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.”

 

Warriors’ reportedly showing no urgency to trade D’Angelo Russell

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It’s been the same story since Golden State did a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn last summer that brought them back D'Angelo Russell on a new max contract.

Around the league, executives with other teams expect the Warriors to trade Russell, questioning how he fits long-term with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Golden State itself, however, has pushed back on the idea it just got Russell to trade him and they want to see if a three-guard rotation can work.

Come Dec. 15, Russell — and most players signed this summer — become eligible to be traded. The Warriors still appear to be in no rush, reports Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“If it is something that they’re going to do quickly, like before the end of this month, I wouldn’t say they’re pushing for it,” one general manager said. “Maybe they have a deal in mind, maybe they’re sitting on something and laying low. But I’d be surprised. That’s not how they’d approach it, I’d think. You want to create a market if you are going to trade a player like him, you want to pit teams against each other, drive up the price. You don’t want to lock into one deal. But the market thing, that’s not really happening yet. They’re not pushing the market for him.”

What is the motivation for Golden State to move Russell now, or at the February trade deadline, as opposed to next June around the draft? Or next July? There isn’t, unless some team approaches them with a Godfather offer. This season is a lost cause for the Warriors, and next season they are going to be looking for veterans to help them win now more than rookies to develop.

Russell has averaged 22.3 points a game and played well when healthy, but he has missed half of the Warriors games so far this season due to injury. That’s not exactly boosting Russell’s trade value, another reason to be patient.

Maybe the Russell trade drama ramps up after the season ends, but for now the Warriors continue to play it cool.

People with power within Knicks reportedly “obsessed” with Masai Ujiri

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In the latest sign of dysfunction in New York, Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry didn’t show their face and talk to the media Saturday about the firing of coach David Fizdale. Instead, they sent interim head coach Mike Miller to a podium, by himself, to talk about the situation. It was awkward. It’s also not how well-run organizations handle things.

Mills and Perry are on the hot seat — and they should be. This 4-19 Knicks season is more on them and how this roster was built than Fizdale (who was not blameless in all this).

There have been rumors owner James Dolan may go after Raptors president Masai Ujiri to take over Knicks, and that is growing into an “obsession” with influential people, reports Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

Will the Knicks have a shot at landing Ujiri? That’s unclear. But once the Knicks started struggling last month, multiple Madison Square Garden people in positions of influence have been ‘obsessed’ with – and ‘enamored’ by – the Raptors executive, per SNY sources.

In order to land Ujiri, it will probably take significant money and full autonomy.

There is no evidence that Ujiri, the man who built Toronto into a champion, would seriously consider leaving the Raptors for the Knicks.

The real key to luring Ujiri to Madison Square Garden is “full autonomy.” No Knicks president has had it. Phil Jackson was told he had it, but he wasn’t able to bring in his people who pushed out some of the entrenched staff. Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to learn Mills and others would remain in positions of power.

Owner James Dolan has stepped back from involving himself in basketball decisions in recent years, will he take the next step and let someone else fully run his basketball operations side without any pushback or interference internally?

One thing to watch with the Knicks going forward: Do they make any trade deadline deals? (That market really opens up soon, on Dec. 15 players signed this summer can be traded.) If New York does make a trade, is it a short-term boost kind of move designed to get wins now and maybe help save certain executive’s jobs, or are they trades focused on the long-term building of a winner? Since Jackson was in charge, the Knicks have done a good job not trading away their first-round picks, this would be a poor time to change that trend.

 

Myles Turner block, Julius Randle missed free throw with 0.1 left gives Pacers one-point win

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For the Knicks, under interim coach Mike Miller, this was a step forward. New York had been blown out by 37+ points their last two games, and that helped cost David Fizdale his job, but here they were with a chance to send the game to overtime late.

For the Pacers, this is just a win.

But that win came down to the final play — a blocked shot by Myles Turner then a missed Julius Randle free throw with 0.1 on the clock gave Indiana the 104-103 win.

“You get in those games, you’ve got to make another play and we just didn’t make another play,” Miller said, via the Associated Press. “Loved the effort. That was fun.”

A Jeremy Lamb and-1  had the Pacers up by six, 104-98, with 5:17 left. The Pacers would not score again.

What kept the Pacers alive was their defense — the Knicks shot 2-of-15 in the final 5:05 of the game, then with everything on the line Myles Turner came up with the game-saving block on Michell Robinson.

Julius Randle got the offensive rebound and was fouled when he went back up. That sent Randle — the Knicks biggest offseason signing — to the free throw line with 0.1 on the clock and the chance to force overtime. Randle hit the first, but…

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but this feels like one for New York.

For the Pacers, they will just take the win, thank you very much.

 

Russell Westbrook’s third-straight triple-double powers Rockets past Suns

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HOUSTON (AP) — On a night where James Harden‘s shots weren’t falling for three quarters, the Houston Rockets got big performances from those in supporting roles until the star stepped up late to close out the victory.

Harden scored 18 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and Ben McLemore added 27 points to help the Rockets outlast the Phoenix Suns 115-109 on Saturday night.

Harden had a tough shooting night through three quarters and was 5 of 19 overall and 1 of 10 on 3s with 16 points before getting going in the fourth. The game was tied with about 7 minutes left, and he scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-6 run that made it 102-95.

“That’s how deep we are,” Harden said. “We have a really good team and guys that can make plays and knock down shots. More importantly we were focused on our defense.”

Russell Westbrook had 24 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his third straight triple-double and sixth this season. Harden finished 8 of 27, 3 of 17 on 3s and made 15 of 18 free throws.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 35 points after scoring a season-high 44 in an overtime victory at New Orleans on Thursday night.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams was proud of his team for staying in it until the very end.

“We have a mentality that we just don’t give in,” Williams said. “We’re playing young guys that are learning how to play against physical NBA men and that’s part of developing.”

The Suns cut the lead to five twice in the last 90 seconds, but both times Westbrook made a layup to extend the advantage. And the second time he was fouled on the shot and made the free throw to make it 114-106.

The Suns scored seven straight points, capped by a dunk from Kelly Oubre, to tie it at 85 with about 9 minutes left. After a timeout, Harden scored Houston’s first points in about three minutes on a layup to put Houston back on top.

It was tied again before Harden scored five points to give the Rockets a 94-89 lead. He stole the ball from Ty Jerome after that and was fouled by Booker on a drive, with Harden aggressively continuing forward and pushing Booker off the court. Harden later shoved Booker, and they both received technical fouls to the bewilderment of the Suns.

Harden made both free throws to make it seven points in a row and was fouled again after he stole the ball from Mikal Bridges. Harden made one of those free throws to make it 97-89.

“He finds a way to win the game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A lot of guys contributed. A lot of guys played well.”