Three Things to Watch in Game 3: Cleveland can run, but it must get stops first

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Two games, two Golden State blowout wins. Cleveland can change that at home, but a few things need to happen. Here are three things to watch in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

1) Can the Cavaliers get enough stops to play with the Warriors’ fast pace?
“We don’t play slowdown basketball,” LeBron James said.

Which has been half true these Finals, it would be more accurate to say the Cavaliers don’t defend unless it’s slowdown basketball.

The Cavaliers have been stuck in a bad loop in this series: Their offense has been at its best in transition — particularly LeBron, who remains unstoppable in the open court.

However, their transition defense isn’t good, especially when it comes to a dominant fast break team like the Warriors. Cleveland tries to run with Golden State and for a while it stays close because the Cavs get buckets, but they can’t get enough stops at pace to hang for 48 minutes, so the Warriors pull away.

“We have to play fast. That’s our game,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “You saw early in the first half (of Game 2) when LeBron’s able to attack and get downhill with the floor open, that’s when we’re at our best, if they help, kicking it out for threes. So we want to play with a pace, but to play with pace you got to get stops. So when we get stops, we want to get out and run, we want to play with pace and we want to attack early.”

The second part of that last sentence is true: After stops or forced turnovers the Cavs should run (then if nothing is there, run half court sets — and mix in a LeBron post up once in a while). But Lue brushes by the “when we get stops” as if that is happening regularly enough. It’s not. After a made bucket, the Warriors get back and set their defense, and in the half court Cleveland has struggled to score against what has been a fantastic Warriors defense.

It’s a chicken and egg thing: Cleveland needs to get more buckets to slow down the Golden State offense and let the Cavs set their defense, then they can get more stops then get out in transition where Cleveland can get more made baskets. The problem is that to get all those buckets Lue has put out offensive lineups that don’t defend well, which has exacerbated the defensive problem, and the whole cycle goes bad for the Cavaliers.

2) Conventional wisdom says role players perform better at home — Cleveland needs that to be true.
J.R. Smith is maybe the best example of the struggles of Cleveland’s role players. He hit Cleveland’s first shot of these Finals — a corner three to open Game 1 — and hasn’t hit a shot since. When Smith has been the primary defender on a shooter, the Warriors have shot 10-of-11. He’s been slow in transition defense. It hasn’t been pretty.

Smith is going to start Game 2, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. No Iman Shumpert in his place (Shumpert has been the much better player this series).

The question is how long Lue can stick with Smith if he remains cold? Or, more broadly, can the Cavaliers role players step up? Through two games Tristan Thompson has just eight points and eight rebounds, Kyle Korver has 8 points total, and Deron Williams has yet to score at all. It’s not good enough against the Warriors.

“We just need our supporting group to be themselves as much as possible,” Kyrie Irving said. “Understand that they have a unique opportunity to make us that much better, and for a majority of this season it’s been on myself, Bron and K-Love’s shoulders. And we have done a great job of getting everyone involved and making sure that everyone feels comfortable, but now we need everything and everybody. And I know they know how important they are.”

The Cavaliers need more out of Thompson, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get a lot more run than what we’ve seen (about 20 minutes a game). When asked about Thompson’s minutes Lue repeatedly said “I think to beat this team, you have to score the basketball” and so he wanted more offense out there. True, but he needs more defense out there more. Frankly, he needs any role player performing well out there. Maybe he gets some in Game 3.

3) Will the Warriors defense continue to be dominant, or will Kyrie Irving have a breakout game?
LeBron has been phenomenal this series, at least until late in the game when he starts to wear down from the massive load he has had to carry on both ends.

Kevin Love has played as well as could be asked of him.

Kyrie Irving hasn’t been good enough — shooting just 37.1 percent from two and getting to the line three times in two games. He seems to have been most impacted by what has been a virtuoso half-court defensive performance from Golden State. The Cavaliers have tried to go to the well of what worked last Finals and got them a ring — dragging Stephen Curry into pick-and-rolls to force a switch, then go at him (and do the same thing with Zaza Pachulia) — but the Warriors have been amazing at sniffing that out, recovering or pre-switching, plus they have had Draymond Green or Kevin Durant or Pachulia backing it all up as a backstop. Plus, Curry has defended fairly well, forcing a few turnovers. It has stymied Cleveland in the half court.

The Cavs need to get those buckets, and Irving is going to be a big part of that. There are rumblings that he is not 100 percent (his knees are reportedly bothering him), and that may well be true, but you can ask Curry if there is any sympathy for that as an excuse in the Finals. Simply put, back home the Cavaliers need a lot more out of Irving or this series could be very short indeed.

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”