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Three things to watch in Game 2: If Cleveland cleans up its mistakes, is that enough?

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OAKLAND — After getting blown out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were not distraught nor did they feel overwhelmed. Rather, they think they beat themselves mostly.

Make no mistake, the Warriors are good, but the Cavaliers think they gave Game 1 away by turning the ball over and not communicating well on defense.

“We have to be much better,” LeBron James said. Game 1 was the feel-out for us, and they definitely took advantage of all our miscues. We just have to get better.”

“Watching basketball throughout the course of the season, you obviously know they’re very good,” J.R. Smith said Saturday. “But one thing about us, it’s all about us. If we take care of what we’re supposed to take care of, it doesn’t matter if it’s the ’96 Bulls, it doesn’t matter. We would win. We just gotta worry about us, understand that no matter what they do, if we do what we’re supposed to do, they can’t beat us.”

Here are the three things to watch, and what the Cavaliers need to improve, if they are going to steal game 2 on the road.

1) Cleveland will play more focused defense, will protect the rim, and they will get physical.
If there is one thing everyone agrees on about Game 2, it’s that the Cavaliers are going to get physical.

“You have to be the first one to hit,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought they hit us first. You have to be physical. The game is physical. You have to bring a physicality to the game, one through five. And I thought last game we weren’t as physical as we needed to be. We were off bodies, let them run free. So we have to do a better job of being on bodies, being physical and bringing the contact to the game.”

What that means in practical terms is the uncontested layup line the Warriors had in Game 1 will go away. Part of that is being physical, but a larger part is just making better decisions on defense, particularly in transition where the Cavaliers were terrible. Protecting the rim will be a priority.

“We have to stop the ball,” Lue said. “That’s the most important thing. We can’t let Durant get easy baskets like that. With him being probably one of the best scorers in the NBA, you can’t give guys like that easy opportunities at the basket. So we have to do a good job of stopping the basketball, but we also have to get back out to shooters. One guy has to stop the ball and the other guys have to get back and get to Steph and Klay and those guys. But we have to stop the basketball first.”

2) Cleveland needs to clean up its offensive mistakes — don’t turn the ball over and dominate the glass. One other thing both sides expect in Game 2 is for Cleveland to do a better job taking care of the ball — they are not going to turn the ball over 20 times again.

The Cavaliers admitted that Golden State’s defense — aggressive and using their athleticism and length — made them indecisive at points. They also said that was correctable.

“So when we make a move to the basket, we just have to be decisive — take it to the basket or make the pass,” Lue said. And I thought they did a good job of just playing in between, making us be off guard. So we make a move, we have to be direct with what we’re going to do; if not, move the basketball.”

“We had a lot of unforced turnovers,” LeBron added. “Some of them was aggression. I had two charges — that’s aggression, I can take those. But I also had some where I got caught up in the air, trying to make some skip passes, and they were able to pick them off. Those are like pick-sixes. It’s like throwing the ball to Deion Sanders. For the most part, it’s going to be a touchdown going the other way.”

If Cleveland is going to win they also need to dominate inside the paint and on the glass, something they did not do in Game 1. Tristan Thompson needs to be a force for Cleveland on both ends, and in Game 1 he had just four rebounds.

“Trash. Trash,” is how Thompson defined his Game 1. “I have to be better. I have to bring more energy, make it tough for them. I know they’re watching film, and something for them it’s to keep me off the glass. It’s going to be a wrestling match down there, and you have to keep it going and make it tough for them and just try to wear them out.”

3) How fast is this game played? The first game of the NBA Finals had 102 possessions, not lightning fast but right at the Warriors pace for the season — meaning it was right in Golden State’s comfort zone (and faster than the Cavs played this season). Check out this stat from Michael Pina writing for Vice Sports.

During the 2015 Finals, the pace was 95.3 possessions per 48 minutes when James was on the floor. That dropped to 94.8 in last year’s seven-game classic. With James in the game on Thursday night, the pace was 102.1.

So the Cavaliers are going to slow the game down and grind it out, right? No. Not if you ask them. To a man they said they needed to play with more pace.

“We’re a team that plays with pace. We know that,” LeBron said. And in order for us to be as good as we can be offensively, we have to play with pace. But we have to control the ball as well.”

“When we get stops, we have to get out. We have to play with pace,” Lue said. “We’ve got to play in transition. They’re a great team in the half court, as far as loading up and taking away what they want to take away. So when we get stops, we have to get out and run and play with pace.”

To be fair, Cleveland dominated the Warriors in fast break points a year ago. They can do better in this category, but it also is fraught with risk. It makes sense for the Cavaliers to push the ball when they create turnovers or off Warriors misses, but if nothing is there they need to pull out and slow it down. If this turns into a track meet the Warriors will win.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”

 

Report: Jimmy Butler telling people he will be back for playoffs

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We don’t know a lot about Jimmy Butler‘s meniscus injury (other than that it’s not an ACL injury as feared). Because of that, it’s impossible to put a timeline on his return. We don’t know what kind of surgery he likely needs — a traditional meniscus partial removal takes six weeks or so to get a player back on the court (but is harder on the knee long-term as cushioning in it is removed, Dwyane Wade had this), but a repair could take three months or more before he is back on the court. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said this pregame Saturday:

However, Butler himself is telling people he will be back for the playoffs.

Is that the optimism of a fierce competitor? Players are often the worst judge of their ability to return from injury.

Or, does he know that a meniscus repair is out of the question with his injury, that a partial removal is the only option (as is true in some cases)? That has a speedier return that could have him back for the playoffs.

In the short-term, Minnesota is going to need a lot more out of Andrew Wiggins, and they need to play a lot better team defense, to hold on to a playoff slot in the West. The Timberwolves have been -8.3 per 100 possessions without Butler this season, but went 2-2 in the four games he missed. Minnesota is currently the four seed in the West at 36-26, but just three games from falling out of the postseason in a crowded conference.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.