Kurt Helin

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No Kevin Love, no J.R. Smith to start, how much trouble is Cleveland in?

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This much is obvious: The Cleveland Cavaliers are simply not going to be as good. Take two starters off any NBA team and you weaken them. Maybe considerably.

That’s the Cavaliers right now. Kevin Love is out for the entire second round of the playoffs thanks to Boston’s Kelly Olynyk yanking his shoulder out of its socket. J.R. Smith is out for the next two Cavalier games because he punched Boston’s Jae Crowder in the face (Smith is lucky his suspension wasn’t longer).

Where does that leave the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Vulnerable.

However, is there any team in the East good enough to do anything about it?

On paper, the Chicago Bulls could be trouble for this shorthanded Cavaliers team. But on the court we’re talking about a Bulls team that hasn’t played the elite defense we expect of them this season, a team that can’t close out the improving but still young Milwaukee Bucks, a team that let those Bucks be the aggressors and knock the Bulls back on their heels. “Impressive” is not the word you’d use to describe these Bulls so far in the postseason, even with an improved and attacking Derrick Rose (well at least for the first four games, MCW owned him in Game 5).

That said, the Bulls remain the likely second round matchup for Cleveland.

And Cleveland is vulnerable. Anyone who is saying, “Love didn’t fit in with the Cavs they will be fine” didn’t actually watch Cleveland play. Love stumbled and struggled to find his comfort zone, but by the playoffs was giving them 18 points and nine boards a game, hitting 47 percent from three. This is still an All-Star level player, someone who became central to their offense.

Without Love and his ability to hit the three ball, the spacing in the Cavaliers offense falls apart faster than the plot in Spiderman 3. Substitute Thompson into the starting lineup in place of Love (Kyrie Irving, Smith, LeBron and Timofey Mozgov are the other four) and during the regular season the Cavs were 24.9 points worse per 48 minutes. Their offense isn’t the same as there isn’t the same space to drive and get buckets in the paint. When Love has been on the bench this season LeBron’s usage rate skyrockets — and his efficiency drops.

We saw that in the games the Cavaliers played the Bulls this season — Chicago blew out Cleveland in the game Love didn’t play because they could take their big men (Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic) and pack the paint, clogging up driving lanes for Irving and LeBron. The Cavaliers’ starting lineup (with Smith) was 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse just against the Bulls without Love.

Try to find line-ups featuring the other Cavaliers starters but without Smith and Love and you get into minutes so small you can’t really draw any conclusions. With Smith out, Iman Shumpert likely starts but we will see some Joe Harris, maybe some Matthew Dellavedova playing with Irving.

Which is to say, coach David Blatt is going to be experimenting a lot with new lineups, groupings of players he didn’t have to go to during the season.

One lineup he might go to more often — LeBron as the power forward. He is strong enough to defend Gasol (or Noah), and with this smaller lineup the Cavaliers will have some shooting and spacing.

The other concern: Cleveland isn’t that great a defensive team. After the trade deadline moves to pick up Mozgov and Iman Shumpert the Cavs were certainly improved — they went from terrible to a little above average. Post All-Star Game the Cavaliers allowed 102 points per 100 possessions, 13th best in the NBA. Make it just from March 1 through the end of the season and they allow 103.8 per 100, 18th best in the NBA. That’s not great. And the Bulls offense has been good come the playoffs — Rose is attacking again, Jimmy Butler is confident and making plays, and Pau Gasol remains incredibly skilled and smart. Yes, the Bucks have given the Bulls a challenge, because the Bucks are a long and good defensive team.

The Cavaliers will and should still be the favorites if they face the Bulls in the next round — when those teams step on the court for the opening tip, the two best players will still be playing for Cleveland. The Cavs still have the best player on the planet, a guy who can take over games at either end of the court. That’s a huge advantage. And the Bulls have not looked like world beaters of late.

But the Cavaliers are clearly a wounded, vulnerable team.

The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs just got very, very interesting.

PBT Extra: Who wins Game 5 between Spurs, Clippers? Flip a coin.

Blake Griffin, Boris Diaw
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We thought going into the playoffs the Spurs and Clippers would be the most intense, closest first round series. It hasn’t disappointed. It’s been physical, it’s seen stars have big games and role players step up.

So as the Clippers and Spurs head to Game 5 Tuesday night in Los Angeles who wins? Flip a coin.

As I tell Jenna Corrado in this PBT Extra, I think the one key difference between Game 4 is I don’t see Austin Rivers replicating his strong performance. For that reason I’ll take the Spurs, their role players just seem more likely to step up.

But you might as well flip a coin.

PBT Extra: Rockets must adjust to new Mavericks starting lineup in Game 5

Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea
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Normally by Game 5 of a series we’re through most of the major adjustments in a series — everyone knows what everyone else is going to do, it’s about execution under pressure.

The Rockets and Mavericks Game 5 is different, and that’s what Jenna Corrado and I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

The addition of J.J. Barea with Monta Ellis as starters — and the subtraction of Rajon Rondo — upped the tempo and threw off the Rockets defense in Game 4. Now it’s up to Kevin McHale to make the next set of adjustments, and Houston to defend better.

Portland comes from 10 down in fourth quarter to win 99-92, stay alive in series

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four
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With about eight minutes left in the game, it looked like only one team was going to be making the flight back to Memphis. The Grizzlies were up 10 and seemingly in control of Game 4, locking down the Blazers with their defense. This was about to be a sweep.

But Portland raged, raged against the dying of the light.

Portland closed the game on a 29-12 run thanks to a dozen fourth quarter points from Damian Lillard, and the Blazers stayed alive with a 99-92 win at home. Memphis now leads the series 3-1, with Game 5 back in Memphis on Wednesday.

Lillard, freed from the shackles of Mike Conley (who was out following surgery to his fractured face Monday morning, he is not expected to play Wednesday either), was in attack mode. Lillard averaged 18 points a game in the first three but shot just 35.2 percent, not impacting the game the way the Blazers needed. With Conley out that changed — he put up 32 points. Lillard was attacking, shooting 5-of-8 inside eight feet of the rim, but his midrange jumper was falling as well with a little more space (11 of his 23 shots were uncontested).

Portland also got a boost from their bench. C.J. McCollum had 18 points, and Meyers Leonard was tremendous as a stretch five, scoring 13 points and hitting 3-of-3 from three. Leonard’s play pulled Memphis bigs out of the paint and opened things up for Lillard to drive.

The bench contributions were especially huge on a night LaMarcus Aldrige was just 6-of-22 from the floor, and Nicolas Batum was 3-of-13.

With Conley out, Beno Udrih had 13 points, while Nick Calathes added 12 and hit 4-of-5 from three to give the Grizzlies some production from the one spot. But the problems was on the other end — they could not begin to contain Lillard and that sparked the Blazers’ runs.

Memphis once again got off to a fast start, starting out 12-4 to open the game. But this time Portland responded with a 13-2 run of their own to take a small lead. Portland had its best first quarter of the series and was up 27-22 after one. With Leonard spacing the floor and Lillard attacking Portland stretched out the lead to 55-48 at the half.

Then in the third quarter the Grizzlies took charge again, their defense returned, and they won the quarter 27-13. The Trail Blazers started out 5-25 from the field in the second half. Memphis was battling through screens, blowing up Portland’s pick-and-roll game. The result was a lot of  Grizz just fighting through screens and forcing Blazers to go 1-on-1. It worked.

For a while.

Credit Portland for this: They could have just started thinking about tee times for the summer. They didn’t. They fought back.

Can Portland replicate it on the road in Game 5?

Maybe, because it’s tough to imagine Conley is going to play. That said, Memphis was in position to win Game 4 and get the sweep, and at home they are not going to take their foot off Portland’s throat — don’t expect the same defensive slips. It’s going to be much harder for Portland to earn a second win.

But they earned the chance to try.

 

Take that Paul Pierce: Deron Williams leads Nets with 35 to get win (VIDEO).

Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets- Game Four
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A few weeks back, Paul Pierce made headlines saying the Nets lacked leadership and that all started with Deron Williams.

Williams sent his own message, turning back the clock and putting up 35 points to lead the Nets to a 120-115 win and even the series with the Hawks 2-2. This effort tied Williams’ career playoff high.

It helps the Nets cause that the powerhouse Hawks team from January is nowhere to be seen come April, but Williams is still leading his team through that open door.