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PBT Podcast: NBA first round playoff series breakdowns

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LeBron James‘ Cavaliers looks to be in a battle royal in the first round — and they could lose to Victor Oladipo‘s Pacers.

Miami’s defense and versatility is challenging the Sixers and shaking the faith of all those that just jumped on the bandwagon.

Utah stole a game in Oklahoma City showing great grit and resolve, not to mention a lot of Donovan Mitchell.

Anthony Davis has done everything but walk on water for the Pelicans.

The first round of the NBA playoffs has been filled with fascinating storylines — and we are just two games into each series. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all eight first-round series in this podcast, starting in the East and the tight races there, then move into the West. There’s even some “who wants to pay Jabari Parker this summer?” talk thrown in.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, one offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.

LeBron James says Cavs’ roster changes, search for identity hurt team’s playoff preparation

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In Game 1 Sunday, the Indiana Pacers clearly knew who they were as a team. Indiana was confident in how they wanted to attack Cleveland and anything the defense threw at them (such as attempts to trap Victor Oladipo). The Pacers knew how they wanted to defend and how to help off of. Indiana played with confidence.

Cleveland looked lost.

LeBron was not attacking mismatches (and with him, everything is a mismatch), guys were standing around watching and waiting (seemingly for LeBron to just take over), and on defense the LeBron lacked energy and Cavaliers looked like they had all season when they were 29th in the league.

What happened to the Cavaliers? LeBron James said this to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

Telling quote from LeBron James on Wednesday looking back at the season and looking smack in the face of the 0-1 deficit the Cavs are in against Indiana: “I think we spent so much time trying to figure out who we were in the regular season and getting the right lineups and guys in and out and things of that nature, we could never build for the playoffs. It was kind of like, build for the next game. So the postseason finally hit us and it hit us very well. And I think that can be the best teacher for us to know exactly what we should be ready for tonight.”

The Cavaliers didn’t have time to build a proper identity with this lineup, and that did have an impact heading into the playoffs. So did the talent level around LeBron this year compared to the last three.

Expect a different Cavaliers team in Game 2 Tuesday, starting with an attacking LeBron James from the opening top — especially of Bojon Bogdanovic remains the primary defender on him. Look for Kevin Love to get more touches. Look for more J.R. Smith (maybe starting). Look for the Cavaliers to play with some desperation.

But does this team have an identity yet? Do they have the trust and habits built up with each other to get by the Pacers? And if so, what about a Toronto team finding it’s groove.

If the Cavaliers don’t have that identity and fall short, it will make for a very wild offseason in Cleveland.

Three adjustments LeBron James, Cleveland should consider for Game 2

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Cleveland’s regular season woes followed them into the playoffs — they were a terrible defensive team all season (29th in the league), so when they didn’t adjust well to slowing Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner in Game 1, it was to be expected.

However, the Cavaliers had a new problem that cost them Game 1: Their offense was terrible, scoring just 0.84 points per possession. LeBron James had a triple-double but his performance still felt just okay. Jeff Green was a disaster. So was the Cavaliers three-point shooting overall. Kevin Love was a non-factor. The Cavs didn’t get good looks and missed the ones they did get.

Indiana is up 1-0 heading into Game 2 Wednesday, so what do the Cavaliers have to do now? Here are three things to watch.

1) LeBron James has to set the tone early by scoring. To open Game 1, the Indiana Pacers put Bojan Bogdanovic on LeBron — that should have been an open invitation to go into attack mode. Bogdanovic is a better defender than you may think, but he’s nowhere near ready to handle aggressive and attacking LeBron.

Except he didn’t have to. LeBron spent the first quarter trying to set up teammates and getting everyone involved, and as a result LeBron was 0-of-3 shooting for the first quarter (he had two points from a couple of free throws). Cleveland as a team shot 25 percent for the quarter and was down 19 just 12 minutes in. LeBron was more of himself after that and finished with 24 points, but the opportunity was lost. So was the game, the Cavaliers never got all the way back in it.

LeBron has to carry more of a load with this team than any team he has been on in years, probably since he left Cleveland for Miami. Fair or not, that’s the reality. He can’t be passive and set guys up early, he has to shoulder the burden from the start and put up big numbers, then hope as the defense overloads to stop him someone else can step up with a few buckets.  Expect to see LeBron attacking from the opening tip on Tuesday.

2) Get Kevin Love the ball. Love had nine points on eight shots in Game 1, and took only two shots inside the arc in his entire 34 minutes of play — and he had 6’8″ Thaddeus Young on him much of the night, a guy Love can take down to the block and score over and around. It simply was not enough touches and looks for the second best scorer on Cleveland.

Tyron Lue needs to call some sets for Love early and get him the rock down on the block and let him go to work — if the defense collapses or the doubles come, Love is a very capable passer out of the post. But let the man work. The Cavaliers were struggling to get buckets in Game 1 and were leaning more on new guys like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Jeff Green to take the shots. Basketball can be a simple game — get your best shooters/scorers the ball more and let them work. That means more LeBron and Love, less from the other role players.

3) Lineup/rotation changes: More J.R. Smith and Cedi Osman (maybe even Tristan Thompson), less of the new guys. Cleveland started Larry Nance Jr. and he looked a little lost in the moment. Jordan Clarkson played 20 minutes, however, all but two of those came when LeBron was on the court, which is not ideal (Clarkson needs the ball in his hands to create to be effective, but when LeBron is on the court the ball should be in his hands). The Cavaliers second best player in Game 1 was J.R. Smith off the bench — the veteran looked comfortable in the moment.

It’s time for Lue to consider lineup changes, or at the very least significant rotation changes. Start Smith and bring Rodney Hood off the bench. Get more run for rookie Cedi Osman, who is a good defender plus plays well off the ball and can knock down threes (36.8 percent from beyond the arc this season). And I like seeing the lineups with Love at the five, but maybe more Tristan Thompson as a physical, board-crashing change of pace (although it will be tough to play him if the Pacers have the stretchy Myles Turner at the five). Despite the roster shakeups, there are Cavaliers who have been in these moments before, lean on them.

Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

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To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.

Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.

• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).

Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.

We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.

It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.

If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.

Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)

Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.

• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?

However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.

LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).

It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.

• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.

The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.

Simmons lets the Sixers do that.

Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.

Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.

Put the brakes on all that.

Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.

Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?

Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.

If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.

• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.

However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.

In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.

How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.