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.

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.

Michael Porter Jr. has breakout game, drops 37, Nuggets top Thunder in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 37 points and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double to help the Denver Nuggets top the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-113 in overtime on Monday.

Porter, who averages just 7.5 points, had the big performance in only his third start of the season.

“He has got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch and he does so (scores) in a very efficient manner,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He can also rebound at a very high level. Tonight, we saw all those things put together.”

Porter made 12 of 16 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. His previous career high was 25 points.

“All I’ve got to focus on is bringing the energy and the effort, lock in on defense and the rest will take care of itself,” Porter said.

Jokic had 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Denver strengthen its hold on third place in the Western Conference standings.

It was a key win for the Nuggets, who were missing three starters. Jamal Murray sat out with left hamstring tightness, forward Will Barton sat out with left knee soreness and guard Gary Harris sat out with a strained right hip.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 23 and Danilo Gallinari added 20 for the Thunder, who also were short-handed. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City’s No. 3 scorer for the season, left the bubble to join his wife for the birth of their second child.

The game was close throughout. Denver’s Monte Morris was fouled with 6 seconds remaining, and he made both free throws to give the Nuggets a 109-108 lead. Paul missed the first and made the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 109. Denver’s Troy Daniels missed a floater from near the free throw line at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 12-4 and held the Thunder to one field goal.

“In the overtime, I thought we played terrific on both ends of the floor,” Malone said.