Kyrie Irving

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Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on LeBron James’ heavy workload: ‘Next, he might play 48 minutes’

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) Except for his backpedaling hairline, LeBron James shows no visible signs of age.

At 32, still in his prime, and still at the top of his game, he’s defying time.

“Benjamin Button,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue called him, referring to the fictional character who ages backward.

LeBenjamin?

Following a regular season in which he averaged more minutes per game (37.8) than any player, James logged 43.7 per game during Cleveland’s tougher-than-it-looked sweep over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. And as James and the defending champions await either Toronto or Milwaukee in the second round, James is taking advantage of the down time.

Not that he might need it.

Lue spent much of the season defending his use of James, who in all honesty is really the one in control of when he sits or doesn’t. At this point, Lue has given up worrying about resting the superstar.

“I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of his minutes,” Lue said Wednesday. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games and then he had a week off again. So next he might play 48 minutes. … Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play.”

James wasn’t available for interviews as the team gathered for the first time in two days at Cleveland Clinic Courts, and it’s likely that he won’t speak to the media until the Cavs have a second-round opponent.

But as has been the case for months, James’ playing time was one of the prime topics presented to Lue, who believes that the four-time MVP’s heavy workload during the regular season is what enables him to play at such high levels in the postseason.

Consider that James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists, shot 54 percent from the field, went 9 of 20 on 3-pointers and led the Cavaliers to the biggest second-half comeback in league history during the series against Indiana, and it’s easy to see why Lue wants to move past the minutes chatter.

“With him playing the minutes he played during the course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs,” Lue said. “Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

Unlike the regular season, when brutal travel schedules, back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights can wear players down, the postseason allows for recovery. Lue also thinks too many teams are allowing outside pressures to influence how they use players.

“Teams are suffering,” he said, “because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes” and “some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different (playoff) series.”

James has ramped up his minutes nearly every postseason. Now in his 12th playoffs, he averaged 39.1 minutes last year and has only twice averaged less than 40 per game.

Lue trusts that the three-time champion knows how far to push himself without reaching his breaking point.

“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “He said he feels great and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”

As for the rest of the Cavaliers, Wednesday included some competition in the team’s weight room on an aerobic conditioning machine while the team’s in-house DJ from Quicken Loans Arena spun music. After the vigorous workouts, yoga mats were dragged onto the court and the facility’s lights were dimmed for some stretching and decompression.

Namaste, NBA-style.

The Cavs had a similar, one-week break between the first and second rounds last season. Kyrie Irving said it’s imperative to make the most of it.

“The mental preparation and physical preparation starts now and hasn’t stopped,” he said. “Took a brief day off or two and now just get back to work and get ready for whichever team we’re getting ready for. The work never stops.”

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Kyrie Irving scores 37, Cavaliers hold on to beat Pacers 117-111

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CLEVELAND (AP) Kyrie Irving scored 37 points, Kevin Love added 27 and the Cleveland Cavaliers avoided another fourth-quarter collapse in Game 2, beating the Indiana Pacers 117-111 on Monday night to take a 2-0 lead in the series.

After squeaking out the opener by a point, LeBron James and Co. showed more intensity on defense, more swagger in general and won their 10th straight first-round game over the past three seasons.

However, they nearly blew an 18-point lead in the fourth as the Pacers got within four before Cleveland closed it out at the line.

James added 10 rebounds and seven assists, but had eight of Cleveland’s 19 turnovers.

Game 3 is Thursday night.

Paul George scored 32 and Jeff Teague 23 for Indiana, which showed more fight, but now has a steep hill to climb to get back in the series. Cleveland is 12-0 when starting 2-0 in the postseason.

The Cavs vowed they would play better after their near-disaster in Game 1 and they backed up their talk, delivering the kind of performance that was routine last season but very rare in 2017.

Love scored 10 straight and drew a charging foul on Lance Stephenson in a span of two minutes as the Cavs opened an 89-70 lead. Irving closed the quarter by draining a 3-pointer over Stephenson and the All-Star made sure Indiana’s antagonizing guard knew about it, yapping in his direction long after the horn sounded.

The Cavs still led 109-91 with 6:09 left, but the Pacers ripped off 13 straight points and were within 113-109 when George hit a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left.

It continued a disturbing trend for the Cavs, who have been giving up late, big leads with regularity.

The other hitch for Cleveland was that starting guard J.R. Smith didn’t play in the second half because of a left hamstring injury. Iman Shumpert, who sat the opener, replaced Smith and played 20 solid minutes.

Despite losing the opener, Pacers coach Nate McMillian insisted his team hadn’t lost any confidence.

“We believe,” he said. “We came in believing, we still believe.”

It just got a lot harder.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Glenn Robinson III returned after missing the past 12 games with a strained left calf. He scored four in nine minutes. … C Al Jefferson was active, but didn’t play. He’s been out since March 26 with a sprained left ankle. … George has made at least one 3-pointer in 19 consecutive playoff games. … McMillan said the team was told by security officials to stay in their hotel Sunday night while Cleveland police searched for a suspected killer, who randomly murdered an elderly man while posting the shooting on Facebook. … Indiana is 0-9 when dropping the first two games in a series.

Cavaliers: James (357) jumped Magic Johnson (358) for third place in career playoff steals and hopped Robert Parish for eighth in rebounds. … A moment of silence was observed for Robert Godwin Sr., the 73-year-old tragically gunned down by the Facebook assailant. … Stephenson had a strong workout with Cleveland in January before latching on with Indiana, but coach Tyronn Lue said his recent injury issues – groin surgery and an Achilles issue – dissuaded the Cavs from signing him. … James has scored at least 30 points with 10 assists in 13 career playoff games, trailing only Jerry West (14) and Michael Jordan (15).

UP NEXT

After two days off, the series resumes in Indianapolis on Thursday. The Pacers went 29-19 at home during the regular season.

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Cavaliers’ defense unimpressive but Cleveland survives for 109-108 Game 1 win

Associated Press
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There was no switch flipped.

The Cavaliers’ defense, which has been unimpressive through the final stretch of the season, lived down to that billing — Indiana scored 108 points, shot 45.8 percent from three, had a ridiculous offensive rating of 118.9 points per 100 possessions, and with the game on the line were able to create quality looks.

That included a C.J. Miles’ potential game-winner after the Cavs forced the ball out of the hot hands of Paul George, but Miles was just short, and the Cavaliers survived to get a 109-108 win.

The Cavaliers are now up 1-0 in the first round series, with Game 2 on Monday in Cleveland.

The Pacers should go into that game with confidence that they can hang with Cleveland.

The difference on Saturday the Cavaliers had LeBron James, who scored 32 points on 20 shots, plus had 13 assists, leading an efficient offense that got the shots it wanted against a Pacers defense that had taken a big step back this season. Kyrie Irving added 23 points but on 27 shots. Take Irving out of the mix and the Cavaliers shot 60.8 percent for the game, and they were that hot through the first half (61 percent, including Irving).

The problem for Cleveland was it couldn’t get regular stops, George was making plays — he finished with 29 points — and that Cavs defense allowed the Pacers to hang around. LeBron seemed more pleased with the Cleveland defense than he should have been.

“I thought the effort and energy was there, but we’ve still got some Xs and Os to clean up,” LeBron said after the game.

The Cavaliers has started to pull away in the early parts of the fourth quarter, and it looked like they might coast to a comfortable win, but Indiana responded with an 11-0 run that had the Pacers up two, 105-103, with 3:30 left. Then LeBron answered with an emphatic dunk to tie it, and the Cavaliers were able to pull away a little. Then a beautiful Paul George three, followed by a stop, set up the chance for the Pacers to win it.

On the bright side for Indiana was the play of Lance Stephenson, who had 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists on the game. He showed up when it was time to play LeBron.

Indiana needs to make Cleveland work harder for its buckets. This struggle was more expected, the Pacers defense suffered this season. Part of that was a coaching change from the more defensively focused Frank Vogel to Nate McMillan, but part of it was personnel — when the Pacers were an elite defense they had a good defender in George Hill at the one, now there is Jeff Teague and it’s a step back at a critical position. And that’s just one example. In this game, Kyrie Irving was pumped when he saw Aaron Brooks lined up to try to stop him.

Whichever team cleans up its defense more will have the upper hand on Monday in Game 2.

Three things to watch: Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Associated Press
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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Cavaliers are the Eastern Conference favorites, but the last time these teams met it was one of the best games of the season, a double -OT thriller the Cavs won 125-130, where LeBron James and Paul George had a classic duel. Will we get more of that? Let’s break it down.

How focused with the Cavaliers be on defense? The malaise that enveloped the Cavaliers the second half of this season has become part of the narrative of the postseason — just how vulnerable are the Cavaliers? They had a defensive rating of 111.6 over their final 26 games, a number worse than the Lakers’ season average (and LA was dead last in the league in defense). Tyronn Lue said he has a fix for the team’s defense and when Kevin Love and other Cavs are asked about it they’ve said they can fix it. I’m not sold, they haven’t built good defensive habits, Plus they are going to miss Andrew Bogut in the paint on defense.

The other half of that equation is do the Pacers have the tools to exploit that defense? Expect Paul George to have some huge games because he’s that good, but the Pacers are going to need Myles Turner to put up big numbers (and pull Tristan Thompson out of the paint), plus have Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young have big games as well. The Cavaliers are going to score, can Indiana keep pace?

Who will LeBron James for the Pacers? And who is going to guard Paul George for the Cavaliers? Both teams in this series defensively will want to “cut off the head of the snake” and make someone other than the best player on opposition beat them. Which is a sound strategy — although the Cavaliers have legitimate other top scoring options — but leads to another problem: Who is going to guard these key guys? Who gets the LeBron assignment? Who gets the George assignment.

LeBron torched the Pacers this season, averaging 32.3 points per game on 60 percent shooting in the three meetings where he played (the one game Indiana beat Cleveland LeBron rested). LeBron was able to get into the restricted area and finish at a high rate this season, and the Pacers lack a rim protector who can make him think twice. George will certainly get some time on LeBron, but he shot 52 percent when PG13 was on him this season (stats via Sports VU and the NBA). Of course, there is the drama of Lance Stephenson, and he likely will get some time on LeBron, but Stephenson has lost a step and that’s a bad matchup for the Pacers.

Also, the Pacers do not have a good defender to match up on Kyrie Irving, who could have a big game or two in this series.

Who on the Cavaliers will draw the Paul George assignment? In crunch time that will be LeBron, we saw that at the end of the double-overtime game (remember LeBron and Tristan Thompson yelling at each other over a missed assignment in that stretch?). But it could be too taxing on LeBron to carry the offense and guard George for 40 minutes a game. Expect some Richard Jefferson, but if guys like J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert draw the assignment for a while George is going to put up big numbers. And he has to for the Pacers to have a chance in this series.

Is this the last time we see Paul George in a Pacers’ uniform? George has been brilliant over the last month of the season and reminded everyone why the Pacers’ primary goal this summer is to keep him in Indiana. If George makes the third-team All-NBA — and that’s a coin flip, one that will not land until June 26 at the NBA awards ceremony — then the Pacers can offer him the designated player contract of five years and more than $200 million, and he will stay put.

However, if George doesn’t make that team, the Pacers have to consider trade options this summer. Larry Bird may not pull the trigger, but he can’t lose George for nothing to free agency in the summer of 2018, so there will be pressure this summer if a team steps up with a good offer (and Boston has the pieces to do that, among others). What George wants to do is win, and if the Pacers have a strong series against the Cavaliers and push this to six or seven games, Bird can say to George that this team is close and to trust him to build a contender around George. How this series goes will have some impact on the summer

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. The Pacers starters can hang with the Cavaliers starters, but once these teams start going to the bench the Cavaliers will pull away. The Pacers don’t have the shooters to hang in this series.

Three games to watch on final day of NBA season Wednesday

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Wednesday is the final day of the NBA season, and while most of the playoff positions are set and plenty of players will be getting the night off for rest, there are still some games that matters. Here’s three races and a few games to keep your eyes on Wednesday.

1) Boston vs. Milwaukee and the race for the No. 1 seed in the East. The Cavaliers have made it clear rest matters far more to them than the No. 1 seed — LeBron James has been to six straight NBA Finals, four times his team got there out of the two seed. The fact that Cleveland rested LeBron last game and will sit him again on Wednesday — as well as possibly Kyrie Irving, although there are mixed signals there — shows they are not worried about home court in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The race for the top seed in the East is simple: Boston has a one-game lead over Cleveland, so if they win against Milwaukee Wednesday, the Celtics have home court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs. And the Celtics should win. The Bucks are locked into the six seed (after Atlanta’s win Tuesday) so they have nothing to play for, and four key Milwaukee rotation players — Matthew Dellavedova, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell — are not even making the trip to Boston. This is gift-wrapped for the Celtics.

The Cavaliers have the tiebreaker against the Celtics, but the only way they get the top seed is to beat Toronto and have Boston lose. The Raptors have an interest here: They are the three seed, so they will face whoever is the two seed in the second round, and they would much rather have that be Boston than Cleveland. So expect pretty much a full on tank job from Toronto in the name of rest. That will not matter, however, unless the Celtics lay an egg.

2) Washington vs. Miami and the race for the No. 7 and 8 seeds in the East. This is the real drama on Wednesday night: There are three teams — Miami, Chicago, and Indiana — fighting for two playoff spots at the bottom of the East. At the end of the night, someone is not going to have a ticket to the dance.

What to watch starts with Washington at Miami — the Heat have to win or they are eliminated. It’s that simple. Miami should be motivated and Washington has nothing to play for (they are locked in as the four seed) so you have to like the Heat’s chances here. Washington is expected to rest John Wall and others for this game. Still, the entire process starts with Miami needing a win.

Even if they do win, Miami also needs either Chicago or Indiana to lose.

For the Bulls and Pacers Wednesday is simple: Win and you’re in.

The Bulls are hosting the Nets in a game Chicago should win, as Brooklyn is resting three key rotation players in this one: Trevor Booker, Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez. That said, the Nets have played fairly well since the All-Star break and did beat the Bulls on Saturday. Nothing is guaranteed, but things look good for the Bulls.

Indiana hosts an Atlanta team on the second night of a back-to-back, and since the Hawks locked up the five seed with their win Tuesday they have nothing to play for. Expect a number of key Atlanta players to be rested on Wednesday, setting things up for the Pacers.

All of which is to say Miami has a chance, but it’s a slim one. They need a lot of help.

3) Sacramento vs. L.A. Clippers and the battle for home court in the first round. The matchup is already set, the Clippers will face the Jazz in the first round, an interesting series featuring two of the best defensive big men in the NBA in Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan. What we don’t know is who gets home court in that series, both the Clippers and the Jazz are 50-31 heading into Wednesday.

This is very straightforward: The Clippers have the tiebreaker, so if they beat Sacramento they will be home for Game 1 this weekend. The only way the Jazz get home court in this series is if the Clippers lose and then Utah beats San Antonio. Not impossible, but not a likely outcome of events.