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. 

Zach Randolph receives standing ovation in first game back after mother’s passing

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AP
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Zach Randolph was away from the Memphis Grizzlies and its fans for seven games to deal with the passing of his mother, Mae. When he returned to the floor, something special was waiting for him.

During Z-Bo’s arrival against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, fans at FedEx Forum gave Randolph a standing ovation in support of his difficult time.

From ESPN NBA:

Randolph dropped 12 points, collected 14 rebounds, and added an assist as the Grizzlies beat the Sixers, 96-91, in a game that went down to the wire.

Teammates of Randolph — like Marc Gasol — were glad to have him back and let Randolph know he was being thought about during his absence.

Gasol even took to Twitter after the game in a heartwarming gesture:

Cavs’ J.R. Smith sidelined with hyperextended left knee

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CLEVELAND (AP) Cavaliers starting shooting guard J.R. Smith will miss at least one game – and probably more – with a hyperextended left knee.

The Cavs said an MRI taken on Smith’s knee on Tuesday did not reveal any structural damage, but he will sit out Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks. Smith got hurt in the first quarter of Cleveland’s win in Toronto on Monday night.

While his teammates flew to New York, Smith returned to Cleveland to undergo tests. The team said he is day to day while he receives additional treatment.

Smith’s knee buckled after he dropped a short shot in the lane in a 116-112 win over the Raptors. He had been bothered by soreness in his knee for the past week, and that may have contributed to his slow start this season.

Smith, who did not report to training camp before signing a four-year, $57 million contract before the opener, is averaging just 7.8 points and shooting a career-worst 31 percent from the floor. He’s shooting only 19 percent (8 of 42) in his last six games.

It’s not clear who will take Smith’s spot while he’s out. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has several options, including veterans Mike Dunleavy and Richard Jefferson. On Monday, Lue gave more playing time to DeAndre Liggins, who scored five points as the Cavs beat the Raptors for the third time this season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Even John Wall’s 52 can’t get Wizards win

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) goes to the basket past Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo, of the Republic of Congo, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Washington. The Magic won 124-116. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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We know you were busy Tuesday night assembling your hipster nativity scene — complete with bacon — so here are the three big takeaways from the night around the NBA.

1) John Wall puts up career-best 52, but that’s not enough to get Wizards win.
There is no more disappointing team in the NBA than the Washington Wizards, and Tuesday we saw exactly why. This season the Wizards have gotten good play from Bradley Beal (when healthy he has shot 41.5 percent from three and scored 21.4 points per game), Otto Porter (who has been sneaky good averaging 14.4 points on 53.9 percent shooting, plus 7.9 rebounds a game), and in particular John Wall. But that hasn’t been enough to overcome a poor defense and indifferent bench.

Tuesday night Wall had a career game — 52 points on 18-of-31 shooting, plus eight assists. He was getting into the middle of a good Orlando defense off the pick-and-roll and hitting shots he hasn’t consistently over the course of his career, plus of course getting his buckets in transition. He was fantastic.

It didn’t matter, Washington still lost to the Magic 124-116. Orlando has a bottom five offense, yet the Wizards allowed them 65 points in the first half and 96 points after three — the Magic were getting the shots they wanted, and these are NBA players if you let them do that they will hit those shots. The Wizards were bad defensively the night before against Brooklyn but still won because, well, Brooklyn. Orlando is too good for that. It was all the same problems for Washington, primarily an indifferent defense and a serious lack of depth.

But it’s not just the defense and bench — the issues are deeper than that. Wall’s postgame quote sums up the problem and should depress Wizards fans.

“Not even just defense, just playing hard. Our job is to wake up and just play hard. Before you made it to the NBA or got any college scholarships, you played hard everyday to get to where you wanted to. To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to just do waking up.”

2) Zach Randolph returns and Grizzlies keep on winning. It was great to see Zach Randolph back on the court — he had missed seven games following the death of his mother and the home crowd in Memphis roared their support when he entered the game.

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The Grizzlies beat a shorthanded Sixers team (no Joel Embiid, second night of a back-to-back) 96-91, thanks to Marc Gasol’s 26 points and 12 rebounds (the night after his first triple-double of the season). While it may not have been the most impressive outing, the victory gives Memphis a four game winning streak — without Mike Conley. That’s huge. We said when Conley went down for six weeks (give or take) that the Grizzlies needed to find a way to stay afloat in the West playoff race, and the Grizzlies have gone 4-1. Granted, all the teams they beat are below .500, but they are beating the teams in front of them. Things are about to get tough (the next four games are Portland, Golden State, then a home-and-home with Cleveland) but this little streak is helping Memphis keep it’s head above water with it’s point guard out. This team always just seems to find a way.

3) Carmelo Anthony puts up 35, Knicks pick up a solid win. This game was close through the first half, but if you watched it you kept thinking, “the Knicks are going to get on a run and blow this thing open at some point.” New York just missed shots in the first 24 minutes — they started 0-of-11 from three — but the looks were often clean and there was a sense those shots were going to start to fall. They did after halftime, and it was the Knicks bench with Carmelo Anthony that went on an 8-0 run late in the third as the Knicks started to pull away and win comfortably over the Heat, 114-103. Depth was key in this game, Miami’s stars (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson) played well but the bench was a mess, while the Knicks got strong performances from their reserves, particularly from Kyle O’Quinn.

Mostly, this was one of those nights where when the Knicks needed a bucket, ‘Melo went and got it. He had 35 points on 27 shots, and while it wasn’t terribly efficient and was the kind of game he can give the Knicks some nights to propel them to a win.

Anthony scores 35, Knicks beat depleted Heat 114-103

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MIAMI (AP) It’s been a long time since the New York Knicks were in this position.

More than three years, to be precise.

Carmelo Anthony matched a season high with 35 points, and the Knicks took advantage of second chances all night to beat the injury-ravaged Miami Heat 114-103 on Tuesday night. At 12-9, New York is three games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2012-13 season.

“Any time you can put together some wins you feel confident, you feel comfortable, you feel like you’re heading in the right direction, and I really feel we’re doing that,” Anthony said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 12 rebounds for New York, which has won four straight. The Knicks lost Derrick Rose to back spasms in the third quarter, but still scored 61 points after halftime.

“We just came out in the second half knowing that we have to win the game and that we have to play better,” Porzingis said.

Goran Dragic scored 29 points and Hassan Whiteside finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds for the Heat, who fell to 2-8 at home. New York had a 31-13 edge in second-chance points, and outscored Miami 56-36 in the paint.

“Sometimes the ball goes that way,” Whiteside said.

The teams were tied at 68 late in the third quarter, when the Knicks went on a 27-13 run over the next eight minutes to take control. Anthony finished 13 for 27 from the field, and Porzingis and Joakim Noah combined for 22 rebounds.

The Heat had nine players, and might not have any more than that until next week. Justise Winslow missed his 12th consecutive game with a sore left wrist, and James Johnson (right rotator cuff), Dion Waiters (groin), Luke Babbitt (right hip) and Josh Richardson (right ankle) were also sidelined.

None are slated to travel for Miami’s three-game, four-day stretch that starts Wednesday in Atlanta. The Heat are leaving some staff in Miami to work with the injured players.

“They’re getting way more work in than they would get on the road,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

TIP-INS

Knicks: Coach Jeff Hornacek is now 1-5 against Miami. He’s beaten every team he’s faced, and has yet to coach against his former Phoenix club. … The Knicks missed their first 11 3-point tries, then made 7 of their last 14. … New York is over .500 this late in a season for the third time in 12 years. … Not a good sign for Wednesday, when Cleveland visits the Knicks: New York is 0-4 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: It was Dragic’s highest-scoring total as a member of the Heat. … Whiteside has led the Heat in rebounds in all 21 games this season. … Miami struggled again from the line, shooting 16 for 27.

ON PHIL

Spoelstra was asked to respond to Knicks President Phil Jackson’s comments last month about the way the Heat had to handle LeBron James when he played in Miami. Spoelstra laughed it off. “I honestly just think he gets bored and likes to throw stuff out there to get everybody all fired up,” Spoelstra said. James and the Cavaliers visit Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

TALL ORDER

Hilarity briefly ensued in the second quarter when the 7-foot-3 Porzingis had a jump ball against Miami’s Tyler Johnson, who might be generously listed at 6-foot-4. Shocking: Porzingis won the tap.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Cleveland on Wednesday, preceding a five-game West Coast trip.

Heat: Visit Atlanta on Wednesday, followed by visits to Cleveland and Chicago.