Back to business for LeBron and Cavs, who will face Raptors

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — As the score became more and more lopsided in Toronto, LeBron James started to change.

And as the final seconds ticked toward all zeroes on the clock, James took one last look at the scoreboard at the bottom of the TV screen and decided it was time to get serious again.

“Uh, 114-86,” James said, relaying the Raptors’ huge lead over the Miami Heat in the waning moments of their Game 7. “That’s when I flipped the switch.”

James and the Cavaliers are back in playoff mode. Bring on Toronto.

After a week of waiting for an opponent, the Cavs finally learned they’ll face the Raptors, who clobbered Miami 116-89 on Sunday to earn their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals. Toronto’s delirious fans chanted “We want Cleve-land!” down the stretch and they’ll get what they wanted: a well-rested Cavaliers squad in Game 1 on Tuesday night.

James met with media members shortly after the Toronto-Cleveland series became official. The four-time MVP wasn’t as talkative as earlier in the work and chose his words carefully as he discussed the Raptors, who won two of three against the Cavs during the regular season.

“We’re a totally different team than the regular season,” James warned.

The Cavs haven’t played since wrapping up a four-game sweep – their second of the postseason – over Atlanta on May 8. When they take the floor Tuesday, it will have been nine days between games – a break Cleveland used for rest and recovery. James said the time off was huge for him and his teammates.

“I’ve always said anytime you get an opportunity to get some rest throughout the course of our season, it’s always beneficial for anybody,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a 31-year-old guy who’s played a lot of basketball or you’re a 19-year-old kid who just came into the league. It doesn’t matter – you get a couple days in the postseason, there’s a benefit.”

Before practice, the Cavs broke down some game tape of the Raptors, who are enjoying the greatest season in their franchise’s history and don’t want it to end anytime soon.

Toronto has been nipping at Cleveland’s heels all season and the East finals will match up the conference’s top two teams.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said the clubs have been on a collision course.

“They played at a high level all season, winning 56 games this year and they’re a confident group,” he said. “They feel great, getting out of the first round this year, getting the monkey off their back so they’re up for the challenge – and so are we.”

The Cavs will focus on slowing down the Raptors’ two-headed guard tandem. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 63 points in the series-clinching win over the Heat and present a matchup problem for any team because they can drive to the basket or pull up and knock down jumpers. Lowry burned Cleveland by scoring a career-high 43 points in a win on Feb. 26.

“They’re two All-Stars for a reason,” James said about Lowry and DeRozan. “And that’s the reason that they’re in the Eastern Conference finals because they’re two All-Stars. They wouldn’t be in this position without them.”

Toronto’s win denied James a chance to go against the Heat, his former team, and good friend Dwyane Wade. James recently said he had entertained the possibility of a Cavs-Heat matchup, which would have provided a sexier national story line and tested his mental toughness like no other series.

“I didn’t really indulge into it too much,” James said of a possible meeting with Wade and a team he led to four straight Finals. “I was just waiting around, just like the rest of the guys, getting my work in, and whoever advanced we’d be ready to play against.”

For the Cavs, who are a perfect 8 for 8 so far in the playoffs, the anticipation is over.

It’s game time again.

“We know who we’re playing,” James said. “We’re going to start diving in on their personnel, diving in on what they do best. They was chasing us all year for the No. 1 seed. We look forward to the matchup, just as well as we looked forward to Detroit and also Atlanta.”

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.