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.

Nikola Jokic can’t get mic back into stand, ends postgame press conference with : ‘F— this s—’ (video)

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Nikola Jokic is an awesome player.

He can also lose his cool and say inappropriate things.

That was all on display last night. Jokic had 43 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in the Nuggets’ Game 6 loss to the Spurs. But as he tried to returned his microphone to its stand after his postgame press conference, he wound up dumping it on the table and saying, “F— this s—” (obvious language warning on the above video).

Huge deal? No. The type of workplace misbehavior that will probably draw an NBA fine? Yes.

Jazz will focus on adding offensive punch in offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Few teams could match the Utah Jazz in their ability to dominate on defense this season. An inability to generate consistent offense, however, ultimately doomed Utah in the postseason.

After getting knocked out of the first-round of the postseason by the Houston Rockets, change is in the air for the Jazz as the team heads into the offseason. Utah plans to target shooters and playmakers in free agency who can take some of the defensive focus away from leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

“We want to move the group forward,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said at the team’s practice facility Thursday. “While we have a very good team, the results told us that we don’t have a great team.”

Utah does have a solid foundation in place thanks to continued progress from Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The duo helped lead the Jazz to a 50-win season and a third straight playoff berth.

Mitchell overcame a sluggish start to his sophomore season and showed his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke. After January 1st, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists to lead the Jazz. His season average of 23.8 points led all second-year NBA players. He is the first second-year NBA guard to average more than 23 points since Dwyane Wade in 2004-05.

Mitchell impressed teammates with his relentless work ethic throughout the season. He showed up at the team’s practice facility at all hours, trying to work on every possible facet of his game. Even after all he’s accomplished, Mitchell is driven to prove he belongs

“I wasn’t expected to be here and I really don’t want to lose this,” Mitchell said. “As a kid, my favorite subject was recess. Why? Because I could go play basketball. As a 22-year old kid now, to have that all come full circle, it’s a blessing.”

Gobert is driven to push himself, too. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year showed a stronger offensive dimension in his game this season. Gobert led the league in field goal percentage (.669), dunks (306), and screen assists per game (5.9). He posted per game career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9), and assists (2.0) in 2018-19.

Along the way, Gobert became only the second NBA player to total more than 1,200 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting over 65 percent from the field in a single season, joining Wilt Chamberlain, who did it in 1966-67.

Like Mitchell, Gobert is hungry to prove he can do more.

“I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can become offensively,” Gobert said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’ve been putting too much limits on myself and what I can do for this team. Now, I have a little bit more time to work and come back as a better player.”

Here’s a few other things to watch with the Jazz in the offseason:

POINT GUARD CHANGES?

Finding a new starting point guard may top the summer agenda for the Jazz.

Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons in Utah. Rubio has been an effective scorer at times during his stint with the Jazz. Over the past two years, he had 26 20-point games – five more than his previous six seasons in Minnesota combined. On the other hand, Rubio also struggled with inconsistent shooting.

Lindsey said he can envision multiple scenarios that include a return to Utah for Rubio. The veteran guard wants to take his time and see which coach and team will offer the best fit for him.

“I want to be happy,” Rubio said. “So I’m going to try to find the best situation for me to perform and to be happy.”

FAVORS RISING

Derrick Favors has one more year remaining on a two-year deal he signed last summer to remain in Utah. The second year is a team option that needs to be picked up by July 6th to become fully guaranteed for 2019-20. Odds are good Favors will return for his ninth full season with the Jazz.

He adjusted to a new role, splitting time as the starting power forward and backup center to Gobert. Favors flourished as the season progressed. 12 of his 15 double-doubles came after January 1st and Favors finished the season with a career-best effective field goal percentage (60.0).

His play received a boost after he slimmed down from 274 pounds to 248 pounds before the season.

“It’s something I’ll be focusing on again in the offseason,” Favors said. “I’ll be slimming down even more. Getting quicker so I’ll be able to guard on the perimeter and be able to guard in the pick and roll.”

KORVER RETIREMENT?

Veteran guard Kyle Korver helped energize a sagging Jazz offense in his second stint with the team. Utah went 25-4 in games in which he hit two or more 3-point field goals and posted a 36-18 (.667) record after acquiring Korver in a November trade

The Jazz have a team option to pick up Korver’s contract for the 2019-20 season. It becomes partially guaranteed after July 7. At age 38, Korver is uncertain whether or not he will return for a 17th season. `

“There’s a real cost as you get older,” Korver said. “There’s all of what you need to put into the game, but there’s also a family cost. That’s probably where I’m at, is weighing that cost.”

3-POINT FLURRY

Utah’s inability to make open shots in the postseason put a damper on an otherwise solid effort from the perimeter during the season. The Jazz set a franchise record by making 10-or-more 3-pointers in 65 games this season.

Their bench provided a big push in achieving that mark. Utah’s second unit knocked down 5.7 3s per contest. That was the second most of any NBA team and the highest rate in franchise history.

DOMINANT DEFENSE

For the third straight season, Utah earned a top-five defensive rating among NBA teams. The Jazz finished with a 105.2 defensive rating, which ranked second in the league. After Jan. 1, Utah sported a league-best 105.4 defensive rating. The Jazz also posted a plus 7.7 net rating during that same stretch.

Gobert keyed much of that defensive success with his ability to lock down around the rim. He contested 16.0 shots per game, the second-highest rate among NBA players.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: What pressure? Veteran Spurs shoot way to Game 7

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Pressure? What pressure? Veteran Spurs step up, shoot San Antonio into Game 7 vs. Denver. It’s why San Antonio was a trendy upset pick in the first round against Denver: Experience. Guys they could trust in the clutch who would step up and make plays, and a coach in Gregg Popovich who would put them in positions to do just that.

Backs against the wall in Game 6, the Spurs experience mattered.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, changing his strategy to attack more by facing up on Nikola Jokic. DeMar DeRozan added 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting. Rudy Gay came off the bench for 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. The veterans took advantage of a soft Nuggets defense and just destroyed them from the midrange — look at this shot chart.

The end result was a 120-103 San Antonio win on their home court. It forces Game 7 Saturday in Denver.

The other key to this win was the San Antonio defense, and the strategy behind it. Jokic and Jamal Murray had success with a two-man game (a lot of pick-and-rolls) and the Spurs lived with that, not helping off shooters to defend the actions. The result was Jokic had a career-high (and Nuggets franchise playoff high) 43 points, doing that in 30 shots. He was a beast on the night.

However, Jokic and Murray combined to take 51 percent of Denver’s shots, up from 34.6 percent and 40.5 percent in the previous two wins — the ball movement and transition buckets that characterize the Nuggets offense were missing. Denver was taken out of its flow.

In Game 7, can that Spurs defense again take the Nuggets out of rhythm, or will the Nuggets role players feel more comfortable and shoot better than 25 percent (6-of-24) from three? It’s one game, anything can happen, and usually one unexpected player ends up being the star.

It’s good we have at least one game seven in the first round.

2) RIP John Havlicek, a basketball legend and true Celtic. John Havlicek left a heck of a legacy on the court — eight NBA titles (8-0 in the Finals), 11-time All-NBA, eight-time All-Defensive team, 13-time All-Star, Hall of Famer, probably the greatest sixth man the game has ever seen.

What matters more is his legacy off the court, where former teammates and everyone who interacted with the man praised him.

Hondo passed away Thursday at the age of 79. The love that poured in for him was genuine, and the thoughts about his game secondary.

“John Havlicek was a wonderful friend who represented the best of the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He described himself as a man of routine and discipline – a humble approach that produced extraordinary results, including eight NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, 13 All-Star selections and some of the most iconic moments in league history. A trusted teammate who prioritized winning, John’s passion and energy endeared him to basketball fans and made him a model for generations of NBA players. We send our deepest sympathies to John’s wife, Beth, his son, Chris, and his daughter, Jill, as well as the entire Celtics organization.”

3) Houston will be in Bay Area before Warriors/Clippers Game 6 ends. There is another Game 6 on Friday night, the feisty Los Angeles Clippers — and their pick-and-roll combination of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — will try to force a Game 7 against the championship favorites, the Golden State Warriors.

The Houston Rockets aren’t buying the Clippers’ chances.

Friday the Rockets are flying up to the Bay Area to get comfortable and rested before the series with the Warriors — before Game 6 is even. Tim MacMahon of ESPN first reported this.

It’s more about the league’s scheduling than the Clippers. If the Warriors win Friday (Golden State is a 10-point favorite), then the Rockets/Warriors series starts on Sunday. Steve Kerr can thank the Television Gods that run NBA playoff scheduling that gives his team just one day off to prepare for the Rockets.

The Rockets, wisely, want to be ready for the most likely outcome, which means a game on Sunday.

The Warriors admitted they were complacent in Game 5 at home, expecting to win and defending like they thought a win was their birthright. One would think blowing a 31-point lead at home earlier in the series would have taught the Warriors a lesson about underestimating the Clippers — this team is hard not to like, with its energy, passion, and Williams getting buckets — but the Warriors racked up a lot of bad habits during the regular season and they have not been that easy to shake through five games.

The Clippers have been surprising teams and spoiling plans all season long. They may do it to the Rockets, but Houston wants to be prepared for what we all know is coming — the defacto Western Conference Finals. Which probably start Sunday.

Report: FBI investigating Big Baller Brand co-founder Gregory Alan Foster

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It’s sad that people take advantage of athletes. A lot of people do it when these guys are very young and clearly talented, and Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is no stranger to that.

Ball cut ties with his Big Baller Brand earlier this year, even covering up his “BBB” tattoo with a bad-looking pair of dice. This was because Gregory Alan Foster, one of his confidants and business partners, allegedly stole money from the company to the tune of several million dollars.

Now the FBI is reportedly investigating Foster for his involvement in bilking money from Ball.

Via LA Times:

The FBI is now investigating whether Foster defrauded the Ball family out of millions of dollars, according to two law enforcement sources. While it’s unclear when exactly the official investigation began, one of those sources said it is at least two months old.

Lonzo Ball and the family’s shoe and clothing business recently accused Foster in a lawsuit of taking more than $1.5 million out of the company’s bank accounts and accepting “substantial undisclosed referral fees” from at least eight loans he arranged on behalf of the company.

“[Foster is] like my second dad,” Lonzo replied. “So when he came to me, I just talked to him and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. He just gave me his story. Now, looking back at it, obviously I wish we would have jumped at it back in October.”

According to the Times, Foster’s whereabouts are currently unknown. Hopefully Ball will be able to recover some kind of financial damages from all of this.