NBA Playoffs, Cavaliers Bulls Game 4: All bow down before King James, including you Bulls

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James_Thumbsup.jpgJoakim Noah has given no love to anybody or any place in this series. That includes LeBron James, who ranked as “pretty good” before the series.

What did Noah tell Brian Windhorst about LeBron after he dropped a 37 point, 12 rebound, 11 assist game on the Bulls?

“The best player in the world.”

The Cavaliers made a statement — we are the team to beat, we are the favorites for the title, we have the best player walking the planet, and we have no use for you little Bulls. Cavs 121, Bulls 98. Next.

Well, technically Cleveland still has to win one more before next (Boston). But that seems a mere formality coming in game five. The Cavaliers didn’t just beat the Bulls, they demoralized them. Cavs coach Mike Brown left LeBron in surprisingly deep into the fourth quarter for just that reason — the Bulls had cut the lead to less than 20, and the Cavaliers wanted to let them know, LeBron wanted to let them know, who was in charge. Just a little reminder for the days off until Tuesday.

The Cavaliers were up 10 at the half then blew this thing open in the fourth, and did it with defense. Chicago hit jut 8 of 25 in the quarter. The Bulls as a team shot just 37 percent. Kirk Hinrich was 3 of 13, Luol Deng 7 of 17, Brad Miller 2 of 8.

Noah was one of two Bulls who showed up and put up the first 20/20 in Chicago Bulls playoff history. (How is that true? It is, but how? Pippen, Jordan, Kukoc, none of them? I would have had my money on Will Purdue.) Derrick Rose put up 21 points as well, on a solid 9 of 20 night when the Cavs were intent on shutting him down.

But the Bulls were not the story — the Cavs have made their statement. Antawn Jamison looked like the second scoring option he was brought in to be, 24 on 9 of 16. Mo Williams 3 of 6 from three, 19 points. Heck, JJ Hickson got 10.

LeBron James has made his first big playoff statement. He made it with dunks and half-courters and defense. It was an emphatic one.

Can the Bulls win game 5? Sure, they could rain threes on the Cavs. They shot 33 percent today, and 14 and 22 percent in the other two. They hit 42 percent in the win.

Of course, after today they may have to shooting better than 50 percent. And hope James doesn’t decide to make another statement.

Gordon Hayward says he is willing to come off bench as he struggles in Boston

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Gordon Hayward just isn’t right. Yet.

Nor should we expect him to be — just over a year ago his leg was turned in a direction no leg should turn. It’s a long road of surgery, rehab, and time on the court to get back. Hayward is not all the way back yet: 9.9 points per game shooting below 40 percent overall and 31.9 percent from three, with a below-league-average PER of 12.9.

At the same time, the Celtics have stumbled out of the gate, going 7-6 with a still-elite defense (most nights, there have been some games on that end in the last five) but a bottom-five offense. Throw in some slow starts in games for the Celtics and you have an unimpressive start to the season for a team expected to be the team to beat in the East.

Hayward realizes he’s part of the problem and told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe he’d come off the bench if that would help.

“For me, I’m happy to be on the court, No. 1 more than anything and, No. 2, whatever I can do to help us win,’’ Hayward said at the Auerbach Center in Brighton. “I said it before the season, it’s whatever to me….

“There’s obviously a little bit of rust and sometimes you just go through those phases. You go through slumps. The shot feels good in practice and looks good and for whatever reason in the game, they’re in and out.

“Sometimes it gets frustrating, but for me, I’ve played in the league long enough to know you just have to put in the work in practice and shoot with confidence, shoot your way out of it.”

Hayward’s ego is not completely wrapped up in starting vs. coming off the bench (unlike someone the Rockets may be about to release). It’s about a process to get back to the All-Star level player he was, and he knows that the process is still ongoing, it didn’t reach a culmination when the season tipped off.

Coach Brad Stevens has got to get Hayward time on the court and the chance to get back to form — Boston needs that Hayward in April and beyond. But for now, more Marcus Smart — heck, more of just whoever is hot that night — is the right move, even if that means Hayward begins games sitting.

One Warriors’ player: “With what was said, there is already no way Durant is coming back”

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Since before training camp opened, the Warriors — players and management — have been mentally prepared for this being Kevin Durant‘s last season with the team (Durant is expected to opt out next summer and become a free agent). That doesn’t mean they want it to end. The front office, in particular, will do whatever it can to keep him. It’s just that everyone senses the reality.

That reality was pushed into the spotlight after the end of regulation in an eventual loss to the Clippers when Draymond Green chose not to defer to Durant and pass him the ball, instead trying to do it all himself (Green fumbled the ball away and the Warriors didn’t get a shot off). Durant called out Green for the decision (as did other teammates later), Green stood his ground and called Durant a “b****” and said he was making the season about himself with how he has handled his pending free agency.

Where does that leave the Warriors? Not in a good space, one veteran told Marcus Thompson II in a must-read piece at The Athletic.

“With what was said, there is already no way Durant is coming back,” one player said. “The only hope is that they can say this summer, ‘See, KD. We’ve got your back. We protected you from Draymond.’ ”

Hence the suspension, rather than just a fine for Green. The Warriors wanted the punishment to be public, not just internal. Just to show Durant they have his back.

It’s very likely not enough — and it very likely would not have mattered anyway. Whatever you may think Durant is saying on the court, the stage has already been set for next July. It feels like Durant wants to win one more title, then to go try to pad his legacy with his “own team” somewhere else.

The Warriors players, including Green and Durant, are professional enough to put all this aside to win. None of this means the Warriors are not still the heavy title favorites.

The challenge now for Steve Kerr and everyone else is to just keep focused, keep their eye on the Larry O’Brien trophy and not all the distractions. So, they will keep playing what happened down.

Since before training camp opened, the Warriors — players and management — have been mentally prepared for this being Kevin Durant’s last season with the team (Durant is expected to opt out next summer and become a free agent). That doesn’t mean they want it to end. The front office, in particular, will do whatever it can to keep him. It’s just that everyone senses the reality.

That reality was pushed into the spotlight after the end of regulation in an eventual loss to the Clippers when Draymond Green chose not to defer to Durant and pass him the ball, rather trying to do it all himself (Green fumbled the ball away and the Warriors didn’t get a shot off). Durant called out Green for the decision (as did other teammates later), Green stood his ground and called Durant a “b****” and said he was making the season about himself with how he has handled his pending free agency.

Where does that leave the Warriors? Not in a good space, one veteran told Marcus Thompson II in a must-read piece at The Athletic.

“With what was said, there is already no way Durant is coming back,” one player said. “The only hope is that they can say this summer, ‘See, KD. We’ve got your back. We protected you from Draymond.’ ”

Hence the suspension, rather than just a fine for Green. The Warriors wanted the punishment to be public, not just internal. Just to show Durant they have his back.

It’s very likely not enough — and it very likely would not have mattered anyway. Whatever you may think Durant is saying on the court, the stage has already been set for next July. It feels like Durant wants to win one more title, then to go try to pad his legacy with his “own team” somewhere else.

The Warriors players, including Green and Durant, are professional enough to put all this aside to win. None of this means the Warriors are not still the heavy title favorites.

The challenge now for Steve Kerr and everyone else is to just keep focused, keep their eye on the Larry O’Brien trophy and not all the distractions. So, they will keep playing what happened down.

Without Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves move on with warm welcome for newbies

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless walked into their hotel rooms in Minnesota, they found appropriate gifts from Timberwolves All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns: winter coats.

After the overnight temperature dropped to 7 degrees, the newest members of the team by way of the Jimmy Butler trade with Philadelphia appreciated the welcome from Minnesota’s best player. Butler’s awkward and drawn-out departure created an icy atmosphere around the organization, but now that the deal is finally done, the Wolves have begun trying to warm the atmosphere back up.

“We can’t wait to get on the court, put on that jersey and put it on for this city,” Covington said at a news conference inside Target Center on Tuesday afternoon that carried just a bit less buzz than Butler’s open-to-the-public introduction at the Mall of America less than 17 months ago.

As Butler formally joined the 76ers , the Wolves pivoted forward after a pressure-relieving win over Brooklyn on Monday night following an 0-5 road trip.

Neither Covington nor Saric played against the Nets, but they’re on track to take the floor on Wednesday night against New Orleans. Bayless is injured, rehabilitating a hyperextended right knee, and with a glut of point guards on the roster he’s not expected to see playing time even once he’s healthy. Both Covington and Saric were starters for the Sixers, who finished third in the Eastern Conference last season at 52-30.

“They’re both young, and they’re going to get better. Both are very good defensively. They both shoot the 3. We think they fit well with the guys that we do have,” said president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau. “Once we got to that point where we felt we were getting multiple rotational players, then we felt it would be time to execute the deal. When we initially started off, that wasn’t the case.”

As for whether the Timberwolves could be better without Butler, the four-time All-Star with exceptional ability on both ends on the court, Thibodeau demurred.

“We have to focus on who’s here. We think we have a good, young nucleus, and we have to build off of that,” Thibodeau said.

Covington is the centerpiece of the package.

The 27-year-old, who went undrafted out of Tennessee State and began in the NBA with Houston in the 2013-14 season, has career averages of 12.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game with a 35.9 shooting percentage from 3-point range. The 6-foot-9 Covington was an All-Defensive First Team pick last season with a career-most 315 deflections and a defensive rating of 99.0 that led all forwards in the league with at least 30 minutes per game. He was ninth in the NBA in steals with an average of 1.7 per game.

That’s the area where he’ll help the Timberwolves the most, the area that Butler was also acquired to help improve.

“In order to stay in this league and be effective, you’ve got to be able to go down there and be able to stop somebody on the other end,” Covington said, adding: “I think I watched more film the first few years than I’ve ever watched my entire life, as far as just different guys and watching how they read certain things and build the habits of watching players and everything. So I’d say the past couple seasons is when everything started to click.”

The 24-year-old Saric was named to the All-Rookie First Team in 2016-17. The native of Croatia has career averages of 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He shot 39.3 percent from 3-point range last season.

Covington will likely fill Butler’s starting spot. Thibodeau could move Taj Gibson to the second unit and keep Saric as a starter. The 6-foot-10 Saric, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2014 draft, is the classic “stretch four” with a power forward’s size and a small forward’s shot. He meshed well with Sixers center Joel Embiid, so Towns has the potential to similarly complement his game.

“KAT is shooting so much better from the 3-point line than Joel, and it seems like we can play with each other,” Saric said, adding: “If I find a way how to play with Joel, I think I can find a way how to play with KAT.”

 

Three Things to Know: Durant’s pending free agency looms over Green suspension

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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) Kevin Durant’s pending free agency looms over Draymond Green suspension. It has been the subtle — and, at times, not so subtle — subtext to the entire Golden State season, the cloud casting a shadow over everything:

What is Kevin Durant going to do as a free agent next summer?

That was the foundation of what Draymond Green used to go back at Durant after Green did not pass him the ball on the final play of regulation against the Clippers, with Green saying Durant was making the season about himself. It was the foundation of why GM Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr came down so hard on Green with a one-game suspension (costing Green more than $120,000).

It shows the cracks in that Warriors foundation.

Maybe not big enough ones to keep them from winning the title this season. The players on the roster are too good and too professional for that. However, the cracks may well be big enough to break the team up next summer and send Durant elsewhere.

After the Warriors, without Green or the still-injured Stephen Curry, barely held off the Atlanta Hawks for a win Tuesday night, everyone around the team played down the incident.

It all came to a head when a frustrated Durant called out Green on the bench after the final play of regulation against the Clippers, which we all have seen — Green got the rebound and decided to go coast-to-coast and create himself, rather than defer to Durant, who was clapping his hands and calling for the ball.

Green is vocal, emotional, and will defend himself even when he knows he is wrong (and he was wrong not to give up the rock in that situation, other teammates called him out for it, too). Green, apparently showing off a built-up frustration (that, reportedly, is not just his own) came back hard at Durant calling him a “b****” and that is officially what got him suspended.

But Green also stomped into the space where all season the Warriors organization top-to-bottom has walked on eggshells — Durant’s looming free agency. Green reportedly said Durant has made it the season all about himself by very publicly keeping his options open (right out of the LeBron James playbook). Klay Thompson is a free agent next summer as well but has made it clear at every step he doesn’t want to leave the Warriors. Green is a 2020 free agent but has followed Thompson’s path. Durant has gone a different direction, and now all the Warriors have to answer media questions about KD’s future at every road stop.

Mentally, the Warriors players and organization are prepared for Durant to leave next summer. However, when Green threw Durant’s free agency out in the middle of the room and threw a light on it, the organization felt it had to signal to Durant it has his back. Ideally, the Warriors want to keep KD and the suspension — rather than a fine and handling it internally — was part of that. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a unique player and that emotion is part of what makes him one of the top 15-20 players in the league. Management felt Green crossed a line this time, but it’s also a message to Durant that the Warriors will back him.

All of that still hangs in the air in the Warriors’ locker room. How Green responds to this long-term — how pissed will he be the franchise backed KD? — now hangs out there, too.

Don’t think that this will get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together. These are adults and professionals, they can work together enough to get past it.

But next July when free agency hits, remember all of this.

2) Rockets win in Denver shows they have found their stride again. Maybe. Tuesday night up in the Rockies an interesting Xs and Os battle was going on.

In the first half Denver did what a growing number of teams have tried with Houston this season: Rather than switch when James Harden gets a high pick (allowing him to isolate on a big man or the victim of his choice), they double and trap Harden, taking the ball out of his hands. The idea is “make someone else beat us, not the MVP.”

Denver’s gambit worked in this sense: Harden didn’t get his first bucket until 5:22 was left in the second quarter, and he was officially 1-of-5 with three points in the first half. However, Denver’s strategy didn’t work in this sense: Chris Paul had 14 points in the half, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon each had 9, the Rockets still put up 54 points with a 117 points per 100 possessions net rating. The other guys did step up and looked like they might beat Denver.

Sensing it was not working as well as hoped, and because the Rockets were adjusting and getting better looks, early in the second half Denver went back to switching. Harden predictably tore the Nuggets apart and finished with 22 points, and 11 assists and the Rockets pulled away late for the 109-99 win.

That’s not why the Rockets seem to be finding their stride again. Rather, for the last couple of games Houston’s defense has looked better — not great, but close to last season’s version than we have seen this season. If the Rockets start defending well then they will be a threat again.

3) Good news: Caris LeVert’s injury not nearly as severe as it looked. When you watched the video of Caris LeVert’s injury, you couldn’t help but flash back to Gordon Hayward and Paul George and some of the other more gruesome and terrible injuries we have seen in the NBA, and in sports, in recent years. It looked that bad for the young Nets star, so bad other players were crying on the sideline.

Fortunately, it out it was not that bad. LeVert’s diagnosis is a dislocated right foot, but without a fracture and with relatively minor ligament damage. No surgery is required and the Nets said he is expected to be back on the court this season.

That is amazing news.