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Three things we learned Wednesday: There is no defense for, or in, Cavaliers recent play

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Wednesday night was a fantastic League Pass night of games — Dion Waiters with his second game-winner for the Heat in a week, James Harden bloodying a guy, the Celtics got an overtime win against the Rockets, another Russell Westbrook triple-double (that’s 23 in 46 games), Portland getting a key win in their playoff hunt, and we’re not going to get to any of that. There were bigger fish in the sea Wednesday. Here are the big takeaways from the night.

1) There is no defense: Cavaliers fall to Kings, dropping sixth in last eight.
The Cavaliers are moving from the “meh, it’s just a midseason slump” to the “do I smell smoke?” phase of their January swoon.

A couple of days after some frank talk from LeBron James about his team needing to step up (and needing some roster help) he went out and posted a triple-double against the Sacramento Kings — 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists in 44 minutes. That’s LeBron’s second triple-double in as many nights, the man is leading by example trying to lift up his team.

And the Cavaliers still lost. Sacramento got 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists from DeMarcus Cousins — who also made the play to force overtime, where the Kings got the win.

But that play pointed to one of the key reasons the Cavaliers have lost three in a row and six-of-eight — their defense is not sharp. That’s why they blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter (and a five-point one in OT) — they can’t get stops. All season Cleveland’s defense has been outside the top 10, but that was obscured by a great offense (and enough defense when they needed it). However, now that the offense has hit a rough patch (off six points per 100 possessions in the last eight games) the Cavs defense isn’t there to fall back on — in fact, it’s gotten worse. In the last eight games, the Cavs are allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions, 24th in the NBA at that time.

On that play above, Cleveland tried to trap Darren Collison and left the Kings’ best player in Cousins wide open at the top of the arc, where Collison found him, Tristan Thompson was too slow to recover, and LeBron hesitated to leave Arron Afflalo (who in OT hit a dagger three) to help, so Cousins got all the way to the basket for the key bucket.

The Cavaliers offense will come around, but their defense hasn’t looked like that of a champion consistently all season. They just let Sacramento hang 119 on them, the Pelicans 124 the game before, the Spurs easily and even the Suns in a loss broke into triple digits against the Cavaliers lately. Somehow that has sparked ridiculous Carmelo Anthony trade rumors — because that would really fix the defense *cough* — but James said after the loss the Cavs need to focus on the guys they got.

“We can’t play fantasy basketball. We got who we got and we got to go out and play.”

Midseason swoons and turmoil are not new to this team. Remember they started 19-20 a couple of seasons ago, still made it to the Finals. Last season right about this time David Blatt was fired and Tyronn Lue given the team (the move LeBron wanted), then they went on to win a title. Come June we likely have forgotten this stretch. But only if the Cavaliers fix the defense that right now is not championship level and hasn’t been all season.

Before the game, Cavaliers GM David Griffin threw out an interesting theory to Joe Varden of the Plain Dealer.

“We’re a team that will create an opportunity for ourselves to have to dig out of a hole,” Cavs general manager David Griffin said before the game. “We do it in every single game. It’s just how we are. We’re not good from the front. We’re much better when we’re the hunter.”

It’s hard to be hunters as the champions — every team has you circled on the calendar, every building is sold out, every team is ready to give you their best. LeBron has handled it, it looks like Kyrie Irving has, but as a whole the Cavaliers don’t look like a team that has adjusted to their new reality. In January that has them at 5-7 and stumbling along. The house isn’t on fire yet, but they need to get some water on it fast. And stop counting on someone from the outside to come in and save them — they need to do it with the guys in the room.

2) Not that the Raptors are taking advantage of the Cavs stumbles, Toronto lost its fifth in a row. However, Boston won. Want to talk about teams who are stumbling, the Toronto Raptors offense has decided to take a midseason vacation to Aruba, with Kyle Lowry‘s jumper leading the way, and the Raptors are floundering. In December the Raptors scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions and were battling with Houston and Golden State for the best offense in the NBA. In January they are at 108.6 per 100 and, like the Cavaliers, they don’t have the defense to bail them out. If you want a much more detailed discussion of all things Raptors, check out the latest PBT Podcast with Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.

Against the Raptors, Marc Gasol put up a career-high 42 to get Memphis the win.

Because of their stumbles, the Raptors remain three back of the slumping Cavaliers — instead, the Raptors need to look behind them. Boston won on Wednesday behind another huge game from Isaiah Thomas (38 points) and the Celtics are now just half a game back of the Raptors (despite Boston having their own issues of late). Atlanta in the four seed is just one game back of Toronto after beating the Bulls. If the Raptors offense doesn’t return from vacation soon, the road to the Eastern Conference Finals could get a lot tougher for them with more road games.

3) Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler go off on Bulls effort after team blows 10 point lead with three minutes to go, fall to Hawks. The Bulls just had their worst loss of the season, taking their foot off the gas up 10 with three minutes to go, slacking on defense (plus the Hawks just hit some shots), going 2-of-9 in the final three and having role players miss wide-open looks, and just generally looking bad. The Bulls are back to below .500 (23-24). After the game, Wade unloaded on his team and all but said “this is not why I came home,” via Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com.

“I don’t know what happened, but you continue to be in these kinds of situations and lose games like this, you really don’t care enough,” Wade said. “You don’t care enough. It’s got to mean that much to you to want to win. And it doesn’t. So I don’t know. I don’t know happened. I don’t know how you fix it. It just doesn’t mean enough for guys around here to want to win ball games.

“It pisses me off, but I can’t be frustrated and I can’t care too much for these guys. They got to care for themselves. We got to do better.”

Jimmy Butler echoed that.

“I heard what D-(Wade) was over there saying, yeah,” Butler said. “Mother——- just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the tee. Be a star in your role, man. That’s how you win in this league, man. You have to embrace what this team, what this organization needs for you to do on either end of the floor. On top of everything else, just play every possession like it’s your last. We don’t play hard all the time. It’s very disappointing whenever we don’t play hard.”

Leadership to change that is going to have to come from Wade and Butler because Fred Hoiberg is not going to go on a Thibodeau-style rant.

Bonus note: The hottest team in the East? How about the Sixers.

The Sixers are 4.5 games out of a playoff spot in the East. There would be four teams to climb over, which is a lot, but the Sixers just won two games in a row without Joel Embiid. Cue Kevin Garnett:

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.