LeBron James gets help from red-hot J.R. Smith as Cavs take Game 1 from Hawks

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The question was never “Will LeBron James be good?” going into the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron is LeBron, still the best player walking the face of the earth.

The question is would he get help?

On a night where Kyrie Irving looked nowhere near healthy, LeBron James got his help from J.R. Smith, who knocked down a franchise-record eight threes in his one-man quest to prove the hot hand theory. That, combined with some quality play from Tristan Thompson and some good defense, was enough.

The Cleveland Cavaliers went into Atlanta and took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals from the Hawks 97-89. Game 2 is set for Friday night in Atlanta.

The new primary concern for the Hawks is they almost certainly will be without DeMarre Carroll for at least a few games. Midway through the fourth quarter, he was driving through the lane and planted on his left leg to leap when his knee just buckled. He fell to the ground in pain clutching that knee and had to be helped straight to the locker room. He will get an MRI on Thursday, and we hope the injury isn’t serious. That said, even if it is not I don’t see any way he could play Friday — and without him the Hawks are without their best perimeter defender.

The Hawks looked good as a team in the first half, in part because Jeff Teague was in attack mode — he had 17 of his 27 points in the first half and Atlanta as a team shot 58 percent. Still the Hawks could not pull away thanks to LeBron’s 14 points in the second quarter and the Cavaliers seven offensive rebounds in the first quarter. It was tied at the half 51-51.

The game was won by Cleveland during the J.R. Smith show late in the third. The Cavaliers went on a 22-4 run spanning the third and fourth quarters led by Smith knocking down contested three after contested three. LeBron made his plays in the fourth to maintain the lead, including a monster dunk that had Kyle Korver scurrying. LeBron finished with 31.

Kyle Korver’s numbers show how the Hawks offense never got moving — he took just five shots total, four from three (hitting two). Al Horford had an efficient 16 points, but the Hawks ball movement that defined them during the regular season. Cavaliers defenders started to play off Teague and Dennis Shroeder and dare them to shoot.

When the Hawks did shoot, it didn’t go in — they were 4-of-22 from beyond the arc in this game.

If Atlanta is going to bounce back in Game 2, they will need those shots to fall. They will need much more out of Paul Millsap (3-of-11 shooting), and they will need Kent Bazemore to step up with Carroll out.

For the Cavaliers, there are questions about Kyrie Irving and his leg. They had defensive lapses. Can they count on Smith or someone else to step up again?

But it’s a lot easier to ask those questions when you are up 1-0 like the Cavaliers.

Kevin Porter Jr. a possible lottery pick heading into 2019 NBA draft

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Kevin Porter Jr. missed more than a quarter of his freshman season at USC due to injury. He missed another couple games due to suspension. When he played, he usually came off the bench. He’s only 18.

But Porter has already shown enough to impress NBA teams.

Porter, via Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

“I will be declaring for the 2019 NBA draft and I will be signing with Roc Nation Sports,” Porter told ESPN.

Porter has a wide possible range in the first round, because there’s a massive gap between his ceiling and floor. But it shouldn’t take too long for a team to bet on his upside.

A 6-foot-6 shooting guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Porter has a special combination of shiftiness and power with the ball in his hands. He can attack the rim and finish above it. He can also pull up for jumpers.

I don’t trust his 41% 3-point shooting at USC. That came on only 68 attempts, and he made just 52% of his free throws (though that was also on an unreliably small sample, just 46 attempts). But his stroke looks compact and smooth.

Porter can be an impressive passer. Right now, that’s more so making quick and correct standstill reads than distributing while driving.

If he improves his handle, that could really tie together all his skills.

Porter forces too many bad shots. He’s not attentive enough defensively. There are questions about his maturity.

But if he pans out at the next level, he could be awesome.

Report: LaMarcus Aldridge won’t face punishment for hitting Gary Harris in nuts (video)

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Late in the Nuggets’ Game 2 win over the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge whacked Gary Harris in the nuts.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

It surely helped that Denver coach Michael Malone defended Aldridge.

Malone, via Mike Singer of The Denver Post:

“If there was a windup, if there was something that looked really deliberate, that’d be different, but from what I saw, and I didn’t spend much time looking at it, obviously who cares what I think?” Malone said. “It all comes down to what the NBA thinks. In watching it, obviously Gary was unfortunately the recipient of that accidental blow but I didn’t see it as something that was premeditated or done with the intent to hurt Gary.”

It also helps that Aldridge doesn’t have a reputation for dirty plays.

But this is what I can’t get totally past: If Aldridge intended to take a cheap shot, how would it have looked any different?

Ben Simmons on Jared Dudley’s assessment: ‘It’s coming from Jared Dudley. C’mon’ (video)

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Ben Simmons keyed the 76ers’ historic offensive turnaround from Game 1 to Game 2 against the Nets. He pushed the pace, attacked and created good shots for himself and teammates.

Brooklyn forward Jared Dudley explained Simmons’ improvement.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Simmons:

It’s coming from Jared Dudley. C’mon.

Simmons’ dismissive tone makes this bigger than merely his words do. There’s definitely animosity brewing between these teams.

But this “beef” will get only as large as Simmons makes it.

He is great in transition and average in the halfcourt. Dudley’s remark wasn’t an insult. It was a scouting report.

Keeping Simmons out of transition is far easier than done. That’s part of what makes Simmons a star. He frequently creates up-tempo opportunities.

Players can’t be defined by a list of strengths and weaknesses. How often those strengths and weaknesses affect the game is important.

Simmons often makes his strengths count.

There are still questions about just how often he can do that against the best defenses, especially deep into the playoffs. His poor shooting is a liability in the halfcourt.

For now, he’ll create plenty of fastbreaks against the Nets. Simmons is a good enough player to set the style against that defense. He’s better than Dudley, who’s just a role player.

But Dudley is also a smart player. And he’s spot-on here.

Potential top-10 pick De’Andre Hunter, potential first-rounder Ty Jerome leaving Virginia for NBA draft

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De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome just led Virginia to a national championship.

Now, they’re trying to parlay that title into success at the next level.

Hunter and Jerome declared for the 2019 NBA drat with the intent to stay in it, Virginia announced.

Hunter will probably be a top-10, maybe even top-five, pick.

At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a strong base and impressive lateral mobility, the forward has excellent defensive versatility. He’s steady on and off the ball. I question whether he’ll lock up the better athletes he’ll more regularly face in the NBA, but his defensive floor is quite high.

He’s also a good 3-point shooter, though his slow release limits the number of attempts he can get up. Otherwise, Hunter lacks the explosiveness and ball-handling to become a traditional star.

Maybe he’ll be an excellent 3-and-D role player. In this weak-looking draft, that possibility is enough to make him coveted.

Jerome also lacks the burst to possess high upside, but that’s more understandable late in the first round, where he’s projected. The 6-foot-5 guard is a good outside shooter with a knack for getting open. He has plenty of distributing ability for a secondary playmaker but isn’t enough of a threat to create for himself to run an offense through him.

He’s limited defensively, but he has a decent knack for when to gamble when there’s good help – like Hunter – behind him.