Extra Pass: Cleveland Cavaliers built playoff-caliber team, but that won’t mean enough

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are a playoff-caliber team that is extremely unlikely to make the playoffs.

With a 114-104 win Wednesday, the Cavaliers extended Oklahoma City Thunder’s losing streak to a season-high three games. Unlike the previous two teams to defeat the Thunder, the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland is fancied by nobody as a title contender.

Really, the Cavaliers are a longshot to even make the postseason. But maybe we should stop considering Cleveland such a pushover.

The Cavaliers have gone 12-13 since acquiring Luol Deng, definitely the winning percentage of a playoff team in this year’s Eastern Conference. But their 11-23 start ties them down like Kyrie Irving’s contract keeps him in Cleveland.

They just can’t go anywhere.

At 23-36, the Cavaliers are four games out of playoff position. That might not seem like an impossible deficit – and it’s not. But at this stage of the season, it’s further out than most people realize.

The eighth-place Hawks are on pace to win 37 games. To best that – Atlanta has already clinched the tiebreaker over Cleveland – the Cavaliers would need to finish 14-9.

Cleveland hasn’t started a 23-game stretch with a record of 14-9 since LeBron played for the team.

It’s a shame the Cavaliers waited so long to trade for Deng and then Spencer Hawes, because they’re starting to get intriguing – by the standards of this Eastern Conference, at least.

Since Hawes joined the Cavaliers, their most used lineup has been Kyrie Irving-Jarrett Jack-Luol Deng-Tristan-Thompson-Hawes. Despite going 1-3 in their four games with Hawes, that lineup has really excelled:

  • Offensive rating: 112.8
  • Defensive rating: 102.8
  • Net rating: +10.0

By comparison, Cleveland second-most-used lineup in that span has featured Zeller in place of Hawes, and the results have been dismal:

  • Offensive rating: 85.6
  • Defensive rating: 115.6
  • Net rating: -30.0

To be fair, the lineup with Zeller has largely been positive over the full season (105.6/98.7/+6.9). The point isn’t that Hawes is the answer. Hawes is a different type of player – more skilled, more finesse – who helps the Cavaliers match up against a wider array of opponents.

This is what a playoff team, the team Dan Gilbert wanted all along, looks like. He, and his organization, just took too long to build it.

Before beating Oklahoma City, the Cavaliers lost three straight – two to the Raptors and one to the Wizards. The Raptors (trading Rudy Gay) and Wizards (trading for Marcin Gortat) will almost definitely make the playoffs, because they made their big moves sooner. Not only have those two teams won more because they’d had their improved rosters a longer portion of the season, they’ve developed chemistry for longer.

Cleveland is still finding its way, learning how its pieces fit together best. Already, the results are promising. By the end of the season, I’m really interested to see how good these Cavaliers can be.

But it’s almost definitely too late for them to translate that success into a playoff berth. Merely playing like a postseason team, when you start 11-23, is not enough.

After the season, Deng and Hawes will become free agents. Cleveland will be back at square one – likely not content with building the Eastern Conference’s best playoff team that wasn’t.

Damian Lillard dismisses playoff expectations as pressure, says it insults regular people

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The Portland Trail Blazers have had a disappointing season thus far. The team is just 34-38 before their game with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, and they’re battling it out for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs with the Denver Nuggets.

This comes as after expectations rose greatly following the 2015-16 campaign which saw the Blazers finish 44-38, good enough for the No. 5 spot in the West.

Portland has looked better after trading Mason Plumlee to Denver in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, but it might be too little too late. Meanwhile, team leader Damian Lillard isn’t bowing to the idea that last season’s good fortune raised the bar so much that it put undue pressure on his team.

Speaking with Sporting News, Lillard said he thinks the idea is really more about pressure vs. challenges.

Via SN:

Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong — there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people.

Look at the Wizards, they were kind of on the same wave as us. Didn’t even make the playoffs while we did. Now this year they’re the second-best team in the East. The adversity made them better. It can make us better, too. What I come from and my background made me who I am. As comfortable as I am with the good times, I’m also comfortable in adversity. Yeah, I might feel some type of way when somebody comes for me or says my name. But when it’s all said and done, it ain’t gonna rock me.

This is interesting to hear an NBA player say out loud. One, because I’m not sure I entirely believe it. You can have pressure without it having to be something that threatens your overall wellbeing.

Then again, maybe we’re arguing linguistics here. There’s definitely a different emotion from, say, trying to make sure you make rent and aren’t evicted to the street vs. trying to make the NBA playoffs. If one emotion is being defined as pressure, it makes sense to call the other a challenge.

It’s also interesting to hear an NBA player speak in those kinds of terms. There are a few guys around the league who seem to be relatively grounded and give out quotes like this from time-to-time. The absurdity of the NBA — playing games, making millions, and having folks worship you — would easily bend reality for most of us.

In any case, the challenge of making the playoffs for Portland is not going to be an easy one to overcome. Going into Sunday’s matchup with the Lakers, the Trail Blazers are a game behind Denver for the final spot.

Portland will face Denver on Tuesday, March 28 in perhaps their most important game of the season.

Kobe Bryant’s “Musecage” is like if Sesame Street had an NBA film room (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant’s video “Musecage” aired on ESPN on Sunday, and it’s one of the craziest things I’ve watched on an NBA broadcast. That includes watching Kobe’s own alley-oop to Shaquille O’Neal in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

Someone on Twitter called it a “drug-fueled Muppet nightmare” but that’s selling short how remarkable the video was. In it, Kobe delivered a message about finding motivation as a young basketball player alongside a talking “Lil’ Mamba” puppet.

But here’s where it gets good: this video was made true to Kobe’s own person. Despite the happy, glockenspiel-laden background music with puppet accompaniment, Kobe’s message in “Musecage” was to use the dark part of your psyche as motivation to conquer your enemies.

I’m dead serious.


It doesn’t get any more Kobe than that.

The first video ends with Kobe’s advice to Lil’ Mamba, who goes off to become strong by using the dark musings as his fuel. Meanwhile, the second video talks about — and I’m not kidding — tactics James Harden and Russell Westbrook use to defeat their opponents in the pick-and-roll.

It’s like if Sesame Street was also a film room session.

Needless to say, all 10 minutes of Musecage are incredible. I don’t mean that in any sarcastic way, either. Bryant has been working on his Canvas series for a while, and his message shines true to the person we’ve known for the last two decades.

Use your happy feelings to push yourself? No! Use self-doubt as a motivator to Jawface your way through to six championship rings.

He debuted the original episode on Christmas Day, and it too had a kid-friendly feel.

I literally cannot wait for the next edition in this series.

Mark Cuban on Blake Griffin’s fall vs. JJ Barea: “We sent flowers to his family, condolences”

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The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers got into a bit of a scuffle the other night during their game. Clippers big man Blake Griffn and Mavericks PG JJ Barea tussled, with Barea earning a Flagrant 2 and an ejection for putting his hands on Griffin’s neck and pushing him to the ground.

It really was a sight to see, whether Griffin flopped or not.

Meanwhile, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was asked about the incident and responded with some heavy sarcasm that feels par for the course.

Via Twitter:

Griffin does have a bit of a reputation for acting and flopping, and Barea is hilariously undersized compared to him. Then again, the throat is a vulnerable area. Who knows if the fall was real or fake?

I’m just glad Cuban has a sense of humor about it.

Watch Derrick Rose leave Patty Mills standing still with eurostep, huge dunk

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New York Knicks point guard Derrick Rose still has some explosivity left in his legs. Against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night, the former MVP left Spurs guard Patty Mills standing still on a thunderous dunk.

The play came in the fourth quarter with Rose on the break and Mills the only Spurs player defending the basket. Rose had a full head of steam, and it appeared Mills was going to for the charge call.

Rose then craftily eurostepped his way around Mills, leading to the jam.

San Antonio beat New York, 106-98.