PBT First-Round Playoff Previews: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics

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SEASON RECORDS

Cleveland Cavaliers: 53-29

Boston Celtics: 40-42

KEY INJURIES

Cleveland Cavaliers: Anderson Varejao is out for the season.

Boston Celtics: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Cleveland Cavaliers: Offense 107.7 (4th in NBA), Defense 104.1 (20th in NBA)

Boston Celtics: Offense 101.7 (20th in NBA), Defense 102.1 (14th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Will the Cavaliers remain cohesive?

Remember that time Kevin Love visited Boston last summer? You can bet people covering this series do, especially because the Celtics are still reportedly interested in Love if he opts out this summer.

Questions about Love’s fit have fallen by the wayside as the Cavaliers have surged since acquiring Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. But if the Celtics challenge Cleveland, expect the issue to reemerge – maybe even internally.

It’s not enough for the Cavaliers to beat Boston. They have to keep their good feelings going in later rounds, and given the fragility Cleveland showed earlier in the season, that might require a quick series.

If this drags out, that’s just more for the Cavaliers to ponder what’s going wrong – because for this to drag out, something must go wrong. They’re clearly the better team.

2) Which first-time playoff coach learns the nuances most quickly?

David Blatt had a storied overseas career, and Brad Stevens turned Butler into a national power.

But an NBA playoff series – with game-to-game adjustments against the same team four to seven times – is a new experience for both.

Stevens had a head start on the NBA game, coaching the Celtics to the lottery last year. He says he’s watched plenty of playoff basketball and has a sense how to handle it.

Blatt, an NBA rookie, has improved throughout the season – just as you’d expect a rookie to do. Stevens went through it last year, though Blatt’s learning period has been higher-profile (and probably more poorly handled).

My money is on Stevens holding the edge, but…

3) LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love

This isn’t even a question. The Cavaliers have the three best players in this series.

Heck, Tristan Thompson posted more win shares than any Celtic this season.

The talent gap here is wide, and Boston isn’t deep enough to erase the gap. Stars matter.

PREDICTION

The Celtics play hard and are well-coached, and it’s a fantastic accomplishment they made the playoffs.

But they just don’t have the talent to win four games unless Cleveland completely collapses. The way the Cavaliers have played lately, I don’t see that happening, and the only real debate was whether Boston would steal a game or not.

Cavaliers in 5

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.