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Three things to watch: Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Cavaliers are the Eastern Conference favorites, but the last time these teams met it was one of the best games of the season, a double -OT thriller the Cavs won 125-130, where LeBron James and Paul George had a classic duel. Will we get more of that? Let’s break it down.

How focused with the Cavaliers be on defense? The malaise that enveloped the Cavaliers the second half of this season has become part of the narrative of the postseason — just how vulnerable are the Cavaliers? They had a defensive rating of 111.6 over their final 26 games, a number worse than the Lakers’ season average (and LA was dead last in the league in defense). Tyronn Lue said he has a fix for the team’s defense and when Kevin Love and other Cavs are asked about it they’ve said they can fix it. I’m not sold, they haven’t built good defensive habits, Plus they are going to miss Andrew Bogut in the paint on defense.

The other half of that equation is do the Pacers have the tools to exploit that defense? Expect Paul George to have some huge games because he’s that good, but the Pacers are going to need Myles Turner to put up big numbers (and pull Tristan Thompson out of the paint), plus have Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young have big games as well. The Cavaliers are going to score, can Indiana keep pace?

Who will LeBron James for the Pacers? And who is going to guard Paul George for the Cavaliers? Both teams in this series defensively will want to “cut off the head of the snake” and make someone other than the best player on opposition beat them. Which is a sound strategy — although the Cavaliers have legitimate other top scoring options — but leads to another problem: Who is going to guard these key guys? Who gets the LeBron assignment? Who gets the George assignment.

LeBron torched the Pacers this season, averaging 32.3 points per game on 60 percent shooting in the three meetings where he played (the one game Indiana beat Cleveland LeBron rested). LeBron was able to get into the restricted area and finish at a high rate this season, and the Pacers lack a rim protector who can make him think twice. George will certainly get some time on LeBron, but he shot 52 percent when PG13 was on him this season (stats via Sports VU and the NBA). Of course, there is the drama of Lance Stephenson, and he likely will get some time on LeBron, but Stephenson has lost a step and that’s a bad matchup for the Pacers.

Also, the Pacers do not have a good defender to match up on Kyrie Irving, who could have a big game or two in this series.

Who on the Cavaliers will draw the Paul George assignment? In crunch time that will be LeBron, we saw that at the end of the double-overtime game (remember LeBron and Tristan Thompson yelling at each other over a missed assignment in that stretch?). But it could be too taxing on LeBron to carry the offense and guard George for 40 minutes a game. Expect some Richard Jefferson, but if guys like J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert draw the assignment for a while George is going to put up big numbers. And he has to for the Pacers to have a chance in this series.

Is this the last time we see Paul George in a Pacers’ uniform? George has been brilliant over the last month of the season and reminded everyone why the Pacers’ primary goal this summer is to keep him in Indiana. If George makes the third-team All-NBA — and that’s a coin flip, one that will not land until June 26 at the NBA awards ceremony — then the Pacers can offer him the designated player contract of five years and more than $200 million, and he will stay put.

However, if George doesn’t make that team, the Pacers have to consider trade options this summer. Larry Bird may not pull the trigger, but he can’t lose George for nothing to free agency in the summer of 2018, so there will be pressure this summer if a team steps up with a good offer (and Boston has the pieces to do that, among others). What George wants to do is win, and if the Pacers have a strong series against the Cavaliers and push this to six or seven games, Bird can say to George that this team is close and to trust him to build a contender around George. How this series goes will have some impact on the summer

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. The Pacers starters can hang with the Cavaliers starters, but once these teams start going to the bench the Cavaliers will pull away. The Pacers don’t have the shooters to hang in this series.

Watch Klay Thompson scoff upon learning he missed All-NBA, super-max eligibility (video)

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James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker were All-NBA guards this season.

Not included: Klay Thompson.

That’s a costly missed opportunity for Thompson, who also finished behind Bradley Beal in voting. Thompson’s max contract in free agency this summer projects to be worth $190 million over five years. If he made All-NBA, it would have been a projected $221 million over five years.

Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

Thompson:

That’s cool and all, but when you go to five straight Finals – I respect those guys. But, holy, when you go to five straight, it takes more than just a couple All-NBA guys.

But whatever. I’d rather win a championship than be third-team All-NBA. So, it’s all good.

Do I think there’s that many guards better than me in the league? No.

To me, the All-NBA teams should honor the players who had the best regular season that year. It’s not about who the best players are. It’s not about who advanced furthest in prior years. It’s about who performed the best during that regular season. (Obviously, better players are more likely perform better.)

That wasn’t Thompson, and I didn’t think he was particularly close.

Maybe Thompson conserved energy for the playoffs. That would have been the right approach. The Warriors are good enough to bank on reaching the postseason, and the organization should emphasize this time of year.

But a side effect is being less deserving of regular-season awards.

That’s why super-max contracts probably shouldn’t be tied to All-NBA. A player’s value to his team stems so much from the playoffs, and these awards are voted upon immediately after the regular season.

For the most part, it will work out fine. But Thompson is the exact type of player to get slighted. I wouldn’t blame him for resenting the system.

He’s focused on a different question – who are the best guards, especially in the playoffs? – than most All-NBA voters were answering. Incidentally, Thompson’s question is much more similar to one teams ask themselves when determining players’ salaries. Unfortunately for Thompson, the All-NBA voters’ considerations will matter much more in how much he gets paid.

Warriors: Kevin Durant likely to miss start of NBA Finals

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The Warriors have a historically long nine-day layoff before the NBA Finals.

It probably won’t be long enough for Kevin Durant.

Warriors release:

Warriors forward Kevin Durant (strained right calf) and center DeMarcus Cousins (torn left quadriceps muscle) were evaluated by the team’s medical staff earlier today.

Durant, who has not yet been cleared to begin on-court activities, continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation. At this point, it is unlikely that he will play at the beginning of the 2019 NBA Finals, but it’s hopeful that he could return at some point during the series.

Cousins also continues to make good progress with his rehabilitation and practiced with the team today for the first time since suffering the injury on April 16. It’s anticipated that he will play at some point during the 2019 NBA Finals, but the exact date is to be determined and depends on his progress.

The status for both players will be updated next Wednesday.

The Warriors are better with Durant. They’re also really darned good without him.

Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala still make Golden State extremely talented. Those players fit well together.

The competition will get harder against the Bucks or Raptors, but the Warriors can still prevail without Durant.

Of course, as soon as he’s healthy, Golden State will welcome him back with open arms. Whatever complications he brings, his ability justifies dealing with them

DeMarcus Cousins is trickier. He’s been out longer and not the same level of player. He could help in small doses, but it’s harder to find a place for him in the rotation, even if he’s healthy enough to play.

Kemba Walker gets super-max eligibility with All-NBA voting; Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson miss out

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Super-max contracts have made All-NBA teams incredibly important.

This year’s selections (first-team votes, second-team votes, third-team votes and voting points in parentheses):

First team

G: James Harden, HOU (100-0-0-500)

G: Stephen Curry, GSW (91-9-0-482)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL (100-0-0-500)

F: Paul George, OKC (71-25-3-433)

C: Nikola Jokic, DEN (59-38-2-411)

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, POR (8-87-5-306)

G: Kyrie Irving, BOS (0-52-39-195)

F: Kevin Durant, GSW (29-71-0-358)

F: Kawhi Leonard, TOR (0-73-23-242)

C: Joel Embiid, PHI (40-57-4-375)

Third team

G: Russell Westbrook, OKC (1-43-44-178)

G: Kemba Walker, CHA (0-4-39-51)

F: Blake Griffin, DET (0-13-76-115)

F: LeBron James, LAL (0-13-72-111)

C: Rudy Gobert, UTA (1-5-69-89)

Also receiving votes: Bradley Beal, WAS (0-1-31-34); Klay Thompson, GSW (0-3-18-27); Karl-Anthony Towns, MIN (0-0-20-20); LaMarcus Aldridge, SAS (0-2-11-17); Danilo Gallinari, LAC (0-1-4-7); Ben Simmons, PHI (0-0-7-7); Mike Conley, MEM (0-0-4-4); Donovan Mitchell, UTA (0-0-4-4); Pascal Siakam, TOR (0-0-4-4); Nikola Vucevic, ORL (0-0-4-4); Dwyane Wade, MIA (0-1-0-3); Luka Doncic, DAL (0-1-0-3); Andre Drummond, DET (0-1-0-3); DeMar DeRozan, SAS (0-0-3-3); D’Angelo Russell, BRK (0-0-3-3); Tobias Harris, PHI (0-0-2-2); Devin Booker, PHO (0-0-1-1); Eric Gordon, HOU (0-0-1-1); Jrue Holiday, NOP (0-0-1-1); Kyle Lowry, TOR (0-0-1-1); Lou Williams, LAC (0-0-1-1); Marvin Bagley III, SAC (0-0-1-1); Domantas Sabonis, IND (0-0-1-1); Anthony Davis, NOP (0-0-1-1); Myles Turner, IND (0-0-1-1)

The fallout:

  • Kemba Walker is now eligible for a five-year super-max contract projected to be worth $221 million over five years. Will the Hornets offer it? Would he accept it? Difficult decisions for both sides as he enters free agency this summer.
  • The Wizards dodged a bullet with Bradley Beal placing a fairly distant seventh among guards for three All-NBA spots. A super-max extension for him would have been too large a commitment right now, and not offering it threatened to alienate him. Forces would have been pushing toward a trade. Now, Washington’s options with Beal – who has two years left on his contract – are wide open. If he continues to play well and earns All-NBA in a future season, the Wizards could justify giving him the super-max then.
  • Likewise, the Warriors avoid their payroll skyrocketing as far into the stratosphere. Klay Thompson didn’t make All-NBA and therefore his max contract is capped at five years, projected $190 million. Considering he seems so happy in Golden State, the extra spending power of the super-max likely would have only cost the Warriors money without actually making Thompson more likely to stay.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns missed his last chance to trigger the super-max in his rookie scale extension, which will pay him a projected $158 million over the next five seasons. He would have earned about $32 million more with an All-NBA selection. The Timberwolves now have Towns secured at the lower amount. They surely hope the sense of urgency he showed late this season persists.
  • Damian Lillard has clinched eligibility to sign a super-max extension this offseason (four years, projected $193 million) or the 2020 offseason (five years, projected $250 million). He’ll reportedly ink the deal this summer with the Trail Blazers.
  • Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo will be eligible in the 2020 offseason for a super-max extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years. He’ll probably sign it. But until he does, all eyes will be on him.
  • Anthony Davis can this offseason sign a five-year, super-max extension projected to be worth $235 million with the Pelicans. He doesn’t want to. David Griffin has made noise about keeping Davis into 2020 free agency. But because he missed All-NBA this season, Davis isn’t guaranteed to be super-max-eligible then. He’d have to make All-NBA next season. So, New Orleans would have less of an upper hand in re-signing him – which makes a risky strategy even riskier.
  • The actual All-NBA teams look good to me. I would have picked Bradley Beal and Jrue Holiday over Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker, but it was close. I have no significant complaints about the players chosen.
  • On the other hand, some of the stray votes: Dwyane Wade (second team!),  Eric Gordon, Domantas Sabonis, Marvin Bagley III. Wow.

Report: Mavericks conclude Kristaps Porzingis was just ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’

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Kristaps Porzingis got bloodied, reportedly while being jumped, in Latvia a couple weeks ago. Details were scarce. Reliable details were even rarer.

But the Mavericks are apparently ready to move on.

Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News:

a team source told The News that Porzingis returned to Dallas several days ago and that both of his hands are fine.

Furthermore, the source said, Mavericks officials investigated the incident in Latvia, have spoken at length to Porzingis and are satisfied that the incident was a case of the 7-foot-3 23-year-old being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The Mavericks do not deserve benefit of the doubt with their investigations. Their investigation into sexual misconduct in the workplace didn’t name team photographer Danny Bollinger, whom multiple women accused of sexual harassment. (Dallas later fired him.) The Mavericks also traded for Porzingis, who had been accused of rape, and then claimed they didn’t know about the accusation at the time of the deal.

Dallas has called Porzingis its No. 1 offseason priority.