NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: LeBron-Less Preview

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It’s foolish to pretend that the storylines surrounding this game won’t center around LeBron. Between the legacy, the attitude, the failure, the elbow, and everything else, LeBron being on the brink of massive failure is too intriguing not to focus on. It’s also foolish to think that LeBron’s performance in game six won’t be the single biggest factor in the game. LeBron’s had two great performances in this series, and the Cavaliers won both of those games. He’s had three lackluster performances, and the Cavaliers lost all three of those games. If the Cavs want to stay alive tonight, their franchise player needs to step up. There’s no getting around that. 

But just for fun, let’s take a look at some of the things that the Cavaliers need to do to avoid elimination that have nothing to do with LeBron. Without further ado:
1. Rebounding
The Cavaliers were the #1 team in rebound rate over the course of the regular season. The Celtics were 25th in rebound rate over the course of the regular season. Apparently nobody informed these teams of their respective rebounding prowess before this series, as the Celtics have been absolutely destroying the Cavaliers on the glass. The Cavs have not been getting the rebounds they should be getting, and it’s been killing them. Shaq has been invisible on the glass. Jamison has let rebounds slip through his fingers. Rajon Rondo is beating the Cavaliers to each and every long rebound. In game four, the beginning of the end for the Cavaliers came when Ray Allen banged in two consecutive threes off of offensive rebounds at the beginning of the third quarter. The Cavaliers have to rebound better. 
2. Turnovers
Again, this was supposed to be Boston’s problem. Cleveland wasn’t great with turnovers in the regular season, but Boston was much worse — the Celtics were 27th in turnover rate during the regular season. However, it’s been the Cavaliers coughing the ball up left and right during this series. The Cavaliers had 17 turnovers in both game four and game five, with each of their starters turning the ball over at least twice. In game five, the Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 24-6 on points off of turnovers. The Cavaliers look sloppy offensively, and they’re far too content to take the ball right into the teeth of the Boston defense without knowing what they’ll do if they get cut off. Boston has been absolutely murdering the Cavaliers with extra possessions, and the Cavs need to put a stop to that.
3. Frontcourt matchup problems
One thing that hasn’t really been talked about yet: A big reason the Cavs traded for Shaq is so they could have somebody capable of defending Dwight Howard. One reason the Cavaliers traded for Jamison at the deadline is so they could have somebody to match up with Rashard Lewis. Thanks to both of those moves, the Cavs should be able to defend the Magic much better than they did last season. The only problem is that they’re a game away from being eliminated before they play the Magic. 
Shaq has been doing a good enough job on Kendrick Perkins, but the Celtics barely involve him on offense anyways. When they do use Perkins on offense, it’s generally as a screener, and Shaq has trouble on that pick-and-roll. Meanwhile, KG has been absolutely destroying Antawn Jamison. He hasn’t been having great scoring nights, but he has a mismatch every time the Celtics feed him in the post against Jamison. The Cavs have to give help, and good things end up happening for the Celtics even when KG doesn’t get the basket. There’s no easy fix to this problem for the Cavaliers, but it may be in their interest to mix things up a bit in game six. 
4. Mo Williams 
In this series, Mo Williams has enjoyed one great quarter and 19 bad ones. That’s not going to get the job done. He can’t find his shot, he can’t lose Rondo on the perimeter and initiate the offense, and he’s forcing plays. Also, he’s getting murdered on defense. Other than that, though, he’s been great. He needs to give the Cavs something in game six. 
5. Ray Allen
When the Celtics have Ray Allen going along with Rondo and Garnett, the Cavs have no chance of stopping them. Allen can catch and shoot off that pin-down, find the roll man if he gets trapped, or make a basket going to the rim if they force him to put the ball on the floor. Sometimes he forces that beautiful jumper, and even his jumper won’t go in every time if the Cavs do a good job of contesting it. The Cavs have to pray he’s not feeling it in game six, because if he drills a couple of those threes and gets the Garden crowd into it, it could be over. 
Those are the big things the Cavs need to go their way in game six. Well, that and LeBron. We’ll see what happens. 

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns didn’t know what to expect in the competition, given that it was his rookie season, and practice didn’t fully prepare him.

“Oh, I came in today at I think it was 11:00 in the morning and got a practice run,” Towns said after the competition. “But it doesn’t translate to what it is when you have millions of people watching, thousands of people in the stands and also your heart racing like mine was. So just to have that instance of just a feel of how it was.”

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

Towns sees his title as validation for the NBA’s decision to add big men to the competition, as well as a victory for bigs who are skilled in more than the traditional ways.

“The bigs were amazing today,” Towns said. “We were able to just come out with a W, and I’m glad I was able to help the bigs come out with this trophy. This is bigger than me. This is for all the bigs out there, with the game changing the way it is, to show that bigs can stand up with guards, skillwise.”

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.