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.

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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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) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn shoves Russell Westbrook, scuffle breaks out (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.

Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.

While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.

There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.

• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).

Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…

Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.

• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.

• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.

Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.

• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.

A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.

James Harden scores 47, including sinking dagger into Jazz (VIDEO)

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Utah and Houston met in a battle of the disappointing early season Western teams — predicted by most to finish 2/3 in the West, they came into the night 10th and 13th — and in the tight West these kinds of games matter.

So James Harden turned it up a notch.

The reigning MVP looked every bit that guys scoring 47 points and adding six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in what was a Houston win, 102-97. It was Harden that sank the dagger into Utah.

That’s four wins in a row for Houston as they try to climb out of the hole they dug themselves early this season.