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Three Things to Know: LeBron is energized again, which should scare league

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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) Two games in for the new-look Cavaliers and they look dangerous again. Go ahead and make all the “small sample size” alert warnings you want after two games of the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers — both wins after the Cavs knocked off the Thunder in OKC Tuesday 120-112 — but there are two clear takeaways so far:

LeBron James is energized again — and that should scare the league. For the first 10 weeks of this season, LeBron was a serious MVP candidate playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He carried the Cavs as far as one man could, but that was only the three seed because of the injuries/abysmal defense/lack of effort from everyone around him. LeBron wore down and became part of the problem, settling for jumpers on offense and not getting back or rotating sharply on defense.

With a new crew healthy (except for Kevin Love, still out with a broken hand) and putting in effort around him, LeBron looks like his vintage self again and dropped 37 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Thunder Tuesday.

• The bench play is suddenly legitimate for Cleveland. For all LeBron’s brilliance, the Cavaliers were -1 when he was on the court in this game, the Thunder starters were +5 as a unit in their 18 minutes. The difference was Cleveland has a bench now, one that extended the lead at the start of the fourth while LeBron rested and created a gap Oklahoma City could never close. Jordan Clarkson has the ball in his hands driving and making plays, Larry Nance Jr. is bringing energy and some high IQ play, and with Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood on the court there is plenty of shooting. That second unit, with Jeff Green making shots, started the fourth on a 9-0 run and created the separation the Cavs needed. Granted, the Thunder bench is an issue for them (and will be come the playoffs), but this is a good sign for Cleveland.

It’s just two games, let’s see what happens as the scouting reports pile up and teams adapt, but Cleveland looks like a real threat again. And with an engaged LeBron, this could be the team to beat in the East again.

2) James Harden looks every bit the MVP dropping 34 points on Minnesota. If the season ended today, James Harden would be your MVP. At least he’d have my vote (and I sense a lot of others).

It’s a recognition Harden wants badly, he feels he was robbed last year (a two-man race that Russell Westbrook won) and after a few seasons near the top of that race he wants his. Don’t expect him to let up now, with 26 games to go in the season. As evidence, look at the 34 points and 13 assists he dropped on Minnesota Tuesday night in another Houston win.

There is no simple formula to determine MVP, each voter has his or her own criteria, but most of the time the award ends up in the hands of the best player on a team with 55 or more wins, the guy having an elite season even by those standards. Houston is on pace for 63 wins and Harden leads the NBA in points per game (31.4), and he’s doing it efficiently which has him on top of a number of advanced stats categories (from the more basic PER to things like win shares per 48, and value over replacement player). After LeBron’s mid-season mental vacation, Harden has emerged as the man to beat in the MVP race.

3) Nuggets beat Spurs, and the back half of the West playoff race is stupid close. As of Wednesday morning, the San Antonio Spurs at 35-24 are the three seed in the West. (As a side note, if you’re one of the “disgruntled” Spurs fans trolling the team on Twitter for not being good enough this season despite doing this basically without Kawhi Leonard, you need to get outside, breathe some fresh air, and get a life. This team has overachieved.)

The Los Angeles Clippers are the nine seed and currently out of the playoffs — and they are just four games back of the Spurs. The 10th seeded Jazz are just five games back of the three-seeded Spurs, and the Jazz have won 10 straight and are the league’s hottest team now that they are healthy.

After the Warriors and Rockets, who are running away with the top two seeds, anything could happen in the West. The margins are slim and every game matters. Which is why Denver knocking off San Antonio 117-109 behind a triple-double from Nikola Jokic — 27 points 11 rebounds, 11 assists — matters. Denver is in the middle of that morass in the West and needs all the wins it can get — ones like this over the Spurs (or another recently over the Warriors) matters.

Let’s be clear, the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Thunder almost certainly hold on to their playoff slots (3-5) barring major injury (or, for the Spurs, another major injury). But after that, it’s five teams for three spots — Denver, Portland, New Orleans, the L.A. Clippers, and Utah — and they are all separated by two games. It’s the definition of wide open. Fivethirtyeight.com predicts the Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers will come out on top, but even the Clippers and Pelicans have a 50/50 chance (or slightly better) of getting into the postseason. It’s that close. For these teams, the playoffs start the day after the All-Star break.

Report: Mutual interest in Cavaliers keeping Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson
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Tristan Thompson has played every one of his nine NBA seasons in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.

There have been questions about where the free-agent big man will play his 10th season. The Cavaliers traded for Andre Drummond to become their starting five, limiting both Thompson’s role and the money Cleveland would spend for the backup center role.

There is still “mutual interest” in a return, Cavs GM Koby Altman told Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s mutual interest for sure,” general manager Koby Altman said about the possibility of re-signing Thompson. “He’s been with this franchise his entire career since we drafted him. He’s won a championship here. Obviously, he means a lot to the players on the team right now, but it has to make sense. There are some events coming up — the draft, free agency — where we have to see if it makes sense for him. He’s earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent and explore opportunities at this point in his career. So, we’ll see.”

Tristan Thompson, 30, has battled nagging injuries in recent seasons but started most of the Cavaliers’ games before the shut down of the league last season, stayed healthy, and averaged 12 points and 10.1 rebounds a game playing 30 minutes a night.

How much of a market there will be for Thompson remains to be seen, especially in uncertain financial times around the league, but it will not be anywhere near the $18.5 million he made this season. He brings rebounding, defense, and a veteran presence to a team, but in general teams are not spending on the center spot right now, seeing that as a mercenary position where they can get a solid player at a cheap price. Thompson may have other suitors offering a larger role than Cleveland can, but the money is not likely to be much different.

Thompson’s camp asked for a trade at the deadline this past season (Cleveland couldn’t find a deal it liked), but when it comes time to decide this offseason he may want to stay with the organization he knows not a new one, if the money is the same. It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Thompson and the Cavaliers.

 

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.