ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

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Last season: A complete mess. The Cavaliers made well-intended moves in free agency in an attempt to make an immediate run at a trip to the postseason, but Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack and especially Andrew Bynum were of no help at all. Mike Brown had zero control of the team as head coach, which became painfully evident to Luol Deng once he got an up-close look at the team in the second half of the season. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters bickered over their roles behind the scenes, and a miserable season ended with the Cavaliers finishing five games out of the playoffs in the dreadful Eastern Conference.

Signature highlight from last season: There were plenty of Kyrie Irving highlights to choose from, but I liked this particular play because it involved three players who should all figure somewhat prominently in Cleveland’s success in the upcoming season. Matthew Dellavedova uses an Anderson Varejao screen to perfection, then finds a cutting Dion Waiters with a gorgeous pass to set up an athletic, one-handed reverse slam dunk.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Cavaliers season:

The players: The Cavaliers undoubtedly made the biggest summer splash by overhauling things completely, adding superstar talent while still retaining the team’s core players. Once LeBron James committed to returning home to Cleveland, the team went all out to fortify the roster, trading unproven lottery picks for an established All-Star in Kevin Love, and then signing some key veteran role players to round things out.

Cleveland should be one of the best teams in the league offensively, with enough firepower to simply outscore their opponents most nights. But the defensive end of the floor is a concern, as is the lack of depth on the frontline. Once you get past Love, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, things get dicey fairly quickly, and Varejao, remember, has had trouble staying healthy for the bulk of his recent seasons. The Cavs will be looking at guys like Lou Amundson in training camp, who may have a shot to make the roster.

As for the positives, scoring should come fairly easily, with James, Love, Irving and Waiters all being capable scorers. It will take time to sort out the hierarchy of how the shots get distributed, and it will also take time for the young guys like Irving and Waiters to understand how to play alongside James without deferring too much. But there’s a long 82-game regular season for them to figure all that out, and simply from a pure talent standpoint, the Cavaliers have instantly become one of the favorites to take home the title.

The coach: Cleveland went in a different direction after the Mike Brown disaster of a season ago, hiring well-respected and experienced David Blatt, who built a pristine reputation and a long, successful career coaching overseas. It should be viewed as a huge positive that the organization hired a career coach with tons of experience, and one who is coming off of a championship season with Maccabi Tel Aviv — as opposed to an NBA retread who was fired from his last position.

Blatt has 33 years playing and coaching in Europe, and to a certain extent, basketball is basketball, so the transition shouldn’t be all that bumpy. But it is worth noting that he hasn’t coached in the NBA, where not only is the game different, but so are the player personalities. Blatt was hired before LeBron was confirmed to return, which obviously was a pleasant surprise. But he’ll be thrown into the fire quite quickly, and if things take longer than expected to come together, how he handles it all will be a key factor in the end result of this Cavaliers season.

The pressure: When LeBron left Cleveland to sign with Miami four years ago, the Heat immediately became rock stars. The media crush was palpable, and the team was expected to win on a nightly basis. There was talk of them surpassing Chicago’s record of 72 regular season wins, and every loss was met with an avalanche of criticism, along with questions of whether or not the team had what it took to ultimately become champions.

That Miami team was led by Pat Riley in the front office, and coached by his protege in Erik Spoelstra — both of whom had resumes full of previous championship experience. And, veterans like Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were similarly there to help keep the panic in check and keep the team focused when there was nothing but constant hysteria surrounding them.

It’s very different in Cleveland. Not only is Blatt inexperienced with this type of situation in the NBA, but Love has never made it to the playoffs even once in six NBA seasons. The Cavaliers as a franchise haven’t been there since James was last on the roster, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts to the circus-like atmosphere that is firmly in place now that LeBron, along with the championship-level expectations, have returned to town.

Why you should watch: LeBron James is the game’s best player, and he’s in the prime of his career. Add Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to the mix, and you have essentially the makings of an All-Star team in the starting lineup every single night. If you’re not a fan, of course, there’s the potential train wreck factor — root for Cleveland to go on a three-game losing streak early on, and watch the ensuing chaos.

Prediction: There should be no reason that the Cavaliers finish anywhere outside of being one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. I think the Bulls have a chance to be better, especially on the defensive end of the floor, but a lot of that hinges on Derrick Rose, which hasn’t worked out all that well the past two seasons.

Cleveland could certainly compete for a title in its first season with all of these new pieces in place, which would make a ridiculous five straight trips to the Finals for LeBron James. I don’t see a championship for the Cavaliers due to a lack of depth and too many new parts needing to fit together seamlessly, but it’s realistic to expect that they get extremely close.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.