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Warriors start playoff road, without LeBron there at the end

By Brian Mahoney

AP Basketball Writer

The Golden State Warriors are set to begin their quest for a third straight title, and this time it’s up to someone else to try to stop them.

With LeBron James gone to the West and this year gone entirely from the postseason, the Eastern Conference headquarters for the NBA Finals won’t be in his home for the first time since 2010.

He played for the title for eight straight years, which may have been great for the TV ratings but lately wasn’t much good for the competition. The Warriors swept Cleveland last year after winning 4-1 in 2017.

Teams are lining up to seize his old spot atop the East, all capable of providing the intrigue that was absent the last couple years.

There’s Milwaukee, with Giannis Antetokounmpo in position to exit June fully atop the NBA with a title and an MVP award.

Or Toronto, humiliated by the Cavaliers in the last two years but armed now with a former NBA Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard.

It could be Philadelphia, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons anchoring perhaps the most talented starting five outside of the Bay Area.

And don’t forget Boston, the presumptive East favorite in the preseason that can still live up to expectations.

The best player is gone, but maybe things will be better.

“I think the parity and the competition in the East, and not knowing and everyone having a sincere chance maybe in the East that did not, when not you look between Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia,” TNT analyst Chris Webber said. “All of those story lines, new young stars that’s coming in.”

The long road to get to the finals begins Saturday with four games, including the top-seeded Warriors against the Los Angeles Clippers in the West. No. 2 Denver faces No. 7 San Antonio in the other West opener, while No. 3 Philadelphia meets No. 6 Brooklyn, and No. 2 Toronto takes on No. 7 Orlando in the East.

On Sunday, the overall No. 1 seed Bucks face No. 8 Detroit, and No. 4 Boston hosts No. 5 Indiana in the East. In the West, No. 3 Portland and No. 6 Oklahoma City meet in a matchup of Northwest Division rivals, and No. 4 Houston and No. 5 Utah square off in the opener of a series between two of the strongest teams in the second half of the season.

It’s the start of postseason that looks different far beyond just the absence of James for the first time since 2005.

It includes Denver, in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Brooklyn is a playoff team for the first time since 2015 and Orlando is back for the first time since 2012.

The Warriors, of course, haven’t just been going to the postseason every year, but getting all the way to the finals once they do. They’ve done that four straight years, winning three of them, and with a strong finish after some occasional lapses surged to the best record in the West.

Still, this playoff path could provide them plenty of obstacles. The Warriors may need to get by scoring champion James Harden and the Rockets, who took them to a seventh game last year in the conference finals, just to get back to that round this time.

“It doesn’t matter who you play in the playoffs, you’re going to get tested. Everybody’s good,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.

Get out of the West, and the Warriors may have to then get on a plane. They had home-court advantage in all four finals against Cleveland, but Milwaukee and Toronto both finished with better records and would host Games 1 and 2 if they win the East.

And there could be the distractions about their future, with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson able to become free agents this summer.

The Warriors wouldn’t be alone when dealing with that. Toronto (Leonard), Philadelphia (Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris) and Boston (Kyrie Irving) all will be trying to win a title with players who could then leave them.

But those are issues for July. First, it’s all about just getting to June.

“It’s a great feeling,” Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton said. “Playoffs don’t always come around. I’ve been a part of that couple years but it’s been a great season so far. I know guys been itching to get to this first playoff game.”

•••

SACRAMENTO KINGS FIRE COACH DAVE JOERGER 3 LOSING SEASONS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Sacramento’s best season in 13 years wasn’t enough to save coach Dave Joerger’s job.

General manager Vlade Divac fired Joerger on Thursday after he helped develop the young Kings into playoff contenders before ultimately falling short in the franchise’s 13th straight losing season.

•••

DREW ALSO FIRED IN CLEVELAND

CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers’ next coach will inherit a better situation than the one Larry Drew got handed.

Drew and the Cavs parted ways Thursday after a challenging, 19-win season that followed LeBron James leaving for Los Angeles and included a rash of injuries to a young roster.

Although expected, Drew’s departure creates more work for a franchise that will sit out the NBA playoffs this season following a four-year run in the Finals with James.

The 61-year-old Drew met with general manager Koby Altman, and the two decided it was best if they went in separate directions. Altman said in a release that Drew “respectfully declined to participate in the search process and will not be returning to coach the Cavaliers.”

The Cavs tied for the league’s second-worst record with Phoenix, but Drew kept his team playing hard until the end. He received praise from many of his players, including All-Star forward Kevin Love, who was limited to just 22 games following toe surgery.

“We have great respect and appreciation for Larry and the job that he did as the head coach of the Cavaliers for nearly the entire 2018-19 campaign. He brought professionalism, class and steady leadership both this past season and prior four years,” Altman said in a release. “All of us in Cleveland wish Larry nothing but the best going forward.”

Altman will embark on a search for Cleveland’s fifth coach since 2013. The Cavs will consider college coaches, NBA assistants and former head coaches to continue the rebuild Drew started.

Altman is scheduled to outline some of his plans during a news conference Friday at the team’s facility in Independence.

The Cavs’ job is enticing on several fronts. Owner Dan Gilbert has displayed a willingness to spend and Cleveland could land one of the top college prospects depending on how things go in next month’s draft lottery.

Drew took over when Tyronn Lue, who led the Cavs to a title in 2016, was fired Oct. 28 following a 0-6 start. The 61-year-old Drew spent three seasons with the Cavs, joining Lue’s staff for the championship season.

When he replaced Lue, Drew, who previously coached in Atlanta and Milwaukee, knew the Cavs might go in another direction at some point and asked the team to restructure his contract.

Drew’s steadying influence helped the Cavs endure injuries which led to him use a league-high 32 different lineups. He also helped in the development of rookie point guard Collin Sexton, who finished strong after a slow start and appears to be a building block for the future.

“I want to thank Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, the entire organization, and especially our fans, for what has been a very special and rewarding time here in Cleveland,” Drew said. “Koby and I had a good discussion following the season and have both decided that the best decision for each of us was that I would not return to coach the team. I am very proud of what we accomplished over the last several years together and will always cherish our championship.

“I also want to commend our players this season for the bond that they established, the way they approached their jobs and the hard work and growth they had every day. I am very proud of them and wish them the best as they continue to develop for the future.”

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“I think he did a great job to make that step,” Divac said. “But moving forward, I just felt like we had to go a different direction. It’s been three years and we made some progress. This year was a good season but I think we could do more, especially after All-Star break.”

Divac said he had been contemplating the decision to change coaches for a while and ultimately made it after the team stumbled to the finish with a 9-16 record after the All-Star break. The poor stretch run left Sacramento with a 39-43 record, nine games out of a playoff spot after being tied for the eighth spot in the West heading into the final game before the break.

The Kings had their most wins since having a 44-38 record in coach Rick Adelman’s final season in 2005-06. That ended a run of eight straight playoff berths and Sacramento hasn’t been back to the postseason since for the NBA’s longest active drought.

“After the All-Star break, I felt very confident we’d be in the race and we were in the race,” Divac said. “Unfortunately, we fell short.”

Divac made the move official just hours after he was given an extension through the 2022-23 season by owner Vivek Ranadivé. Divac took over as GM before the 2015-16 season and helped bring in some of the key pieces that have led to the improvement this year, including guards Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox and big men Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein and Harry Giles.

Divac also made a trade this season to acquire forward Harrison Barnes from Dallas in hopes of making a playoff push but the team faltered down the stretch.

“Vlade has been vital to what we are building here and I am so pleased to announce his extension,” Ranadivé said. “Throughout his entire career, Vlade is someone who has always made those around him better, both on and off the court. I look forward to our bright future ahead.”

Joerger was the ninth coach since Adelman was fired in 2006 with none able to post a winning record or a playoff berth. In fact, since moving to Sacramento before the 1985-86 season, the only winning seasons for the Kings came in Adelman’s eight seasons at the helm highlighted by a trip to the Western Conference final in 2002.

Divac is now counting on coach No. 10 being the one that can get the team back to the level it had under Adelman, when the Kings were a contender for several years and played an entertaining brand of basketball.

“The next level is to be a team that is going to be a playoff team and down the road a contender,” Divac said. “I think our kids are very talented. We have to believe in them and give them a chance to take advantage of their work and talent.”

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More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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