The Extra Pass: Warriors stumbling into the All-Star break

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The Extra Pass is a column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at what has gone wrong with the Golden State Warriors lately.

There has been no bigger darling of the first half of the NBA season than the Golden State Warriors. Pegged as a fringe playoff team heading into the campaign, the Warriors have surprised nearly everyone with inspired play on both sides of the ball and a firm place in the standings as one of the West’s better teams.

That success, however, has not been there recently. The Warriors have lost 5 straight games and 6 of their last 10, leading to a fall in the standings from 4th to 6th in the ultra competitive West. And if you listen to Andrew Bogut tell it, the Warriors seem to have too high an opinion of themselves as a team:

And we’re not there–we’re not who we think we are. I think we thought we were maybe a little better than we were.

Bogut has a history of not pulling any punches when critiquing his team (or himself) and his comments reflect the idea that while the Warriors have played well to this point in the year, they’re now struggling to adapt to the idea that they have to bring it every night. Complacency — especially amongst top teams — can be common in the NBA and it seems the Warriors, if you listen to Bogut, have caught that bug.

It’s one thing to talk about a mindset, however, and quite another to look at where the team is failing on the court; where they’re not executing. For the Warriors, it’s mostly been their defense that has been letting them down.

One of their keys to success this year has been a commitment to defending better. Head coach Mark Jackson has implemented simpler defensive schemes and has put players in position to succeed by drilling them on their responsibilities on any given action. With players understanding where they need to be and when they need to be there, Jackson has been able to turn average individual defenders into a group that was posting a top 12 defensive efficiency before their recent skid.

Lately, however, things are breaking down all over the floor. Individuals are allowing their man to beat them too often and that’s forcing the team into too many help situations. Once you force a team to help it only takes one breakdown from a secondary defender to turn a possession into a win for the offense. These breakdowns have become commonplace for the Warriors with individuals not only failing to stop their own man, but back line and secondary help defenders not doing their jobs to rotate and snuff out what the offense wants to do. Bigs have been late to stop dribble penetration and wings haven’t been digging down to the paint and still recovering back to the wing to contest shooters when the ball is kicked back out.

The resulting numbers have been downright miserable.

In their last 5 games Golden State has allowed a defensive efficiency of 117.1, a mark that would rank them last in the league by nearly 9 points per 100 possessions if given up over an entire season. Teams have been shooting 48.8% from the field and 43.8% from behind the arc during this stretch. Some of these numbers are surely opponent based. They’ve played the Rockets and Thunder a combined three times in those five games, both top 5 teams in offensive efficiency. However, in the other two losses they let the Mavs score 116 points and allowed a bottom 10 efficiency Grizzlies team to put up a mark a full 5 points (per 100 possessions) above their average. So it’s not as simple as chalking up these numbers to the excellence of the other team.

The Warriors have also seen a slip in their offensive performance. They’re scoring under a point per possession in their losing streak and have seen dips in every statistical category on that side of the ball. Most telling is their dip in three point shooting where they’re not only being held to fewer attempts per game but are also worse percentage wise. At the heart of these issues are the recent struggles of Steph Curry (38.5% shooting over the last 5) and Klay Thompson (40% shooting over the last 5), prompting questions about whether or not this duo is able to effectively play together long term.

And when you add the back court struggles to the dip in production from All-Star David Lee and the integration of Bogut (who, after returning from his ankle surgery, is still on a minutes restriction and unable to play on back to back nights), there are just too many things that have not been in this team’s favor lately.

In this regard, the All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for the struggling Warriors. Their last game before the break was last night’s loss to the Rockets and they don’t play again until a week from now. That rest should allow them to recharge their batteries mentally and physically and reset their season.

That said, if they come back displaying the same lack of effort on defense while continuing to struggle to meet their season standards on offense, their slide will continue. They must get back to defending with purpose and finding ways to work better together on offense while integrating Bogut on both sides of the floor. If they can get that done, they’ll regain their form and compete for a top 4 seed come playoff time.

But if they don’t, their slip in the standings will continue and they may end up proving all those pre-season projections correct by being a fringe playoff team after all.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

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.