Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper Archives May 19 2015, Page 32

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Winnipeg Free Press (Newspaper) - May 19, 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba C M Y K PAGE C10 C 10 WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2015 BASKETBALL winnipegfreepress. com OAKLAND, Calif. — The MVP race was decided weeks ago. Newly crowned Stephen Curry and runner- up James Harden insist there’s a bigger prize they’ve wanted all along. Now is their chance to compete for it. Curry and the top- seeded Golden State Warriors will meet Harden and the rejuvenated Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals beginning tonight. The Baby- Faced Assassin starring opposite the Bearded One is a scintillating subplot to a series that should feature a frenetic pace and a ton of three- point shots. But when the ball is tossed amid a sea of screaming fans in golden- yellow shirts at Oracle Arena, only one thing will be on the minds of the leading men. “ We’re four wins away from getting to the finals and one step closer to our dream,” Curry said. “ There’s one team in our way to get there. That’s it.” The Warriors went 4- 0 against the Rockets in the regular season, winning by an average of 15.3 points. But a lot has changed for Houston since the teams last played Jan. 21. Dwight Howard sat out two meetings and is playing as well as he has in years. Josh Smith has found his groove and starters Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas are out with injuries. “ We’re a new team,” Harden said. “ It’s a new series.” The Warriors rolled to a franchise- record 67 wins in the regular season, finishing 11 games ahead of second- place Houston. Golden State is in the conference finals for the first time since 1976, a year after winning the franchise’s only Bay Area title. The Rockets are in the conference finals for the first time since 1997. Houston hasn’t been to the NBA Finals since winning back- to- back titles in 1994 and 1995. The offensive sets vary between the teams, but the overall philosophy is similar: Make stops, push the pace and spread the floor with shooters. “ That’s our brand of basketball,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “ And we feel like we’re really good at our brand of basketball.” Both teams rallied from series deficits to win three straight games in the last round. The Warriors overcame a 2- 1 hole against Memphis, and the Rockets became the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3- 1 deficit to win a playoff series when they closed out the Clippers in Game 7 on Sunday. Whether the Rockets are recovered from that emotional series is unclear. The tight turnaround — and long- distance flight — surely don’t work in their favour. But after fighting back to get this far, this much is clear: The Rockets don’t lack for confidence. “ We’re going to put the pressure on them,” Harden said. “ It’s the playoffs, anything can happen.” Here are some things to watch for during the series: Three ball The Warriors and Rockets made more threepointers than any team in the NBA during the regular season, and they haven’t slowed down in the playoffs. They’re averaging nearly 30 attempts per game, with the Warriors shooting a post- season- high 40 per cent and the Rockets just under 35 per cent from beyond the arc. Which team shoots it best from long range — and can stop the other — will be a major factor in this series. Two- way Thompson Klay Thompson is often touted as the league’s best two- way shooting guard, a player who can score at will and dominate on defence. The Warriors will lean on Thompson to harass Harden, who averaged 25.3 points, 5.3 assists and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 40 per cent against Golden State in the regular season. Harden also had a hard time stopping Thompson, who averaged 21.8 points against Houston. Hack- a- Howard Don’t expect Golden State to intentionally foul Howard the way the Clippers and Mavericks have in the first two series. Warriors coach Steve Kerr believes the strategy disrupts his team’s flow and fast pace. But with Howard shooting 41.3 per cent on free throws in the playoffs, Kerr could employ the approach in certain situations. Of course, Rockets coach Kevin McHale could return the favour. Warriors centre Andrew Bogut shot 52.4 per cent from the line in the regular season and is just one for four in the playoffs. The other guys Both teams have counted on their depth to get this far. The Warriors bring former all- stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee and veterans Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa off the bench. Forward Marreese Speights is out for Game 1 with a strained right calf but could return later in the series. The Rockets played half the season without Howard and have gotten big performances in the playoffs from reserves Corey Brewer, Pablo Prigioni and Terrence Jones. Home- court advantage If the Rockets want to advance to the NBA Finals, they’ll need to win at least one game — and probably two — on Golden State’s home floor. That’s been the toughest task in the league this season. The Warriors are 43- 3 at raucous Oracle Arena, including a Game 2 loss in their last series against Memphis. The Rockets last won in Oakland on Dec. 13, 2013. — The Associated Press I NDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Kyrie Irving finished an animated post- practice shooting game of Around the World with LeBron James and then quickly removed any doubt about his playing status for Game 1. “ I’m going to go,” he said. Cleveland’s all- star guard may not be 100 per cent — or anywhere close — but he’s much better and that’s welcome news to the Cavaliers, who will open the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday in Atlanta. Irving has been bothered by a sore right foot since Game 2 of the opening round against Boston, and he sat out the final half of the Cavs’ seriesclinching win over Chicago last week with tendinitis in his left knee. But a weekend of rest and rehab allowed Irving to make it through a full practice on Monday, lifting his spirts and improving the Cavs’ chances against the East’s top seed. Irving said he has come a long way from the way he felt Thursday night while sitting on the bench in United Center. “ Just being able to actually feel both my feet underneath me, especially when I’m shooting, it feels amazing,” said Irving, who was limited to 12 minutes in Game 6. “ I don’t want to be on the sideline at all, especially preparing for a big stage like this.” Irving’s improved health seemed to have an immediate impact with James, who ran around like a little kid after all of his teammates left the practice floor. “ I can’t leave. You just gotta let me go,” James yelled to good friend, Damon Jones, his former teammate who works with him on his shooting. “ I’m locked in.” James knocked down eight of 10 shots from 40 feet and threw down several jaw- dropping dunks before meeting with reporters. “ He feels better,” James said. “ Obviously the days have helped him. You know, we really don’t know until we get out there on Wednesday. The good thing is he’s positive, he’s feeling better, and that’s positive for our team.” Irving’s injuries threatened to derail the Cavs before they even took the floor against the Hawks, a balanced squad with quick guards and numerous offensive weapons. The Cavs are already without forward Kevin Love ( shoulder surgery) and can’t afford to be without another top player. Still, there’s no way of knowing how effective Irving will be until he’s on the court trying to drive past Hawks forward Paul Millsap or guarding fellow all- star Jeff Teague or his backup, Dennis Schroder. “ Both can break you down on the dribble,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “ Both can push the ball. Both can get to the rim and create for not only themselves, but for others. They are a handful. Two excellent guards who can play together. That presents another whole set of problems.” Blatt got a little defensive when pushed about Irving’s status. “ Look, today is Monday,” he said. “ I told you a few days ago that I expect he’ll play. It’s just good to see that he’s making some progress. He’s not there 100 per cent yet, but he’s making progress and that’s a very good sign. I’m hopeful.” As he matched shots with James following practice, Irving didn’t try any dunks but he did attempt a couple layups, cautiously jumping off his right leg. Afterward, Irving was upbeat and optimistic as he spoke about the opportunity threatened by pain in his knee and foot. These are his first playoffs, and he doesn’t want to be a spectator for another second. “ This is the biggest stage that you want to be part of,” Irving said. “ Obviously people strive in the regular season to get to the playoffs and now I see absolutely why. There’s nothing like the playoffs. Nothing at all.” — The Associated Press By Antonio Gonzalez Baby- Faced Assassin vs. Bearded One in battles of 3s MARK HUMPHREY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Stephen Curry is the king of the three- pointer. Cavaliers guard plans to play through the pain By Tom Withers Irving says he’s good to go NAM Y. HUH / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving drives past Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose during Game 6 of their second- round playoff series. Irving says he’ll be ready for Game 1 against Atlanta on Wednesday. C_ 10_ May- 19- 15_ FP_ 01. indd C10 5/ 18/ 15 10: 45: 35 PM

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