NBA Season Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

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Last season: Despite the ugly record of 21-45, there was hope last season in Cleveland in the name of Kyrie Irving. The No. 1 draft pick out of Duke was Rookie of the Year and looked like a future All-Star. (Then he carried that over to his performance with the USA Select Team this summer where he impressed.)

That said, the Cavaliers were terrible last season — bottom four in both points scored and points allowed per possession. They might have been the second worst team in basketball, they at least looked like it at times. They have a long, long way to go. But there is hope.

Key Departures: It was time to let Antawn Jamison go, the veteran could not be part of the rebuilding process in Cleveland. But that is still 17.2 points per game gone from an unimpressive offense to begin with. None of the other departures are going to hurt much.

Key Additions: Cavaliers GM Chris Grant is going with the Thunder model of rebuilding through the draft and for the third straight year had a top 5 pick, this time using it on Dion Waiters out of Syracuse, picturing him as a guy they can pair with Irving in the back court. We’ll see.

But the guy that may have a bigger impact this year is draft pick Tyler Zeller, the big man out of North Carolina. He is solid, runs the floor well and may never be an NBA star, but he can be a solid part of what is being built. A couple other pickups to watch are C.J. Miles getting minutes behind Irving, plus Kelenna Azubuike who if he gets healthy could make an impact.

Three keys to the Cavaliers season:

1) How good can Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters be? This is not really a one-year question. We will not have all the answers come April. But it may be the biggest question facing Cavaliers long term.

Cleveland had three top four picks the last couple years and out of that we are sure that Kyrie Irving is the real deal. But if you are following the Thunder model, you still need to get your Russell Westbrook and James Harden picks, and nobody is sold yet that the Cavaliers have those.

Thompson was nice as a rookie, 8.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, decent touch around the rim but needs some range. The question is what kind of leap can he make this season. Waiters was unimpressive and not in NBA condition at Summer League, can he show he deserved to be the No. 4 pick? It’s easy to look at the guys taken behind Thompson (Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard) and Waiters (Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson) but the Cavaliers players deserve the chance to prove they were the right calls. They deserve three years each to show that they can develop.

But that development is key to the Cavaliers’ future.

2) Can Kyrie Irving help generate enough offense for Cleveland? Make no mistake, Irving is very good. He is the face of the franchise, he is the guy people in other markets buy tickets to see. He is a guy who can not only score but make the players around him better.

But can he develop into a true franchise anchor player? Can he generate enough offense for the Cavaliers to be dangerous? Cleveland is young and just figuring out where their points will come from, and a lot of that burden is going to fall on Irving now (especially with Jamison gone).

Again, we don’t know for sure, but this feels more like a yes. Not because of his 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game as a rookie on a bad team, although that doesn’t hurt. But rather it feels like a yes because of the rave reviews of Irving from the USA Select Team. That squad of young players pushed Team USA in practices and scrimmages before the London Olympics, and the reports on Irving were that he impressed. It feels like he can keep improving and be something special, a guy who can control and generate the offense Cleveland will need. It just might not all come this year.

3) Will Dan Gilbert be patient? Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert was frustrated in the wake of LeBron James leaving, and he said some impatient things. I think we can all understand why, even while we think he should have been more mature.

But can he be patient now. The Cavaliers are on a slow building course and while they will be better this year they will not be the Heat. They won’t even be the Nets. They likely will not even be the Bucks.

Can Gilbert be patient and let this team improve slowly over a few seasons? Or will he get impatient and order young parts to be traded away for veterans that can win now? My belief is that he can be patient, that he is willing to take the long view. But if there are bumps in the road, how will he react?

What Cavaliers fans should fear: That the answer to No. 1 above — the question about how good Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters can be — is not very good. Drafting is an inexact science and some top picks do not pan out, while others surprise. But Cleveland has had the rare chance at three top 4 picks in the past couple drafts and they need to have more to show for it than just Irving. They need other top players, not just eventual role players. They need Thompson and Waiters to pain out (or at least one of them).

How it likely works out: Cleveland is going to be better this year, they are on the right path to building a good team. Irving is going to make a leap forward and will be a borderline All-Star (it’s hard to be an All-Star point guard in the East with Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo already). Thompson will get better. Dion Waiters will show some promise. Someone like Alonzo Gee will step forward. I think Tyler Zeller will turn out to be a nice pickup.

This is a young team that will take a step forward. But that is not enough to make the playoffs, not yet.

Don’t be shocked if the Cavaliers make trades to stockpile more picks and young players this season. They have about another year of that before then need to start thinking about what veterans to put with their young core.

Prediction: 34-48, finishing around the 10 seed in the East and out of the playoffs. But there will be signs of progress. It’s a slow process sometimes, but the Cavaliers are on the right path.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Westbrook vs. Lillard is best show in playoffs

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best show in playoffs; Round 3 goes to Westbrook and Thunder. Oklahoma City vs. Portland has become must-watch TV. This third-quarter sequence shows exactly why Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best drama going right now. Well, second after Game of Thrones, but best in the NBA playoffs and one you need to be watching.

Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Westbrook anticipated a Lillard layup attempt, got up, and swatted the shot back. When he landed, Westbrook looked at the crowd along the baseline and yelled something. Lillard, in turn, said something right back to Westbrook, and then the two started jawing. As they have at points throughout the series. Westbrook was making it personal, he demanded the ball on the next Thunder possession, posted up Lillard and knocked down a little turnaround jumper right over the Blazers’ guard. Westbrook then celebrated with his rock-the-baby move (the way he did this one was more shook-the-baby). After the game, Lillard said he didn’t even see it, although in the videos Lillard seems to smirk at it.

Lillard then went off scoring 23 of his 25 points in a historic, franchise-best third quarter to make it a game.

In the end, Oklahoma City got the needed win 120-108 behind 33 points ( on an efficient 11-of-22 shooting ) and 11 assists from Westbrook. Westbrook even hit the dagger three over Lillard.

The Thunder still trail in the series 2-1 and need another win on Sunday in Game 4 or they may fall too far behind to catch up.

Two keys in Game 3 led to the Thunder win.

First, Oklahoma City finally decided to be aggressive in trapping and pressuring Damian Lillard, taking the ball out of his hands early in the shot clock. At least OKC did in the first half. This has been the book on how to beat Portland in the playoffs for a couple of seasons now — make anyone other than Lillard or C.J. McCollum beat you — but OKC used it sparingly in the first couple of games. During the regular season Jusuf Nurkic became an excellent outlet for Lillard when those traps came, but he is out and now Enes Kanter has to be that man. He was not as good. Portland got away from it when Lillard got hot but the Thunder need to go back to it as often as they can.

Second, the Thunder hit their threes. Oklahoma City shot 10-of-61 from three (16.4 percent) from three in the first two games in Portland, but at home they felt comfortable and the shots fell — 15-of-29. This was the biggest difference in the game, Portland’s defense but the Thunder could not beat them from three and on Friday night OKC won that bet.

Can the Thunder sustain that at home?

Tune in for Game 4 Sunday to find out. Lillard vs. Westbrook is the best show going right now.

2) Pascal Siakam goes off for 30 points, 11 rebounds in leading Raptors to win on the road over Magic. During his pregame media availability, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked if Pascal Siakam was formally the Raptors third offensive option now.

“If he has he’s dropped down from being the 2nd option,” Nurse responded.

Siakam was option No. 1 on Friday night, scoring 30 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, and leading the way for Toronto to get a 98-93 win on the road. Siakam did it impressively, with everything from threes to postups, and plenty of attacking off the bounce, much of it against a good defender in Jonathan Isaac.

Toronto now leads the series 2-1 and if Orlando is going to have a real chance in this series it needs to win game 4 Sunday.

The Raptors needed the breakout game from Siakam because Kawhi Leonard looked human, scoring 16 points but needing 19 shots to get there (he also had 10 rebounds). Orlando geared its game to stop Leonard (who was under the weather), but the Raptors had other options in this one.

The Raptors also defended well — Evan Fournier was 1-of-12 shooting on a night the Magic as a team shot 36.2 percent and scored less than a point per possession (98.9 offensive net rating). Terrence Ross had 24 off the bench — and hit a halfcourt shot right before halftime — to keep Orlando close. The Magic better find their shooting touch before Sunday or this series will end quickly.

3) Boston has Kyrie Irving (and Jaylen Brown), Indiana can’t score consistently, and Boston is in command of series. We’ve seen this movie before. Boston went into Indiana Friday night and took control of the series going up 3-0 after a 104-96 win that followed the same formula that has worked for the first two games.

First, Kyrie Irving can get buckets whenever he wants. He had 19 points in this game, although it was Jaylen Brown’s 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting that was the dominant force. Jayson Tatum pitched in 18 points.

Second, Indiana just can’t score consistently The Pacers had 61 points in the first half, finding some offense in playing uptempo, even if that is not their style (the Pacers were 25th in the NBA in pace during the regular season, then this had been the second slowest paced playoff series so far this season). But the scoring would not last. Indiana started the third 1-of-8 from the floor and finished the quarter 5-of-21 shooting. Then down the stretch, Indiana was 1-of-7 from the floor. Without Victor Oladipo the Pacers are prone to these offensive droughts, especially against a good Celtics’ defense, and it is simply too much to overcome.

Game 4 is Sunday and maybe the Pacers extend the series to a fifth game, but we know how this movie is going to end.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”