Posts Tagged ‘Festus Ezeli’

Right & Wrong: Warriors win Game 6 and First Finals in 40 years

VIDEO: Andre Iguodala grabs an unlikely Finals MVP award

CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors wobbled, but in the end they wouldn’t fall down. After trailing 2-1 early in the NBA Finals, the Warriors went small and ran away with the series, rallying to take three in a row over the Cleveland Cavaliers, including a 105-97 win in Game 6. The Warriors followed the same recipe that led to wins in Games 4 and 5, going with a shorter lineup and trying to push the tempo throughout the night.

Here’s a look at what went right and wrong in Game 6.

Right: The substitution that perhaps saved the Warriors season came before Game 4, when Steve Kerr swapped out starting center Andrew Bogut in favor of small forward Andre Iguodala. Though Iguodala hadn’t started a game all season, he slid seamlessly into the front five, averaging 20.3 ppg in his three starts. Iguodala also did a terrific job pestering LeBron James on the defensive end. In Game 6, early on the Cavs seemed content to give Iguodala perimeter jumpers, and he stepped up to the challenge, finishing with 25 points and putting a lock on the NBA Finals MVP award. “My mind was working so many ways,” said Iguodala. “Like, what’s going to happen if you win? What’s going to happen if you lose? How do you approach the game starting? Do you come out firing? Do you let it just come to you? So for me, it was just playing my game. If you’re feeling it, shoot it. If you feel like you can make a play for somebody else, just make a play for somebody else.”

Wrong: I’m putting LeBron James in the “wrong” category only because he was on the losing team. Yes, he’s now 2-for-6 in the NBA Finals, but the truth is, LeBron didn’t really do much wrong this entire series. Even in Game 6, when he was clearly tired and struggling to knock down jumpers, James finished with a monster stat-line: 32 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists. For the Finals, James averaged 45.8 minutes per game, and in that time averaged 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg. Considering the injuries afflicting the Cavs and the struggles of some of James’ teammates, it was about as impressive a performance in a losing effort as you’ll ever see.

Right: An often-overlooked part of the Warriors going to their small lineup and using Iguodala as a starter was 6-foot-7 Draymond Green logging time at center. There were times when Cleveland struggled to take advantage of a size advantage — like in Game 5 when they tried to match small lineups with the Warriors — but the Cavs went big in Game 6, playing the seven-footer Timofey Mozgov for 32 minutes. Despite being outsized, Green more than held his own in Game 6, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, the first triple-double by a Warrior in Finals history. Not a bad way at all to finish out his season, as the player overlooked coming into the NBA heads toward free agency this summer. “I won the National Player of the Year Award in college, consensus All-American,” Green said. “I made every, every single First Team All-American that you could possibly make, and I was a second round pick, and a lot of people said I could never play in this league: ‘Too slow, too small, can’t shoot well enough, can’t defend nobody. What does he do well? He doesn’t have a skill.’ I’ve got heart, and that’s what stands out.”

Wrong: In this close-out game, with possessions at a premium in the postseason, the Cavaliers just couldn’t take care of the ball. Even though the Cavs got to the free-throw line 39 times, they finished Game 6 with a whopping 19 turnovers, including 6 from James and 3 from Mozgov. While Cleveland was able to control the tempo early on — the score was tied at 8 after 6 minutes – they couldn’t capitalize on the deliberate pace, as they had 5 turnovers during that span, including a couple of 24-second violations.

Right: The other way the Warriors were able to successfully deviate from their “small” lineup was by using Festus Ezeli, who spent most of the season as a hard-playing reserve. In 11 minutes in Game 6, Ezeli scored 10 points, including a wicked put-back dunk with a few minutes to go in the third. Still just 25 years old, Ezeli looks to be a vibrant part of Golden State’s future.

Wrong: Let’s take a second and recognize that the Cavaliers were essentially transformed into the Cadavers in the NBA Finals, a wounded shell of the team that started the season, as they were missing Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao. Injuries are a part of sports, sure, but they’re also a “wrong” part of sports. “I’ve been watching basketball for a long time,” said James. “I’m an historian of the game. I don’t know any other team that’s gotten to The Finals without two All Stars. I cannot remember thinking of it. I don’t even know if it’s ever happened, for a team to lose two All Stars and still be able to make it to The Finals. Even what [Varejao] brings to our team as well, that’s another double double guy. We had three play-makers in suits this round and even throughout the playoffs. You’ve got to have all the play-makers. You’ve got to be healthy. You’ve got to be at full strength to win it. We weren’t.”

The Finals Stat: Game 5


VIDEO: Stephen Curry talks post-game about the Warriors’ win.

Game 5 basics
CLE GSW
Pace 95.1 95.1
OffRtg 96.6 108.4
EFG% 46.9% 56.0%
OREB% 23.8% 28.9%
TO Ratio 14.9 17.7
FTA rate 0.259 0.453

OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors are one win from their first championship in 40 years after outlasting the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of The Finals on Sunday. Stephen Curry caught fire, leading the way with 37 points. Andre Iguodala had another terrific, both-ends-of-the-floor performance and LeBron James put up more ridiculous numbers (40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists) in a losing effort.

One stat stood out from the rest in the Warriors’ 104-91 victory.

The stat

12:31 – Total playing time for centers in Game 5.

The context

It was the small-ball game. Not only did the Warriors stick with their no-center starting lineup (Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in the frontcourt), but the Cavs went small for most of the night as well.

Mozgov was replaced by J.R. Smith less than five minutes into the game and didn’t return until the final minute of the third quarter. The Cavs even went to a super-small lineup – with James playing point-center, surrounded by guards and small forwards – for a few minutes in the first quarter. That lineup was a plus-5.

Mozgov played just 9:19 total. Warriors back-up center Festus Ezeli played 3:12 in the second half (to match up with Mozgov). Andrew Bogut, who has started 83 games this season, did not play.

With extra floor spacing, it was the best offensive game of the series, with the teams combining to score 111 points per 100 possessions. Sixty-one 3-pointers were launched, with James, Curry and Klay Thompson hitting threes of 34, 26 and 29 feet in a 58-second sequence early in the fourth quarter.

“It’s more screen-and-roll heavy,” Curry said of the small-ball action. “That’s how we’ve been effective all year, because we have the versatility and the talent, all 1 through 5 on the floor, to be able to make those plays.”

The Cavs looked like they had that versatility at times, too. They hung around with the Warriors, taking a one-point lead that James’ 34-footer. But the Warriors are obviously the best small-ball team in the league, and they outlasted the Cavs, thanks to Curry’s 17-point fourth quarter. Golden State’s new starters were a plus-14 together in a little less than 21 minutes.

“I felt that the best chance for us to stay in the game and to have a chance to win,” Cavs coach David Blatt said, “was to play it the way we played it.”

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
OREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
TO Ratio = Turnovers per 100 possessions
FTA Rate = FTA / FGA

Game 4: 24-second thoughts

VIDEO: Andre Iguodala put on a show for the Warriors in Game 4

24Steve Kerr blinks first. Andre Iguodala in starting lineup for Andrew Bogut.

23 — Time for the Warriors to get inspiration from national anthem singer Usher? Here I Stand.

22LeBron James with the no-look, over-the-head pass for Mozgov dunk is pure Magic.

21 — They can’t find those escaped convicts from N.Y. prison, but bloodhounds seem to have located Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in first quarter for a change.

20 — Nine minutes, 1-for-4 shooting, 0-for-2 on treys. “Oh yeah, just remembered I’m Matthew Dellavedova, not Jerry West.”

19 — Kerr got everything he wanted out of his lineup change. Better pace, spread the floor, moving the ball, Iguodala everywhere. Your serve, David Blatt.

18 — After telling his team in huddle, “They’re only using seven players, they’ll wear down,” where does Kerr go with his own rotation? Do Bogut and Festus Ezeli get to take off their warmups?

17 — Got to give credit to Iguodala for making the sacrifice to come off the bench all year and to David Lee for being virtually buried, but staying ready to perform in The Finals.

16 — Dear Cavs: As much as they’ve struggled at times in the series, it’s never really a good idea to leave the Splash Brothers open.

15 — Warriors have 12 assists on first 16 baskets. Oh, so that’s the team that won 67 games this season.

14 — Think about it: LeBron just six shots in first 17 minutes. Hardly a plan for success.

13 —LeBron bleeds after collision with TV camera. Would you blame any of the other players on the court for licking their chops and wishing they could get a few pints of that stuff?

12 — World back spinning properly on its axis. Small-ball Warriors moving, scoring, rebounding, in control.

11 — Matthew Dellavedova back-to-back 3s out of the locker room. Did he return to his old routine and get a triple-shot of espresso at halftime?

10 — You can talk about the Warriors shooters cooling off early in third quarter. But pace, pace, pace. The Cavs go back to grinding and get back in the game.

9 — Sure, he’s got an unflappable, unflinching air about him, but Stephen Curry looks a bit disengaged from all of the emotion of what’s at stake in what has become a three-point game.

8 — OK, who had the prop bet in Vegas where Timofey Mozgov (21 points) plays a virtual draw with the combined Splash Brothers (22) in the first three quarters?

7 — How much does it say that on a night when LeBron appears a little out of sorts, fatigued, he’s closing in on another triple-double with 20 points, nine rebounds, seven assists going into fourth quarter?

6 — How is it that J.R. Smith can arrive at the arena riding a hoverboard, but his game usually needs training wheels?

5 — Was David Blatt getting paid by the word for that long-winded answer to Doris Burke or just trying to talk his team back into the game? Where is grunting Smiley Popovich when we need him?

4

3 — Oh, Mama, can this really be the end? To be stuck inside of Mobile with with the Memphis blues again.  Now the Cavs got a taste of Golden State playing with desperation. Just as they responded in conference semifinals down 2-1 to Grizzlies, the Warriors started off adversity and responded on the road.

2 — Best thing for the Cavs after a 103-82 thumping? The calendar. Two days off. It looked like a plow horse against American Pharoah.

1 — Gettin’ Iggy Wit It.  Move of the series so far by Kerr — Iguodala gets first start of the season and comes through with 22 points, four treys, eight rebounds and defense on LeBron.  If Warriors win series, he could the MVP.

Game 3: 24-second thoughts

VIDEO: Matthew Dellavedova was all over the floor in Game 3

24
— Four quarters just isn’t enough in these Finals. Two games and two times we’ve gone to the fifth. If it happens again tonight, we just might need another fifth to survive.

23 — Nice job, but just asking: How many of the Warriors and Cavs have Rascal Flatts pumping through their headphones?

22Jeff Van Gundy on Stephen Curry: “It’s not like he’s in a slump.” Well, it’s not one bad night. In his last four playoff games, Curry has shot 29-for-82.

21Iman Shumpert to the locker room with shoulder injury. This “next man up” stuff for the Cavaliers only works as long as you have a next man.

20 — Two words: Tristan Thompson. And six points and seven rebounds. On a night when Cavs need to be big, nobody has played bigger in the first quarter.

19 — Happy Festus-vus! Off the Warriors’ bench comes Festus Ezeli for the Feats of Strength when Golden State needs it. He’s got a lot of problems with you people.

18 — Toss a coin. Tonight we get the “good” J.R. Smith. 3-for-3 start.

17 — How much Warriors’ frustration is showing? Curry has to restrain Draymond Green from going after a referee.

16 — More Tristan Thompson.

15 — How much more of the burden can LeBron James carry? Now he’s got to overcome his own teammate (Thompson) knocking the ball out of the basket.

14 — The series has been a reminder of just how much Andre Iguodala gave up of himself to come off the bench for the Dubs. Iggy has been sensational at both ends of the floor.

13 — Cavs’ defense is a dirty, gritty, grinding, relentless, suffocating thing of beauty. Warriors 15-for-44 (.341) and 3-for-18 (.188) at the half.

12 — If LeBron were 30 of 88 shooting in the last 4 1/2 playoff games as Curry is, just how much grief would he be taking?

11 — Warriors’ 37 points in first half is as much as Klay Thompson scored by himself in third quarter Jan. 24 vs. Kings.

10 — A spot-up 3 and then a gorgeous runner. Dellavedova-Curry is moving into Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson territory.

9 — MVP sighting midway through third quarter. Stephen Curry gets his first bucket since the opening Warriors score of the night.

8 — Controlling the pace, making the plays, hitting the fadeaway, blocking shots — LeBron has the game, the Warriors, The Finals in the palm of his hand.

7 — Curry caught with ball in his hands on layup as horn sounds to end third quarter. That sums up his night so far.

6 — Iguodala 3 from corner cuts the 17-point lead down to nine just 2:02 into fourth quarter. Laissez les bon temps rouler. Remember, Warriors came from 20 points in fourth (Game 3) at New Orleans way back in the first round of the playoffs.

5 — Doesn’t that guy on his way to 17-point fourth quarter look a lot like Stephen Curry? We should just hit fast forward and go to overtime.

4 — LeBron limps off court to the bench. One more injury and the Cavs should be able to clinch the championship by Thursday.

3 — The little Aussie isn’t the only one selling out with his hustle. After missed baseline jumper, the superstar LeBron (40-12-8) — sprints back to make the key deflection on Curry. He’s got 123 points in 142 minutes, most ever in first three games of Finals.

2Danny Crawford blew his whistle and then decided it was a good time to show the world his Rick Perry impersonation. “Ooops!”

1 — So what do you think the devil is going to do with that soul Delly sold him?

Warriors’ Bogut out indefinitely

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — It’s been a rough week (relatively speaking) for the Golden State Warriors. On Tuesday, their 16-game winning streak came to an end. And on Thursday, they announced that center Andrew Bogut would be out indefinitely after undergoing platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy on his right knee.

Bogut’s value to the Warriors is huge. He’s the anchor of their No. 1 defense, ranking as one of the league’s best rim protectors. The Dubs have allowed just 91.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, vs. 98.6 with him on the bench.

Golden State still ranks as one of the deepest teams in the league. They have Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights to man the center spot in Bogut’s absence, and they could get David Lee back on Monday. They’re fortunate to have three days off after hosting the Oklahoma City on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

But Bogut is a big part of what they do on both ends of the floor. Not only have the Warriors improved defensively, but they’ve become more efficient on offense with increased ball movement. And Bogut ranks second among centers in assist ratio.

Golden State has the best record in the league, but they’re just two games ahead of fourth-place Portland in the Western Conference before Thursday’s games. And they don’t know when they’re getting back one of their most important players.

Ezeli return a big moment for Warriors

image

If Festus Ezeli can stay healthy, the Warriors could have three 7-footers to protect the rim. (NBAE via Getty Images)

OAKLAND — Under cover of the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series at the same time, with the Clippers resting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the Warriors sitting ill Andrew Bogut and using David Lee for 19 minutes, with everyone ready for the exhibition schedule to be over already, Tuesday night at Oracle Arena unsuspectingly turned meaningful.

Festus Ezeli played, newsworthy in itself given the length of his absence, and on his 25th birthday at that as an added layer to the celebratory mood of getting directions to the court. That he played well, though, was the thing, enough of a development to attach value to a sloppy preseason game, enough to prompt coach Steve Kerr to note that Ezeli “was really aggressive with what he did,” a sign that Ezeli was not shying away from contact inside.

Enough to nudge the jammed Western Conference playoff pack.

It was such a little thing — 11 minutes, just shy of the 12-minute limit imposed by the medical staff, 10 points, three rebounds, four baskets in five attempts, five fouls — and it was just one October outing with months ahead that really count — but it could become such a big thing. And now we’re talking developments.

The thin bench that was part of the Golden State downfall last season remains a concern the week before 2014-15 opens, projected point-guard backup Shaun Livingston may not be back from toe surgery when the season begins Wednesday in Sacramento, and Kerr is facing an Andre Iguodala-or-Harrison Barnes decision for the start at small forward. But if Ezeli can return to his former role of dependable second-string center, the Warriors have a key roster addition when they need it most.

That is obviously a big if. When Ezeli took the court with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter Tuesday, it was his first time in uniform in 17 months, since the Warriors were eliminated in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. No, it was, he said afterward, the first time in any five-on-five run since surgery on two ligaments in the right knee on June 12, 2013, cost Ezeli all last season and inflammation in the lower part of the same right leg took away much of the training camp and preseason that was supposed to be a fresh start.

But if he is healthy, if he can reclaim the 2012-13 form, if he can be depth behind Bogut, the little thing on a baseball night in the Bay Area can grow into something that could be worth enough wins to alter their place in the West. (A season ago, six victories separated four through nine, the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and the lottery.) If not, hello Ognjen Kuzmic and Marresse Speights.

“It’s big,” Kerr said. “Ezeli and Kuzmic. Kuz has really come along this training camp. We’ve given him a lot of time in the exhibition games and he’s performed well. If Festus can make strides… if he can come around physically and we can have three 7-footers who can all protect the rim, then I think we’re in pretty good shape. We would prefer to stay big most of the time. We like to have a rim-protector in there. With three guys, assuming we can count on all three, that protects us against us some injury and foul trouble and that kind of stuff.”

The source of optimism Tuesday night was Ezeli entering late in the first quarter, needing 68 seconds to block a shot by Jared Cunningham as the Clippers guard drove to the rim, another 55 seconds to hit an eight-foot jump hook from the left baseline, and 55 more seconds to finish a pick-and-roll by grabbing an Iguodala lob with both hands and flushing it through the net. The nervousness of making the return with family and friends in attendance as part of the birthday was replaced by a surge of confidence.

“That’s what people have been saying and people always talked about, how light we were at the center position and they didn’t feel we had enough depth there,” Ezeli said. “This team, we feel like we’re pretty decked. We have a pretty nice deck of cards on this team. But they felt like the center position was pretty light. But now, Kuzmic has been working his butt off. I’ve seen him work every day and I’ve been right there with him.

“The good thing about being out so long, I really don’t care what anybody thinks about me anymore. I don’t care because the people that write the articles… and the people that talk about me and put the other people down, nobody was there with me while I was doing my rehab. What they think doesn’t matter. It’s about what we as a team think about ourselves, and we think we’re pretty good and we have a lot of talent on this team. That’s all that matters.”

This will still be a process. Ezeli needs to improve his conditioning the same way all players coming back from extended layoffs do and needs to re-calibrate to the speed of the game — Kerr quickly pointed out that Ezeli picked up so many fouls in a short time against the Clippers “because the game is going to move too fast for him right now.” And it was just one night. Those are the reality checks.

On the other hand, the Warriors could have much-needed bench help and could end up with the important acquisition of a player who officially was always on the roster. Those are the bottom lines, for Golden State and the West.

One Team, One Stat: Warriors Go From Worst To First On The Glass

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the Golden State Warriors, who are looking to build on just their second trip to the playoffs in the last 19 years.

The basics
GSW Rank
W-L 47-35 10
Pace 96.8 4
OffRtg 104.2 10
DefRtg 102.6 13
NetRtg +1.7 11

The stat

75.5 percent – The Warriors’ defensive rebounding percentage last season, a mark that led the league.

The context

One of the most amazing stats of last season was that the Warriors led the league in defensive rebounding percentage after five straight seasons of ranking dead last. They didn’t just go from worst to first, they went from worst to worst to worst to worst to worst to first.

In fact, before last season, Golden State ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage in 12 of the prior 13 seasons, under nine different coaches. Just that part is amazing itself.

Somehow, they managed to turn it completely around last season, when the rebounding improvement helped the Warriors improve from 27th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to 13th. Better 3-point defense also played a part…

Warriors defense, last two seasons

Season Opp2PT% Rank Opp3PT% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA/FGA Rank
2011-12 48.0% 17 36.5% 28 69.1% 30 15.5% 14 .318 27
2012-13 47.3% 11 34.7% 7 75.5% 1 13.8% 28 .282 22

DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions

One thing that was different was the way the Warriors defended pick-and-rolls. In Mark Jackson‘s first season, the big man defending the screener came out pretty high to stop the ball-handler. It wasn’t a hard hedge like the Heat or the Pelicans employ, but it took the bigs far away from the basket…

20131019_gsw_11-12

Last season, the Warrior bigs sagged into the paint more on pick-and-rolls…

20131019_gsw_12-13

That kept them closer to the basket and helped David Lee increase his defensive rebounding percentage from 20.0 percent to 24.5 percent. Also, ’12-13 Festus Ezeli (16.6 percent) had a better defensive rebounding percentage than ’11-12 Ekpe Udoh (11.9 percent) and ’12-13 Andrew Bogut (23.5 percent) was better than ’11-12 Andris Biedrins (20.0 percent). So was ’12-13 Andris Biedrins (24.6 percent).

Another result of the change in pick-and-roll coverage was that Warriors opponents took 28.0 percent of their shots from mid-range, up from 26.5 percent in ’11-12. Those are the shots you want to force.

The Warriors also got better rebounding numbers from their guards and wings. And one thing you’ll notice from these clips from an April 9 game against the Wolves is how the Golden State guards crash the glass to often put five guys in the paint when the ball is coming off the rim…


The Wolves, who were an above-average offensive rebounding team, missed 57 shots in that game and grabbed just six offensive boards.

We learned from the Spurs last season that contesting shots is much more important than rebounding, but the Warriors had to get better on the glass. When your opponent gets an offensive rebound, it’s more likely to score than it was on the initial possession.

You would think that sending five guys to the glass would hurt the Warriors’ transition offense. But they ranked ninth with 14.7 fast break points per game (up from 13.0 in ’11-12) and fifth with 2.13 fast break points per steal (up from 1.63). Stephen Curry ranked fourth in individual fast break points, while Klay Thompson ranked 19th, with both guys doing a lot of their damage from the perimeter. Curry had almost 100 more fast break points from outside the paint than any other player in the league…

Most fast break points from outside the paint

Player FBPs Outside paint
Stephen Curry 364 222
Kyle Korver 142 125
Russell Westbrook 463 120
Klay Thompson 260 119
O.J. Mayo 324 111

A healthy Bogut and the addition of Andre Iguodala should improve the Golden State defense even more. In particular, Iguodala will help force more turnovers and, as one of the best finishers in the league, will also make the running game more potent.

If the Warriors can match a Top 10 offense with a Top 10 defense, they can count themselves as serious contender in the Western Conference this season.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

David Lee Encouraged By Recovery

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HANG TIME WEST — The injury that quickly swung from season-ending to day-to-day in the playoffs has now gone from a one-time distressing finding to now a very encouraging outcome.

The torn hip muscle suffered in the playoff opener at Denver was worse than anyone thought, David Lee reported Wednesday. And, the recovery is going so well that he feels better than a year ago at this time, Lee also revealed.

So goes the roller-coaster return from the injured right hip flexor and the subsequent surgery, with implications for the Warriors and the entire Western Conference if Golden State turns potential into reality and pushes into the top tier of playoff teams.

From being declared done for the season when he went down in the first-round opener at Denver to playing in the clinching Game 6 and then again four more times in the West semifinals against the Spurs.

He didn’t play much — one post-injury minute versus the Nuggets and then three, eight, 12 and 12 minutes against San Antonio, respectively — but even the limited action came with Lee acknowledging at the time that he could do more damage to the hip by playing with the torn muscle. When the All-Star power forward had surgery in May, he said, doctors found the injury to be worse than originally thought.

In the Wednesday update for a group of reporters, though, Lee said he is fully recovered, in the best shape of his career and that the core of his body is strong as ever.

“I feel no ill effects whatsoever,” Lee said, as reported by Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group. “I actually feel a lot better moving around than I did even last year at this time.”

Lee’s health would have been an important early-season storyline for the Warriors no matter what, but is particularly relevant amid the new uncertainty surrounding the frontline. His 2012-13 backup, Carl Landry, left as a free agent; starting center Andrew Bogut is trying to prove he can get to 100 percent after a series of ankle problems; and No. 2 center Festus Ezeli is expected to be out until midseason with a knee injury. Marreese Speights was signed to be the third big man, and Jermaine O’Neal came in via free agency as well. Coach Mark Jackson will have options to play small.

“We still have a long way to go,” Lee said. “But, if you looked at where we came from three years ago, some of the questions were, ‘Why would you come here? They’ve had one playoff team in the last 150 years.’ Looking where we are now and having these conversations, it’s very exciting.”

Bench Mobs: Four That Got Better

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Every general manager’s goal is to assembly an energetic, productive bench.

A strong second unit filled with single-minded role players enhances a team’s chances at winning. Just look at the two-time champion Miami Heat and perennially contending San Antonio Spurs: both clubs received significant bench contributions throughout the 2012-13 season. Still, a deep and talented bench does not ensure success — the Los Angeles Clippers being Exhibit A.

Arguably the NBA’s deepest bench last season, L.A.’s reserves ranked fourth in scoring and second in overall production (points, assists and rebounds combined). The second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf ranked as the third-best defensive unit in the league. Yet the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose thin bench was considered a major weakness.

The goal is to build a well-rounded and deep roster that doesn’t falter when the starters sit, that can change pace when needed and can light it up just as well as lock it down.

Four teams looking to make a charge in their respective conferences — including the all-in Clippers and the go-getter Golden State Warriors in the West; and in the East the rugged-but-reinforcement-thin Indiana Pacers and the money-is-nothing Brooklyn Nets — completed significant offseason signings and trades that should bolster each club’s depth:

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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Loses: G Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F Odom (still available), F Grant Hill (retired), F/C Turiaf

Additions: G J.J. Redick, G/F Jared Dudley, G Darren Collison, F Reggie Bullock (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Only two members of the aforementioned third-ranked defensive unit, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, are returning as of today (Odom remains a possibility) to the Clippers’ second unit, so they could slip defensively. But the firepower is all-world with Redick (a 39 percent career 3-point shooter) and Dudley (40.5 percent) joining Sixth Man runner-up Crawford (35.0 percent). Collison has plenty to prove after twice losing his starting job in Dallas to late-30-somethings Derek Fisher and Mike James. The ultra-quick Collison backed up Chris Paul as a rookie in New Orleans and he now has a defined role that should suit his game. Plenty of experience and savvy leaves town in Hill and Billups, but they played a combined 51 games last season. Hill was not part of the playoff rotation until former coach Vinny Del Negro got desperate late in the first-round series loss. New coach and senior vice president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has given himself plenty of options with a bench unit that might top last season’s group. Free agents Barnes, center Ryan Hollins and guard Willie Green return.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Loses: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry

Additions: Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, C Jermaine O’Neal, Nemanja Nedovic (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Simply, Andre Iguodala. Acquiring the veteran forced out Jack and Landry, but also provides instant depth for a young team that basically rode seven players in the playoffs after David Lee injured his hip. The tough call for coach Mark Jackson will be moving either semi-conscious shooter Klay Thompson or confident forward Harrison Barnes to the bench (both started every game they played last season) to make room for the 6-foot-6 Iguodala. Thompson could challenge for Sixth Man of the Year honors and he’d easily replace the scoring punch Jack provided. The second-year Barnes, who truly emerged during the playoffs, can provide everything the blue-collar Landry delivered only with advanced skills in every facet, especially with his burgeoning offensive arsenal. Barnes could discover some very favorable matchups off the bench. Speights, more accurately, will be expected to fill Landry’s role. The Warriors also bring back impressive frontcourt youngsters Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, who should benefit from the presence of the steady veteran O’Neal.

INDIANA PACERS

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Loses: F Tyler Hansbrough, F Jeff Pendergraph

Additions: F Chris Copeland, G C.J. Watson, G Donald Sloan, F Solomon Hill (draft pick)

Why they’re better: The wild card here is forward Danny Granger, who missed all but five games last season with a left knee injury but will be back. With Paul George emerging as a star, Granger could find himself as the Pacers’ sixth man — imagine that. A better bench might have pushed Indiana past Miami in the East finals. The Pacers were one of six teams whose bench averaged fewer than 80 mpg, and they ranked 29th in scoring. The veteran Watson should stabilize a backcourt that had no consistent answer (D.J. Augustin) coming off the bench last season. Watson is a solid veteran who rarely turns the ball over — less than one a game in 19.0 mpg last season with Brooklyn — and is the type of team-first player president of basketball operations Larry Bird wants for coach Frank Vogel. And then there’s the unexpected feather in Bird’s cap — forward Chris Copeland. The 29-year-old late-bloomer provided the Knicks with energetic play off the bench and surprising accuracy from beyond the arc (59-for-140, 42.1 percent). The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder gives Indy a rugged backup for David West and weakens a rival.

BROOKLYN NETS

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Loses: G C.J. Watson, G Keith Bogans, G MarShon Brooks, F Kris Humphries

Additions: G Jason Terry, G Shaun Livingston, G D.J. White, F Andrei Kirilenko, C/F Mason Plumlee (draft pick)

Why they’re better: While a pudgy Deron Williams hobbled about on bum ankles for the first couple of months last season, the Nets’ bench carried the team, so they were no slouches to begin with. But when you add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the starting lineup, that turns rebounding machine Reggie Evans and offensive weapon Andray Blatche into reserves and instantly improves that group. Terry remains a dangerous streak shooter even after a down season in Boston. The 6-foot-7 Livingston has quietly resurrected his career and should find a home backing up D-Will, who played like an All-Star in the second half of last season. The coup was snagging Kirilenko, who signed for $3.18 million after opting out of his $10-million deal with Minnesota. Kirilenko is always a nagging injury away from missing handfuls of games at a time, but the 6-foot-9 countryman of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is a do-it-all stat-sheet-filler. He is a sneaky offensive presence on the baseline and a rangy defender the Nets can use against Carmelo Anthony and other rival scoring threats.

Spurs-Grizzlies Means No Apologies


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SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan sat down heavily and breathed a sigh of someone who had just been asked to lift the back end of a school bus off the ground.

“It’s not going to be pretty,” he said. “Sorry.”

But the playoffs mean never having to say you’re sorry.

So when the Spurs and Grizzlies open the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, there will be no apologies offered.

Only elbows and hips, pushes and shoves, pulls and grabs and tugs and slaps and takedowns that could turn seven games into one gigantic bruise.

Having already dealt with the front-line size of the Lakers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and the aggressive play of the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry and Festus Ezeli, the Spurs realized it was all just a warmup to the tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, for whom grit and grind is more than a slogan.

“If you thought (the Golden State series) was physical, it’s going to turn up about 10 notches,” Duncan said.

It’s possible the Spurs might still have a few black and blue marks left over from their run-in with the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. San Antonio entered that series as the prohibitive favorite and wound up becoming only the second No. 1 seed in history to lose to a No. 8 seed in a best-of-seven series.

By the time the series was over, the Spurs were as bludgeoned as they were beaten by Memphis’ inside game. Duncan, who played with a sprained ankle, and Manu Ginobili, who played with a fractured elbow, were exhausted and exposed.

Now though, the Spurs are feeling like a team that is much more equipped to deal with the Grizzlies’ size and force, having added Tiago Splitter to their starting lineup and Boris Diaw to their bench.

“It’s going to be a big-man series,” Duncan said. “I think the size definitely helps us. We’re a different team than when we faced them a couple years ago.”

The 6-foot-11 Splitter was a rookie in 2011 and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did not feel confident using him two seasons ago, choosing to go with 6-9 veteran Antonio McDyess in his final NBA season. Splitter played just 51 minutes in the entire season and did not set foot onto the court until Game 4.

“Of course, you always want to play, because you believe that you can help,” Splitter said. “That’s the part of you that is the competitor. But that is the past and now I feel good.”

In the four regular season meetings this season, Splitter averaged 10.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and was able to stand his ground against the low-post relentlessness of Randolph.

“Its just nonstop fighting,” Splitter said. “He’s a warrior over there with the rebounding and positioning.”

The experience two years ago gave the Spurs a head start on the rest of the league in recognizing the Grizzlies as powerful, growing championship contenders.

“I’ve seen them as a major threat for years now,” Duncan said. “Obviously, they beat us in the first round when we were the top seed. They’ve been a very solid team, a very good team. They have always played us really tough. We respect them and their capabilities and we’re not surprised they’re here.”

Popovich rates the Grizzlies with Miami and Indiana as the top defensive teams in the league. But the Spurs themselves turned around the battle against the Warriors and put the clamps on the backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with a defensive job that was aggressive, thorough and a throwback to their old championship ways and days.

Now it’s toe-to-toe, elbow-to-elbow, hip-check to bump-and-grind with the Grizzlies at a time when the 37-year-old Duncan can see the finish line.

“This run this year is extremely special to me,” he said. “People continue to count us out, year in and year out, and we continue to make runs deep into the playoffs. This is a special one.”

And certainly no reason to say you’re sorry.