NBA Playoffs: Why the Cavaliers can win it all (as if you didn't know)

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for nba_james1_250.jpgThe Cavaliers have the league’s best record for the second year in a row. Their best player is likely about to win his second MVP award in a row. They’ve made major changes to their team specifically designed to avoid another disappointing playoff exit. If they win, they become the first Cleveland team to win a major pro sports title since 1964. If they lose, there may well be no next year. No pressure or anything.

Here’s why the Cleveland Cavaliers might just pull it off this year:

1. LeBron James

He’s 16 (big) wins away from his official coronation as the league’s best player and the best player of his generation. He’s four losses away from a summer of ridicule and a possible location change. It’s impossible to confidently say that he’s the league’s best player until he gets some jewelry. What can be said is that LeBron, for the second straight regular season, was significantly better than any other player in the league.
No player imposes his will on the game the way that LeBron does. He’s a dominant force on offense, and can seemingly get to the rim and finish any time he feels like it. His combination of scoring and passing ability is off the charts; he shattered the record for assists per game by a forward this season while scoring almost 30 points a game. He’s the best player in the league on the fast break. He’s not automatic with his jumper, but he’s improved his ability to hurt teams with deep jumpers. He’s a great rebounder for his position. He’s capable of playing lockdown man-to-man defense late in games and getting shocking blocks and steals coming from the weak side. No team relied more on one player than the Cavaliers did this season, and no team had a better record. As long as LeBron James suits up for the Cavaliers, they have a great chance of beating any of their opponents.
2. Versatility

It’s no secret that the Cavaliers have modeled their franchise using the Spurs as a blueprint. Like the championship Spurs team, the Cavaliers have the personnel to match up with any team in the league and beat them at their own game, something they weren’t capable of doing last season. They have both the biggest and tallest player in the league on their roster, and managed to be successful without either of them in the lineup. The Cavs have the size to matchup with the hulking front lines of Orlando and Los Angeles, and they have enough sweet-shooting forwards and perimeter players capable of cross-matching to play an uptempo game with any team that wants to run with them. If the Cavaliers can figure out the best way to fit their pieces together in a given series, they have the talent to play any style and play it very well.
3. Defense
The Cavaliers weren’t as dominant defensively this season as they were in years past, finishing only seventh in defensive efficiency. However, they have historically played much better defense in the playoffs than they have in the regular season, when their effort increases and LeBron James starts playing much harder on that end of the floor. They will be getting Shaq back for the playoffs, who did a great job defending the paint in the regular season. Anderson Varejao has proven himself to be one of the league’s best defenders at the power forward spot. Anthony Parker and Delonte West give opposing shooting guards hell for the full 48 minutes. The Cavaliers have always been a defense-first team under Mike Brown — don’t expect them to forget that during the most important postseason run in franchise history. 
4. Three-Point Shooting
If you have LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal controlling the paint on offense, who do you want to put around them? Three-point shooters. Well, the Cavaliers have those. Mo Williams and Anthony Parker are snipers from beyond the arc, and Delonte West, Antawn Jamison, and even Jamario Moon are all capable of hitting threes if they’re left open. Throw in the occasional three-point barrage from LeBron, and the Cavaliers finished the season with the second-best three-point percentage in the league, trailing only the Suns in that category. The Cavs are a classic “pick your poison” team on offense — they finish at the rim better than any other team in the league, and will gladly knock down the open three if the defense collapses.
5. Depth

JJ Hickson, Leon Powe, Daniel Gibson, Jawad Williams, and Jamario Moon have all proven themselves to be solid NBA players. It’s entirely possible that none of them could see significant minutes for the Cavs in this year’s playoffs. That’s how deep the Cavs are. 

6. Rebounding 

It’s not the sexiest team about the team, but the Cavs lead the NBA in rebound rate this season. Nobody on the team is averaging gaudy rebound totals, but almost all of their players rebound exceptionally well for their position. Because of this, the Cavs control the boards. It can’t be overstated just how important winning the possession battle is in the playoffs, and the Cavs have a leg up in that regard.
7. Chemistry

The Cavs have assembled a team with great chemistry on the court (every player is comfortable being in LeBron’s shadow, and they all compliment his strengths very well), as well as off of it. It’s always easy to have fun when you’re winning a lot, but the Cavs seem to have a lot of faith in each other, which could end up coming in handy for them. 
8. Hunger

The Cavaliers know what this playoff run means to them. Shaq, Zydrunas, and Jamison aren’t getting any younger. They’ve had the best regular-season record in the league for two years in a row. Cleveland is aching for a championship. LeBron’s future with the team could be on the line. The Lakers have last year. The Celtics have 2008. The Magic have the future. For the Cavaliers, this is the year. Now they just have to go out there and actually do it. 

Warriors’ defense, Klay Thompson take over fourth quarter, earn Game 2 win

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Only one team in this series can crank up their defense enough to  win them games.

The Warriors’ offense feeds off that stingy defense — with or without Stephen Curry in the lineup, again Tuesday it was without — and the combination can lead to big runs.

Such as a 34-12 fourth quarter. It was historic, as our own Dan Feldman pointed out on twitter.

Golden State trailed by 17 at one point but came on in the fourth with a defensive energy that held Damian Lillard to 0-of-3 shooting and his entire Portland team to 26.5 percent shooting. Those miss shots fueled transition buckets and opportunities — Klay Thompson had 10 of his 27 points on the night in the fourth — and the Warriors roared back for a 110-99 victory.

Golden State now leads the series 2-0 as it heads to Portland, with Game 3 not until Saturday. The biggest question is whether Curry will play in that game, or will the Warriors use their position of strength to get him more rest (as they did in the Houston series up 2-0)?

The best player on the floor in Game 2 was Draymond Green, who finished with 17 points (on 20 shots), 14 rebound and seven assists. But that’s not where the damage he does starts — it’s on defense. His ability to defend the five, then show out high on pick-and-rolls to cut off Lillard or C.J. McCollum and take away their shots from three. With Curry out, Green also spends a lot of time as the guy initiating the Warriors offense. He crashes the boards. He protects the paint, including a key block late on Mason Plumlee. Green did it all.

Portland raced out to a lead using their vintage style — their defense wasn’t that good, but it was good enough (especially with a cold Thompson who kept missing open looks), and their offense was hitting everything. With the Warriors missing shots it was Portland using the opportunity to run — and it was the Warriors defenders doing a poor job of recognizing the shooters and closing them out. So the opposite of Game 1.

Portland was also getting buckets from Al-Farouq Aminu — 10 first quarter points — and that’s always a good sign because he’s the guy (well, him and Maurice Harkless) that the Warriors will live with shooting.

Still, you knew the run was coming. The Warriors went on a 14-2 run to make it close as the second half started to wind down. But then Portland responded with some real poise and an 8-0 run of their own. Portland was getting their buckets and had a 59-51 run at the half. They continued to hold that lead through the third quarter thanks to a red-hot Damian Lillard, who had 16 points in the quarter.

But again, you knew the run was coming — and this time it was fueled by the Warriors defense. Festus Ezeli was a big part of that, his defensive presence in the paint helped turn things around, he was setting big screens to free up Thompson and others, plus he had eight points of his own in the quarter.

When the game got tight Portland missed seven in a row down the stretch, and that sealed the Blazers fate. Meanwhile, the Warriors kept hitting shots, and the Blazers have no great options to change up the defense and alter that dynamic. Even without Curry, the versatility of the Warriors makes them tough to slow, let alone stop. 

Going home, maybe the Trial Blazers can hit some difficult shots and hold off a Warriors charge in the fourth quarter.

Or, maybe Stephen Curry is back, and the Warriors just get better.

Dwyane Wade’s determination outlasts Kyle Lowry’s buzzer beater

Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade controls the ball as Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) defends during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Dwyane Wade was helpless as Kyle Lowry‘s halfcourt heave sailed through the air (though Wade cocked his head back and leaned to the side, as if changing his view could alter the ball’s trajectory).

Wade was helpless as the referees swallowed their whistles despite Cory Joseph crashing into him on an inbound. (Haven’t we had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That led to a Heat turnover that preceded Lowry’s miracle shot.

Wade was helpless as the referees again swallowed their whistles despite DeMarre Carroll tugging his jersey on an overtime inbound. (Haven’t we really had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That also created a turnover and gave the Raptors another chance to tie.

So, Wade took matters into his own hands.

Wade snatched the ball from DeMar DeRozan, went to his knees to recover it and charged for a three-point play with 1.8 seconds left – finally clinching a 102-96 Miami Game 1 win in a second-round series Tuesday.

The game went to overtime on Lowry’s long-distance buzzer beater. When the shot fell, Wade dropped to one knee and buried his face in his hand. But he didn’t stay on the mat for long.

The Heat scored first eight points of regulation, and Wade (24 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks) outscored the Raptors himself in the extra period, 7-6.

This is Toronto’s seventh straight Game 1 loss, including four at home the last three years with largely this group of players. But as the Raptors’ first-round win over the Pacers showed, this series is far from over. Road Game 1 winners have taken the series 53% of the time, hardly an overwhelming clip.

Toronto must better stay in front of Goran Dragic, who led Miami with 26 points. Dragic, who had 25 in Game 7 against the Hornets, had never scored so much in consecutive games with the Heat. They’re thrilled to run their offense through him more often.

The Raptors should also more resolutely attack Hassan Whiteside, who scared them away from the basket. Beyond Jonas Valanciunas (24 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals), the Raptors were 8-for-20 in the paint with Whiteside in the game. It’s not so much the shooting percentage – which isn’t great – but the low number of attempts in 39 minutes. Whiteside is a premier rim protector, but he’s not invincible. That proclivity for the perimeter failed especially with Toronto’s star guard struggling so mightily.

Aside from his halfcourt highlight, Lowry scored four points on 2-of-12 shooting, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. More than anything, the Raptors need him to play better.

Otherwise, the shot of the playoffs will only delay the inevitable.

Kyle Lowry sends Raptors-Heat to overtime with halfcourt buzzer beater (video)

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry makes a pass as Miami Heat's Luol Deng (9) and Goran Dragic (7) defend during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Kyle Lowry was 2-for-11, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers.

Didn’t matter.

He hit the big one to stave off yet another Raptors Game 1 loss.

Video via Kenny Ducey of Sports Illustrated

C.J. McCollum on Warriors: ‘They set a lot of illegal screens’

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, center, reaches for the ball between Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, top, and forward Andre Iguodala during the second half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. The Warriors won 118-106. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts accused Anderson Varejao of being dirty on a particular play.

C.J. McCollum says the Warriors cross the line much more regularly.

via Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

“They set a lot of illegal screens,’’ Blazers guard CJ McCollum said Tuesday at the team’s shootaround at The Olympic Club. “They are moving and stuff. That’s the respect you get when you are champions, you get a lot more respect from the referees. You have to figure out a way to get around those screens and make it difficult.’’

One underappreciated element of the Warriors’ success is their excellent screening. Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are two of the NBA’s best. Even the diminutive Stephen Curry wreaks havoc with his screens, leveraging his shooting ability to befuddle defenders.

Do the Warriors sometimes set illegal screens? Yup. Do they do so more than other teams? Yup. Do they do so more than every other team? Anecdotally, probably, though I’d love to see numbers.

But that’s part of Golden State’s strategy. The Warriors screeners so often straddle the line, they move it. It’s a fine line between a good legal screen and an illegal one, and Golden State dares the refs to blow the whistle.

McCollum can campaign for that to change, and his statements might cause the league to instruct referees to watch Warrior screens more closely. But even if Golden State has to harness its movement and arm extensions on picks, the team is more than capable of setting quality clean screens.