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?”

 

Hamidou Diallo blows open, big windmill dunk (video)

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Ahead on a fastbreak late in the Thunder’s 128-103 win over the Knicks last night, Hamidou Diallo had a great opportunity to showboat. He went for a big windmill dunk.

And missed.

It seems the scouting report on the rookie hasn’t changed much since the draft: “He is incredibly athletic and also incredibly raw.”

Three Things to Know: Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come. Back on Oct. 18, in the first game of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers comfortably handled a Laker team still stumbling around with new faces and a lack of identity. That night, Portland’s continuity and shooting were a stark contrast to a Lakers team with neither.

Nearly a month later, LeBron and the Lakers look dramatically better.

LeBron played by far his most aggressive and best game as a Laker Thursday night, dropping 44 on the Blazers — passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list in the process — along with 10 rebounds and nine assists, leading the Lakers to a 126-117 win at home.

Wednesday night LeBron reminded everyone that when he decides to take over there is nobody like him Anywhere. Especially when he is hitting threes from a Curryesque range, which he did from the game’s opening minutes. LeBron was 5-of-6 from three on the night.

One key to the Lakers’ turnaround is they are playing much better defense, and they did for stretches against Portland. This isn’t just about Tyson Chandler — although he helps — but over the past seven games, the Lakers have allowed an average of 104 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA. The Lakers are pressuring better and higher to stop penetration off the pick-and-roll, jumping in gaps and generating steals (9.6 per game in their last seven games), and getting blocks from their bigs at the rim. All of that is a dramatic change from the beginning of the season when the Lakers played matador defense and were letting teams walk to the rim at will.

The Laker offense has come a long way, too, and it isn’t all LeBron. The Lakers generated good chances by having Lonzo Ball as a screener, with Brandon Ingram getting isolated on a smaller defender (C.J. McCollum much of the time), and with JaVale McGee as a rim runner. The Lakers are still generating chances playing at pace, too, something that has become a key part of their identity.

There was one bit of bad news for Los Angeles out of this game: Rajon Rondo broke his hand and will be out weeks. The Lakers will miss him on the second unit.

2) Jimmy Butler plays his first game with Philadelphia and… it’s going to be a process. “The process” is over in Philly. The arrival of Jimmy Butler as a Sixers makes them a “win now” team.

Now just starts another process: Fitting Butler into the Sixers offense and schemes.

This process could take some time, too.

Orlando proved that point, went on a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a 16-point Philadelphia lead and ultimately spoiled Butler’s debut, 111-106.

Butler had moments but was not the aggressive player we know, he let the game come to him more, something to be expected with a player on a new team who has been through one practice. He did show off his midrange game and defense at points, but expect him to be more aggressive as he gets more comfortable.

The game showed that there will be a lot of adjustments needed from Philadelphia to make this work.

That starts with Simmons, who had to work off the ball more when Butler created looks. The problem is Simmons is not a shooter so the Magic didn’t have to respect him until he made a cut or got close to the rim, allowing them to pack the paint more and provide help. Simmons can make those cuts and finish, but coach Brett Brown would prefer Joel Embiid coming out of the dunker’s spot and so the spacing becomes an issue. Embiid also didn’t look quite in sync for stretches of the game, although he did rack up his first career triple-double with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Those assists came when the Sixers were moving the ball the way Brown wants — fast side-to-side ball reversal that gets guys like J.J. Redick clean looks (he had a team-high 22). The Sixers did more of that in the third quarter. However, the ball movement was inconsistent as the Sixers tried to fit Butler into the offense. Late in the game when it was close, Butler was not taking over as much as serving as a decoy on the weak side for the Simmons/Embiid two-man game we have seen before.

It’s just going to take time. It’s a process. A fully healthy Wilson Chandler will help, he had 14 points on 10 shots and the offense flowed much better with him out there rather than Mike Muscala.

The Sixers have other questions to answer: Should they stagger Simmons’ and Butler’s minutes so each has longer stretches as the primary ball handler? If so, where does that leave Markelle Fultz, who is coming off the bench now and had eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Jimmy Butler with the Sixers is not going to be a plug-and-play instant contender. The loss in Orlando made that clear. What matters now is how much better the Sixers look in a week. Then in a month.

3) Dwane Casey went back to Toronto and drew up a beautiful game-winner. Dwane Casey, the best coach in Raptors’ franchise history, got a warm welcome from the Toronto fans Wednesday. As he should. The man presided over the best years of basketball in Raptors history and won Coach of the Year last year.

Then, with the game on the line, he reminded those fans why he is so good — he drew up a beautiful game-winning play that got Reggie Bullock a clean look. The play had Blake Griffin coming off a double screen, one set by Bullock, and when his man Pascal Siakam slid over to help on the Pistons’ biggest threat, Bullock slid into a scoring position.

Well done for Casey and a quality win for the Pistons. One they needed.

Rajon Rondo breaks hand, will be out weeks

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It was a big night for the Lakers. LeBron James was the most aggressive he has been as a Laker and took over the game, dropping 44 points on the Trail Blazers. It was also the Lakers’ sixth win in seven games, moving them up in the crowded West.

But it was not all good news: Rajon Rondo has broken his hand.

While the Lakers will not put a timeline on the injury, traditionally it takes a month or more to heal.

The Lakers have been 3.4 points per 100 possessions better this season with Rondo on the court, with that improvement coming on the defensive end. Lonzo Ball has started in front of him and will continue to do so.

Rondo was brought in as a mentor to the young LAkers and that is going to continue.

LeBron James passes Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on all-time scoring list

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LeBron James followed Wilt Chamberlain’s footsteps in establishing himself as a great player then joining the Lakers.

Now, LeBron has passed Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list.

LeBron scored 44 points in the Lakers’ win over the Trail Blazers on Wednesday to move ahead of Chamberlain for fifth in career points. LeBron now trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

The leaderboard:

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LeBron had his finest game with the Lakers on Wednesday, posting 44 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and three blocks in a 126-117 victory. He tried and failed to get a triple-double late, but he still got the win and an enhanced place in NBA history.

Next up for LeBron: Jordan, the only top-six all-time scorer who never played for the Lakers.