Three Things to Know: Cavaliers win the only way they can, LeBron dominates

Associated Press
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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) Cleveland gets entertaining, pressure-relieving win over Minnesota. They can thank LeBron James. This is the only way Cleveland can seem to win games now: Their offense is on fire and covers up the terrible defense, LeBron James plays at an MVP level and makes all the big plays, and he gets just enough help from some role players to get the team over the top.

That recipe came together Wednesday night in the Cavaliers thrilling 140-138 overtime win against the Timberwolves.

Neither team played much defense in this one. Cleveland’s defense has been terrible all season, and after a stretch where the Timberwolves were coming together on that end they have reverted to bad habits, allowing 113.4 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 games, 28th in the NBA (and worse than Cleveland). On Wednesday the Timberwolves had an offensive rating of 129.7, the Cavaliers 130.4.

From the opening tip, LeBron James was engaged — unline many recent games — and the Cavaliers needed all of it. He got some good support and energy from Cedi Osman and Jeff Green off the bench, and J.R. Smith pitched in 20 points on 14 shots, but it took LeBron’s triple-double to get the win —37 points, 15 assists, and 10 rebounds.

It also took LeBron making all the plays down the stretch. Like a game-saving block on Jimmy Butler with seconds left in overtime.

Then there was LeBron hitting the game-winner over Butler.

This win doesn’t solve Cleveland’s problems — the team still can’t defend, it has some serious structural issues, and LeBron and Dan Gilbert are not now best friends. But the Cavs desperately needed a win, and they got it. It relieves a little pressure on the situation. For now.

2) Don’t look now, but the Pistons have won five in a row since Blake Griffin arrived. When Stan Van Gundy traded for Blake Griffin he was largely ripped by NBA pundits (I panned the move myself). From the start taking on four-and-a-half seasons of Griffin at max salary, especially with his injury history, was something I saw as tying the team’s hands long-term (especially combined with the Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson contracts) and putting a ceiling on how good they were going to be long-term.

But short-term it’s been a boost.

The Pistons are now 5-0 with Griffin after a 115-106 win against Brooklyn, a win that has them in a virtual tie for the final playoff slot in the East. Detroit has a top-8 offense and defense since the trade, and Griffin is averaging 21.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, plus Griffin is assisting on 31.3 percent of teammates buckets when he’s on the court. He’s making plays, developing a real chemistry with Andre Drummond, and the Pistons look like a playoff team.

It’s going to be close the rest of the way between Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami, and maybe Indiana (if they stumble a little) for the final playoff spots in the East. When the music stops and the season ends one of those teams is going to be without a chair and will be in Cabo rather than on the court. A few weeks ago that looked like it would be Detroit, but with Griffin they look like they could be in ( says they have a 53 percent chance of making it).

3) Paul George says he is happy in Oklahoma City, but don’t confuse that with him staying or sure. Recent comments from Paul George made it sound like he was going to re-sign with the Thunder this summer, and the Lakers have taken this to mean they are out of the running to land him this summer.

Not so fast, my friend.

George opened the door a little with comments to Sam Amick of the USA Today, saying he’s certainly happy in OKC — but that doesn’t mean he’s staying for sure.

The Thunder are all in on George, they are shooting down trade requests for him (sorry Cavaliers fans). In its mind, Oklahoma City plans to re-sign George this summer. However, George may feel differently. He is going to get through the playoffs with this team, step back and size-up the situation, and make the call. Oklahoma City had an impressive win against the Warriors the other night, but they also seem headed for a tough first-round playoff matchup with Minnesota, followed by meeting those Warriors (who will be a lot more focused in the playoffs). An early exit could change minds. Or not. We can’t say from the outside and months before free agency is a reality, nobody knows what George will decide. Not even George.

But that trip to Los Angeles is not off the table. Never was.

Denver keeps executing under pressure, Gordon and Brown spark win to take command of series


MIAMI — The Nuggets just kept executing.

Nikola Jokić gets sent to the bench with five fouls — after Bam Adebayo earned an Oscar nomination drawing it — and it feels like the game was about to turn with the crowd rocking and the Nuggets lead down to 10. Jokić returned after 5:16 of game time and the Nuggets are still up nine. Without the two-time MVP, the Nuggets just kept executing their offense.

The Heat played their most physical, intense defense of the Finals, selling out to slow Jamal Murray in particular and not letting him score 30+ again. The Nuggets just executed their offense, and Murray finished with 12 assists without one turnover while others stepped up — led by Aaron Gordon with a game-high 27 and Bruce Brown with 21 points off the bench.

It was like that all game long. Whenever Miami would make a run — the kind of stretch that became an avalanche and overwhelmed Boston and Milwaukee — Denver would just get the ball to Jokić, or Murray would draw the defense and kick to an open shooter, and the Nuggets executed their offense and got a bucket. They calmed things down, they didn’t contribute to their own demise.

It was championship-level execution from the Nuggets as they closed the game on a 17-7 run. The Nuggets were doing to the Heat in Miami what the Heat had done to every other team they faced this postseason.

Denver won Game 4 108-92, sweeping the two games in Miami (both by double digits), and now have a commanding 3-1 NBA Finals lead.

Game 5 is Monday night in Denver and it may feel more like a coronation than a basketball game.

Miami played hard. The Heat came out with their plan, they attacked the rim and did get 46 points in the paint. They outscored the Nuggets in the paint.

But facing Denver’s elite offense, Miami needs more points and the path to that is knocking down their 3s — Miami was 8-of-25, 32%. Denver was 14-of-28 (50%) from beyond the arc.

Early on this felt like it could be a Heat night. The game was a rock fight from the opening tip, with both teams playing intense defense and missing shots they have hit much of the series. However, Denver appeared comfortable in that style and pushed their lead out to seven. Then Jimmy Butler scored seven points in a 10-2 Heat run to end the quarter and it was 21-20 Miami after one.

The start of the second quarter would prove to be foreshadowing of the critical stretch of the fourth quarter.

The Nuggets were +1 in non-Jokić minutes to start the second thanks to eight points from Gordon in that stretch. Gordon stretched that out to 16 in the quarter and helped the Nuggets lead by four at the half — 55-51 — in a game that continued to be played in the Heat’s preferred style. Jokić had 16 points at the half but just two assists.

Denver started the third playing maybe their best basketball of the series and looking to blow the game open, getting the lead up to 13. But then came a stretch of sloppy basketball that let the Heat get the lead down to six and hang around the game. Things were getting intense…

Then came a several-minute break to check a bent rim and backboard that were at an angle. They were pulled there by a Bam Adebayo missed dunk (he missed a lot of bunnies this game), a problem noticed by Kyle Lowry. Jokić tried to hang on the rim to fix it, but it took a guy in a suit going up a ladder with a level and some tools.

Soon after Jokić to the bench with 9:24 left in the game and it felt like the entire Finals were going to turn.

The Nuggets just kept executing. Nothing changed.

And they are now one win away from the franchise’s first NBA title.

Nuggets reportedly trade draft picks with Thunder to help keep title window open


The Denver Nuggets are just two wins from the franchise’s first NBA championship.

While Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray are trying to pick-and-roll their way to those wins, the Nuggets front office has made a trade to try and keep their title window open. The Nuggets are trading their 2029 first-round pick (protected) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 37 pick in this June’s NBA Draft and the worst of the Thunder’s 2024-first round picks, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Nuggets now control the No. 37 and 40 picks in the 2023 NBA Draft, plus this additional 2024 pick. The Nuggets will try to use this 2024 first-round pick to move into the first round of this year’s draft, reports Mike Singer of the Denver Post. (Denver’s first-round pick at No. 27 belongs to Charlotte through a series of trades.)

A first-round pick and some high second-round picks allows Nuggets GM Calvin Booth to bring in several low-priced rookies who can potentially be part of the roster and rotation, freeing up money to keep an expensive core of Jokic, Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the rest. The hope is to find another Christian Braun at the back of the first round who can contribute as a rookie.

With Jokić, Murray, Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon all locked in on big deals for the next two seasons after this, the challenge for the Nuggets is keeping quality rotation players around them to help them compete for a title without going deeper into the tax than ownership wants. Jeff Green is a free agent this summer and Bruce Brown has a $6.8 million player option that he will certainly opt out of (he will get an offer for more than $10 million a season). The Nuggets already are $7 million into the luxury tax (via Spotrac) and are looking for a way to keep below the second tax apron, making bringing those key players back a challenge.

Hence the trade, as the Nuggets look for ways to fill out their rotation with quality, but affordable, players. Good drafting — like Braun — is a way.

What does OKC get out of this? They have more first-round draft picks than they can use in the coming few years, this spreads a pick out to 2029, which they can use then or trade, depending on their needs at the time.

Heat’s Tyler Herro remains out for Game 4. Will he play in Finals?


MIAMI — With Tyler Herro not cleared to play in Game 3 of the NBA Finals and Game 4 just 48 hours later, it should be no surprise that we won’t see Herro on Friday night.

Herro is officially listed as out for Game 4. He has been out since April 16 with a severe hand fracture suffered in the first game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Herro went through a brief part of the public practice/shootaround in front of the media Thursday but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game.

“This is just part of the process,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to go through stages. First part of it was just shooting, then movement, then contact versus coaches, and then the next level of contact in practice. He has not been cleared for a game, and he is still not cleared yet.”

Even if Herro were cleared for later in the series — and the Heat players and coaches say to a man he is putting in the work — how much of a role could he play at this point? While on paper he provides shooting and shot creation Miami needs this series (although he would be a target on defense), he hasn’t played in a game for nearly two months and Spoelstra can’t just throw him into the highest level of basketball in the world mid-series. Maybe he could get in a few non-Jokić minutes off the bench, but it’s a big ask for anything more than that. And maybe it’s too big an ask for even that.

Listening to Spoelstra’s tone, I wouldn’t expect to see Herro in this series.

And this summer, don’t be surprised when Herro’s name comes up in a lot of trade rumors.

Rumor: Suns could make run at James Harden this summer


James Harden is widely expected to opt out of the $35.6 million he is owed for next season because, even if you acknowledge he is not MVP-level Harden anymore, he’s worth more than that in the NBA marketplace. At least $10 million more a season. Harden is reportedly “torn” between returning to Philadelphia or going back home to Houston (the sources NBC Sports talks to around the league have Houston as the frontrunner).

Maybe Phoenix can enter the conversation. There had been talk the Suns might make another big swing this offseason, then came this from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne appearing on ESPNLA Radio (hat tip Hoopshype):

“I want you to keep your eye on James Harden [going to Phoenix]. I don’t want to report anything, but that was in the wind for the past month or so. Everybody thinks it’s Philly or Houston, but I don’t know, there have been discussions in the wind.”

Interesting. The smart money should still be bet on Houston. Phoenix is a crazy longshot because the Suns don’t have the cap space to sign Harden outright at market value.

The only way the Suns could make a direct trade work is to convince Harden to do an opt-in and trade, where he picks up that $35.6 million and the Suns extend him off that, because if he opts out — as expected — then any sign-and-trade hardcaps the Suns. With Harden, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on the books, a hard-capped Suns team would have to round out the roster with minimum contract guys. They would have no depth.

Also, who are the Suns sending back to Philadelphia in that deal? The 76ers have no interest in Deandre Ayton, Philly is pretty set at center with the MVP. That means getting a third team involved, one that wants Ayton, and will send players back to the 76ers they want. It gets very complicated very fast. Or, can Phoenix pick up Chris Paul‘s $30.8 million for this season and do a Harden for CP3 swap? Good luck selling that.

No doubt the Suns, with aggressive new owner Mat Ishbia, want to make another bold move or two this summer, but pulling off a James Harden deal would be challenging. To put it politely.

And Harden probably wants to go home to Houston anyway.