Associated Press

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:

Report: Clippers teammates rolled eyes at Paul George’s postseason calls for togetherness

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Paul George and Montrezl Harrell reportedly had a heated exchange on the bench during the Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets.

Apparently, that wasn’t an isolated incident.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Paul George had a disappointing series against Denver, and had several moments that left him in compromising positions with his teammates — beyond just his production. Multiple teammates had verbal spats with George throughout the postseason, citing in their exchanges a lack of accountability from him.

In the postgame locker room Tuesday night, George was preaching to teammates to remain committed, for all the players to return to the team this offseason and stay ready to make another run. It was met by some eye rolls and bewilderment, sources said, because George did not back up his words with action in the series and the team has multiple free agents with decisions to make.

George wanted more time with his teammates. They already had enough of him.

This had been a simmering problem – George and Kawhi Leonard getting preferential treatment, their teammates resenting it. Harrell sounded particularly bothered by the dynamic.

Losing exacerbates issues like that, and getting upset by Denver was a big loss. Both George and Harrell faced oncourt and offcourt stressors – only further contributing to squabbling.

Harrell will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Clippers should try to keep him. He’s a good player, and they wouldn’t gain much cap flexibility without him.

But the 26-year-old might also want to explore the market and secure the most lucrative deal. It’d be reasonable for him to resent a teammate pressing him just to take the Clippers’ offer – especially if Harrell felt George wasn’t as committed to the team in the first place.

George and Leonard have earned preferential treatment. Leonard in particular has shown he benefits from load management.

However, that can annoy teammates. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad plan. It just means that downside should be accounted for.

It’d be nice if Leonard were more vocal or George rubbed fewer people the wrong way. But their basketball talent means dealing with their shortcomings. It’d be nice if George’s eye-rolling teammates realized that, too.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers bears responsibility for managing this tension. A this best, he connects well with players and gets everyone pulling for the same goal. That’s his job as the Clippers try to make the next step.

Miami’s Meyers Leonard adjusting to going from starter to out of rotation

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Meyers Leonard was bent forward at the waist, standing a few feet away from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra on the Heat sideline, screaming with every bit of the volume that his deep and booming voice can generate.

This is his role right now for the Heat.

His only role.

Leonard is in a tough spot these days; a full-time starter during the regular season, he is now out of the rotation as the Miami Heat have made their run to the Eastern Conference finals. It is a bitter pill for him to swallow — yet to his credit, he hasn’t acted the least bit bitter about his current reality.

“My team knows this, and our coaching staff knows this,” Leonard told The Associated Press. “I would do anything to be out there. And I’d be lying if I said that I’m not competitive as hell. I wish I was impacting the game on the floor. I’m not, but as a person and as a player, I want what’s best for everybody.”

So for now, the 7-foot, 260-pound, chiseled center is the tallest, strongest and best-paid assistant coach in these playoffs. He calls out what he’s seeing on every possession, pulls aside teammates for quick one-on-one chats when necessary, and on off days he’s getting his on-court work in just in case he’s needed to play.

Leonard has started 49 of his 51 appearances with the Heat this season, more starts than he made in his seven seasons with Portland combined. But in the playoffs, he’s logged a total of nine minutes, all in one appearance.

“Meyers is one of the most special people I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach and to be around,” Spoelstra said. “He is just an incredible human being and teammate. He has all our hearts. We will do anything for him because he is so pure.”

Leonard, more than anything else, got unlucky at the worst possible time.

He badly sprained his left ankle in early February and wasn’t anywhere near being ready to return to the lineup when the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then when team facilities shut down as a precaution, Leonard’s rehab process had to be amended as well.

That was the first issue. The second was Miami became a different team a few days after he got hurt, pulling off a trade to bring Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to the Heat. Crowder has become a starter, and Spoelstra told Leonard before Miami resumed play in the NBA’s restart bubble that he was taking the rotation in a different direction.

It was tough on Leonard mentally. He was struggling when he got to the bubble because of his ankle, then spent days wrestling about whether he should stand for the national anthem or kneel with his teammates, and on top of all that he essentially lost his job as well.

“There’s just two things that I won’t ever let be questioned and that’s character and work ethic,” Leonard said. “Every day when I walk through the door, I’m going to be a great guy, a great teammate. It’s not fake. So I’m trying to make my impact now from the sideline.”

There are a few starters who aren’t in the same roles that they were for the four teams remaining in this NBA season. Avery Bradley opted out of joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble. Will Barton — who led Denver in minutes per game this season — has a knee injury and has missed the Nuggets’ entire postseason run. Gordon Hayward has missed much of Boston’s playoff stint while recovering from a sprained ankle. Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn, a starter all season, is in Miami’s second unit now.

Leonard saw the Heat change, and his role change with it. He didn’t sulk, lash out or complain.

“It’s not easy, being in this kind of situation, going through the injury he went through and having the hiatus where he didn’t get the full opportunity to rehab it,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s making the most of it, and if he gets his opportunity, he will be ready.”

Leonard also sees the reason why he should be helping the Heat however he can right now. He’s never been this close to an NBA championship; the Heat lead the Celtics 2-1 in the East finals, with Game 4 on Wednesday night.

He’ll be ready to scream some more then, too.

“I am, in the best way possible, the most jealous of watching our team’s success,” Leonard said. “I literally said this to my wife the other night. I said, ‘Elle, we are six wins away from a ring.’ That is so damn special.”

Anthony Davis yelled “Kobe” after he sank game winner

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The Lakers played in the Kobe-designed Black Mamba jerseys on Sunday night, when Anthony Davis did about the most Kobe thing possible — he drained a buzzer-beater game-winner.

When Davis did it, he yelled “Kobe.”

The Los Angeles Lakers have talked a lot this season about honoring the legacy of Kobe with their play and effort this season, and coach Frank Vogel did after this game.

“That’s a shot Kobe Bryant would hit,” Vogel said. “AD flying to the wing like that, catch and shoot with the game on the line, the biggest moment of the season, nothing but net? That’s a Mamba shot.”

The Lakers are now 3-0 in those black Mamba jerseys these playoffs. Expect to see them again.

NBA world reacts to Anthony Davis’ game-winner for Lakers

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It might go down as the shot of the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets had battled back from 16 points down to take the lead behind a brilliant performance from Nikola Jokic, who had the team’s final 11 points. Throw in a Jamal Murray block and the Nuggets were up one with 2.1 seconds left.

Then Anthony Davis happened.

The Lakers won the game (going up 2-0 in the series) and the NBA world took to Twitter to react — including a lot of NBA players.