How do the Cavaliers defend Stephen Curry?

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In each three of their playoff series so far, the Cavaliers allowed more points from a point guard than anyone else. Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague have all bested their season scoring averages against Cleveland.

Now, the Cavaliers face the NBA’s best point guard and reigning MVP – Stephen Curry – in the NBA Finals.

How will they slow him down?

“The same way you slow me down,” LeBron James said. “You can’t.”

At least Warriors have several defenders to throw at LeBron – Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala. Cleveland’s roster isn’t nearly as well-suited to contain Curry.

Kyrie Irving said he’d start games on Curry. That’s no easy task for healthy Irving, but Curry can absolutely exploit a hobbled Irving with screen after screen on and off the ball.

Iman Shumpert is the Cavaliers’ best bet on Curry – for both his on-ball perimeter defense and ability to switch on pick-and-rolls. His length can prevent Curry the sliver of space he needs to shoot, and he’s strong enough to handle bigs.

But if Shumpert is on Curry, where does Cleveland hide Irving? Klay Thompson would drag Irving all around the court off the ball, and Harrison Barnes would punish him inside. Remove Irving entirely, and the Cavaliers’ offense suffers.

It’s much easier to play Irving when a Golden State reserve – Andre Iguodala , Shaun Livingston or Leandro Barbosa – is in the game. But Livingston can post up Irving, Barbosa can blow by him, and Iguodala can shoot 3s over him. Irving defending a taller, but stationary, Iguodala is probably the lesser of all evils.

Matthew Dellavedova will also get his turns on Curry. Dellavedova has played good defense throughout the playoffs, but a larger sample raises concerns. Dellavedova will work hard on that end, fighting through screens and getting physical, but his limited athleticism reduces his effectiveness. Curry should eat Dellavedova alive in transition – an area of particular concern for Cleveland.

in this chess match, the Cavaliers should consider whom Curry guards on the other end. Cleveland cross-matching (relative to the defensive matchups Golden State sets) would make it easier for Curry to lose his man on fastbreaks. The Golden State point guard is a terror in transition, hunting open 3s.

Not that he’s easy to stop in halfcourt, either.

Curry doesn’t need much space to shoot, which makes switching on pick-and-rolls an ideal strategy – when possible. Tristan Thompson can probably handle it. Timofey Mozgov probably can’t. LeBron can. Shumpert probably can. Irving probably can’t. Dellavedova might.

That leaves few workable switching combinations – Shumpert-Thompson, Shumpert-LeBron, LeBron-Thompson. At least – if Thompson primarily guards Green and Shumpert primarily guards Curry – Cleveland can switch on Golden State’s favored Curry-Green pick-and-roll.

When Andrew Bogut (guarded by Mozgov) sets a ball screen, the Cavaliers might favor the more conservative approach they’ve shown the second half the season. Curry’s man will try to force him inside the arc, where Mozgov will back off and protect the paint. Curry can drain long 2s, but forcing him into that shot, is a relative win.

LeBron will also have turns in the Curry pick-and-rolls. If Cleveland tries hiding Irving on Barnes or Iguodala, that puts LeBron on Green. So do Cleveland’s small lineups – at least when the Warriors don’t counter with Green at center, which they very well could do.

Long story short, LeBron will be involved in Cleveland’s defense of Curry. LeBron might even directly guard Curry for stretches.

The Cavaliers – especially with LeBron on him – might even try trapping to keep Curry off balance. Curry is a good enough ball-handler and passer to beat those traps, and the Warriors’ other players pass well, which would keep a short-handed defense underneath scrambling.

But at least Cleveland has options for defending Curry. Maybe none of them work, but at least there are options.

In the regular season, the Cavaliers were pretty middling defending point guards. Per 82games, Cleveland was nearly average by both efficiency and volume against opposing point guards:

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But as the playoffs have shown, Cleveland is vulnerable here.

It seemed Teague in particular should have attacked the Cavaliers more. He often found success when he did.

Curry presents a far greater challenge.

Look for the Cavaliers to keep Irving on Curry as much as possible. That might be an infinitesimal amount, but the more they can, the better.

Shumpert is the most obvious candidate to do the heavy lifting once Irving falters. LeBron would do well too, but in anything more than limited stretches, the job gets too taxing for him – especially considering his heavy offensive burden.

The Warriors will drag Mozgov into pick-and-rolls, which he can handle OK, but not as well as Thompson. That might tempt Cleveland to go small more often, which might push Golden State to play small, too. The Warriors’ small lineups are dangerous, but at least they offer a place for Irving to hide on defense.

The Cavaliers plan for containing Curry will trickle down into many other decisions for both teams, but the Cavaliers’ challenge starts there.

It’s a big one.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

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.