NBA Playoffs: Bynum, Lakers win an ugly one

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Los Angeles Lakers were able to even up their series against the New Orleans Hornets with relative ease.

The Hornets were able to shock the Lakers in Game 1 because Los Angeles failed in two fundamental areas: they didn’t establish their big men on offense, and they didn’t contain Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls. On Wednesday, Phil Jackson showed why he has more rings as a head coach than he has fingers; he knows how to make adjustments.

Before the game, Jackson said that the Lakers defended “more than half” of the 70 screen-rolls the Hornets ran on Sunday incorrectly, which allowed Chris Paul to run amok. In Game 2, the Lakers were able to keep Paul in check by putting bigger defenders on him (Kobe Bryant started the game on Paul, and Ron Artest even guarded him for a few possessions), putting the quicker Steve Blake on him for a stretch, and trapping him effectively to make him give up the ball:

“They tried to shrink the floor on me,” Paul said after the game. “They didn’t want me to wiggle and dance with the ball as much. It worked for them to a certain extent.” Paul was indeed somewhat limited on Wednesday. He still recorded 20 points and 9 assists, but most of his shots were contested jumpers (six of his points came on buzzer-beating threes), and only two of his assists led to a dunk or a layup.

When the ball wasn’t in Paul’s hands, the Hornets weren’t able to generate anything resembling offense. Carl Landry tried to take the ball to the basket, but he was stifled time and time again by the hulking Laker frontline. Marco Belinelli couldn’t buy a jumper. Emeka Okafor was invisible on offense for the second straight game. Willie Green and Aaron Gray, who were both instrumental in New Orleans’ Game 1 win, turned back into pumpkins. Trevor Ariza was active and managed to hit shots, but the Hornets had almost no offensive cohesion whatsoever in Game 2.

When the Lakers had the ball, they showed tremendous discipline. Kobe Bryant finished the game with one of the worst box score lines of his career (11 points on 3-10 shooting, three rebounds, two assists), but he was more passive than ineffective. Bryant didn’t look for his own shot until late in the fourth quarter, when the game had essentially already been decided.

Instead of  having Kobe look to shoot or drive to the basket, the Lakers stayed in their triangle offense all game long, and tossed the ball into the post on nearly every possession and playing their offense from there. Pau Gasol, who was the goat after Game 1, didn’t do much better in Game 2. Even though the Staples Center crowd practically begged Gasol to be aggressive every time he caught the ball, Gasol wasn’t able to get into any kind of a groove. He struggled to get position, he never got his defender off-balance, his shooting touch was off, and he ended up shooting 2-10 from the field with one assist and three turnovers.

The Lakers’ first and second offensive options didn’t do much on Wednesday, something that Phil Jackson attributed to the Hornets’ defensive strategy, saying that”Their philosophy is to take the two main scorers out of the mix and make the other people beat us.”

Fortunately for Jackson, the Lakers’ third and fourth offensive options stepped up in a major way. The Lakers fed Andrew Bynum in the post time and time again, and he was able to punish the Hornets. By not bringing doubles on Bynum very much, New Orleans dared the Lakers to beat them with Bynum as their primary offensive option, and that’s exactly what they did.He bullied his defender under the basket, showed great touch at the rim, and was even able to step out and hit a few mid-range jumpers. He finished the game with 17 points on only 11 shots, was just as much of a force defensively as he was offensively, and was almost certainly the single biggest reason for the Lakers’ success.

“We know that [Bynum] is the one that plays well against this team because of his size,” Phil Jackson said after the game. “He really carries things pretty well, so we’re confident in him having a good game…we think he can play at an even higher level than this.” That last sentence is a scary thought for Laker opponents, considering how good Bynum looked tonight and that the Lakers have won the last two championships with Bynum playing a much more limited role than he has this season.

Newly minted Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom was no slouch either, and poured in 16 points off the bench on a variety of mid-range jumpers and drives to the rim. With Matt Barnes making all four of his shots and Steve Blake and Shannon Brown providing some quality energy off the bench, the Lakers looked infinitely deeper than they did in Game 1.

What does this game mean for both teams? For the Lakers, it means that they can beat the Hornets as long as they stick to their fundamentals on both ends of the floor. The Hornets can’t stop the Lakers consistently if they continue to pound it inside, and the Lakers can stop the Hornets if they contain Chris Paul and force the other Hornets to make plays. For those reasons, the Lakers should feel very good about their chances in this series, even though they need to win in New Orleans to stave off elimination.

Even though the Lakers can generate a good amount of offense by simply pounding the Hornets inside, they haven’t been able to roll on all cylinders offensively against the Hornets. As Monty Williams said after the game “We held them to 87 points. If you told us ‘the Lakers are going to score 87 points against your defense, would you take that?’ If you asked me that question, I would say yes.”

The Hornets’ defense does give New Orleans a chance in this series if they figure out how to score. It might take three more superhero performances from Chris Paul, or it might take the Hornets figuring out some way to generate good offense when the ball isn’t in Paul’s hands. I’m not sure which one is more unlikely at this point, but the Hornets will definitely need to do one of those things to pull off a series upset.

Cavaliers were clutch all season, then again in it’s biggest moment

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team this season, just a couple of games above .500. Yet they finished the season 50-32, seven games better than their differential suggested — the highest variance in the NBA.

Why? Because LeBron James and the Cavaliers were clutch. In games that were within five points in the final five minutes this season, Cleveland was 30-15 with a +18.2 points per 100 net rating (second best in the NBA, behind Houston).

That has carried over to the playoffs, where the Cavaliers came into Game 7 Sunday night 6-1 in clutch games with an insane +36.2 per 100.

Game 7 was another clutch one — it was 76-72 Cleveland with five minutes to go — and once again the Cavaliers won, advancing to the NBA Finals. This is the fourth straight year for this team, and the eighth year in a row for LeBron to make it to the NBA’s biggest stage.

In the final five minutes of Game 7, LeBron had six points, while the Boston Celtics team had 7. When we say the Cavaliers are clutch, it all starts with LeBron (as do all things Cavaliers at this point).

“He craves those moments. He loves those moments,” Kyle Korver said after LeBron was clutch in the Cavaliers’ Game 6 win that set up Sunday’s showdown, but what he said applies now, too. “When the game’s on the line, when the season’s on the line, he’s been rising up. That’s what the great players do.”

LeBron accepts that challenge, and through the postseason he has had an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, with a ridiculous 44.3 percent usage rate. Bottom line, he has had to carry the Cavaliers in the clutch, and he has done so efficiently.

“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m going to give what I’ve got,” LeBron said. “My teammates, they respect that.”

It’s going to take more than clutch LeBron and friends to win in the Finals — both of the teams in the West are much tougher than anything the Cavaliers have seen so far. However, we know that LeBron is going to give everything he has left.

And if the game is close late, don’t bet against the Cavaliers.

 

 

 

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.