A tale of two contenders

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The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are the crown jewels of the league. Both lead their respective conferences, both will have homecourt advantage through their conference Finals, both are elite.

And Wednesday they provide a fascinating cross-examination of one another.

The Lakers mailed one in in Atlanta, getting wiped off the map by the Hawks 109-92. It was not pretty. The Lakers have very little to blame. It wasn’t a matchup problem. It wasn’t a back to back. It was the tail end of a road trip, but still. To be down by double digits nearly the entire second half is pretty incredible for a team many consider to still be the best in the league. The answer? Even the Hawks announcers knew, the Lakers had no interest in being on the floor tonight.

It’s nothing new for the Lakers, who have lost three of their last five, two by double digits in routs. This team has simply played lazy for the majority of the season, turning it on for select quarters in most games, and yet there they are, top of the standings, top of the world. For all this team’s talent and ability, their effort indicates that they simply do not care about the regular season. I could spout off to you something about how true champions give their all in every game, every contest, but that’s a lie.

This is the NBA, and 82 game death march, and only the strongest survive, sure, but part of being strong is knowing when to drag your feet to conserve strength. The Lakers just happen to be dragging their feet, occasionally coming to a complete stop and getting trod over. Even the most confident Laker fan has to wonder how much is simple boredom and how much is actual problems with the team, most notably their play inside. They’ve earned the faith of the acolytes, but they’d better deliver at the altar.

Meanwhile, the Cavs let the Bucks who, no lie, they could very well end up seeing in the second round, hang around for 48 minutes, needing a LeBron James steal on the last possession off a horrible Luke Ridnour pass to ice it. This despite a 45-9 free throw advantage for the Cavs, at home. What’s more, if you watched the game, the Cavs were plugged into this one. While the Lakers were FedExing theirs in, the Cavs were locked in, putting forth the same effort that’s gotten them where they’re at. Yet the result was still in doubt, even with everything that was in their favor.

Last year the Cavs blistered the regular season, torching their way into the Conference Finals, laughing and dancing all the way. And all they got for it was a lousy t-shirt that said “Dwight Howard WUZ HERE.” And a win’s better than a loss. But so much of a team’s success depends on the ability to “turn it on” and get hot at the right time. Peak too early and you’re Cleveland last year. Peak too late and you’re the Pistons nearly every year in the 2000’s.

We’ve got two contenders who are still the favorites. Two titans who are still the Lords of their conferences. But to pretend that the Lakers loss is meaningless is as shortsighted as putting too much stock in it and equally foolish. And to assert that all is well with Cleveland because they got the W is to forget their history, and to ignore that the Lakers got blown out, but they also didn’t give anything, either.

Thunder get off to fast start, survive wild ending to win 98-97, even series with Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, center, scramble with San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, right, for a loose ball as time expires in the second half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. Oklahoma City won 98-97. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Associated Press
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When the playoffs are all over, and all the confetti has fallen at the parade celebrating the 2016 NBA champion, we are still going to be talking about this game. The Spurs and Warriors gave us everything — great shooting, leads and comebacks, and a wild, controversial ending.

What ultimately matters is the Thunder bounced back from a rough first game, were aggressive from the start and raced out to that early lead using their transition offense. They hung on through multiple Spurs comebacks and ultimately got a 98-97 win behind 29 points from Russell Westbrook and 28 from Kevin Durant (who played well at the four spot much of the night). The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Oklahoma City.

All the controversy at the end doesn’t change that fact, or that the Thunder did some things much better in Game 2.

The Thunder have had moments like this throughout the season, where they defended better, got transition points, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter (or someone else) would step up and make plays — but they didn’t sustain that high level of play for very long. They still won 55 games because Durant and Westbrook are talented, but we will see if they can sustain a “beat the Spurs” level of play for most of the next couple weeks.

San Antonio helped out by having their offense not as sharp, and just missing shots — the Spurs started 2-of-15 from the field and finished the game shooting just 26.1 percent from three. The missed shots allowed the Thunder to get out in transition more and get the easy buckets that fuel their offense.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about, this is:

Those final 13 seconds, when the Spurs were down 1 and the Thunder were trying to inbound the ball, is the topic of the day. The referees swallowed their whistles to the point that a rugby scrum broke out.

The most discussed part of the play was the inbound — Dion Waiters reaches across the boundary line to shove Manu Ginobili back, which is a clear foul and a change of possessions. Ginobili had stepped on the end line, which could have been ruled a technical but was not as egregious as Waiters’ blatant foul. There were a host of other fouls in those final seconds: Kawhi Leonard grabbing Westbrook’s jersey, a Spurs fan grabbing Steven Adams when he fell out of bounds and not letting him back in the play, and Ibaka hacking LaMarcus Aldridge in the final seconds.

But that’s not what decided the game. The Spurs made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of clean looks before that, things they needed at the end. Aldridge had 41 points, and Leonard added 12. However, Tim Duncan was 1-of-8, and Tony Parker was 3-of-9 — those guys are not the top offensive options anymore, but the Spurs need them to be efficient. The hustling Thunder defense had something to do with this, but that doesn’t change that the Spurs need more from these two key players.

The Thunder offense worked not because they shared the ball — as per usual, it happens only in spurts — but because Westbrook and Durant hit their shots, and because they got transition buckets.

If they can do that for a couple more games at home, they will be in command of this series. But it’s not going to be simple or easy.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.