NBA Finals Game 2 Preview: Five things to expect

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OAKLAND — The NBA Finals have a very different feel about them since Kyrie Irving went down in overtime of Game 1 with what was a fractured kneecap.

For 50 minutes Thursday night it looked like we were in for an excellent series, but now the Cavaliers will have to scramble to replace their second best player and the only guy they trusted to create shots outside LeBron James. On paper, it’s difficult to see how they do that in a way the Warriors don’t crush.

But as the cliche goes, the games are not played on paper. LeBron is the best player in the world and is on a mission to bring a title to Cleveland. J.R. Smith can get hot. A lot of things can happen that would again change the feel of this series.

Rather than what might be, here are five things I think will happen in Game 2.

1) Expect the Warriors to start the game on a run. The Warriors to a man do not think they played well at all in Game 1. They are not so much making adjustments for Game 2 as much as just trying to execute better what they wanted to do the first time around. That game saw them admittedly come out a little nervous and shoot 4-of-18 to open the contest, which will not happen this time. Look for the Warriors to start the game on a run, something even the Cavaliers’ Iman Shumpert said they expect. The Cavs just want to not turn the ball over to fuel the run, and withstand it, then climb back.

Also, expect the Warriors to try and play faster.

“I think we can still ramp it up a little bit more, get out in transition a little bit more,” Draymond Green said. “But LeBron, he controls the pace on offense, we’ve just got to make sure we’re ready to push the ball off a make or a miss. I still think we can get more into our pace.”

2) Matthew Dellavedova, it’s time for your closeup. With Irving out, Dellavedova will get put into the starting lineup for Cleveland. He was forced into a starting role against the Hawks and played well, particularly on defense where he had an average defender distance of 3.97 feet to his shooter — the best of any non-center in the Conference Finals (minimum of 50 shot attempts). But it’s one thing to do that against Jeff Teague, another to do it against Stephen Curry.

3) LeBron the distributor. LeBron attacked a lot in the last game in isolation, often trying to back different defenders down into the post. A few times the Warriors sent Andrew Bogut and others to double team and help out, but for the most part the Warriors defenders on the weak side stayed home and Golden State took their chances one-on-one with LeBron. He put up 44 points but didn’t get his teammates involved and going — the Warriors can live with that. The Cavs can’t.

“I’ve got to do a better job as well getting my other guys involved,” LeBron said. “I’m okay with getting big numbers and things of that nature, but I feel much better when I’m able to get my guys in rhythm and get them guys some more looks.

“So I think one of the things is trying to stay at home on a lot of my shooters. They didn’t give James Jones as much air space. J.R. got a couple good looks, it just didn’t go down.”

The Cavaliers on the weak side didn’t cut or flash into the lane in Game 1 but Cavs players said that was by design — they didn’t want to bring help defenders closer to LeBron, they wanted to space the floor. Expect that to change a little in Game 2.

“We’ve just got to continue to have movement on the back side, continue to add more cuts to make sure, one, that they can’t load up on LeBron and, two, that he has outlets just in case people are caught sleeping,” Shumpert said.

4) Be ready for some small ball. Golden State has had success all playoffs going small, playing Draymond Green at the five, but in Game 1 coach Steve Kerr sat on that lineup and didn’t break it out until overtime — when the Warriors went on a run and sealed the victory.

When Kyrie and Kevin Love have been out, the Cavaliers have had success going small with a lineup of Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, Shumpert, LeBron and Tristan Thompson — in 50 minutes this postseason that lineup has outscored opponents by 26.2 points per 100 possessions.

The Cavaliers are going to lean on this lineup some in Game 2. While it has worked against the Hawks and Bulls, the Warriors love it when teams try to play small and fast against them. Cavs GM David Griffin summed it up best, speaking about the good numbers they have had with Irving and Love out.

“From an analytics standpoint… it’s not a big sample size. I think you have to take a little bit of that with a grain of salt because it’s also about matchups and we were really fortunate the teams we played lent themselves to the style we were going to play. Golden State is a totally different animal. If you get to choose, you’ll always choose more talent. But I’m really grateful we’ve got the mentality we have.”

5) The Cavaliers don’t think this series is all but over. At their practice and team meeting Saturday the players were beat over the head with the numbers about how good the Cavaliers have been when Irving and Love are out. The players were reminded that a few years back Kevin Durant led Oklahoma City to the NBA Finals and the consensus was the Thunder would be back often after that and pick up multiple rings. Bottom line, they were told not to let up because Irving was out or they would pay a steep price. The players said they got the message.

“A lot of people are saying the series is over, but that’s not true,” Klay Thompson said. “This is a team that’s more than capable. They did beat the Atlanta Hawks twice without him, and that was the best team in the East. So you’ve got to respect what the other guys can do. Obviously, Kyrie’s a huge part of their team. He’s one of their best players. But you can’t let your guard down. They’ve still got guys who are more than capable of making plays.”

To a man the Cavaliers think they still can win, they have a history of success these playoffs without Irving in the lineup. They still have the best player on the planet, they still have an improved defense, and they could have won Game 1.

“You know, I said it’s going to be one of the most challenging seasons of my career from the beginning, and this just adds on to it,” LeBron said Saturday. “You know, we’re undermanned right now. But we’ve got guys in the locker room that are ready for the challenge, and we look forward to the challenge tomorrow night.”

 

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.

Cavaliers: Ante Zizic out indefinitely with vestibular condition

Ante Zizic
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Kyrie Irving left the Celtics for the Nets after two seasons. The Cavaliers flipped Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder their first season in Cleveland.

The last player remaining with his team from that monumental-looking Cavs-Celtics trade, Ante Zizic might not be long for Cleveland, either.

In fact, it’s unclear whether he’ll play again for the Cavs.

Cavaliers release:

Center Ante Zizic, who has missed the team’s last five games after being diagnosed with a vestibular condition, will be OUT indefinitely. After experiencing symptoms of nausea and dizziness, it was determined by the Cavaliers medical team that Zizic requires a period of vestibular rehabilitation to evaluate those symptoms further. His return to basketball activities will be updated as appropriate.

“Indefinitely” always sounds scary. That’s especially so with an uncommon basketball medical update.

If the Cavaliers unload veterans like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love before the trade deadline, Zizic could be in line for more playing time down the stretch. He could use a showcase entering unrestricted free agency this summer.

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to be up for it.

Mavericks reportedly reach out to Joakim Noah to help at center

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Dallas’ starting center Dwight Powell is lost for the season due to a torn Achilles suffered Tuesday night.

The Mavs have other centers on the roster, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, but they want more depth behind those guys. That has led to them touching base with Joakim Noah, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

The Lakers worked Noah out before the season but decided to go with Dwight Howard.

Noah had a solid second half of last season with Memphis, coming off the bench and providing good defense and 7.1 points per game. He was moving well and fit in as a role player at giving them 16.5 minutes a night.

That’s all Dallas would need, someone to grab rebounds and do the dirty work inside that lets Kristaps Prozingis play his pick-and-pop game. We’ll see if Dallas goes this direction, or another one.