Associated Press

As NBA playoffs approach, are Cavaliers showing cracks? Serious ones?

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The on-court issues have been obvious for weeks. The Cavaliers’ problems now extend to their locker room.

The champions are showing cracks – and weakness.

Instead of celebrating a 135-130 double-overtime win over an Indiana team fighting for a playoff spot on Sunday, the Cavs were in damage control.

LeBron James apologized to Tristan Thompson, who was still fuming after a screaming match during a timeout with his world-famous teammate. Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith both made quick exits before speaking with reporters, and coach Tyronn Lue did everything he could to re-direct pointed fingers at him.

“My fault,” Lue said. “Blame it on me.”

Unless the Cavs get it together in the next few weeks, Lue may have to accept greater culpability. Cleveland’s postseason run could be shorter than anyone expected.

As James iced his ankles and knees after battling Paul George for 52 draining minutes before putting away the Pacers, Thompson was having trouble cooling off. The hard-working power forward briefly spoke with a team media relations member and general manager David Griffin before addressing a small group of reporters while James was speaking to the larger media group surrounding him in his corner locker.

Thompson’s answers were curt, programmed.

“We’re family,” he said. “Move forward.”

Thompson was more animated during the second OT, when he and James screamed at each other after some defensive breakdowns allowed George to get free for a pair of 3-pointers. While Cleveland’s crowd stood and roared during a timeout, Thompson and James squared off and yelled at each other, awkwardly forcing Lue and their teammates to play peacemakers.

Truth be told, the Cavs’ defense has been a major issue all season. They struggle to stop simple pick and rolls; they lack a rim-protecting big man (a role Andrew Bogut was going to fill before breaking his leg); they have been disjointed for months because of injuries; and they’ve lacked focus at both ends of the floor, relying on 3-pointers to overcome defensive deficiencies.

James, who was guarding George, seemed to expect that Thompson was going to switch on screens. He didn’t and George made the Cavs pay, scoring 19 consecutive points during one stretch of the overtime sessions.

The three-time champion expressed remorse from showing up Thompson, saying he could have handled the situation with his younger better. There have been many times when James is speaking with reporters when Thompson will yell goodbye before leaving the locker room. There was none of that love Sunday, with the postgame vibe subdued and strange.

Just last week, James insisted the team’s recent slide – a 7-10 record in March – had not affected camaraderie.

Well, there may be some exposed nerves now.

Another glaring deficiency in Sunday’s win was the Cavs’ inability to execute inbounds plays in crucial situations. Twice, Kevin Love attempted to pass to James and both times George was able to get deflections.

James blamed the poor execution on a lack of practice. The Cavs played 12 road games in March, making it difficult for Lue to schedule workouts while making rest for his players a priority.

“We haven’t practiced anything, especially late-game situations,” James said. “I can’t remember the last time we had a late-game situation.”

There’s certain to be some big ones ahead, maybe as early as Wednesday, when the Cavs visit the Boston Celtics, who have overtaken Cleveland and currently lead the Eastern Conference.

James, who is trying to reach the NBA Finals for the seventh straight time, has seen it all during nearly 14 pro seasons. He’s had disagreements with teammates before, which is why he did all he could to diffuse tension afterward.

“I apologized,” he said. “It’s cool.”

James knows this isn’t the time for a family feud. The Cavs need to be united before setting off what promises to be a much tougher road through the East, where teams like the Celtics, Washington Wizards and even the Chicago Bulls, who went 4-0 against the Cavs this season, don’t fear James and Co.

That’s for the future. Right now, with six games left in the regular season, the Cavs need to worry about themselves.

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty: