USA-Serbia Could Be a Classic

Team USA is a 15-point favorite in this afternoon’s Gold Medal game against Serbia, which seems high. The Americans eked out a 94-91 win over Serbia in the Group stage as Nikola Jokic carved up the USA for 25 points off the bench. Also consider that Team USA hasn’t won a game by more than 10 since a 113-69 dismantling of undermatched Venezuela.

Here are a few more reasons why Team USA can’t take Serbia lightly today:

  • Serbia is a complete team. As good as Spain has been for so long, they had glaring holes in this tournament. The USA took advantage of the weak Spanish post defense and were able to keep Spain’s guards in check. Serbia has depth, versatility, size, multiple scorers and showed surprising defense toughness against Australia.
  • Twin towers – the gargantuan Miroslav Raduljica, tattoos and all, reminds me of a Hell’s Angel. Or maybe two Hell’s Angel’s, one standing on the other’s shoulders. His massive presence impacts the game on both ends. But he possesses a surprising finesse game around the rim. It will be a much tougher matchup for DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. Meanwhile Jokic, though he hasn’t been in the starting lineup, can score inside and out and is one of the better passers in the tournament.
  • Six-foot-five point guard Milos Teodosic is an offensive wizard. His no-look over-the-head pass in the first game against the US was legendary.

Teodosic and Raduljica each scored 18 in that thee-point loss to the Americans. Both Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving have a tough assignment, trying to prevent “ANOTHER GAME FOR MILOS!”

  • Continuity counts. The group Team USA assembled is really just seven games and a couple exhibitions deep. Most of the Serbian team has played together for years, through Eurobasket and FIBA competitions. They know where their teammates are going to be on the court and their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic is another guy who can get buckets and plays with no fear. When these games get tight and constant whistles are killing the flow, it’s important to have multiple guys that can score in a pinch. Team USA obviously has that luxury. But in a low-key way so does Serbia, with Bogdanovic, Teodosic, Raduljica, Jokic and even Stefan Markovic. Bogdanovic came up huge in Serbia’s tight quarterfinal win against Serbia but was fairly quiet against Australia. Keep an eye on him.
  • Did you see how badly they waxed the Boomers, the former darlings of this tournament? Serbia blew the Aussies out from the word ‘go’, and played stifling defense to choke the scoring punch out of Delly, Patty and the boys. They’re hot, they’re fearless and have nothing to lose, already guaranteed their first Olympic basketball medal as an independent country.

I’m still going to take the USA in this one, but I do think it has a chance to be a classic. Serbia is a great story and their team is extremely likable and fun, and they won’t be scared. Team USA just better come ready to play from the opening tip.

Prediction – USA 94, Serbia 88

Suddenly Steady USA Poised for Gold Medal Game with Serbia

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What a difference the threat of elimination makes. Team USA put together its second straight solid defensive effort, moving to 7-0 in the Rio Olympics and rolling to the Gold Medal game with an 82-76 win over Spain.

The United States led the whole way, thanks in large part to DeAndre Jordan imposing his will down low on the under matched Spanish bigs while Klay Thompson sniped from the outside. It was a rematch of the last two Gold Medal games, albeit with both sides a bit watered down. Without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, Spain had no answers for Jordan down low. Meanwhile, much of the last USA team to beat Spain stayed home this year.

But, alas, it was a similarly tough-fought and close match to the previous two Olympic meetings between the two countries. This one had a decidedly more defensive slant. Each time it looked like the US might blow the doors off, Spain had an answer to keep it close or fouls brought the game to a halt. There were technical fouls galore and plenty of the common kind as well, noticeably hampering the flow of the game. Though Team USA jumped out to a 72-57 lead early in the fourth quarter, Spain would close the game on a 19-10 run to pull within single digits at the final buzzer.

I talked about Spain’s dilemma in the low post in my lead-up to the game yesterday, though I posited that it would be DeMarcus Cousins that exploited it. Cousins played OK, though fouls again limited him. The refs are in Boogie’s head, if you can go out on a limb and believe that. Jordan, meanwhile, posted nine points (many on alley-oop dunks), 16 rebounds and four blocks. He was an absolute beast.

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Credit: Getty Images

Thompson paced Team USA with 22 points (17 in the nip and tuck first half), including several clutch corner threes that halted Spanish runs. There’ nothing quite like a cold-blooded three from Klay to kill momentum. Ask the Thunder.

On Spain’s side, the old reliable Pau Gasol had 23 points and eight rebounds in another valiant effort to dethrone Team USA. As crafty and efficient as Pau is on the offensive end, he’s never been a true defensive stopper. Now at age 36, there was no chance he’d keep Jordan off the boards or from rolling to the hoop.

Team USA moves on to the Gold Medal game tomorrow against Serbia, who surprised most when they pummeled Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal. I’m a huge fan of Serbia’s squad and will have more thoughts on that matchup prior to tip off. Congrats to Serbia,    making it to the Gold Medal game in just their 10th year as an independent country.

Notes: 

  • The win over Spain was Team USA’s 75th straight victory.
  • Harrison Barnes and DeMar DeRozan picked up DNP’s, while Draymond Green played just under two minutes. The unofficial dick-pic suspension continues.
  • Jimmy Butler was held scoreless while Paul George managed just six points. I mentioned yesterday the big opportunity for one or more of the top three USA wings to go off. Only Klay did.
  • Kyrie Irving (+7) had the second-highest plus/minus behind Jordan (+11), scoring 13 points with two assists.
  • Carmelo Anthony has never been known for his defense. But his vicious block on Ricky Rubio’s layup attempt in the second half was a thing to behold. Olympic Melo remains the best Melo.

Rio Semis: Team USA Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

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United States basketball enthusiasts took a collective deep breath after Team USA’s convincing win over Argentina in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. But the sense of relief was short-lived. Spain awaits, today at 1:30 pm (Central), a foe that suddenly looks tough as ever. Team USA is undefeated in the Rio Olympics but three straight close calls against Serbia, France and Australia brought about chatter that the Americans are beatable. We were seemingly in desperate need of stars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. A better defensive showing and standout scoring performances from Kevin Durant and Paul George quieted those concerns somewhat.

But Argentina is an aging team that lacked the depth to really pose a threat to Team USA. Spain might be different. Fresh off a 92-67 thrashing of France, Spain’s 0-2 Group stage start is a distant memory. The Spaniards lost by seven to Team USA in the 2012 Gold Medal game and much of that team is still here for the rematch this afternoon. Two notable exceptions are Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, leaving Spain measurably weaker in terms of post defense. The United States needs to be able to exploit that weakness. Centers DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have had uneven performances in Rio, Cousins limited by foul trouble and weak pick-and-roll defense and Jordan by his one-dimensional attack down low. One of the two needs to show out today for the Americans. Cousins in particular should be able to get his against Pau Gasol and Willy Hernangomez.

Coach K’s team fixed many  of its defensive issues against Argentina, after allowing a 120 defensive rating in their three previous games. Nikola Mirotic has been red-hot, especially from three. Team USA needs to throw a relentless combination of George, Durant and Draymond Green at him. That is, if Green even gets meaningful playing time for once, one of the big head scratchers of these Olympics. We can expect Ricky Rubio to be glued to Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, so the USA’s wing scorers will be key to the team’s scoring. Klay Thompson followed up his 30-point outburst against France with just four points in the Argentina game. He needs to be better today. Thompson, George and Jimmy Butler have an opportunity to go off, as Spain keys in on Durant and doubles in the post.

Much of the concern facing the USA in this game stems from Spain’s demolition of France. It’s important, however, to remember that France is not Team USA. Nicolas Batum no-showed, Tony Parker is on his last legs and Evan Fournier was left off the French roster. The Americans should absolutely win today’s game, if they simply play to their strengths and with the tenacity they showed against Argentina. Oh, and Coach K needs to continue to rely on his transcendent star (Durant), versatile wings (Butler, Thompson, George) and maybe give Draymond a chance.

Prediction: USA 96, Spain 82

Olympic Hoops Quarterfinals Recap

That’s more like it.

After an underwhelming yet still undefeated run through Group play, Team USA finally put it all together in a 105-78 thrashing of Argentina on Wednesday. A resurgent Spain awaits today in what is sure to be a more challenging game for the Americans. Before we get into the semifinals here’s a quick recap of Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Australia 90, Lithuania 64

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Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune

Summary: The Boomers of Australia continued their eye-opening run in Rio, turning this one into a snoozer early on. Lithuania has to go down as one of the biggest disappointments of this tournament. Historically one of the top men’s Olympics teams and currently ranked No. 3 in the world, Lithuania underwhelmed, starting with star center Jonas Valanciunas, who looked out of sorts all tournament. This day – and perhaps this Olympics – was all about the Aussies. The two-headed point guard monster of Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills combined for 39 points and nine 3-pointers.

NBA Influence: Australia is the only non-USA team in this tournament to boast a starting five of NBA talent. Of course Mills and Delly, plus big men Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes, and wing Joe Ingles. Former Bull Cameron Bairstow sat this one out with an injury.

The Lithuanians boast just two current NBA players, Valanciunas and Thunder rookie Damontas Sabonis, who received little playing time in Rio.

Spain 92, France 67

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Credit: http://www.mysanantonio.com

Summary: My two initial reactions from this game were, “Uh oh, here comes Spain” and “What an embarrassing exit for France.” Those sentiments have only intensified since Wednesday. The French nearly toppled Team USA in Group play without Tony Parker, then turned around and laid an egg in the knockout round. Point guard Nando De Colo had a breakout tournament but his 13 points on 5-9 shooting wasn’t nearly enough Wednesday. The Spaniards, on the other hand, have been hiding in plain sight. After losing their first two games of the tournament in heartbreaking fashion, the 2nd-ranked team in the world became an afterthought. But Nikola Mirotic has been superb, including 23 points and five 3’s against France, and Pau Gasol is a constant factor. This game was over by halftime, setting up the dream matchup of Spain-USA in the semis. It was likely Parker’s final Olympic, as he passes the torch to De Colo and Thomas Huertel.

NBA Influence: Both teams are chock full of NBA players. Spain features Gasol (Spurs), Mirotic (Bulls), Ricky Rubio (Timberwolves), Willy Hernangomez (Knicks), Jose Calderon (Lakers), Alex Abrines (Thunder), Sergio Rodriguez (76ers), former Blazer Victor Claver, former Blazer and Nugget Rudy Fernandez and former Grizzly Juan Carlos Navarro.

France has even bigger NBA names, making their collapse quite a head scratcher. Center Rudy Gobert (Jazz) is a rising NBA star. Nicolas Batum is a cornerstone for Charlotte who played miserably in Rio, including a scoreless 18 minutes against Spain. Boris Diaw (Jazz) and Parker (Spurs) are NBA champions and Joffrey Lauvergne is a bit player for Denver.

USA 105, Argentina 78

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Credit: Yahoo!

Summary: It seems the United States finally figured out a semblance of a rotation. Their defense was porous in the Group stage, due to piss-poor effort and lineups heavy on minus defenders. Coach K realized he can’t have Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins on the floor together for extended minutes. Opposing offenses feasted on those three. Instead, guys like Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Paul George provide versatility and two-way play that wins international games. Oh yeah, Kevin Durant is pretty good too. KD poured in 27 points on 13 shots against Argentina, while George had 17 and Butler made multiple plays on defense. Something tells me Cousins and DeAndre Jordan will be crucial against Spain sans Marc Gasol. Pau can’t defend those two in the post.

It was Manu Ginobili’s final game for Argentina and he got a nice send-off from the crowd. After a hot start, Argentina got blown away in the second and third quarters, sealing their fate.

NBA Influence: Team USA is a showcase of a top-3 NBA player (Durant), the 9th-19th best NBA players and Harrison Barnes.

Argentina features Ginobili (Spurs), Luis Scola (Nets), former Bull Andres Nocioni and former NBA journeyman Carlos Delfino.

Serbia 86, Croatia 83

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Credit: Associated Press

Summary: Wednesday’s quarterfinals wrapped with the one close game of the day, between bitter former Yugoslav rivals Serbia and Croatia. This game was thrilling until the final minutes turned into a free throw fest. The history these two share is dark from a geopolitical perspective and sad from a basketball perspective. Yugoslavia was probably the 2nd-best team in the world in the early ’90s, but war tore the Serbs and Croats on the team apart, highlighted most memorably by Serbia’s Vlade Divac ripping a Croatian flag from a fan’s hand and throwing it down on the court. Only recently has Divac dared to venture back into Croatia, as chronicled in the 30 for 30 documentary “Once Brothers.”

Clearly there is no love lost here, as things got chippy in the second half with Croatia’s Dario Saric shoving Serbia’s Nikola Jokic and earning a technical foul. Cooler heads prevailed and the rivals settled things on the court. Bojan Bogdanovic led Croatia with 28 points, capping off a marvelous tournament for the rising Brooklyn Net. Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic had 18, the gargantuan Miroslav Raduljica and Jokic each had 12 and guard Stefan Markovic contributed 12 points and solid defense. Serbia is a well-coached team with loads of talent that should give Australia all it can handle in the semis.

NBA Influence: For Serbia: Jokic (Nuggets), Bogdanovic (rights owned by Suns). For Croatia: Saric (76ers), Bogdanovic (Nets), Mario Hezonja (Magic).

A quick primer on USA-Spain coming shortly.

 

Bittersweet Bull: Remembering the Good Times with D-Rose

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One of my first posts here at Down on the Block was about Derrick Rose and his continued bad luck and alienation from his sweet home Chicago. I grew up in Downers Grove, southwest of Chicago, a disciple of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. I adore the NBA as a whole but will always be true to the Bulls first and foremost. Rose saved us from the dark ages post-Jordan and ushered in a new proud era of Bulls basketball. He instantly became my favorite player once the Bulls called his name in the 2008 draft.

Literally everything was perfect about D-Rose’s first four NBA seasons. He was already a legend on the Chicago prep scene, winning two straight state championships at famed Simeon High, where he wore Benji Wilson’s #25 in honor of the slain high school star. He was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball and the third best high school point guard of the decade by ESPN. Simeon went 120-12 in Rose’s career there. The Bulls, meanwhile, lost 168 games in the same timespan. Yet after a decade of debacles, the Bulls suddenly found their savior. All it took was a charmed 2008 Draft Lottery in which they improbably won the No. 1 overall pick, as well as the good sense to not waste that pick on Michael Beasley.

After the Bulls made Rose the top pick in ’08, the script resembled a sports movie.

2008-09 – Rose won Rookie of the Year.
2009-10 – Made his first All-Star team.
2010-11 – Became the NBA’s youngest ever MVP and carried the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the East.
2011-12 – Signed a $95 million extension with plans of leading his hometown team for the next decade. Started in the All-Star game. Led the Bulls to another 1-seed. And then…

Pool party. Venetian Hotel. Vegas. My dad, my godfather and I toasting at the pool bar as we watch our league-best Bulls lay waste to Philly in the first round of the playoffs. Daring to dream about the possibilities of finally getting past LeBron and raising a seventh championship banner in the United Center. Rose has 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Then, with a 12-point lead late in the game, Rose finished one of his devastating drives by clutching his left knee in pain upon landing. Part of me knew it right away. Before the news of his ACL tear even became public I knew. Unable to stomach the happy faces around me any longer I left the pool, got piss drunk, lost a ton of money on Blackjack and was a complete mess the rest of the weekend. Somehow, experiencing that dreadful knee injury in Vegas was fitting – the Bulls’ run of good luck ended that day and hasn’t returned. I no longer drink. I tend to avoid Blackjack. But I still mourn for what could have been.

By now you’ve heard the news. The Rose era ended in Chicago on Wednesday, as he was traded to the New York Knicks. It shouldn’t have been surprising, yet I was taken aback and just…sad. I needed a couple days to process the news before writing about it. Really all I was able to do was stage my Rose jerseys for a sad tweet. I’ve been a sports fan long enough to know that all of this is fleeting and a sudden trade can swipe your favorite player off your favorite team in the blink of an eye. But this cut is especially deep.

I think part of me always held out hope (however slim) for a return to past glory. Though that hope is now gone, replaced by a reluctant acceptance, at least the team can move on to the next chapter and try to rebuild. The four seasons that followed the injury were as miserable for Bulls fans as the first four seasons of D-Rose were sublime. With Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol headed out the door behind Derrick, things will probably get worse before they get better.

But rather than dwell on all the pain and negativity and rehash what went wrong after the 2012 injury, Down on the Block chooses to relive the good times. Join me in celebration of 2008-2012 Derrick Rose with the selected works below. Let’s see if we can briefly forget, by losing ourselves in the awesome highlights of Chicago’s once-favorite son.

In his NBA debut, D-Rose dropped 11 points and nine assists against Milwaukee. Tune to 1:55 for a nasty fast break finish, a sign of things to come.


Check out Rose’s top 10 dunks of his first two seasons. The league was just starting to realize how special this kid was. Why you gotta do little Earl Boykins like that Derrick?

Rose helped push the defending champion Celtics to seven games in his first playoff run. He tied a record with 36 points in his first ever playoff game. One of the more memorable rookie showings in the playoffs in recent memory.

Watch Rose force Game 7 with a block and a steal in the final seconds!

What are you doing Dragic?!?

D-Rose won the city over not just with monster dunks but with his ability to completely take over a game in the fourth quarter, as he did here against the Bucks in 2011.

Rose had a knack for hitting clutch shots for the Bulls. Enjoy this compilation, some old and some newer.




Good luck in New York Derrick. May you regain a piece of what fate took from you.

NEVER FORGET!

Cavs Ruin the Warriors’ Dream Season

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers blocks a shot by Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Last week, before Game 6 of the NBA Finals, I had a vivid dream. The kind that, though absurd, felt so intensely real. The dream took place in Game 7, which the Cavs had forced despite losing a majority of their players to (unspecified) injury in Game 6. Since the Cavs couldn’t field a full lineup due to those injuries, the league allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to play Game 7 on behalf of Cleveland. And the Thunder were kicking Golden State’s ass. That’s when I woke up.

Subconsciously, I think I had recognized that the Cavs found the formula the Thunder briefly uncovered in the Western Conference Finals and that spelled doom for the Warriors. The bully ball of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka that imposed its will on the defending champs was now being played by LeBron James and Tristan Thompson. The swagger of Dion Waiters and Russell Westbrook that shook Golden State’s famous confidence, brought to you by James, JR Smith and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. The otherworldly performance by a transcendent player, in Kevin Durant, was being surpassed by James. OKC would fumble it away, this elusive Warriors kryptonite, but the Cavs wouldn’t. In my dream, the Thunder were allowed another try to come back from the abyss and finish off the Warriors. In real life, it turned out, Cleveland’s transcendent superhero only needed one chance.

Stephen Curry and the Warriors, meanwhile, learned how cruel the NBA Finals can be, and also how quickly the cheerleaders morph into vultures. LeBron is all too familiar with those cruelties. Cleveland’s Game 7 victory and come-from-behind series win will rightfully be remembered as the King’s coronation, the final level of his redemption tour. We all remember when The Chosen One, the child prodigy, the next Jordan became a selfish, presumptive, entitled brat in the eyes of many overnight in the summer of 2010 with the ‘Decision.’ For the first time in LeBron’s life, he was the villain, a role he embraced more as a coping mechanism than a fundamental identity. His Heat team would win two titles, but lose two others as the stain on his legacy seemed to be written in permanent ink.

It wasn’t long ago that the Warriors were the darlings of the NBA. Remember when Draymond Green was the scrappy second-round pick, passed over due to his lack of size and ironically now using that unique body to anchor the best lineup we’ve ever seen? After two months of playoffs he’s a nut-punching pariah, heir to the throne of professional heels Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. Remember the Baby-Faced Assassin, whose proficiency from long range was overshadowed only by his affability and boyish charm? Now in the eyes of many, Curry is a fraud. How dare you fool us into believing you were the best player in the world? LeBron reclaimed that title, while denying Steph his repeat championship and crushing the MVP’s pride with blocked shot after blocked shot:

How quickly the script gets flipped. In this zero-sum game, the prodigal King and his band of underdogs from the sad sack sports town of Cleveland reach the peak of the NBA mountain while the greatest regular season team of all time gets tossed down the stairs, everything they stand for repeatedly kicked on the way down. I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some secret rendezvous last night, where the likes of Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady, Scottie Pippen and Oscar Robertson toasted to the death of the Warriors’ brand of basketball.

At one point it seemed Golden State had found the cheat code to the NBA, quickly skipping all the steps it is assumed must be taken before becoming elite. Michael Jordan took his lumps from the Pistons, who had to overcome the Celtics and Lakers before being crowned. The Warriors’ rapid success under Steve Kerr helped sour many who never snatched the Larry O’Brien trophy (ahem, Barkley). Golden State won the title last year without ever tasting the pain of being so close, yet so far away. The Warriors now have their “almost” moment. As Curry said afterward, that pain will stick with them for a long, long time. It will be fascinating to see how they respond next season, and also whether the grumpy commentariat suddenly show them some respect now that they’ve been humbled.

No doubt the Warriors made mistakes. It seems they took the Cavs lightly after jumping out to 2-0 and 3-1 series leads. Green’s suspension likely cost them Game 5. Kerr’s knack for playing too many guys came back to bite him, as Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli were given atrocious Game 7 minutes. Both Ezeli and Harrison Barnes cratered their earning potential this offseason by no-showing through most of the Finals. Curry was never the same after slipping on Donatas Motiejunas’ sweat puddle in the Houston series. Steph’s balky knee is not an excuse, it’s a plain fact. He was noticeably slower with the ball in his hands, lacked quickness on defense and struggled to gain his usual separation behind the 3-point line. Be it hubris, injury, poor clutch play or loss of composure, there is plenty of blame to go around in Oakland. They had the better team, which almost always means victory in a seven-game series in the NBA.

But in the end, this was all about LeBron. He led all players in the series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He followed up two straight 41-point elimination game outings with a triple-double in Game 7. Multiple times during the last three games I exclaimed to whoever I was with, “He’s EVERYWHERE.” The chase-down blocks will live on in NBA promotional footage for decades, but the consistent rim protection even in the half court had the once-cocky Warriors afraid to attempt a layup. He went home to Cleveland, heavily influenced the makeup of the team and made himself responsible for whatever ended up happening on the court. When the Cavs’ season looked to be destined for another Cleveland ending, James played the best basketball of his life, beating the Warriors twice in Oracle Arena and handing them their first three-game losing streak of the entire season. His partner Kyrie’s step-back three over Curry in a “How does your medicine taste?” move was the cherry on top.

LeBron showed his teammates and the city of Cleveland it’s OK to believe in dreams.

For the Warriors, who matched their regular season loss total (9) in the playoffs, the nightmare endures.