Golden State’s 110-106 victory how much the Rockets can expect, if anything, from Howard two nights later. Another update on his status is likely to come after practice Wednesday at the same Oracle Arena that thundered with noise right on schedule as the home team played in the conference finals for the first time in nearly 39 years.

Teammate and long-time friend Smith said “I’m really concerned,” but declined to elaborate what pushed him to that place as Houston gave no sense the injury was serious. Coach Kevin McHale, not waiting for the end of the first question at his postgame news conference, said “I don’t know. We’ll probably know tomorrow.”

Howard sounded the most optimistic tone of all, insisting: “I don’t think that it’s going to be something that is going to restrict me from playing for the rest of the series. Everything happens for a reason. I’m not going to kill myself over it. I’m just going to stay positive, stay focused and the doctors are going to do their job to make sure I get on the floor.”


VIDEO: Dwight Howard suffers a knee injury in Game 1

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Wolves get another No. 1 to team with Wiggins, learn from KG


VIDEO: 2015 Draft Lottery Drawing

NEW YORK — There will likely be three straight No. 1 picks on the same roster next season.

The Minnesota Timberwolves won the No. 1 pick of the 2015 Draft at Tuesday’s Lottery, less than nine months after acquiring the No. 1 picks from 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) in a trade with Cleveland for Kevin Love.

Minnesota is the first team to finish with the league’s worst record and win the Lottery since the Orlando Magic did it in 2004. They had a 25 percent chance to win it.

“I didn’t anticipate that it would go this way,” Wolves owner Glen Taylor said afterward, noting that it was far more likely that his team didn’t win the No. 1 pick. “I just feel really honored that we have a chance to be in this position.”

While Bennett is possibly a bust, Wiggins looks like a two-way star. And the Wolves have three more former Lottery picks under the age of 25 – Zach LaVine (No. 13 in 2014), Shabazz Muhammad (No. 14 in 2013) and Ricky Rubio (No. 5 in 2009) – on the roster as well.

They’ll likely add a big man – Duke’s Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns – to that young core. And that young big could have Kevin Garnett as a mentor. Taylor said he expects Garnett, a free agent this summer, to be back, saying that Garnett has already been working out.

“I see that he’s out working really hard to get his knees into shape,” Taylor said. “So I anticipate that he’s interested in coming back. I can’t say that for sure, but I don’t know why he would be out there doing what he’s doing if he didn’t want to come back.”

Taylor also believes that Flip Saunders, currently the Wolves’ president and head coach, will remain on the bench for another year.

“It’s not definite,” Taylor said, “but I think with the effort that he put in this year to bring this team along that it’s probably 90 percent, unless he sees somebody and he changes his mind and he can convince me.

“I think eventually I want a different coach. I want him to be the GM. My guess is that he’ll go another year.”

The New York Knicks, who were the worst team in the league (the spot that won the Lottery) with just five days left in the season, were the only team to move down from their spot on Tuesday. They fell from second to fourth, swapping spots with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have a higher pick,” Knicks general manager Steve Mills said, “but we went into this knowing that, anywhere from 1-5, we were going to get a good player. And as we look at this, this is a player that’s complementary to a player that we have in place in Carmelo and what we’re going to do in free agency.”

At No. 2, the Lakers could add the big man that the Wolves don’t pick, teaming him with last year’s No. 7 pick Julius Randle for the post-Kobe-Bryant era, which will begin after next season.

At No. 3, the Philadelphia 76ers should get a guard to feed Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel. But GM Sam Hinkie certainly isn’t going to say that he wouldn’t draft one of the bigs if he was available.

“History’s not so kind to drafting for need,” Hinkie said. “I think, wherever we are, we’ll pay a lot of attention to who we think is the best player and how that looks. Sometimes, it’s close, and that moves some things. And sometimes, it’s not close.

“A year ago, people would have reasonably said we don’t need Joel Embiid. I think we need Joel Embiid and I think what he’ll provide for us will be useful.”