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Three things we learned Wednesday: There is no defense for, or in, Cavaliers recent play

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Wednesday night was a fantastic League Pass night of games — Dion Waiters with his second game-winner for the Heat in a week, James Harden bloodying a guy, the Celtics got an overtime win against the Rockets, another Russell Westbrook triple-double (that’s 23 in 46 games), Portland getting a key win in their playoff hunt, and we’re not going to get to any of that. There were bigger fish in the sea Wednesday. Here are the big takeaways from the night.

1) There is no defense: Cavaliers fall to Kings, dropping sixth in last eight.
The Cavaliers are moving from the “meh, it’s just a midseason slump” to the “do I smell smoke?” phase of their January swoon.

A couple of days after some frank talk from LeBron James about his team needing to step up (and needing some roster help) he went out and posted a triple-double against the Sacramento Kings — 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists in 44 minutes. That’s LeBron’s second triple-double in as many nights, the man is leading by example trying to lift up his team.

And the Cavaliers still lost. Sacramento got 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists from DeMarcus Cousins — who also made the play to force overtime, where the Kings got the win.

But that play pointed to one of the key reasons the Cavaliers have lost three in a row and six-of-eight — their defense is not sharp. That’s why they blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter (and a five-point one in OT) — they can’t get stops. All season Cleveland’s defense has been outside the top 10, but that was obscured by a great offense (and enough defense when they needed it). However, now that the offense has hit a rough patch (off six points per 100 possessions in the last eight games) the Cavs defense isn’t there to fall back on — in fact, it’s gotten worse. In the last eight games, the Cavs are allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions, 24th in the NBA at that time.

On that play above, Cleveland tried to trap Darren Collison and left the Kings’ best player in Cousins wide open at the top of the arc, where Collison found him, Tristan Thompson was too slow to recover, and LeBron hesitated to leave Arron Afflalo (who in OT hit a dagger three) to help, so Cousins got all the way to the basket for the key bucket.

The Cavaliers offense will come around, but their defense hasn’t looked like that of a champion consistently all season. They just let Sacramento hang 119 on them, the Pelicans 124 the game before, the Spurs easily and even the Suns in a loss broke into triple digits against the Cavaliers lately. Somehow that has sparked ridiculous Carmelo Anthony trade rumors — because that would really fix the defense *cough* — but James said after the loss the Cavs need to focus on the guys they got.

“We can’t play fantasy basketball. We got who we got and we got to go out and play.”

Midseason swoons and turmoil are not new to this team. Remember they started 19-20 a couple of seasons ago, still made it to the Finals. Last season right about this time David Blatt was fired and Tyronn Lue given the team (the move LeBron wanted), then they went on to win a title. Come June we likely have forgotten this stretch. But only if the Cavaliers fix the defense that right now is not championship level and hasn’t been all season.

Before the game, Cavaliers GM David Griffin threw out an interesting theory to Joe Varden of the Plain Dealer.

“We’re a team that will create an opportunity for ourselves to have to dig out of a hole,” Cavs general manager David Griffin said before the game. “We do it in every single game. It’s just how we are. We’re not good from the front. We’re much better when we’re the hunter.”

It’s hard to be hunters as the champions — every team has you circled on the calendar, every building is sold out, every team is ready to give you their best. LeBron has handled it, it looks like Kyrie Irving has, but as a whole the Cavaliers don’t look like a team that has adjusted to their new reality. In January that has them at 5-7 and stumbling along. The house isn’t on fire yet, but they need to get some water on it fast. And stop counting on someone from the outside to come in and save them — they need to do it with the guys in the room.

2) Not that the Raptors are taking advantage of the Cavs stumbles, Toronto lost its fifth in a row. However, Boston won. Want to talk about teams who are stumbling, the Toronto Raptors offense has decided to take a midseason vacation to Aruba, with Kyle Lowry‘s jumper leading the way, and the Raptors are floundering. In December the Raptors scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions and were battling with Houston and Golden State for the best offense in the NBA. In January they are at 108.6 per 100 and, like the Cavaliers, they don’t have the defense to bail them out. If you want a much more detailed discussion of all things Raptors, check out the latest PBT Podcast with Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.

Against the Raptors, Marc Gasol put up a career-high 42 to get Memphis the win.

Because of their stumbles, the Raptors remain three back of the slumping Cavaliers — instead, the Raptors need to look behind them. Boston won on Wednesday behind another huge game from Isaiah Thomas (38 points) and the Celtics are now just half a game back of the Raptors (despite Boston having their own issues of late). Atlanta in the four seed is just one game back of Toronto after beating the Bulls. If the Raptors offense doesn’t return from vacation soon, the road to the Eastern Conference Finals could get a lot tougher for them with more road games.

3) Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler go off on Bulls effort after team blows 10 point lead with three minutes to go, fall to Hawks. The Bulls just had their worst loss of the season, taking their foot off the gas up 10 with three minutes to go, slacking on defense (plus the Hawks just hit some shots), going 2-of-9 in the final three and having role players miss wide-open looks, and just generally looking bad. The Bulls are back to below .500 (23-24). After the game, Wade unloaded on his team and all but said “this is not why I came home,” via Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com.

“I don’t know what happened, but you continue to be in these kinds of situations and lose games like this, you really don’t care enough,” Wade said. “You don’t care enough. It’s got to mean that much to you to want to win. And it doesn’t. So I don’t know. I don’t know happened. I don’t know how you fix it. It just doesn’t mean enough for guys around here to want to win ball games.

“It pisses me off, but I can’t be frustrated and I can’t care too much for these guys. They got to care for themselves. We got to do better.”

Jimmy Butler echoed that.

“I heard what D-(Wade) was over there saying, yeah,” Butler said. “Mother——- just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the tee. Be a star in your role, man. That’s how you win in this league, man. You have to embrace what this team, what this organization needs for you to do on either end of the floor. On top of everything else, just play every possession like it’s your last. We don’t play hard all the time. It’s very disappointing whenever we don’t play hard.”

Leadership to change that is going to have to come from Wade and Butler because Fred Hoiberg is not going to go on a Thibodeau-style rant.

Bonus note: The hottest team in the East? How about the Sixers.

The Sixers are 4.5 games out of a playoff spot in the East. There would be four teams to climb over, which is a lot, but the Sixers just won two games in a row without Joel Embiid. Cue Kevin Garnett:

Cavaliers were clutch all season, then again in it’s biggest moment

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team this season, just a couple of games above .500. Yet they finished the season 50-32, seven games better than their differential suggested — the highest variance in the NBA.

Why? Because LeBron James and the Cavaliers were clutch. In games that were within five points in the final five minutes this season, Cleveland was 30-15 with a +18.2 points per 100 net rating (second best in the NBA, behind Houston).

That has carried over to the playoffs, where the Cavaliers came into Game 7 Sunday night 6-1 in clutch games with an insane +36.2 per 100.

Game 7 was another clutch one — it was 76-72 Cleveland with five minutes to go — and once again the Cavaliers won, advancing to the NBA Finals. This is the fourth straight year for this team, and the eighth year in a row for LeBron to make it to the NBA’s biggest stage.

In the final five minutes of Game 7, LeBron had six points, while the Boston Celtics team had 7. When we say the Cavaliers are clutch, it all starts with LeBron (as do all things Cavaliers at this point).

“He craves those moments. He loves those moments,” Kyle Korver said after LeBron was clutch in the Cavaliers’ Game 6 win that set up Sunday’s showdown, but what he said applies now, too. “When the game’s on the line, when the season’s on the line, he’s been rising up. That’s what the great players do.”

LeBron accepts that challenge, and through the postseason he has had an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, with a ridiculous 44.3 percent usage rate. Bottom line, he has had to carry the Cavaliers in the clutch, and he has done so efficiently.

“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m going to give what I’ve got,” LeBron said. “My teammates, they respect that.”

It’s going to take more than clutch LeBron and friends to win in the Finals — both of the teams in the West are much tougher than anything the Cavaliers have seen so far. However, we know that LeBron is going to give everything he has left.

And if the game is close late, don’t bet against the Cavaliers.

 

 

 

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.