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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

Spurs playoffs
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”