Kyle Korver

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’


It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

LeBron James no-look pass freezes entire Lakers’ team (VIDEO)


LOS ANGELES — LeBron James was putting on a passing clinic against the Lakers.

The best highlight was the one above, where a LeBron fakes a pass to Kyle Korver at the arc and as two Lakers race out to challenge Korver LeBron delivers the pass to a wide-open rolling Ante Zizic.

The next possession down, in transition LeBron threw a brilliant one-handed skip pass to George Hill in the corner, Hill just missed the shot. That doesn’t diminish a pass only a couple of guys in the league could see and make.

Then there was LeBron with the nutmeg on Lonzo Ball.

Three Things to Know: LeBron averaged a triple-double in February, is making history

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron James makes history and helps cement his legacy, gets triple-double, leads Cavaliers to needed win.
When LeBron James hangs up his Nike’s some day, the debate will rage about where he falls in the pantheon of all-time greats. First things first, he belongs up on that Mount Rushmore with the greatest of all time, no question. His combination of abilities to score, defend, pass, have handles, and play with a high IQ is almost unmatched in league history. Anyone arguing he’s not one of the greats is a sports talk radio host willing saying anything to make a name for himself, or he/she just doesn’t know the game. Probably both.

Tuesday night, LeBron helped cement his legacy as he became the first player ever with at least 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists in his career. He is the most well-rounded NBA superstar ever.

LeBron wasn’t done on the night, picking up a triple-double against the Nets with 31 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists (with that we’ll overlook his off defensive night). LeBron averaged a triple-double for the month of February.

The good news for Cleveland is LeBron got some help for a night (which is why they won, unlike over the weekend). George Hill broke out of a mini-slump with 26 points on 17 shots as he looked like the guy Cleveland hoped to get. Rodney Hood was getting buckets. Cleveland ran plays for Kyle Korver and he was 4-of-7 from three. Granted, all this came against a scrappy but not good Nets team, still the Cavaliers will take the positives anywhere they can get them. And there were plenty on Tuesday.

2) Dwyane Wade turns back the hands of time, scores 15 in the fourth and drains the game-winner. Father Time has been winning the race with Dwyane Wade this season. For the season he is averaging 10.9 points per game on 50.4 true shooting percentage, with a PER of 14.9 — all career lows. And all those numbers are worse since he was traded to Miami. He’s not sure if he will play next season.

However, every once in a while he can hop in the hot tub time machine and still take over a game — he did that in the fourth quarter Tuesday with 15 points, including draining the game-winner against the Sixers.

That’s a big win for the Heat, keeping them 3.5 games clear of Detroit and in the playoffs.

3) Paul Millsap returns for Denver (it just wasn’t enough Tuesday). This is huge news for a Nuggets team trying to earn a playoff slot — Paul Millsap is back. The former All-Star forward has been out since before Thanksgiving following surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist. Denver needs him for the stretch run. He’s a strong defender at the four, can space the floor and hit threes, and fits well with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on offense. Millsap can help get the Nuggets into the postseason, and the fans in Denver know that and welcomed him back with a standing ovation.

Millsap showed some rust and didn’t help enough on Tuesday in a game the Nuggets and Clippers both needed. He was part of a bench unit that struggled as the Nuggets blew a 19-point third quarter lead — Denver had no answer for the Lou Williams/Boban Marjanovic pick-and-roll — and lost to the Clippers. With that, the Clippers are in and the Nuggets have fallen to the nine seed and out of the playoffs (by percentage points to the Clippers). Denver needs wins down the stretch. It’s something Millsap should eventually bring, just not Tuesday when he had some fourth quarter turnovers. Give him some time to shake off the rust. This is still a team more likely to make the playoffs than not.

J.R. Smith said when things got bad he considered asking Tyronn Lue to sit him

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Tuesday night against OKC, J.R. Smith looked like the dangerous wing shooter and player the Cavaliers had back when they won an NBA title in 2016. Smith was 6-of-9 from three for 18 points and made some key plays in Cleveland’s fourth straight win, second with the new-look roster.

However, Smith is legendarily streaky with his shot and during some of the dark days with the Cavaliers — you know, like a couple of weeks ago — Smith’s shot was not falling, and he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin he considered asking Tyronn Lue to sit him.

“There were times when I wanted to go to [Lue] and be like, ‘Listen, man, I’m not playing well. Why not take me out?'” said Smith, who in 14 games this season has scored three points or fewer. “Fortunately, I didn’t and just stuck with it. I’ve known T-Lue since my rookie year. Our relationship is based on communication — how he communicates with me, how I communicate with him. He’s been really consistent at that.”

Lue is loyal and sticks with the players he trusts and the schemes he likes. To a fault sometimes, but loyalty can have its rewards.

Smith has figured out how to play next to LeBron, which is why he fits better on the first unit. Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson can play with LeBron, but they also have their own chemistry which can generate some good looks without LeBron facilitating. Put Rodney Hood and Kyle Korver next to Clarkson and Nance and you have a second unit that at the start of the fourth pulled away from Oklahoma City in a way the starters could not.

Smith is going to be a key figure in however deep the Cavaliers go in the playoffs this season.

Three Things to Know: LeBron is energized again, which should scare league

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Two games in for the new-look Cavaliers and they look dangerous again. Go ahead and make all the “small sample size” alert warnings you want after two games of the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers — both wins after the Cavs knocked off the Thunder in OKC Tuesday 120-112 — but there are two clear takeaways so far:

LeBron James is energized again — and that should scare the league. For the first 10 weeks of this season, LeBron was a serious MVP candidate playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He carried the Cavs as far as one man could, but that was only the three seed because of the injuries/abysmal defense/lack of effort from everyone around him. LeBron wore down and became part of the problem, settling for jumpers on offense and not getting back or rotating sharply on defense.

With a new crew healthy (except for Kevin Love, still out with a broken hand) and putting in effort around him, LeBron looks like his vintage self again and dropped 37 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Thunder Tuesday.

• The bench play is suddenly legitimate for Cleveland. For all LeBron’s brilliance, the Cavaliers were -1 when he was on the court in this game, the Thunder starters were +5 as a unit in their 18 minutes. The difference was Cleveland has a bench now, one that extended the lead at the start of the fourth while LeBron rested and created a gap Oklahoma City could never close. Jordan Clarkson has the ball in his hands driving and making plays, Larry Nance Jr. is bringing energy and some high IQ play, and with Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood on the court there is plenty of shooting. That second unit, with Jeff Green making shots, started the fourth on a 9-0 run and created the separation the Cavs needed. Granted, the Thunder bench is an issue for them (and will be come the playoffs), but this is a good sign for Cleveland.

It’s just two games, let’s see what happens as the scouting reports pile up and teams adapt, but Cleveland looks like a real threat again. And with an engaged LeBron, this could be the team to beat in the East again.

2) James Harden looks every bit the MVP dropping 34 points on Minnesota. If the season ended today, James Harden would be your MVP. At least he’d have my vote (and I sense a lot of others).

It’s a recognition Harden wants badly, he feels he was robbed last year (a two-man race that Russell Westbrook won) and after a few seasons near the top of that race he wants his. Don’t expect him to let up now, with 26 games to go in the season. As evidence, look at the 34 points and 13 assists he dropped on Minnesota Tuesday night in another Houston win.

There is no simple formula to determine MVP, each voter has his or her own criteria, but most of the time the award ends up in the hands of the best player on a team with 55 or more wins, the guy having an elite season even by those standards. Houston is on pace for 63 wins and Harden leads the NBA in points per game (31.4), and he’s doing it efficiently which has him on top of a number of advanced stats categories (from the more basic PER to things like win shares per 48, and value over replacement player). After LeBron’s mid-season mental vacation, Harden has emerged as the man to beat in the MVP race.

3) Nuggets beat Spurs, and the back half of the West playoff race is stupid close. As of Wednesday morning, the San Antonio Spurs at 35-24 are the three seed in the West. (As a side note, if you’re one of the “disgruntled” Spurs fans trolling the team on Twitter for not being good enough this season despite doing this basically without Kawhi Leonard, you need to get outside, breathe some fresh air, and get a life. This team has overachieved.)

The Los Angeles Clippers are the nine seed and currently out of the playoffs — and they are just four games back of the Spurs. The 10th seeded Jazz are just five games back of the three-seeded Spurs, and the Jazz have won 10 straight and are the league’s hottest team now that they are healthy.

After the Warriors and Rockets, who are running away with the top two seeds, anything could happen in the West. The margins are slim and every game matters. Which is why Denver knocking off San Antonio 117-109 behind a triple-double from Nikola Jokic — 27 points 11 rebounds, 11 assists — matters. Denver is in the middle of that morass in the West and needs all the wins it can get — ones like this over the Spurs (or another recently over the Warriors) matters.

Let’s be clear, the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Thunder almost certainly hold on to their playoff slots (3-5) barring major injury (or, for the Spurs, another major injury). But after that, it’s five teams for three spots — Denver, Portland, New Orleans, the L.A. Clippers, and Utah — and they are all separated by two games. It’s the definition of wide open. predicts the Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers will come out on top, but even the Clippers and Pelicans have a 50/50 chance (or slightly better) of getting into the postseason. It’s that close. For these teams, the playoffs start the day after the All-Star break.