NBA Playoffs, Cavs v. Celtics Game 6: Shaq identifies the elephant in the room, but that doesn't make it disappear

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rondo cavs layup.pngLeBron James blew it big time on Tuesday, and tonight will be his chance to redeem himself. That wasn’t the only storyline from Game 5 though, as the Cavs struggled in just about every way possible to keep pace with an awfully impressive Celtics team. The problem with James’ particularly woeful performance was that in the scramble to figure out what went wrong with LeBron, some of the other poor aspects of the Cavaliers’ play went unscrutinized.

Could LeBron have played better in such a significant game? Of course. But as J.E. Skeets of the Basketball Jones wisely put it, James could have played a great game and still lost to Boston. The Celtics were just too effective against a revered Cavaliers defense. That includes LeBron, who looked as passive and disinterested on the defensive end as he did on the offensive end, but it extends to each and every Cav that hit the floor in Game 5.

Shaquille O’Neal, to his credit, seems to understand that although LeBron’s performance certainly didn’t help Cleveland’s cause on Tuesday, the Cavs’ bigger problems are on the defensive end. From Ken Berger of CBS Sports:

Though much of the focus has been on LeBron’s 3-for-14 shooting night
— his third sub-par offensive performance in the series — Shaq
remained focused on the aspect of the game that has put the Cavs in the
hole they’re in.

“Our problem is not offense,” Shaq said. “Our
problem is, you can’t let guys get historical triple-doubles and you
can’t let five guys get into double figures. So our problem is not
offense…”

I wouldn’t say Shaq is completely right. O’Neal may have played pretty well offensively in Game 5 (21 points on 11 shots), but the team as a whole performed well below the norm. Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison combined for 18 points on 7-of-18 shooting with five turnovers, which isn’t quite what the Cavs need on one of LeBron’s off-nights, even if no one but James is to blame for his own performance. As a result, the Cavs scored at a rate of 95.7 points per 100 possessions in Game 5, a far cry from their 108.8 mark in the regular season.

The more pressing issues, as Shaq notes, are on the defensive end. The previously strong Cavs defense has broken down against not only match-up problems like Rajon Rondo, but even the aging and limited Kevin Garnett. KG isn’t supposed to be the scorer that he was five years ago, but with Antawn Jamison failing to provide any defensive pressure on Garnett, he’s averaging 18.2 points per game on 50.6% shooting in this series.

Limiting Garnett could be as simple as matching him up with Anderson Varejao rather than Jamison, which would be an offensive concession but a defensive boon. However, Mike Brown and his staff will have to be pretty creative in their
defensive adjustments for Game 6. The Cavs’ guards — be it Anthony Parker, Delonte West, or the defense-less Mo Williams — have all failed to hamper Rondo’s ability to get into the lane. The impact of that isn’t just Rondo’s 20.6 points per game in this series, but also his 11.8 assists, as Rajon’s penetration is opening up all kinds of opportunities for his teammates.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the problem, and another to solve it. Garnett’s offense may not be that difficult to counter, but the Cavaliers are going to have a rough Game 6 if they can’t at least make Rondo’s job difficult. LeBron will have to show up for Cleveland to stay alive, but so will the Cavs’ defense.   

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.