We can talk about Xs and Os, offense versus defense, and individual player matchups over the course of a seven game playoff series. But sometimes, it all boils down to something as simple as which team the best player in the game plays for.
That was certainly the case in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where LeBron James overcame a lackluster first half to completely take things over in the third by scoring 16 of his 30 points in leading Miami to a 90-79 victory, and a three games to two lead in the best-of-seven series.
James is of course capable of outbursts like the one we saw in this one, but it seemed to come out of nowhere, especially considering the way he chose to play during the first half.
This had all the makings of a game that the Pacers could win, if only they could get the performances out of their stars that they did to start the game for the entire thing, and if they could just contain James while preventing him from doing exactly what he did during that game-changing third quarter.
Paul George and Roy Hibbert were both fantastic offensively in the first quarter, combining for all 23 of the Pacers’ points in the period. Indiana’s team defense was about as good as it gets, with crisp rotations that forced the Heat role players into taking the bulk of the shots. David West took his turn in the second period with 10 points of his own, and the Pacers kept defending with purpose while continuing to successfully limit Miami offensively.
The halftime break was enough for the Heat to gain focus, and it initiated with animated speeches from two of their leaders. Udonis Haslem said in his postgame press conference that Juwan Howard fired up the team in the locker room, and LeBron echoed those words in a tirade on the sidelines before the third quarter began, and then proceeded to go out and lead with his actions.
In the first half, LeBron was extremely passive offensively. There were multiple plays that saw James get into the lane with dribble penetration, only to stop short once he saw Hibbert rotating over, at which point he would kick it out to one of his teammates instead of attacking or taking makable shots. In the third quarter, James was noticeably more aggressive, hitting a series of midrange jumpers, three-pointers from distance, and shots in the paint to take control of this game.
On the rare occasions when James chose to defer in the third, Haslem was the one open when the defense collapsed. He hit baseline jumpers over and over again, and scored 10 of his 16 points in the period on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting.
There was plenty of talk about the officiating heading into this one, but there was only one play that truly stood out. It involved Chris Andersen taking two shots at Tyler Hansbrough in the second quarter, and Andersen somehow wasn’t ejected for his actions. He was given a flagrant foul, however, and the league may very well upgrade it after review in the coming days, and it wouldn’t at all be a surprise of Andersen was suspended for that crucial contest.
With or without Andersen, and no matter how little Miami gets out of guys like Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh who were both completely ineffective on this night, the Heat will be confident in knowing that they have the game’s best player on their side as they enter Game 6 one win away from a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches
The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.
Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.
The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.
Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.
Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.
This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.
But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.
2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position
Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.
The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.
Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.
Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.
As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.
Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:
Welp, Ja Morant has won the award for Dunk of the Year.
And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.
Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.
But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.
Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.
I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.
And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.
The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.
That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.
For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.
Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.
But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.
Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.
And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.
Damon Jones says Lakers are in play for Kawhi Leonard
I had heard from multiple sources going back to Summer League last year that the Lakers were not an option for Kawhi Leonard. He’s a guy who does not like a lot of drama and chaos around him, he just wants to play basketball, and being with LeBron James on the Lakers is to live in the spotlight with drama your constant companion.
Did the Anthony Davis trade change his thinking? Damon Jones, the former NBA player and assistant coach, said yes it did on ESPN’s Get Up show. He said a source that would know told him the Lakers are now in play.
Two thoughts here:
First, nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking. We can all play the “read the tea leafs” game — at the Raptors’ championship parade some fans started a “one more year” chant and Leonard’s close advisor Uncle Dennis (as he is commonly known) had one finger up and was chanting along, read what you want into that — but none of us really know which way Leonard leans. The “people close to Leonard” have sent mixed signals from the start, some have different agendas, and they are not Leonard. Stay in Toronto, come to the Clippers or Lakers? We don’t know.
Second, getting Leonard to the Lakers requires a semi-complicated salary cap move. After the Davis trade the Lakers have between $23 million and $27 million in salary cap space (depending on how much of Davis’ trade kicker he is going to take, if any) but that is not enough to sign Leonard to a max contract. And he’s not taking a discount. Los Angeles could create the room by delaying the Davis trade for a month. Follow along: Currently, the Davis trade can’t be executed until July 6. However, if the Lakers draft whoever the Pelicans want with the No. 4 pick, sign him, then wait a month and include that player and his salary in the trade (the CBA says a draft pick cannot be traded for 30 days after he signs his contract) then the Lakers could have $32.5 million in cap space, enough to sign Leonard (or Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler, or Kyrie Irving, or any free agent with 7-9 years of service and earning a max deal).
Except, the Pelicans want to get the trade done and, I was told, don’t have to agree to this delay. Would the Lakers have to throw in another second round pick or something to make this work? Maybe.
That all assumes Leonard wants to come to the Lakers. And nobody really knows that for sure.
The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.
First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.
Sources tell me Patrick Beverley–a sensible FA target of the Bulls and Lakers–will be taking meetings with as many as 5 teams BEFORE meeting with the Clippers in 2 weeks. Clippers will be chasing max-type FAs, but Beverley won't necessarily wait on an offer from them, I'm told.