Three Things We Learned in Game 1: Cleveland’s defense can’t be its regular season self

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OAKLAND — Game 1 this year was a blowout Golden State win Yes, that is what we saw a year ago (and Cleveland came back to win that series), but the Game 1 Cleveland loss picked at some of the big questions about them coming into the playoffs, and it should be cause for concern in Ohio.

Here are the three big takeaways from Game 1.

1) Cleveland’s defense has to be a lot sharper, they can’t just outscore the Warriors. Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue has said it before this postseason — Cleveland’s offense would be a key part of their defense. Meaning opponents can’t get easy buckets if they are taking the ball out of the basket, and the Cleveland offense will put pressure on other offenses to keep up and force them into mistakes or poor shots.

None of that applied to the Warriors — Cleveland’s defense will have to be its best defense now. And it certainly wasn’t in Game 1.

Led by Kevin Durant, the Warriors attacked the rim — they had 34 shots at the rim in the first half alone (which is more than most teams average in a game). Golden State is talented, but their attacks exposed the Cleveland defense that finished 22nd in the NBA during the regular season — the Warriors forced matchups with poor individual defenders, and the Cavaliers help defense was nonexistent. Golden State ran simple pin-down actions all game that forced Kevin Love into a switch on Durant or Curry, and then Love was torched. (Curry seemed out to erase the memory of the end of Game 7 a year ago and went right at Love). The same is all true of Tristan Thompson, a better defender but not someone who can guard Curry in space.

The Warriors were getting buckets by simply attacking in transition when they could, blowing by their man on closeouts, and making backdoor cuts. Or, Curry just had the space to pull up.

Cleveland’s defense needs to be much better if they are going to start winning games in this series. For example, Cavaliers had zero steals in this game — zero — and they pressured the Warriors into just four turnovers.

“We made a lot of mistakes. There’s nothing really needs to be said,” LeBron James said. “We know we’re capable of playing a lot better. We didn’t play as well as we know we’re capable of.”

The Cavaliers did a much better job of taking away the rim in the second half, but that’s when the Warriors had more space and started hitting their threes. Cleveland has to find a better balance.

Lue is right that part of it is offensive: The Cavaliers have to do a better job slowing the game down and keeping the Warriors out of transition, which brings us to…

2) The Cavaliers have to take much better care of the ball. Cleveland had 20 turnovers in the game (and the Warriors had 21 points off them). As a team, they turned the ball over 19.6 percent of their possessions — one in five trips down the court.

LeBron was the biggest culprit, he had eight turnovers and coughed it up on 19.4 percent of the possessions he used.

This isn’t rocket science — turn the ball over and the Warriors are off to the races in transition. Golden State had 27 fast break points. Also part of the problem was Cleveland did a poor job getting back on defense all game.

But it starts with turnovers.

3) Kevin Durant may indeed be the difference in this series. It was obvious the to say this coming into this series: These teams went seven games and down to the final minute a year ago, adding Durant changes the balance of power.

Well, chalk up one for the obvious.

Durant had 38 points on 53.8 percent shooting and hitting 3-of-6 from three, added eight rebounds and eight assists, plus zero turnovers. And that was just the offensive end — for large swaths of the game he guarded LeBron James and did a solid job.

What mattered is how Durant got those buckets — he attacked the rim. Half of his 26 shots came in the restricted area, he was throwing it down — six dunks in the first half alone. This is what the Warriors missed a year ago, when the Cavaliers pressured them at the arc late in the Finals the Warriors kept jacking up tough shots — pressure Durant and he blows past his man for the dunk.

When asked what the difference was in Game 1 LeBron said Durant.

“I mean, you take one of the best teams that we had ever assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the post-season, and then in the off-season you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that, that’s what stands out,” LeBron said.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers must make things much more difficult for KD in the rest of this series. Which is true, but they already had LeBron on him for much of the game. If they dedicate more resources to stopping Durant other things will open up for Golden State.

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.