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.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.