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.”

 

James Harden reportedly “torn” over Philadelphia vs. Houston

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Reports of James Harden strongly considering a Houston reunion have grown stronger throughout the season, with reporting on it here at NBC Sports and across the NBA media universe.

But would Harden really leave a contending team in Philadelphia to go to a rebuilding Houston team? He appears torn on his decision, Shams Charania of The Athletic said on The Ryen Russillo Podcast (hat tip Real GM).

“We’re less than a month out from free agency starting. I really think he’s torn with the prospect of staying in Philadelphia or moving on to Houston potentially and returning back to his home. That’s where his roots are and his family there of course. They’ve got upwards of $60 million [in cap space]. They can make even more money available. Close to $70 million in cap space. They’re going to have a ton of money and I think this is a team in Houston where I do believe they are going to be aggressive in the marketplace…

“My sense right now is this is someone that is torn. I think whichever way it goes, it’s going to be relatively close. That’s why as we get closer to July 1, June 30th, those conversations that he’s going to have, as he becomes a free agent, with Nick Nurse [the new 76ers coach] and with Daryl Morey, what their vision is for him, what their vision is for that team, what that offer ultimately is going to be versus comparing it to whatever Houston comes with on June 30th or July 1, those are all very important factors. This is a guy that you would assume would sit down with both teams. Philadelphia is going to have a window earlier, potentially going in and scheduling meetings. This is a situation now where we’re going to see which way it lands.”

Both league sources NBC Sports has spoken with and other media members traveling with the NBA Finals — Harden has been a topic of conversation over meals — think Houston is the frontrunner. There is almost an expectation in league circles that Harden will be a Rocket next season, though nobody feels anything is decided.

Is that the right move for the Rockets? They have an interesting young core with whoever they draft at No.4 plus Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Kevin Porter Jr., Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and others, but it’s not got a group ready to win a lot of games on the NBA level yet. The Rockets have been through three years of a rebuild and the reports are ownership wants to start seeing wins and a playoffs trip. Harden gets them closer to that now, but at what cost to building a long-term winner and culture?

The ball is in Harden’s court. The only real questions are, has he decided, and how much would the Rockets offer? (The max is four years, $201 million, but do they want to pay him $50 million a season for four years with where his skills are currently and are trending?)

Miami thrives in adversity. How will Denver respond to adversity in Game 3?

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MIAMI —We know how the Miami Heat handle adversity. Their ability to deal with it is why we’re still watching them play.

“We faced a lot of adversity during the season,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team evened the NBA Finals at 1-1. “We handled it the right way where you are not making excuses about it, the injuries, the changes lineups. Because of all that adversity and the 57 close games that happened, due to a lot of that, it hardened us. It steeled us and we developed some grit, which is what we all want.”

The question heading into Sunday is how will the Nuggets handle adversity? Denver was the No. 1 seed for most of the season, has been up in every series 2-0 entering Game 3, and only lost three games in the West playoffs. While Denver has faced challenges during the season it had a very different path to this point than Miami.

“What I know about our group is for years now we’ve handled adversity very well,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I have no doubt that tomorrow night will be a much more disciplined, urgent team for 48 minutes.”

“Discipline” was one of the buzzwords around the Nuggets on Tuesday, heading into Game 3. The Heat players sounded like themselves, focused but a little looser, a little more comfortable at home in a familiar environment.

“This is who we are,” Kevin Love said. “Obviously when it’s time to get down to business, our focus is all the way there during our prep, during our film session… But when we’re working we still like to have fun and keep it loose. It keeps us loose out there on the court starting the game and throughout 48 minutes. But it’s not without intention and the willingness to do whatever it takes.”

A change in tone was more evident among the Nuggets. To a man they talked about urgency, discipline and communication.

The Nuggets also had a straightforward, honest film session out of Game 2.

“I showed 17 clips this morning,” Malone said. “Every clip was a discipline clip, if you will, where our discipline, whether it was game plan, whether it was personnel, whether it was defending without fouling, whatever it may be, 17 clips added up to over 40 points in Game 2.

“That, to me, is staggering. What we can do better is just be a lot more disciplined in terms of the game plan, who I’m guarding. Most of that stems from communication.”

Actually, the Nuggets may need to watch their communication during the game.

“We probably could communicate a little bit better and also just be more aware of the actions they are running,” Michael Porter Jr. said. “But also they are playing off of our coverages, they are hearing what we are communicating to each other and they’re doing the opposite. If we say ‘switch,’ they are slipping out for open threes and if we don’t say ‘switch,’ they are actually going to set the screen.

“So they do a really good job of playing off of what our game plan is. So that’s what this film session was about this morning, fixing that. So hopefully they won’t get as many open shots.”

Malone called out his players after Game 2, although he was quick to say it was more them calling themselves out.

Denver has been challenged, by their coach and Miami. How will it respond to this adversity?

“Yeah, we’re probably going to see tomorrow, are we going to respond well or not,” Nikola Jokić said. “That’s the answer.”

Coach, front office updates from around NBA: Fizdale headed to Suns bench

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Things continue to move and settle around the NBA as teams find coaches (well, except Toronto) and some front office personnel move around. Here is the latest around the league.

• Former Grizzlies and Knicks head coach David Fizdale, an associate general manager with the Jazz last season, is returning to the bench as an assistant on Frank Vogel’s staff in Phoenix, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Fizdale and Vogel are tight, remember Fizdale was in the bubble on Vogel’s staff when the Lakers won a ring. Give new owner Mat Ishbia credit for spending, he made Kevin Young the highest-paid assistant coach in the league to stay with the team and has now hired a former head coach to be a top assistant. That’s a lot of coaching firepower, now the Suns just need to fill out the roster with some firepower around Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.

• If you want to become a general manager in the NBA, the best way is to be an assistant GM for Sam Presti in Oklahoma City. Apparently. Presti has had five different assistant GMs under him and now all five have gone on to be general managers elsewhere.

The latest is Will Dawkins, who will be the GM and No. 2 in the power structure in Washington under new team president (and former Clippers GM) Michael Winger, reports Josh Robbins and David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Also in the front office in Washington is former Hawks GM Travis Schlenk. That’s a lot of brain power and good hires. The question remains how much freedom owner Ted Leonsis — a guy who demanded his team do whatever it took just to make the playoffs every year — will give Winger, Dawkins and company. The team has big decisions this summer with Kyle Kuzma as a free agent and Kristaps Porzingis expected to opt out.

• The Milwaukee Bucks finally made the hiring of Adrian Griffin as their head coach official.

“Adrian is a widely-respected coach and former player, who brings great leadership and experience to our team,” Bucks General Manager Jon Horst said in a statement. “His championship-level coaching pedigree, character, basketball acumen and ability to connect with and develop players make him the ideal choice to lead our team. He has earned this opportunity.”

Heat’s Tyler Herro officially out for Game 3, return this series unclear

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MIAMI — Game 3 was the target for a Tyler Herro return to the Heat.

It is not happening. Herro is officially listed as out for Game 3 on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, coach Eric Spoelstra said Herro was day-to-day and “has not been cleared yet” to play, although he would go through a workout with contact before a decision was made. That decision was to sit him at least another game.

Herro has been wearing bucket hats on the sidelines since his devastating hand injury against the Bucks, but he’s been working out with the team and going through practices for more than a week preparing for his return. However, he may not make it back this series.

On Monday, both Ros Gold-Onwude — the former WNBA player turned quality analyst for ESPN — and veteran Heat beat reporter Ira Winderman cautioned against expecting a Herro return.

If there is pain and swelling, can the Heat put him out there? This is the Finals, but this is also a 23-year-old under a long contract, and if there is a heightened risk of further injury Miami may need to protect the player from himself.

If Herro returns later in the series, expect him to come off the bench in a very limited role. It’s a huge ask to take someone who has not played in an NBA game since basically tax day (April 16 was his last game) and throw him into the highest level of basketball anywhere in the world. Spoelstra may give him a four- or five-minute run just as a test (the ideal situation would be minutes at the end of a blowout game either way, but we may not get one of those this series).

On the surface, you can say Herro would be what the Heat need — a 20.1 point-a-game scorer this season with the best handles on the team, able to create his own shot or shoot over the top of the defense (37.8% from 3 this season). Dig a little deeper, however, and that fit is not as smooth in this series. On offense, he can be a ball-stopper at points against a Nuggets team the Heat want to keep in motion. The bigger concern is on defense, where he is a clear target (and because of that Spoelstra can’t play him with Duncan Robinson, even in the minutes Jokić sits). This might have been a tough series for a healthy Herro.

If he can play and come off the bench for short runs, he could boost the Heat offense this series.

Just don’t be so sure he’s ready to go.