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Curry, Lillard battle for NBA supremacy, Oakland’s affection

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OAKLAND — He arrived at the Western Conference finals wearing the jersey of the Oakland A’s, who play right next door at the Coliseum, just a five-minute drive from where he was born.

Damian Lillard paused and signed a few autographs before entering Oracle Arena, because he is a man of the people, and these are his people. None of them mention that, in their hearts, they’re rooting for him to lose this playoff series, and so it goes unspoken, a truce in a sense. For this fleeting moment, they’re Lillard fans, until the ball goes up.

And then it’s all for Steph Curry, all night long.

There is a competition within the competition between the Warriors and Blazers, and it is the battle for the affection of Oakland. There is Lillard, the pride of the Brookfield Village neighborhood, who has blossomed into a bonafide star with the Blazers. And then there’s Curry, the symbol of a basketball renaissance here, who has raised the profile of Oakland the last several years.

Now you see why The Town is a bit conflicted. A bit.

The conference championship may well hinge on the performance of these All-NBA guards. Game 1 was fairly lopsided, both in terms of the teams — Warriors 116, Blazers 94 — and the two principles.

 

The Warriors dominated behind Stephen Curry’s 36 points in Game 1.

Lillard struggled Tuesday and appeared whipped, physically if not mentally, no doubt from a grueling seven-game second round that just wrapped up 48 hours earlier. He missed 8-of-12 shots, had seven turnovers and, in a rarity for him, he was a non-factor for Portland. He’s a combined 7-for-29 in his last two games. Meanwhile, Curry rolled, dropping 36 points and the Blazers along with them.

And so, this is the verdict: Portland cannot hope to stretch this series beyond four games, five tops, without the max from Lillard. He obviously means that much. And Curry, now working without the comforts of his injured co-star Kevin Durant for the second straight game, and maybe without Durant for another two games, needs to keep his skills elevated to prevent suspense from encroaching on the series.

The Warriors are well aware of what Lillard has done to them in the past; he has averaged more points against the hometown team (27.0) than any in his career likely because of provincial pride. Yet Golden State is also aware that he has yet to beat them in any game or series of significance.

“He’s one of the best guards in this league and carries a chip on his shoulder and it has (worked) well for him in his career,” said Draymond Green. “A special talent. I know he’s excited to be back home playing in the last year at Oracle. So it’s special for him but it don’t mean nothing to us. We’ve got to come out here and try to stop him. A tall task.”

While the East Bay has given birth to its share of NBA stars, with Bill Russell, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton among them, Lillard is still freshly active and refreshingly loyal. The connection between him and Oakland remains unwavering despite fame and distance and the fact it’s his job and desire to shock the world in the next few weeks.

He played at St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda and then finished at Oakland High, and a thick section of fans at Oracle Wednesday were wrapped in Blazers gear and made their preference clear. Most were either from the old neighborhood or family members.

His high school coach, Damon Jones, is a Warriors season ticket holder, and Jones said: “Nobody bought me a drink tonight.”

The coach added, playfully: “They gave me a hard time. When the Warriors scored, they wanted to turn around and slap five but then caught themselves at the last minute.”

Jones remembers Lillard as being a promising and quick guard who picked up the nuances of the game rapidly.

“He was very personable for someone his age, a solid teammate,” Jones said. “He still keeps in touch with all of his former teammates. It’s a brotherhood and he’s the leader. He’s always trying to be a positive influence on everyone around here.”

 

Stephen Curry talks about facing his brother Seth in Game 1 of the West finals.

Lillard returns every summer to give away backpacks with school supplies and funded the renovation of the Oakland High gym. He’s a familiar sight around town in the offseason and always approachable, and that loyalty and devotion doesn’t go unnoticed.

“People here respect him,” said Raymond Young, Lillard’s AAU coach. “When he comes here to play, people here say they’re going to clap for Damian but cheer for the Warriors. Only he can get that kind of reaction. His loyalty comes from his family. His mother and father were no-problem parents. They let us coach him. He was a joy to be around. Still is.”

Lillard is even more endearing because he comes from humble beginnings and is self-made. Both of his youth coaches are admittedly shocked by his impact in the NBA. He wound up at Weber State. He wasn’t highly recruited by the big schools. Even nearby Cal-Berkeley came late.

“But if he goes there,” said Young, “does all this happen?”

Lillard is revered in another place as well. Portland is also smitten by his loyalty; in an age of transient stars, Lillard has never wanted to play anywhere else. Perhaps this has cost him some visibility, with a majority of his games tipping off at 10:30 ET. It’s a price he’s more than willing to pay.

Lillard has never taken a team this deep into the playoffs, where legends and reputations are made, and so being in the conference finals represents some new and deserved shine for him.

A layer of that invisibility was peeled off in these playoffs where Lillard has come up massive. His shot from nearly 40 feet that eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round, and the bye-bye wave reaction, became iconic. Then he followed up with a strong second round as well against the Nuggets, although as that series crept to the conclusion, Lillard shot just 3-for-17 in that Game 7, then followed up with a 4-for-12 Tuesday, proof that he might be gassed — and also that the Warriors cooked up a defensive game plan specifically for him.

“Obviously it’s a little bit difficult physically and emotionally just because you’re excited about being in the Western Conference finals,” said Lillard. “You come straight here form Denver and get ready for the best team in the league. But once we lace our shoes and put our uniforms on, it’s fair and square. You got to go out there and handle your business.

“They did a good job defensively and even when I was trying to find (teammates), they were getting deflections. They were making me play in a crowd. I thought they were successful at that … in this first game.”

 

The Warriors had an answer every time the Blazers threatened in Game 1.

But his toughest task of all might be upstaging Curry, particularly here in Oakland. While Lillard has flourished through much of the postseason, Curry by comparison has been mild, especially by his standards. The missed layups, a famously flubbed dunk attempt and sporadic 3-point shooting was unsightly.

And then, after Durant limped off the floor, Curry felt a sense of urgency and a flush of greatness. He buried the Rockets with a pair of epic fourth quarters, then kept the faucet running Tuesday. The Blazers couldn’t limit or at least slow him anywhere on the floor, especially from the 3-point line, where Curry was a sizzling 9-for-15. And no missed layups. In his last six quarters of basketball, Curry has scored 69 points with 13-for-24 shooting on 3s.

“I know what I’m capable of doing on the floor,” Curry said, “and the situation calls for me to be more aggressive and hopefully that will continue. It’s nice to see the ball go in. I want to maintain that. I didn’t shoot well for 4 1/2 games the last series. Every game is different. You have to reestablish yourself and that’s my perspective no matter how I play.”

Curry didn’t arrive wearing the baseball jersey of the home team, and if anything has been spotted at San Franciso Giants games across the Bay, where the Warriors will call home starting next season. But don’t get anything twisted. Curry’s bond with Oakland, developed over time, is genuine and real for someone born and bred a country away in Charlotte, and the feeling is mutual.

The tug of war for the heartstrings of Oakland is subtle between the pair of franchise players on the floor in this playoff series. Call it a draw from the standpoint of whom the fans here respect and appreciate. There’s enough love to be shared by both.

Yet in the basketball sense, this series is on the verge of being owned by the one wearing the jersey that reps Oakland. Curry has more momentum and better teammates, and Durant is on deck.

Oakland, therefore, will indeed cheer for one of its own, for Damian Lillard. But the way this series and these playoffs are going, The Town is anxious to pop bottles with Steph Curry once again, at the usual place and time, for one last time.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him  here, find his archive here  and follow him on  Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 



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Blogtable: Would Bucks or Raptors match up better in Finals vs. Warriors?

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Who would match up better against the Warriors in The Finals: Raptors or Bucks?

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Steve Aschburner:  Toronto. And I thought this way even before the Raptors took a 3-2 series lead in the East finals Thursday night. Milwaukee’s defense is stretched thin enough against Toronto, so the Warriors’ firepower would be a huge problem. Especially when Kevin Durant returns, Golden State has defenders with whom it can swarm Giannis Antetokounmpo, even more effectively than the Raptors have or the Celtics (briefly) did. Draymond Green locked onto Giannis for four to seven games? Come on, that also would be a problem for Milwaukee. Frankly, I’m not sure either of East finalists would get the edge at even one spot in a position-by-position breakdown. The only reason I think the Warriors won’t sweep is, they’ll have to deal with some shifting of gears once Durant and maybe DeMarcus Cousins come back. Might cost ‘em a game.

Shaun Powell:  Go with the Bucks because not only do they have an elite player, they shoot 3-pointers and play decent defensively. Both teams match up well if the Warriors aren’t bringing Kevin Durant. Neither, however, matches up well if they are.

John Schuhmann:  Despite their performance in Games 3-5 of the Eastern Conference finals, it’s probably the Bucks. They’re bigger and they have a lot of guards that can defend Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (to some degree of success, at least). Their defense does allow a lot of 3-point attempts, but they are good at forcing the right guys to shoot those 3-pointers. In fact, the 7.6 3-point attempts per 36 minutes that Curry averaged against the Bucks was his lowest rate against any opponent. Of course, Toronto’s defense has been fantastic throughout the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard has taken things to a new level, and the Raptors would also have a puncher’s chance against the champs.

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Milwaukee’s strengths turning into weaknesses in East finals

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A poor pass by Eric Bledsoe turned into a turnover off Malcolm Brogdon. Then the Bucks pressed Toronto hard, leaving Siakam alone on the baseline for a dunk that sealed it. But clearly, any two of those offensive boards — by a Bucks team that led the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage (80.3) — might have swung the momentum at the end and the outcome.

“We’ve got to get [them], find a way,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “All five guys gotta participate.”

Oh yeah, that reminds us: Milwaukee was a team that had nine guys participating earlier in this series, as well as in the rounds against Detroit and Boston. Budenholzer makes one tweak to his lineup, moving Brogdon back into a starting job in place of Nikola Mirotic, and poof! The bench produced only 15 points, 20 fewer than Toronto’s.

That leaves 3-point shooting as the most vital component of Milwaukee’s game suddenly gone fallow. This marked the seventh consecutive game in which the Bucks made a third or fewer of their 3-point attempts. They were 10-of-31 in Game 5, so 59-of-195 in this series.

That’s a 30.3-percent success rate, significant slippage from their 35.3-percent accuracy in the regular season. How significant? At 30.3 percent, the Bucks would have made 156 fewer 3-pointers. That’s 468 fewer points scored, which would have dropped Milwaukee from the league’s top scoring team (9,686) all the way down to No. 13.

More than that, the let-it-fly, live-by-the-3 ethos became part of their team’s bravado. Budenholzer believed that, even allowing for some chilly shooting nights, counting by threes would prevail at least four times in any seven games.

The Bucks still haven’t gotten shy about taking them. They just haven’t found a fix for making them.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo addresses the Bucks’ Game 5 loss.

Some in the Milwaukee camp were bemoaning the number of uncontested looks their shooters missed in Game 4. Raptors coach Nick Nurse, without specifics readily available right after Game 5, thought his team might have yielded even more open looks Thursday.

Still, when the clangs mount to the point that a trend is apparent, you have to consider there is more in play than bum luck. Maybe tight game situations lead to nerves. Or desperation.

“It came be anything,” Nurse said. “I think it can be your defense is flying around a little bit and you’ve got them hearing footsteps. Or you’ve played a lot of minutes. I don’t know, maybe if it’s a big tall guy coming out at you and you aren’t that big.”

Right now, the only thing worse for Milwaukee than its 3-point percentage is 20 of 288 (6.9 percent). That’s how many NBA teams have opened up a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, yet managed to lose anyway.

The team that never had lost three in a row was being reminded late Thursday of the prickly Celtics team they’d beaten two weeks ago, after Boston won the series opener, then went belly-up in the next four.

“We’re not gonna fold,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re not gonna fold. We [were] the best team in the league, we’re not gonna fold. We’re gonna go give everything we’ve got. You’re not gonna go there and … even if they set a great tone [in Game 6] and hit us in the mouth first, you can’t fold.”

The Bucks star added: “Obviously, I’m pissed. I’m not going to lie to you. But you’ve just got to keep your head up. Keep having that confidence. Try to pick up your teammates and tell them they can do this. ‘We’ve got two more games to go, and we can do this.’”

 

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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Kawhi Leonard’s improved playmaking has Raptors on cusp of Finals

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And on the 22 possessions in which he drove, the Raptors scored 29 points, 10 from Leonard himself and 19 from his teammates.

“Pretty much try to stay with a consistent mindset throughout the whole game,” Leonard said of his performance. “Just trying to read the defense throughout the entire game, see what’s working.”

It was all working, whether it was Leonard calling his own number or making plays for others. And it certainly helps that the others have seemingly found their mojo. Fred VanVleet, who shot 6-for-42 over a nine-game stretch from Game 2 of the conference semis through Game 3 of this series, is a 63 percent shooter (10-for-12 from 3-point range) when he has more than one child.

All of Leonard’s nine assists in Game 5 were on 3-pointers – so he accounted for 62 (59 percent) of the Raptors’ 105 points via his own points and assists – and four of them were to the dad who hasn’t slept much since Fred Jr. was born on Monday.

“Any time he chooses to get the rest of us involved,” VanVleet said of Leonard, “it’s going to bode well for our offense. The rest of us just got to be ready to step up and knock them down.”

VanVleet had both the biggest shot of the night – a three from the right wing off a Leonard kick-out that broke a 93-93 tie with 2:19 to go – and the quote of the night when asked about his formula for success: “Zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose.”

The Raptors’ offense has been the biggest key to this series, because Toronto’s defense, when it has been set, has been tremendous. They’ve kept Antetokounmpo from getting all the way to the basket, and they’ve been able to recover out to and contest the Bucks’ shooters.

 

Kawhi Leonard did it all for Toronto in Game 5.

While the Raptors scored 1.32 points per possession when Leonard drove in Game 5, the Bucks scored at a rate less than half of that (0.57, 12 points on 21 possessions) when Antetokounmpo drove.

“We’ve got to play good offense,” Nurse said, “not turn it over and score the basketball, because if you don’t, they’re getting what they want, which is downhill basketball in a hurry. If we can score it, if we can take care of it, we can get our defense set up, for the most part we get down and guard them and make the shots a lot tougher.”

Just six days ago, the Raptors were a possession away from falling into an 0-3 hole, one that no team in NBA history has ever come back from. Now, they’ve won three straight games against the team that hadn’t lost three straight all season. After scoring less than a point per possession over the first two games of this series, the Raptors have scored 110.3 per 100 over the last three.

The defense feeds off of the offense. And the offense feeds off of the star that keeps taking things to a new level.

“I’m not afraid of the moment,” Leonard said. “I enjoy it.”

The Kawhi Leonard that we saw in Games 1-4 against Philadelphia (when he averaged 38.0 points on 62 percent shooting) was a preposterously efficient scorer, good enough to keep his team even in the second round. The Kawhi Leonard that we saw on Thursday has his team playing even better … and just one win from the NBA Finals.

 

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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