Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors preview: Five things to watch in Game 5

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OAKLAND — Since 1985 in the NBA Finals, when the series has been tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 went on to win the series seven out of 11 times. That’s 64 percent of the time.

It’s technically not a must win, but if the Cavaliers win LeBron James will have two chances to close out the series, including one on his home court. If the Warriors win at home, well, it would hard to imagine them suddenly losing two in a row.

Following a couple days of rest, Game 5 should be a more true test of these teams. Here are five key areas to watch:

1) You know it’s all about that pace, ’bout that pace. Game 4 was not played as fast as it seemed, but the Warriors improved ball movement — they made the smart passes and hit the shots off them — made the game feel that way. Heading into Game 5, the Warriors will again go small and try to run more at home, the Cavaliers will counter by going big, banging the ball inside and trying to go deep in the clock.

“I think we allowed their (small) lineup to get us out of what we did in Games 1, 2, and 3, and that was control the pace and put the ball into the post,” LeBron James said. “We shot 27 threes. So I would say half of those or even more than half were some good shots, but a few of them we wish we could have back.”

2) Can the Cavaliers hit their open threes and jumpers? Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova, we’re looking at you. In Game 3 LeBron found the open man when the double team came, but nobody could convert. The Cavaliers were 4-of-27 from three and 6-of-29 on uncontested looks. Maybe that was the fatigue of the series and the short bench getting to the legs of the shooters, and they extra day off will change that. Maybe it was just one of those things. Whatever the reason, whatever the fix, the Cavaliers cannot have another shooting night like that and win.

3) Cleveland is going to try and pound the Warriors small lineup. Expect to see more LeBron James in the post. Expect another big game from Timofey Mozgov getting deep position on Draymond Green and scoring. If the Warriors are going to go small, the Cavaliers are not going to match that but rather try to exploit it. Frankly, that’s their only real option.

“We’re going to play our game,” LeBron said. “We’ve gotten to this point by playing the way we play, and we’re not going to change.  We’ll make adjustments throughout the game, but we won’t change our starting lineup.”

4) Did two days off between games refresh a fatigued Cavaliers team? Will Blatt go deeper into his bench? One of the storylines of Game 4 was fatigue — the Cavaliers just looked tired. LeBron stopped driving and settled for fadeaways in the fourth quarter. Dellavedova looked flat-footed trying to stop Stephen Curry (and Curry attacked him early in isolations, before the help could come). With an extra day off between games, will the Cavaliers be fresher for Game 5?

“It certainly helps,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. “Doesn’t guarantee anything.  You’ve still got to come and play.  But it certainly helps.”

The other question for Blatt is will he trust the veterans on his bench more in Game 5? He’s got Shawn Marion and Mike Miller, who are itching to get more run, but Blatt hasn’t trusted them through most of the playoffs. Does the situation and the tired legs from his seven-man rotation change that dynamic?

5) Have the Warriors figured it out? In every other Warriors’ series these playoffs, there has come a point where Golden State made it’s adjustments, figured out what it would take to win, and then never looked back and won relatively comfortably. In this series, they are the deeper, more talented team, and they made their big adjustment.

“Even more so than the lineup change, we competed,” Warriors’ assistant coach Luke Walton said. “I think the first three games, we hadn’t really adjusted to what it takes, and the amount of effort on every possession it takes to win in the NBA Finals. Last game our guys fought and scrapped all game long and I think that’s why Draymond (Green) had a better game, that’s why Andre (Iguodala) had a great game.”

“I think if we played as hard as we were playing the last couple of games, it would have won us probably 67 regular season games, but it would have lost us The Finals 4-1,” Green echoed. “And that’s what we had to change. And we were able to do that (in Game 4). That’s what helped us out a lot. That’s what helped me out.”

The Warriors fully expect to play a better game back home for Game 5. If they do, there may be nothing the Cavaliers can do about it.

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.