No Kevin Love, no J.R. Smith to start, how much trouble is Cleveland in?

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This much is obvious: The Cleveland Cavaliers are simply not going to be as good. Take two starters off any NBA team and you weaken them. Maybe considerably.

That’s the Cavaliers right now. Kevin Love is out for the entire second round of the playoffs thanks to Boston’s Kelly Olynyk yanking his shoulder out of its socket. J.R. Smith is out for the next two Cavalier games because he punched Boston’s Jae Crowder in the face (Smith is lucky his suspension wasn’t longer).

Where does that leave the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Vulnerable.

However, is there any team in the East good enough to do anything about it?

On paper, the Chicago Bulls could be trouble for this shorthanded Cavaliers team. But on the court we’re talking about a Bulls team that hasn’t played the elite defense we expect of them this season, a team that can’t close out the improving but still young Milwaukee Bucks, a team that let those Bucks be the aggressors and knock the Bulls back on their heels. “Impressive” is not the word you’d use to describe these Bulls so far in the postseason, even with an improved and attacking Derrick Rose (well at least for the first four games, MCW owned him in Game 5).

That said, the Bulls remain the likely second round matchup for Cleveland.

And Cleveland is vulnerable. Anyone who is saying, “Love didn’t fit in with the Cavs they will be fine” didn’t actually watch Cleveland play. Love stumbled and struggled to find his comfort zone, but by the playoffs was giving them 18 points and nine boards a game, hitting 47 percent from three. This is still an All-Star level player, someone who became central to their offense.

Without Love and his ability to hit the three ball, the spacing in the Cavaliers offense falls apart faster than the plot in Spiderman 3. Substitute Thompson into the starting lineup in place of Love (Kyrie Irving, Smith, LeBron and Timofey Mozgov are the other four) and during the regular season the Cavs were 24.9 points worse per 48 minutes. Their offense isn’t the same as there isn’t the same space to drive and get buckets in the paint. When Love has been on the bench this season LeBron’s usage rate skyrockets — and his efficiency drops.

We saw that in the games the Cavaliers played the Bulls this season — Chicago blew out Cleveland in the game Love didn’t play because they could take their big men (Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic) and pack the paint, clogging up driving lanes for Irving and LeBron. The Cavaliers’ starting lineup (with Smith) was 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse just against the Bulls without Love.

Try to find line-ups featuring the other Cavaliers starters but without Smith and Love and you get into minutes so small you can’t really draw any conclusions. With Smith out, Iman Shumpert likely starts but we will see some Joe Harris, maybe some Matthew Dellavedova playing with Irving.

Which is to say, coach David Blatt is going to be experimenting a lot with new lineups, groupings of players he didn’t have to go to during the season.

One lineup he might go to more often — LeBron as the power forward. He is strong enough to defend Gasol (or Noah), and with this smaller lineup the Cavaliers will have some shooting and spacing.

The other concern: Cleveland isn’t that great a defensive team. After the trade deadline moves to pick up Mozgov and Iman Shumpert the Cavs were certainly improved — they went from terrible to a little above average. Post All-Star Game the Cavaliers allowed 102 points per 100 possessions, 13th best in the NBA. Make it just from March 1 through the end of the season and they allow 103.8 per 100, 18th best in the NBA. That’s not great. And the Bulls offense has been good come the playoffs — Rose is attacking again, Jimmy Butler is confident and making plays, and Pau Gasol remains incredibly skilled and smart. Yes, the Bucks have given the Bulls a challenge, because the Bucks are a long and good defensive team.

The Cavaliers will and should still be the favorites if they face the Bulls in the next round — when those teams step on the court for the opening tip, the two best players will still be playing for Cleveland. The Cavs still have the best player on the planet, a guy who can take over games at either end of the court. That’s a huge advantage. And the Bulls have not looked like world beaters of late.

But the Cavaliers are clearly a wounded, vulnerable team.

The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs just got very, very interesting.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

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It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.