We had a pretty streaky Sunday around the league. Chris Paul and the Clippers extended their winning streak to 13 games, the longest seen this year in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki returned for the Mavs, but the Spurs made it six straight at home in a laugher. The Knicks squeaked out a win over the Love-less Wolves, the Jazz ended their road journey with a win in Orlando, and Sacramento took it to the Blazers for a win without DeMarcus Cousins. There are six games and six winners, but there are only three stars:
Third Star: Chris Paul – (17 points, 13 assists, 5 steals)
The Clippers aren’t just winning all the games they should be winning on this streak — they’re usually doing it in three quarters. Chris Paul barely needs to shower after games these days, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting up some big time stat lines. Paul came out right away in the first quarter and hit the Suns for 12 points, sending the message loud and clear that the Clippers wanted to put this one away as quickly as possible. Paul’s been his usual self offensively, but his defense this year has been on another level. Yet again Chris Paul completely locked down Goran Dragic and Sebastian Telfair, as those two combined to go a miserable 5-for-18 with 1 assist and 6 turnovers. No individual Clippers has had a very “loud” performance during this run, but Paul has very quietly churned out quality game after quality game.
Second Star: Danny Green – (25 points, 7-for-8 from 3-point land)
This was like watching someone shoot fish in a barrel. Green hit the game’s first shot (a three) and then hit three more in the period, setting the tone for the Spurs’ offensive attack right off the bat. Green finished 7-of-8 from behind the arc to help the Spurs set a franchise record with a whopping 20 3-pointers. The Mavericks looked awfully old and slow trying to close out on Green and the rest of San Antonio’s shooters, and all the open looks led to some big time numbers. The Spurs hit the 100 point mark in the third quarter, shot 56 percent as a team, and dropped 129 points on the game. The Spurs were an absolute buzzsaw.
First Star: Carmelo Anthony – (33 points, 7 rebounds, 19 point fourth quarter)
New York had trailed Minnesota the entire game, but then Carmelo Anthony flipped the switch. Melo rattled off an incredible 19 fourth quarter points to complete the comeback victory. When he gets in one of those grooves, Anthony is almost impossible to derail — especially when he’s putting his head down and going to the rim. Say what you will about New York’s title chances, but if it comes down to one game or one quarter, Anthony is one of a handful of players capable of completely swinging the tides and taking over a game all by himself, even against a great individual defender. The big threes, the bullying drives and the clutch free throws — Anthony had it all going, and the Knicks needed every ounce of it.
Three Things to Know: Nothing but takeaways from Cavaliers beating Raptors
Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we’re doing things a little differently, despite some other interesting games — Dwight Howarddropping 30-and-30, the genuine concern aboutGiannis Antetokounmpo‘s ankle, and the Pelicans beating the Pacers because Anthony Davis is ridiculous — we are going to focus on the likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Toronto at Cleveland, which the Cavaliers won 132-129.
What we are not taking away from this is a prediction of a playoff matchup between these two teams. Forget the fact that regular season meetings are crappy predictors of playoff series in general, here are three other issues: 1) Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven days, which factored into their poor defense and late fade; 2) Cleveland is going to be healthier and have different guys in the rotation come the playoffs; 3) If Dwane Casey or Larry Drew/Tyronn Lue have a tactic they think could be a great weapon against the other side, no chance they break it out for long in a late-season game — they will save it for the playoffs. Sort of like to NFL teams playing each other in week 16 when they know they could meet in the playoffs. We didn’t see the best of either side.
That said, let’s get on to the real three things.
1) The biggest factor in the Eastern Conference remains LeBron James and his level of play. There are questions about how well the new-look Raptors will carry over to the playoffs. There are more questions (at least in my mind) about how well this Cavaliers roster can defend, even when healthy. All that said, this game was a reminder of one simple fact:
LeBron James can lift a team to the NBA Finals almost by himself — he’s been to seven straight Finals for a reason. He is the force of nature, he’s still playing at an MVP-level (at age 33 in his 15th season), and he took over this game with 35 points, 17 assists, and zero turnovers.
LeBron shot 62 percent from three on the night, had 14 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter alone, and was the difference in this game. OG Anunoby is the guy the Raptors will likely lean on in the playoffs to make LeBron work for his buckets, but he looked like a guys still working his way back from injury (and like a rookie with tired legs late in the season), it was Pascal Siakam who did the best of any Raptor (LeBron was 4-of-10 with Siakam guarding him on the night). That’s something we would see in the postseason, but nobody really had an impact, and the Raptors need to figure out how to make LeBron work harder for his buckets.
Put simply, the Eastern Conference is all about LeBron James. Still. And it will remain so until further notice.
2) Which one of these teams will defend better come the playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 79 first half points and allowed the Raptors a 135.8 offensive rating on the night (points per 100 possessions). Kyle Lowry put it this way after the game, “Disgraceful display of defense by us. We’ve got to be better than that.” The Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 140.4 (stats via Cleaning the Glass).
Neither team defended well. If this was an Eastern Conference playoff preview, the team that improves their defense the most between now and then will come out on top.
Toronto has defended better all season — they are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating — but it didn’t show Wednesday. Maybe it was the back-to-back, fifth-game-in-seven-days that took their legs out from under them, particularly for the older Serge Ibaka who had an off night on both ends. (Tired legs also would explain the lack of transition points by the Raptors on the night, they needed those easy buckets). Maybe it’s the fact nobody has a good answer for LeBron. Maybe a lot of things, but the Raptors need to do better defensively in a playoff series or the outcome will be the same.
The Cavaliers lack cohesion on defense, and while they will get better defenders back from injury — Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. — that is not going to speed up the team getting used to each other on that end. Cleveland has to have better energy, they need to close out on shooters better (the Raptors got open looks late on kickouts, they missed injured C.J. Miles), and they just need more efforts like veteran Jose Calderon gave (it was a good night for him). Cleveland has time to get its defenders on the same page, but not a lot of it.
3) Is Toronto’s bench going to matter as much in the playoffs? Toronto’s bench unit has been key to their success all season — the Raptors took a double-digit lead in the second quarter thanks to their bench (who has done that to teams all season long). The Raptors lineup of Jakab Poeltl, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright was +6 in 10 minutes Wednesday. The Lowry plus bench unit has killed teams all season long.
Will it matter in the playoffs?
Right now coaches are going nine or 10 deep in their rotations, and the Raptors depth matters in that situation — their bench can beat your bench. It happened against the Cavaliers. However, come the playoffs the minutes that went to guys nine and 10 in the rotation go to guys one and two — the bench tightens way up and the best players get more minutes. A deep bench doesn’t have the same impact.
What that bench will provide Casey in the playoffs is options — if Anunoby is struggling against LeBron bring in Siakam — but it’s not the same as the regular season. I love that in big games recently against the Thunder and Cavaliers Casey is still playing around with his lineups for stretches — now is the time to experiment. Now is the time to get guys used to playing with each other. That way, come the playoffs, Casey can throw the combination out there that he thinks works and there will be familiarity.
But the Raptors will need more from their starters in the playoffs, because the bench will not have the same impact.
Dwight Howard posts just second 30-30 game in last 36 years
Elvin Hayes (Capital Bullets, 11/17/1973): 43 points, 32 rebounds
Howard helped Charlotte erase a 23-point second-half deficit and a 10-point deficit with four minutes left. The Hornets are playing out a lost season, and Brooklyn has looked overmatched most of the year, particularly at center. But no matter the situation, Howard says he still feels super-sized expectations.
Tonight, he exceeded them by leaps and bounds.
Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Bucks’ loss to Clippers with ankle injury (video)
More importantly, Milwaukee lost Antetokounmpo to an ankle injury.
He limped off in the second quarter and didn’t return. The Bucks called it a sprain.
Any more time Antetokounmpo misses would be a huge loss. Hopefully, he recovers quickly.
No matter how many other good players – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe – Milwaukee has put on the floor, the team has struggled without its star. Antetokounmpo is a commanding force offensively who just does so much, and his defense impresses.
The Bucks (37-34) are eighth in the East. They’re safely in playoff position, five games ahead of the ninth-place Pistons. But this hurts Milwaukee’s chances of avoiding a first-round matchup with the excellent Raptors – though the way Toronto has regressed in the playoffs in previous years, that might not be so bad. Still, the Bucks should probably chase the seventh-place Heat, who are up 1.5 games on Milwaukee, and a likely first-round matchup with the injury-ravaged Celtics.
Obviously, a healthy Antetokounmpo would be central to that pursuit.
Cavaliers beat Raptors, become first team in 27 years to surrender 79 first-half points and win
The Cavaliers haven’t been good enough throughout the season, especially defensively. The Raptors have – offensively, defensively, starters, bench. Hope has grown in Toronto of winning the Eastern Conference after getting eliminated by Cleveland the last two years.
But LeBron James and Cavs showed why it’s hard to pick any other team – even the first-place Raptors – to win the East in a 132-129 win over Toronto tonight.
Cleveland allowed 79 first-half points and fell behind by 15. But a LeBron-led offense was just too potent. This was the first time since 1990 (Nuggets over Spurs after trailing 90-83) a team surrendered so many first-half points then still won.
LeBron finished with 35 points, 17 assists and no turnovers. No forward has ever dished so many assists without a turnover in Basketball-Reference’s database, which dates back to 1963-64.
It’s only one game, and it was in Cleveland. But even with home-court advantage in a potential playoff series, the Raptors must grapple with even more lingering doubt now about their ability to beat the Cavs.