Three things to watch in Game 2: If Cleveland cleans up its mistakes, is that enough?

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OAKLAND — After getting blown out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were not distraught nor did they feel overwhelmed. Rather, they think they beat themselves mostly.

Make no mistake, the Warriors are good, but the Cavaliers think they gave Game 1 away by turning the ball over and not communicating well on defense.

“We have to be much better,” LeBron James said. Game 1 was the feel-out for us, and they definitely took advantage of all our miscues. We just have to get better.”

“Watching basketball throughout the course of the season, you obviously know they’re very good,” J.R. Smith said Saturday. “But one thing about us, it’s all about us. If we take care of what we’re supposed to take care of, it doesn’t matter if it’s the ’96 Bulls, it doesn’t matter. We would win. We just gotta worry about us, understand that no matter what they do, if we do what we’re supposed to do, they can’t beat us.”

Here are the three things to watch, and what the Cavaliers need to improve, if they are going to steal game 2 on the road.

1) Cleveland will play more focused defense, will protect the rim, and they will get physical.
If there is one thing everyone agrees on about Game 2, it’s that the Cavaliers are going to get physical.

“You have to be the first one to hit,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought they hit us first. You have to be physical. The game is physical. You have to bring a physicality to the game, one through five. And I thought last game we weren’t as physical as we needed to be. We were off bodies, let them run free. So we have to do a better job of being on bodies, being physical and bringing the contact to the game.”

What that means in practical terms is the uncontested layup line the Warriors had in Game 1 will go away. Part of that is being physical, but a larger part is just making better decisions on defense, particularly in transition where the Cavaliers were terrible. Protecting the rim will be a priority.

“We have to stop the ball,” Lue said. “That’s the most important thing. We can’t let Durant get easy baskets like that. With him being probably one of the best scorers in the NBA, you can’t give guys like that easy opportunities at the basket. So we have to do a good job of stopping the basketball, but we also have to get back out to shooters. One guy has to stop the ball and the other guys have to get back and get to Steph and Klay and those guys. But we have to stop the basketball first.”

2) Cleveland needs to clean up its offensive mistakes — don’t turn the ball over and dominate the glass. One other thing both sides expect in Game 2 is for Cleveland to do a better job taking care of the ball — they are not going to turn the ball over 20 times again.

The Cavaliers admitted that Golden State’s defense — aggressive and using their athleticism and length — made them indecisive at points. They also said that was correctable.

“So when we make a move to the basket, we just have to be decisive — take it to the basket or make the pass,” Lue said. And I thought they did a good job of just playing in between, making us be off guard. So we make a move, we have to be direct with what we’re going to do; if not, move the basketball.”

“We had a lot of unforced turnovers,” LeBron added. “Some of them was aggression. I had two charges — that’s aggression, I can take those. But I also had some where I got caught up in the air, trying to make some skip passes, and they were able to pick them off. Those are like pick-sixes. It’s like throwing the ball to Deion Sanders. For the most part, it’s going to be a touchdown going the other way.”

If Cleveland is going to win they also need to dominate inside the paint and on the glass, something they did not do in Game 1. Tristan Thompson needs to be a force for Cleveland on both ends, and in Game 1 he had just four rebounds.

“Trash. Trash,” is how Thompson defined his Game 1. “I have to be better. I have to bring more energy, make it tough for them. I know they’re watching film, and something for them it’s to keep me off the glass. It’s going to be a wrestling match down there, and you have to keep it going and make it tough for them and just try to wear them out.”

3) How fast is this game played? The first game of the NBA Finals had 102 possessions, not lightning fast but right at the Warriors pace for the season — meaning it was right in Golden State’s comfort zone (and faster than the Cavs played this season). Check out this stat from Michael Pina writing for Vice Sports.

During the 2015 Finals, the pace was 95.3 possessions per 48 minutes when James was on the floor. That dropped to 94.8 in last year’s seven-game classic. With James in the game on Thursday night, the pace was 102.1.

So the Cavaliers are going to slow the game down and grind it out, right? No. Not if you ask them. To a man they said they needed to play with more pace.

“We’re a team that plays with pace. We know that,” LeBron said. And in order for us to be as good as we can be offensively, we have to play with pace. But we have to control the ball as well.”

“When we get stops, we have to get out. We have to play with pace,” Lue said. “We’ve got to play in transition. They’re a great team in the half court, as far as loading up and taking away what they want to take away. So when we get stops, we have to get out and run and play with pace.”

To be fair, Cleveland dominated the Warriors in fast break points a year ago. They can do better in this category, but it also is fraught with risk. It makes sense for the Cavaliers to push the ball when they create turnovers or off Warriors misses, but if nothing is there they need to pull out and slow it down. If this turns into a track meet the Warriors will win.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.