Author: Kurt Helin

Luis Scola, Kevin Love

Cavaliers’ coach says Kevin Love playing best defense of his career


Kevin Love is never going to be a lock-down defensive stopper, but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to fit the team defensive system the Cavaliers put in place and give a real effort on that end of the court.

Love knows that. And coach David Blatt says he is doing just that.

The Cavaliers have played improved defense of late — in the last three games their opponents have shot a combined 40.4 percent — and Kyrie Irving got some credit for that as he had a strong game against John Wall and he has been more active on that end.

But Love deserves a pat on the back too, Blatt told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“In general, I would like to say, I think Kevin Love is playing the best defense of his career so far,” Blatt said. “He can get better like all of us can, but he’s doing a good job. He’s buying into the system, into the principles, and he needs to continue to do that and we need to continue to involve him in the way that we are.”

“I’ve never really been known for that in my career,” Love said. “Being a lockdown defender is something that I know I’ll never be, but as far as being a team defender, being in the right spots, being physical, doing those things, I can get a lot better at that and just continue to break down film and see where I can get better out there. So yeah, I think it’s something that I can continue to buy into and get better at.”

Love’s play has improved at both ends — he’s getting more touches in the post and as a result is shooting 58 percent over his last four games. When he plays well offensively, when he has energy on that end it seems to carry over.

The Cavs still need a real rim protector on defense — a virtual necessity in today’s NBA for elite teams — but what we are seeing from the Cleveland is part of the evolution. It was always going to take time, particularly on defense. It has.

The question is how much more it evolves between now and mid-April when the playoffs start. And are we saying these same things about Kevin Love’s defensive effort.

PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Grizzlies solidly in top two slots

Golden State Warriors v Detroit Pistons

No real changes this week at the very top of the rankings — the Warriors and Grizzlies are playing the best ball in the NBA so far this young season. No change at the bottom either, and I don’t anticipate we’ll see one anytime soon. Likely all season. I don’t even know what to write about the Sixers anymore.

source:  1. Warriors (14-2, Last Week No. 1). Winners of nine in a row now, this team’s starting five is a ridiculous +28.7 points per 48 minutes. Which means when David Lee returns Steve Kerr has to bringing him off the bench and keep the impressive Draymond Green as a starter. Do not mess with what works.

source:  2. Grizzlies (15-2, LW 3) They have five wins in a row including a couple real quality ones over the Clippers and at the Trail Blazers last Friday (probably Memphis’ best game of the season). They are beating quality, because the next four up are Houston, San Antonio, Miami and Dallas.

source:  3. Spurs (12-4, LW 5). Ettore Messina coached the Spurs to a couple wins, who have gotten Kawhi Leonard in a groove and, more importantly, have the second best defense in the NBA this young season despite not yet having Tiago Splitter and his presence in the paint back. Fun showdown with Memphis this week.

source:  4. Trail Blazers (13-4. LW 4). They had to go out on the road and won all three, but Memphis comes in playing a playoff style game and beats them at home. Read into that what you want. Only four teams are top 10 in the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency so far and the Blazers are one of them.

source:  5. Mavericks (13-5, LW 7). You know which team leads the NBA in alley-oop dunks so far this season? Yup, Dallas. It is the new Lob City. That’s in part due to the Mavericks doing something the Knicks did not enough — use Tyson Chandler as the roll man. He can finish.

source:  6. Rockets (13-4, LW 6). Picked up wins this week starting Isaiah Canaan, Tarik Black and Donatas Motiejunas (who had a big game against DeMarcus Cousins and Kings), which is impressive. Dwight Howard is close, don’t be shocked if he plays Wednesday against Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies.

source:  7. Raptors (13-4, LW 2). Without DeMar DeRozan the Raptors’ margin for error is much smaller and that showed against the Lakers where they could have used another athletic defender. Dwane Casey said Sunday he likes Greivis Vasquez next to Kyle Lowry starting in the backcourt, expect them to stick with that for a while.

source:  8. Bulls (11-6, LW 9). Sunday in win over Brooklyn was fifth time this season Bulls have had their planned starting five together — and that group is +24.9 per 100 possessions and the Bulls are 5-0 when they start. Just need to keep that group together (Bulls fans reach for wood to knock on).

source:  9. Clippers (11-5, LW 13). They have won four in a row and six of seven with their offense really clicking in that stretch. What’s more they have a soft schedule ahead this week (save for dealing with Anthony Davis) so expect the streak to keep going.

source:  10. Cavaliers (8-7 LW 17). Kevin Love is getting his touches closer to the basket, he’s shooting a higher percentage and suddenly the Cavs offense clicks and they are winning. They’ve also shown signs of defensive life. Couple games coming up against Raptors should be good test.

source:  11. Wizards (10-5, LW 8). It’s really this simple: With Nene in the lineup the Wizards are a threat to beat anyone, but with him out (foot issues again) they look pedestrian. He keys their defense and they hope to get him back this week.

source:  12. Suns (10-8, LW 10). Their offense has slipped with Isaiah Thomas out (which led to ugly losses to Orlando and Denver) and they need to find it fast because this week they head to Texas for a Dallas-Houston two-step.

source:  13. Kings (9-8, LW 11). They showed some fight without DeMarcus Cousins Sunday, even if they still fell to Memphis, but there are reasons to feel good in Sacramento: They have put together this record against the toughest schedule of any team in the NBA so far.

source:  14. Hawks (9-6, LW 15). They are 7-3 in their last 10 games and we need to point out again that Jeff Teague is playing fantastic ball this season, getting the Hawks offense humming. It’s a crowded position but he’s playing like a guy who has to be considered for the All-Star Game.

source:  15. Heat (9-7, LW 14). Dwyane Wade returned Sunday against New York — way to ease back in — and the Heat went 3-4 without him. The Heat’s offense just flows much better when he is out there, plus the post game interviews are improved as well.

source:  16. Bucks (10-8, LW 16). The Bucks have been a feel-good story to start the season — they are everyone’s League Pass favorites — but it may be about to be midnight on the Cinderella start. They have a top 10 defense on paper but how does it hold up to two games against Dallas and one against the Cavs this week? The Rockets put up 117 points on them last week.

source:  17. Nuggets (8-8, LW 18). After a dreadful start the Nuggets have won 6-of-7, mostly with an improved offense that Arron Afflalo is pulling along, and one that is playing a little more slowly (where coach Brian Shaw has wanted it). Will they be able to sustain it is the question.

source:  18. Pelicans (7-8, LW 12). Anthony Davis gets mentioned in some early MVP talk, and he’s been the best player in the league this young season, but the MVP almost always comes from a top five team and the Pelicans have lost three straight to fall below .500. Which is to say, as the season wears on, he’ll fade out of that top spot for a lot of voters, although he’ll get a slot down the ballot.

source:  19. Pacers (7-10, LW 22). David West is back and while he certainly showed a little rust the Pacers offense will be better with him. They’ll need it with a tough week ahead on the road out West in Phoenix, Portland and Sacramento.

source:  20. Nets (6-9, LW 23). Not that Nets fans should feel good about this record anyway, but here is some bad news: It has come against the softest schedule of any team in the NBA this season. On the bright side, Kevin Garnett does a great snapping turtle impression.

source:  21. Celtics (4-10, LW 20). They are leading the league in moral victories lately, hanging with Cleveland, Chicago and San Antonio for much of the games. Of course, that and four bucks gets you a latte at Starbucks (including a nice tip).

source:  22. Thunder (5-12, LW 22). Russell Westbrook is back, Kevin Durant will be back soon. They can still sneak into a bottom seed in the West if they start to win at the pace they did last season — to get to 49 wins (what it took to make the playoffs in the West last season) they need to go 44-21 the rest of the way.

source:  23. Magic (7-12, LW 19). Quality win in Phoenix Sunday after dropping their previous three. It doesn’t get any easier this week as they keep swinging through a Western road trip and get the Warriors and Clippers among others.

source:  24. Timberwolves (4-11, LW 27). They have the Sixers this Wednesday and with no Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin or Nikola Pekovic this may be Philly’s best shot at a win. Sixers and Timberwolves could be a really interesting game in three years when these teams mature.

source:  25. Lakers (4-13, LW 26). Kobe Bryant turned back the clock Sunday night, picking apart the Raptors defensive doubles early and hitting some key shots late. This is how the Lakers will win games — they didn’t play good defense against Toronto, they just hit a lot of tough shots (particularly in the second quarter).

source:  26. Jazz (5-12, LW 21). Free Rudy Gobert… actually, just play him more. Next to Derrick Favors. They have lost five in a row but have been tougher at home where they get the Nuggets and Magic this week.

source:  27. Knicks (4-14, LW 24). Carmelo Anthony came back Sunday earlier than expected and looked pretty good dropping 31. Not that it meant the Knicks would get a win. This team seems to settle for more jumpers and attack the rim less than any in the league (and that’s not how you rack up wins).

source:  28. Hornets (4-14, LW 25). I thought they’d miss Josh McRoberts some, but not this much. Word is out now that anyone not named Kemba or Jefferson can be had in a trade as they decide to shake up the chemistry on a team that went from top five defensively last year to bottom five this year.

source:  29. Pistons (3-14, LW 26). Andre Drummond had his best games this season by far when Brandon Jennings was out, but he returns and Drummond is back to his old ways (1-of-8 against Golden State). Coincidence? Probably not, and just one more thing you can thank Joe Dumars for.

source:  30. 76ers (0-16, LW 30). If you’re thinking about watching a Sixers game, head out to the movies instead. I saw Big Hero 6 over the weekend, that was good and much better than expected. I really want to go see Birdman, that looks fantastic. Personally just not a Hunger Games guy.

Raptors stumble in first step without DeMar DeRozan

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers
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LOS ANGELES — The Toronto Raptors entered Sunday night with the best record in the East, a fast 13-3 start in part built in large part on continuity and balance — it’s hard to defend a team where on any given night Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan or Terrence Ross or Lou Williams off the bench can light you up, where five guys averaged double digits and a sixth is at 9.5 a game, where that unit plays defense on a string.

But pull one piece out of the Jenga tower and that balance becomes less stable, it teeters and can fall easily.

We saw that Sunday night in Los Angeles. To a man the Raptors recognized that and said they needed to find their stability again over the coming weeks.

DeRozan is out for an extended period with a torn tendon in his groin — history of the injury suggests at least six weeks, DeRozan hopes to be back in a month — and Sunday without him the Raptors struggled. An offense that usually shared the ball became isolation heavy. And their Top 10 defense crumbled for the night. The result was a Los Angeles Lakers win, 129-122 in overtime, behind a triple-double from Kobe Bryant, who seems to save up his best games for Toronto.

Without DeRozan the Raptors have a much smaller margin for error on both sides of the ball. Sunday night they didn’t adapt well on either end.

What was the bigger issue for Toronto, the offense or defense? Depends on who you ask.

“Offensively, I thought that we were a little out of rhythm…” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said afterwards, particularly referring to the team’s first half. “This is who we are and who we’re going to be, so we have to get it together. Everyone is happy during good times, We lost a couple games and now we’ll see what we are made of…

“A lot of our offense is built around, or for, DeMar. Getting into a rhythm that way, plus new stuff, and new positions, I would say (players roles are changing) a little bit. But we’ve been doing that for two years so it’s no excuse.”

“We’re not making any excuses, we just didn’t play defense,” said guard Greivis Vasquez, the guy thrust into the starting lineup with DeRozan out. “We scored enough points to win, we just have to play defense.”

To a man, the Raptors used the no excuses line. It’s something every pro sports team says when a key player goes down, and it’s been a common refrain around the NBA this early season when a raft of top stars — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and so on — have gone down for extended periods. Some teams have adapted better than others, the book is out still on Toronto.

For a Raptors team built on continuity they believe they should be able to adapt, adjust and step up better than we saw Sunday.

“Next man up,” Casey said spouting the pro sports cliché pregame. “It’s so true. I know it’s corny but that’s why you have a big roster. Injuries are a big part of the NBA….

“The year we won the championship in Dallas (Casey was an assistant coach) we lost Dirk (Nowitzki) and everyone thought the world was going to hell. But it didn’t, we stuck together and bonded, developed some confidence in the guys who had an opportunity to play, and you’ve got to look at it from that positive standpoint.”

The Raptors players talked about that too, being a better team when DeRozan returns, about finding a level of stability for the next six weeks.

In Sunday night’s loss Vasquez was right, it was the defense — the Raptors offensive production on the night was very close to their season average (using points per possession), but it was on the defensive end where the Raptors could have used DeRozan’s length and athleticism. Not that it would have mattered in the first half, when the Lakers just got hot and hit contested or just poor shots to the tune of better than 60 percent from the floor until deep in the second quarter. Everything fell for them. Plus Kobe was doubled early and with that started dishing the ball to open teammates — the Lakers are more dangerous when he facilitates (and other guys hit those shots).

Toronto players also saw defense as a more easily correctable issue. While DeRozan is an athletic and long defender it is Ross who often gets the toughest defensive assignment of the night and James Johnson comes off the bench to help get stops. It was the offensive side where the roles really changed Sunday.

“I think Kyle and I can play together…” Vasquez said after the game, and the pair combined for 48 points but on an inefficient 44 shots. “The offense wasn’t really the problem, it was our defense. There’s no excuse, we have to play defense as a team….

“Defensively as a team we do a great job collectively, it was more of a focus thing.”

DeRozan gave Toronto better than 19 points a game and a player defenses have to watch at all times. That’s not easy to just replace.

“He’s a franchise player, no question about it,” Casey said.

But this is life in the NBA. Always has been. Guys go down and the best teams adjust — the model everyone strives for is the Spurs, who never seem to miss a step even when Tim Duncan or Tony Parker are out for a night.

Toronto has work to do to get near that level, but they can be a much more dangerous team come the playoffs if they can become a little more Spurs like in the next stretch while DeRozan recovers. For Casey that starts with a better effort.

“(DeRozan’s absence) had nothing to do with the loose balls in the first half, the no box outs in the first half and, I thought, the soft play defensively in the first half…” Casey said. “Defensively I thought we had good stops but we didn’t come up with the loose balls and second shots. That has nothing to do with rhythm and more with wanting to get on the floor and get those.”

The Raptors don’t have the margin for error to let those little plays go anymore.