Three Things to Watch in Game 3: Cleveland can run, but it must get stops first

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Two games, two Golden State blowout wins. Cleveland can change that at home, but a few things need to happen. Here are three things to watch in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

1) Can the Cavaliers get enough stops to play with the Warriors’ fast pace?
“We don’t play slowdown basketball,” LeBron James said.

Which has been half true these Finals, it would be more accurate to say the Cavaliers don’t defend unless it’s slowdown basketball.

The Cavaliers have been stuck in a bad loop in this series: Their offense has been at its best in transition — particularly LeBron, who remains unstoppable in the open court.

However, their transition defense isn’t good, especially when it comes to a dominant fast break team like the Warriors. Cleveland tries to run with Golden State and for a while it stays close because the Cavs get buckets, but they can’t get enough stops at pace to hang for 48 minutes, so the Warriors pull away.

“We have to play fast. That’s our game,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “You saw early in the first half (of Game 2) when LeBron’s able to attack and get downhill with the floor open, that’s when we’re at our best, if they help, kicking it out for threes. So we want to play with a pace, but to play with pace you got to get stops. So when we get stops, we want to get out and run, we want to play with pace and we want to attack early.”

The second part of that last sentence is true: After stops or forced turnovers the Cavs should run (then if nothing is there, run half court sets — and mix in a LeBron post up once in a while). But Lue brushes by the “when we get stops” as if that is happening regularly enough. It’s not. After a made bucket, the Warriors get back and set their defense, and in the half court Cleveland has struggled to score against what has been a fantastic Warriors defense.

It’s a chicken and egg thing: Cleveland needs to get more buckets to slow down the Golden State offense and let the Cavs set their defense, then they can get more stops then get out in transition where Cleveland can get more made baskets. The problem is that to get all those buckets Lue has put out offensive lineups that don’t defend well, which has exacerbated the defensive problem, and the whole cycle goes bad for the Cavaliers.

2) Conventional wisdom says role players perform better at home — Cleveland needs that to be true.
J.R. Smith is maybe the best example of the struggles of Cleveland’s role players. He hit Cleveland’s first shot of these Finals — a corner three to open Game 1 — and hasn’t hit a shot since. When Smith has been the primary defender on a shooter, the Warriors have shot 10-of-11. He’s been slow in transition defense. It hasn’t been pretty.

Smith is going to start Game 2, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. No Iman Shumpert in his place (Shumpert has been the much better player this series).

The question is how long Lue can stick with Smith if he remains cold? Or, more broadly, can the Cavaliers role players step up? Through two games Tristan Thompson has just eight points and eight rebounds, Kyle Korver has 8 points total, and Deron Williams has yet to score at all. It’s not good enough against the Warriors.

“We just need our supporting group to be themselves as much as possible,” Kyrie Irving said. “Understand that they have a unique opportunity to make us that much better, and for a majority of this season it’s been on myself, Bron and K-Love’s shoulders. And we have done a great job of getting everyone involved and making sure that everyone feels comfortable, but now we need everything and everybody. And I know they know how important they are.”

The Cavaliers need more out of Thompson, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get a lot more run than what we’ve seen (about 20 minutes a game). When asked about Thompson’s minutes Lue repeatedly said “I think to beat this team, you have to score the basketball” and so he wanted more offense out there. True, but he needs more defense out there more. Frankly, he needs any role player performing well out there. Maybe he gets some in Game 3.

3) Will the Warriors defense continue to be dominant, or will Kyrie Irving have a breakout game?
LeBron has been phenomenal this series, at least until late in the game when he starts to wear down from the massive load he has had to carry on both ends.

Kevin Love has played as well as could be asked of him.

Kyrie Irving hasn’t been good enough — shooting just 37.1 percent from two and getting to the line three times in two games. He seems to have been most impacted by what has been a virtuoso half-court defensive performance from Golden State. The Cavaliers have tried to go to the well of what worked last Finals and got them a ring — dragging Stephen Curry into pick-and-rolls to force a switch, then go at him (and do the same thing with Zaza Pachulia) — but the Warriors have been amazing at sniffing that out, recovering or pre-switching, plus they have had Draymond Green or Kevin Durant or Pachulia backing it all up as a backstop. Plus, Curry has defended fairly well, forcing a few turnovers. It has stymied Cleveland in the half court.

The Cavs need to get those buckets, and Irving is going to be a big part of that. There are rumblings that he is not 100 percent (his knees are reportedly bothering him), and that may well be true, but you can ask Curry if there is any sympathy for that as an excuse in the Finals. Simply put, back home the Cavaliers need a lot more out of Irving or this series could be very short indeed.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safty

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.