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. 

Kevin Durant on Warriors, Spurs: “We’re not scared of neither one of those teams”

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder while facing the Golden State Warriors on February 6, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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We’d seen this movie before. Against the San Antonio Spurs. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Golden State Warriors offensive machine got cranked up, dropped 73 on Oklahoma City in the first half, led by 14 at the break, and it was about to turn into another rout, and another statement win for the Warriors.

Except the Thunder came back. OKC held Golden State to just 18 third quarter points and got the lead down to two points — the Thunder pushed the Warriors away from the things they like to do (Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll) and made life difficult for them. It was a fantastic performance for OKC, even if Golden State still prevailed with a 116-108 win.

After the game Durant would have none of any moral victory talk — even though it was — and he said the Thunder were not intimidated by the Warriors or anyone else, via Royce Young of Oklahoma City.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Durant said of the comeback. “When we get down, we’re supposed to tie the game up. No moral victories in here…

“Man, we’re not scared of neither one of those teams,” Durant said, including the Spurs. “We’re going to play our game. Nobody in this locker room is scared. We gotta play ’em. If we want to get to where we want to get to, we gotta play ’em. We’re not ducking nobody.”

The NBA isn’t professional boxing; nobody gets to duck anybody.

But a Thunder team searching for respect gained a measure Saturday night. The Thunder picture themselves contenders and for much of the season listened to talking heads (myself included) say the Warriors and Spurs are in a different class. Saturday night was a step in showing that they belonged. There are still questions about how Golden State or San Antonio could exploit players such as Dion Waiters or Enes Kanter is a seven-game series, but the Thunder have two of the league’s top five players — they can beat and hang with anyone.

They have a shot at a title.

If Durant believes that, it would impact his decision this summer, but that is another discussion.

Watch Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant trade shots Saturday night

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Kevin Durant won the one-on-one battle — he dropped 40 points on the Golden State Warriors, while Stephen Curry had “just” 26 and needed 26 shots to get there (but did add 10 assists).

But the Warriors built up a lead thanks to their depth and were able to withstand a late Thunder run to get the win.

Enjoy watching Curry and Durant putting on a show Saturday night in the Bay Area.

Nerlens Noel uses length for ridiculous reverse jam

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Nerlens Noel‘s 7’4″ wingspan can come in handy at times.

Such as when driving on Brook Lopez, and getting forced under the basket, he can just reach around the Nets’ center for the impressive dunk.

Noel finished the game with 18 points, Jahlil Okafor had 22, and the Sixers picked up a win against the Nets 103-98.

Kobe Bryant’s 25 points not enough to upset Spurs

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs have watched helplessly as Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant has tormented them for the better part of the past two decades.

Bryant did so again in his final appearance in San Antonio, but the Spurs were able to enjoy this one.

LaMarcus Aldridge scored 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a throwback performance by Bryant to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 106-102 on Saturday night to remain unbeaten at home.

“I thought it was great,” San Antonio point guard Tony Parker said. “It was a great game, fans were into it. It felt a little bit like the old days in the playoffs, Spurs and the Lakers.”

Kawhi Leonard added 20 points and 13 rebounds to help the Spurs win their 28th straight home game to open the season. The Spurs’ 37th straight home victory dating back to last season was surprisingly difficult.

Bryant had 16 of his 25 points in the third quarter, going 3 for 6 on 3-pointers in guiding the Lakers to an 81-79 lead entering the fourth.

“I watched him growing up,” said Lakers guard and San Antonio native Jordan Clarkson, who finished with 21 points and four assists. “I watched him kill the Spurs.”

San Antonio has trailed for only two minutes in the fourth quarter at home this season, but the Lakers led for all but 23 seconds in the opening seven minutes of the period.

Bryant finished 9 for 28 from the field, but was 7 for 18 in a dynamic second half that electrified a pro-Bryant crowd.

“It’s like watching Michael (Jordan),” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “I was just watching. It was great. It was great. We made some mistakes. He took advantage of it. He’s fantastic.”

After rising to drain a 3-pointer with Leonard squarely in his face contesting the attempt, Bryant turned to an injured Tim Duncan on the bench and shrugged his shoulders.

“He was like, `No way,’ and I was like `Dude,’ ” Bryant said. “What could I do? I miss the easy ones and make some B.S. like that. I don’t even know what to tell you. It was Tim’s version of a yell, so it was a strong whisper.”

The Lakers trailed 101-99 lead after trading 3-pointers following Bryant’s improbable shot, but the Spurs’ were able to hold Los Angeles to just three points in the final 2 minutes.

“Missed defensive assignments,” said Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, who had 12 points. “They executed their offense to perfection. We were young and that’s an excuse I could give you.”

Bryant had a sore right shoulder, but he was not about to miss one last game against his fiercest rivals. He has faced the Spurs 90 times in the regular season and postseason, his most against any opponent.

TIP-INS

Lakers: The Spurs honored Bryant with a 3-minute video. The Spurs’ Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all paid tribute to Bryant’s competitiveness along with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. Bryant walked over to the Spurs’ bench prior to tipoff and hugged Popovich, sharing a few words with San Antonio’s longtime coach.

Spurs: San Antonio’s 12-game lead in the Southwest is the largest ever since the division was formed in 2004-2005. … In addition to Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs were also without Matt Bonner. The reserve forward suffered a left calf strain Friday against Dallas, which was just his 20th game of the season. … Pop star Selena Gomez sat courtside, wearing a Tony Parker jersey.