Three Things to Watch Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics

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Typically when the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in a conference meet in said conference’s finals, we are pumped because it means a close, hard-fought series with the Finals on the line. Not this time. Boston may be the No. 1 seed, but from oddsmakers in Vegas through talk show hosts anywhere outside New England, most people give the Celtics about as much chance as Marie-Antoinette vs. the guillotine. Here are the three things to watch, and it paints a roadmap for Boston if they are to have a chance this series.

1. How do the Celtics slow LeBron James? LeBron has been the playoffs MVP so far, the best player on any team, and he has lifted the Cavaliers up with him. Through eight games (sweeps in the first two rounds), LeBron is averaging 34.4 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. Those aren’t volume numbers, he’s been incredibly efficient shooting 57 overall from the field and 46.8 percent from three. He has been a force of nature running the pick-and-roll, neither the Pacers nor Raptors had any answer for dealing with him in that two-man game. If you don’t think he can do that to the Celtics, remember he averaged more than 29 points a game in the four meetings in the regular season and had a triple-double (28 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) in the one game Boston won.

The Celtics have needed LeBron to be this good because Kyrie Irving has yet to get on track this postseason. It just hasn’t mattered. Yet.

Brad Stevens will scheme, and expect a lot of Jae Crowder to start on LeBron, with Marcus Smart likely getting a chance. If he gets desperate, maybe Stevens tries the athletic Gerald Green. The problem is Cleveland will decide who they want to guard LeBron and have that man’s mark come out and set the pick for LeBron. Think back to the Finals last year: Cleveland wanted Stephen Curry on LeBron, so Curry’s man always set the pick, no matter who it was, to force the switch. If the Cavaliers want to target Isaiah Thomas or anyone else, they will just force a two-man game and try to get the switch.

Boston provides a counter problem on the other end — Isaiah Thomas tore up the Cavaliers this season averaging 29.5 points per game in reg season against them. How Cleveland chooses to defend him and how many bodies they throw at him and dare others to beat them (Washington’s plan in the last round) remains to be seen. What we do know is Cleveland is back to playing good defense, and they are much better at it than the Wizards.

2. Which teams defends the three-point line better? Through the playoffs, the Boston Celtics have taken 456 total threes — 42.1 percent of their shot attempts come from three (only Houston had a higher percentage). Cleveland is right on their heels — 40.8 percent of their shot attempts have come from three. The Cavs have shot 43.4 percent from beyond the arc, the Celtics 37.3 percent.

The three is key to both team’s attacks. Whichever team can do a better job chasing their opponent off the arc, and contesting the shots they do take from deep, will have a huge advantage.

Boston’s opponents have shot just 31 percent from three through two rounds, although to be fair they played the shooting-challenged Bulls in the first round so it skews the numbers. It’s also going to be a different thing to do it against a Cavaliers team that has Channing Frye, who is shooting 55 percent from three in the playoffs, Kyle Korver (48 percent), LeBron (47 percent) and J.R. Smith (44 percent). What’s more, the Cavaliers have targeted the corner three heavily in the postseason and as a team are shooting 54 percent from there. LeBron has 16 assists to corner threes through eight games.

3. Boston has to be strong on the glass to have any chance in this series. Rebounding has been the Achilles heel of the Celtics all season long, and that has continued through the playoffs — they have won the rebounding battle once in 13 postseason games. The Celtics have grabbed 45.7 percent of total available rebounds these playoffs, the lowest percentage of any team in the postseason.

Now the Celtics go up against a team that starts Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson — the Cavaliers are beasts on the glass.

It may slow their transition game some, but the Celtics must gang rebound and make it a priority. Thompson, in particular, is active on the offensive glass and will be a real problem for Boston, who wants to play small but if they do too much Thompson could challenge Moses Malone’s record of 27 offensive rebounds in a series (1983 NBA Finals vs. the Lakers).  It may be heresy to quote Pat Riley to Boston, but his mantra “rebounds=rings” applies to them.

Prediction: Cavaliers in Five. I know that saying it ends in five means Cleveland wins twice in Boston, but honestly, I think four games is more likely than six. I’ll give Boston one of the first two. But the fact is that while Boston is a good team they have flaws that the Cavaliers will exploit and, to be honest, Cleveland is just the better team.

The good news for the Celtics is they have the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. GM Danny Ainge has to watch this series and ask himself, “Are we one player away if I trade this pick for an established star? Or are we better off drafting a potential star and trying to peak three years from now when LeBron is fading?”

 

Watch Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard score first buckets in returns

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It’s only preseason. But if you’ve sat out an entire season with an ACL injury,  just getting on the court feels like a milestone.

And getting your first bucket back feels memorable.

That happened for the Nuggets Jamal Murray and the Clippers Kawhi Leonard on Monday night.

For Murray, the bucket came on a corner 3 in transition.

Murray also showed flashes he’s getting his handle and wiggle back, something that made him a great fit with Nikola Jokic.

Leonard wasted no time, scoring the Clippers’ first bucket by lulling his defender to sleep and then shooting the pull-up 3.

I feel we’re going to see a lot more of that this season.

The NBA is just better with these two back on the court.

 

Cavaliers Evan Mobley out 1-2 weeks with sprained ankle

2022-23 Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day
Nick Falzerano/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Cleveland Cavaliers might have the best frontcourt in the East this season with All-Star Jarrett Allen and the emerging star Evan Mobley, but it may be a few weeks before we see them together.

Mobley is out 1-2 weeks with a sprained right ankle, the Cavaliers announced a couple of days before their preseason opener. Mobley stepped on a teammate’s foot and rolled his ankle during practice, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

Mobley, who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game in his first campaign, but his more significant impact was on the defensive end. Mobley earned All-Defensive Team consideration as a rookie — an incredibly rare feat — and with Allen formed an impressive backstop for teams trying to drive the paint.

Reports out of Cavaliers training camp rave about the improvements made in Mobley’s offensive game, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see that for ourselves now. Mobley, with a more consistent face-up game and jumper, has the potential to develop into a top 15, maybe even top-10 player in the league. The Cavaliers are banking on the young core of Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and the just acquired Donovan Mitchell to be able to take the team far in the next few years, with Mobley’s improvement key to just how far they can go.

It sounds like Mobley will be good to go for the start of the season.

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

Karl-Anthony Towns Offseaon Workout
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that, there were not a lot of details other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about whatever illness he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time, and it is his call to talk about.

Towns has been sidelined before by illness, including COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.