A tale of two contenders


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.

Gordon Hayward goes behind Jordan Clarkson’s back with dribble

Gordon Hayward, Nick Young
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Utah’s Gordon Hayward abused the Lakers’ Jordan Clarkson on this play.

First, Hayward reads and steals Clarkson’s poor feed into the post intended for Kobe Bryant, then going up the sideline he takes his dribble behind Clarkson’s back to keep going. It all ends in a Rudy Gobert dunk.

Three quick takeaways here:

1) Gordon Hayward is a lot better than many fans realize. He can lead this team.

2) It’s still all about the development with Clarkson, and that’s going to mean some hard lessons.

3) Hayward may have the best hair in the NBA, even if it’s going a bit Macklemore.

(Hat tip reddit)

Could Tristan Thompson’s holdout last months? Windhorst says yes.

2015 NBA Finals - Game Five

VIZZINI: “So, it is down to you. And it is down to me.”
MAN IN BLACK nods and comes nearer…
MAN IN BLACK: “Perhaps an arrangement can be reached.”
VIZZINI: “There will be no arrangement…”
MAN IN BLACK: “But if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse.”

That farcical scene from The Princess Bride pretty much sums up where we are with the Tristan Thompson holdout with the Cleveland Cavaliers, minus the Iocane powder. (Although that scene was a battle of wits in the movie and this process seems to lack much wit.) The Cavaliers have put a five-year, $80 million offer on the table. Thompson wants a max deal (or at least a more than has been offered), but he also doesn’t want to play for the qualifying offer and didn’t sign it. LeBron James just wants the two sides just to get it done.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN thinks LeBron could be very disappointed.

Windhorst was on the Zach Lowe podcast at Grantland (which you should be listening to anyway) and had this to say about the Thompson holdout:

“I actually believe it will probably go months. This will go well into the regular season.”

Windhorst compared it to a similar situation back in 2007 with Anderson Varejao, which eventually only broke because the then Charlotte Bobcats signed Varejao to an offer sheet. Thompson is a restricted free agent, meaning the Cavaliers can match any offer, but only Portland and Philadelphia have the cap space right now to offer him a max contract. Neither team has shown any interest in doing so.

And so we wait. And we may be waiting a while.