NBA Finals Cavaliers vs. Warriors preview: Seven key questions that will decide series

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Seven games to decide the NBA title. If that many are needed (they probably won’t be). Still to be symmetrical, we’ve got seven questions that will be at the heart of this series. If you want a more NBA Finals previews, check out our Podcast where myself and Dan Feldman break it all down.

1) Can Cleveland have success running and gunning against Golden State? There’s a simplistic line of thinking that goes “the Cavaliers pushed the Finals to six games last year without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, this is a better Cavs team, they will win.” No doubt, they are a better Cavaliers team than a year ago, and they do have a chance. The challenge is that with the return of those two stars the Cavaliers have started to play small and fast — Channing Frye is the backup center and coach Tyronn Lue likes to pair him with Kevin Love and put out a running, shooting lineup. It’s worked well through the playoffs.

But do the Cavaliers want to get into an up-and-down, small ball running game with the Warriors? Do they want to try to out Warrior the Warriors? Oklahoma City just tried that — with far better athletes and defenders up and down the roster — and got torched in the final two games going small, and they lost the series. Cleveland coach Lue has pushed this team to play fast and said that is not changing now.

“We just have to play our game. We’re not going to slow the ball down and be at ease. We’re going to push the pace, try to get easy baskets early in transition but make sure we’re taking good shots,” Lue said.

The question isn’t can the Cavaliers score playing this way; the question is can they get enough stops against a Warriors offense that thrives in these faster, more chaotic games? The Warriors destroy teams because of cross-matches forced by pace. I think by Game 3 you may see the Cavaliers looking to slow the game a down some, feed LeBron James in the post more, and we will start to see the Cavs play more like they did last year in the Finals.

2) How does Kevin Love handle pick-and-roll defense? There is nowhere to hide Kevin Love’s defense this series — he’s not good at defending the pick-and-roll and he is going to be dragged into one nearly every time down the court. Golden State’s versatility means whoever Love guards (Andrew Bogut is likely first), that guy can come up and set the pick (and in small ball situations, if he’s on Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala because LeBron is on Draymond Green, both those guys can be on either side of the P&R). Love is going to have to show out on a shooter like Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, then recover to his man, and history shows us that doesn’t go well. Oklahoma City — with their length and athleticism — did this as well as any team we’ve seen having bigs switch onto Curry and Thompson, and they still got torched from three the final two games. Love likely will start out guarding Bogut, but they use the big man to set picks all the time and if Love hangs back the Warriors could start feeling it early.

To be fair, Love did defend the pick-and-roll better against Toronto, showing out well and at points frustrating Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But the Raptors are not the Warriors — Golden State’s guards are better and have more options around them than the Raptors guards (Draymond Green on the half-roll, creating that 4-on-3). The Warriors know Love and Irving are traditionally a terrible pick-and-roll defending tandem, and they will go right at them. Coach Nick at BBallBreakdown shows you the problems.



3) Does Steve Kerr start Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes?

By Game 4 of the NBA Finals last year, Steve Kerr was done with the Barnes on LeBron experiment and started Andre Iguodala instead to at least make LeBron work for his points. By the second half of Game 6 against Oklahoma City last round, Kerr again was starting Iguodala for defensive reasons — and he also got points from the eventual Finals MVP. Does he wait that long this time, or just start Iguodala from the opening tip? Iguodala is their best defender on LeBron, but he’s also played more and harder minutes through the playoffs this season than he did a year ago, is he going to need more breaks? Whether he starts Game 1 or not, expect a lot of Iguodala on LeBron in one of the key matchups of the Finals. Which leads to another question along those lines…

4) Can anyone on the Warriors slow LeBron James? LeBron is on a mission: He has staked some of his legacy on ending Cleveland’s seemingly eternal championship drought. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen this year, but the window is not going to stay open that much longer, and LeBron knows it. He has pushed, pulled, and prodded this team to play its best ball — and when he’s had to, he’s put the Cavaliers on his shoulders and carried them. He had a PER of 35.7 in the last round of the playoffs, which is insane. He’s attacking the basket like he’s 24 again. He’s going to have to do that at times this series — which means attacking and getting to the rim, it means some time in the post (you’re going to see a lot of LeBron as a power forward, and frankly some time at center), and it means his jumper has to fall. LeBron can do all those things. The Warriors will counter with a combination is

5) Can Kyrie Irving slow down Stephen Curry? When you start to look at matchups, you’re left with Kyrie Irving on Curry because the other matchup combos lead to worse problems down the line for the Cavaliers. This puts a lot of pressure on him on both ends, he has to make Curry uncomfortable and get him to give up the ball. Irving can be a good defender when focused (he was in the first half of Game 1 of the Finals last season) but he tends to be inconsistent and have lapses. Take a mental five-minute vacation against the Warriors and they go on a 17-2 run. As noted in No. 2 above, Irving and Love are a poor pick-and-roll defensive combo that is going to be tested a lot this series. Irving has to have a tremendous, focused defensive effort all series long for the Cavaliers to have a chance, they can’t let the Golden State guards get hot or they are toast.

6) Can Draymond Green play with emotion but avoid a suspension? Green is the kind of player fans love to root against — unless he’s on your team, then he’s a celebrated hero and the opponents are just soft. He’s polarizing that way. But one more flagrant foul in the Finals and Green is suspended a game — a flagrant 2 and he is suspended two games. Green’s aggressive, irritant, emotional style of play skirts that line all the time, for example he could have gotten a flagrant for his takedown of Steven Adams in Game 7, but the league chose not to go there. Green has to play with his emotions on his sleeve to be himself and be effective — and the Warriors need him to be at his best this series. But he can’t pick up another flagrant, and you can be sure Matthew Dellavedova and the Cavaliers will try to bait him into one.

7) Can Cleveland dominate the glass against the Warriors? The book on how to beat the Warriors is out there, and chapter one talks about owning the offensive glass, and grabbing rebounds in general. The Warriors will go small and, as Oklahoma City showed, they can be punished with second chance points. Tristan Thompson can have a big series, and if he’s getting second chance points inside it means more court time for Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli (and maybe some Anderson Varejao, just so Cavs fans can see him again). Force the Warriors to play their bigs more and you take them out of their preferred game.  Look for the Cavaliers to have a big rebounding advantage in the games they win.

Prediction: Warriors in six. I’m leaning five games but will make it six out of respect for how well LeBron is playing. As noted above the book on how to beat the Warriors exists, written by the Spurs and Thunder, but the Cavaliers lack the athletes and defensive focus to execute it. The Cavaliers will play faster and score points, but I don’t see them getting enough stops to win.

Rozier, Washington, Ball help Hornets rally past Heat 122-117

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Terry Rozier scored 31 points, P.J. Washington had 27 and the Charlotte Hornets stopped Miami’s three-game win streak with a 122-117 victory over the Heat on Sunday.

LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte improved to 7-16 at home. Gordon Hayward was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field for 20 points.

Rozier also had seven assists and six rebounds. He was 11 for 19 from the field, including a 5-for-11 performance from 3-point range. He made two buzzer-beater 3s at the end of quarters.

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami, and Tyler Herro had 24.

The Hornets, who have been hampered by injuries all season, have won four of six for the team’s best stretch of the season. Washington believes it’s a reflection of the team getting healthier.

Charlotte’s projected starting five to begin the season is finally back on the floor and appears to be starting to mesh.

“Everybody is back and everybody is healthy – and that is a major difference,” Washington said. “At the end of the day we have to keep going the way we are right now.”

Hayward has struggled with shoulder and hamstring issues, limiting the team’s highest-paid player to just 24 games.

Sunday marked his best game in months.

“He’s playing confident and getting easy baskets and just bullying guys down low,” Washington said. “He’s playing great basketball and I expect that of him every night.”

Whether a now healthy Hornets team can make a playoff push remains to be seen, but coach Steve Clifford remains optimistic.

“Getting ‘Melo and Gordon back, obviously you’re a different team,” Clifford said. “If we can get into playing set groups then we’ll have a good chance to hopefully put some good stretches together. (It helps) when they know who they’re playing with and they know where the shots are coming from.”

The Heat led 62-58 after Rozier banked in a 3 from the midcourt logo to close out the first half.

Miami went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter. Herro knocked down two 3-pointers to help the Heat open a 13-point lead.

But Charlotte came storming back behind Washington and Rozier, who began knocking down shots from deep.

Charlotte pushed the lead to 12 with 5:54 left on a turnaround jumper by Rozier.

Miami rallied with a 10-0 run. Kyle Lowry found Bam Adebayo inside for a layup to cut the lead to 108-106.

But Charlotte had another burst as Mason Plumlee got the ball after Rozier won a jump ball and drove to the basket for a score. Ball canned an open 3-pointer to put Charlotte back up 114-106 with 1:50 left.

Washington’s rebound and score off his own miss kept Charlotte up by seven and Plumlee dunked off a pass from Washington to put the game away in the final minute.

Charlotte shot 54.2% from the field and scored 25 points in transition. The Hornets also outrebounded Miami 47-36.

“They have had a lot of injuries but when they have been fully healthy, this team can score much different than their numbers may suggest for the season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We did not step up defensively, they got a lot of easy run-ups that quickly changed the momentum of the game.”

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls
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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.

Pelicans Trey Murphy III reportedly invited to participate in Dunk Contest

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We knew three participants invited to the All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest: G-League fan favorite Mac McClung, the Portland Trail Blazers Shaedon Sharpe and the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin.

The fourth slot in that event will go to the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

No doubt Murphy can throw it down with the best of them.

The Dunk Contest will headline All-Star Saturday night, Feb. 18, from the Vivint Arena (soon to be the Delta Center again). The event will be broadcast on TNT.

The Dunk Contest is the Saturday night headline event, but it has fallen flat in recent years. Adding a G-League dunker and young, bouncy athletes such as Murphy, Martin and Sharpe could make this one entertaining. However, what fans really want to see — what made the Dunk Contest must-watch back in the day when Jordan, Kobe, and Vince Carter were doing it — is the stars. There will be no Ja Morant, no Zion Williamson, and no Anthony Edwards in this contest.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
117

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,271

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Jan. 30 at Nets
Jan. 31 at Knicks
Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder (if he does sit out Monday against the Nets, as the team announced).

Since he turned 38 (on Dec. 30), LeBron has averaged 35.2 points per game, which would see the mark broken at home against the Thunder.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”