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The N.B.A. finals that will conclude the longest, strangest and most complicated season in league history begin Wednesday night. For the first time in six years, the game’s grandest stage will not feature the Golden State Warriors.
The closest that the Warriors’ trusty trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will get to the finals is watching their former teammate Andre Iguodala, now with the Miami Heat, match up against a rival familiar to them all: LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“As a competitor, you always want to be there,” Green said, “but when people ask me if I miss basketball right now, I tell them in a heartbeat, ‘No, I don’t.’ We’ve done it at the highest level that you can possibly do it for five straight years.
“What I do miss,” Green continued, “is competing at the absolute highest level. I will miss playing in the finals and knowing that every basketball player in the world is watching me play — performing on that stage.”
With the Warriors excluded from the N.B.A. bubble because of their lowly 15-50 record, Green still managed to find a new performance platform with no shortage of exposure. He made multiple appearances on TNT’s “Inside The N.B.A.” in recent weeks and was widely praised for the depth of analysis he brought to the sport’s most celebrated studio show.
Green described the relief defenders feel when Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid shoots from long range. He went into deep detail about how the Portland Trail Blazers could set screens closer to midcourt to help free up Damian Lillard against the Los Angeles Clippers. He provided damning video evidence to support criticism of Nikola Jokic’s defensive effort for the Denver Nuggets. Green also offered many more playoff insights on Twitter on nights he wasn’t working in TNT’s studio.
“I love to try to educate through the TV position,” Green said, citing Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, as an analyst he takes cues from.
“The offense is lined up and the defense is lined up and he’s telling us exactly what the offense is about to do because of what he sees,” Green said. “Similar to Tony Romo, I want to give the world insight on what is actually going on out there on the court, as opposed to people thinking they know what’s going on.”
Green has gone on a few recent rants against members of the news media and the public to lament that “everyone watching the game of basketball thinks they can critique” it. He told me that he envies football players because too much is happening in an 11-on-11 sport for them to have to “deal with everyone thinking they know the game.”
As occasionally happens for him with the Warriors, Green encountered some turbulence in the studio, too, incurring a $50,000 tampering fine from the league office for saying that Devin Booker staying with the Phoenix Suns was “not good for his career.”
Mostly, though, Green won plaudits for his candor and the ability to take viewers deeper than usual into modern strategy. He likewise showed that he could work well alongside the TNT star Charles Barkley after years of public feuding.
“Chuck has been in the TV business for 20 years,” Green said. “Any time someone is in one particular business for that long, they’re usually pretty good — and Chuck is really good. I think when we’re out there, there’s usually several differences of opinion, and that’s fine. Our opinions don’t always have to align. He’s an amazing person and he’s an amazing talent when it comes to TV. I respect him.”
Ernie Johnson, Turner’s Emmy Award-winning host of “Inside,” praised Green as the most “naturally good” analyst he has worked with since Johnson’s longtime colleague Kenny Smith joined the show in 1998.
Said Johnson: “I told Draymond one night after a show, as everyone was putting masks on and walking to their corners: ‘Hey, life’s good for you right now. I don’t know how much longer you’re going to play, but you know right now that the day you hang them up, everybody’s going to want you to work for them if this is what you want to do.’ ”
Green was scheduled to work most of the Western Conference finals for TNT but returned to California after Game 1 for the birth of his third child. He has filled the past six months with off-court pursuits after the Warriors played almost the entire season without Curry and Thompson, as the sharpshooting guards recovered from injuries.
Green has taken an active role in James’s More Than a Vote campaign aimed at combating voter suppression in Black communities. In June, Green co-wrote an editorial for ESPN with Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, urging the N.C.A.A. to pay college athletes. And his TV work has included several appearances on Turner’s “The Arena” series, which covered a number of social issues, and on CNN as a contributor to discuss the ongoing efforts of players to speak out against systemic racism and police brutality.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s activism,” Green said. “I just kind of believe what I believe in. I believe that there’s a right and a wrong in things, so if I see something that I think is wrong, I’m not afraid to speak up on that.”
Back in analyst mode, Green is picking the Lakers to beat Iguodala’s Heat in six games. “As much as I love what Miami has done in the bubble,” he said, “LeBron and Anthony Davis are too much to handle.”
The three-time N.B.A. All-Star and former N.B.A. defensive player of the year has already decided that studio work “will definitely make up a part of what I’m doing after I’m done playing the game of basketball.”
Yet Green is adamant, despite turning 30 in March and struggling with his shot last season, that he plans to keep playing for several seasons — and that Golden State’s title window has not closed.
The Warriors had the league’s worst record, and it remains unclear how well Andrew Wiggins fits with them or how significantly Golden State can upgrade its roster with the No. 2 over all pick in the N.B.A. draft on Nov. 18. The games Green has been dissecting on TNT have nonetheless emboldened Green to believe that the Warriors can hush the naysayers and make a swift return to title contention, even though Curry, 32, and Thompson, 30, will have both missed more than a calendar year by the time the 2020-21 season starts.
Green’s confidence is hardly unreasonable. No one will call the Lakers a historically dominant team, even if the devastating duo of James and Davis handles Miami comfortably in the finals. The Heat, for that matter, were the East’s No. 5 seed and thus are likely to continue to face skepticism that they can remain at their current level without the benefit of the randomness of bubble conditions. The Bucks and the Clippers, presumed powerhouses all season, are in varying states of disarray after their second-round exits. The Celtics, Raptors and Rockets also have major questions to answer after their playoff disappointments.
For all the Warriors must reassemble, there is comfort in knowing that no rival is rampaging in their absence.
“I see a league,” Green said, “that’s wide open.”
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: Professor Stein! Has Jamal Murray worked with Rod Strickland? I noticed they both tend to drive all the way to the basket and release the ball at the last possible instant, which makes blocking their shots extremely difficult. — Barron Hall
Stein: The answer is no, but drawing parallels between the way Murray finishes at the rim and how distinctively Strickland did so throughout an 18-season N.B.A. career is high praise for Denver’s Murray.
Strickland took it as a compliment, too.
I checked in with him after receiving your question just to make sure there was no hidden connection. He has been working as the program manager for the N.B.A. G League’s professional pathway team, where highly rated prospects can spend a year awaiting eligibility for the N.B.A. draft in a pro environment rather than in the college game.
Strickland said he doesn’t know Murray personally. Yet as a fan, Strickland said he has indeed thought to himself that the Canadian’s finishing on layups “looks familiar.”
“I left Kentucky before he got there and, honestly, I don’t think that’s teachable,” Strickland said. “That’s creative instincts, body control and imagination.”
Strickland was on John Calipari’s staff with the Wildcats from 2009-14. Murray spent one season there, in 2015-16.
Q: Bam Adebayo has played great basketball, but we shouldn’t overreact to his performance against a really weak Celtics interior defense. — @10goV23 from Twitter
Stein: I can’t totally dismiss what you’re saying, because Boston certainly had the least-imposing front line of the N.B.A.’s final four teams. The praise for Adebayo, though, certainly did not start with my story last week. Nor does it only stem from his effectiveness in the Eastern Conference finals, which Adebayo capped with a monster performance (32 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists) in Miami’s clinching Game 6 victory.
Playing at that level in the N.B.A. finals against Anthony Davis will be a much tougher assignment, but let’s face it: Adebayo has filled the description of breakout player all season. Next to Jimmy Butler’s arrival on South Beach, Adebayo’s emergence is as responsible as anything for launching the Heat on an N.B.A. finals run that no one I know predicted.
Adebayo can guard the Lakers’ Anthony Davis better than anyone Denver has, but Davis’s own defensive capabilities are equally fearsome. The Lakers, remember, just emerged from a Western Conference finals in which Nikola Jokic averaged 21.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game — short of the levels Jokic hit in the Nuggets’ second-round upset of the Los Angeles Clippers. Dwight Howard’s physicality and Jokic’s bouts with foul trouble do not fully account for the statistical dip.
Jokic, from what I know, has never relished playing against Davis, who has the mobility and wingspan to take space away as well as any big man in the league. How Adebayo copes will be a fascinating subplot.
The Heat are bound to counter with various zone defense looks to try to exploit the Lakers’ iffy perimeter shooting. Miami also has a number of defenders (Butler, Jae Crowder and, of course, Andre Iguodala) who can make LeBron James work hard and drain his battery. Those realities figure to add to Davis’s burden.
Q: Does the N.B.A. have any plans to add some gravitas to the finals in the bubble? It would be weird to see a championship series played with coaches in polo shirts and the goofy virtual fans on the screens. — Mike Chamernik (Chicago, Ill.)
Stein: Based on the latest information I’ve received from the league, coaches will not be switching back to suits in the N.B.A. finals — and virtual fans (up to 320 of them) will continue to be beamed into the arena.
I personally miss wearing suits and blazers to games and was roasted by peers in the bubble when I decided to sport more standard gear one night, but I think I am in the minority. How much of a gravitas boost would we really see by making coaches revert to more formal wear at this juncture?
I welcome more meaningful suggestions on how to spruce things up, but the bubble, at this point, is the bubble. Although some cosmetic changes have been made to the actual hardwood, we won’t see a dramatic shift in atmosphere at floor level like we typically do in the finals because the league remains determined, for safety reasons, to limit the number of people who can get close to the court.
Eight of the 20 teams that have returned home from the N.B.A. bubble have made a coaching or front office change since their seasons ended. The Los Angeles Clippers were the latest Monday when they parted ways with Coach Doc Rivers. In the West, three teams are still looking for new coaches after departures in Houston (Mike D’Antoni), Oklahoma City (Billy Donovan) and New Orleans (Alvin Gentry). In the East, two ousters left coaching vacancies in Indiana (Nate McMillan) and Philadelphia (Brett Brown). The Nets replaced Jacque Vaughn as coach with Steve Nash, and the Sacramento Kings hired Monte McNair to replace Vlade Divac as general manager.
If the Los Angeles Lakers beat Miami in the finals, LeBron James and Danny Green can join John Salley and Robert Horry on the short list of players to win championships with three different franchises. I completely botched my attempt to make the following point on Twitter on Saturday night, but James is also bidding to become the first player to win the N.B.A. finals Most Valuable Player Award with three different teams.
In the first 36 seasons that the N.B.A. employed a 16-team playoff format, home teams posted a record of 1,817-968, good for a winning percentage of .652. In 2020’s N.B.A. bubble, where all games are played at a neutral site, “home” teams are just 37-40 — by far the worst success rate (.481) for home teams in any modern postseason.
Last Friday marked the 20-year anniversary of two major events involving N.B.A. stars of their era. On Sept. 25, 2000, Vince Carter unleashed his famous “Le Dunk de la Mort” over France’s Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. On the same day, Boston’s Paul Pierce was stabbed 11 times in a nightclub but survived the attack to make a full recovery and play 82 games in the ensuing 2000-01 season.
Five teams (Nets, Pacers, Rockets, Lakers and Kings) held the league’s first media day gatherings for the 2019-20 season on Sept. 27, 2019. If the N.B.A. finals go all the way to a Game 7 on Oct. 13, that will extend the longest season in N.B.A. history to 382 days.