Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Cavaliers keep adding questions, Raptors answer theirs

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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 adds more questions after loss to Portland, Toronto keeps answering its questions. Do I have questions about how Toronto transfers what it has done this season (especially on offense) to the postseason? Yes.

However, I have far more questions about Cleveland and Boston than I do the Toronto.

Which is why Toronto is the Eastern Conference favorite right now (well, not in the mind of bookmakers, but in the minds of a growing number of NBA observers). It looked like it again Thursday, when the Raptors beat the Pacers on the road in Indiana, while a couple of hours later the Cavaliers fell on the road to the Trail Blazers.

The Cavaliers had their moments in Portland — the highlight of which was a Dunk of the Year candidate from LeBron James on Jusuf Nurkic. Ouch.

However, the Cavaliers have lost 3-of-4 and 5-of-8, and they are clearly getting frustrated — see LeBron and coach Tyronn Lue in an argument on the bench as the team fell further behind.

That argument doesn’t mean much long term, those two are just letting off some steam. It’s what is causing the frustration that is the bigger issue — Cleveland lacks any defensive cohesion. No doubt the Cavaliers are banged up — they should get Kevin Love back next week, and others such as Tristan Thompson will follow — but since the roster shakeup at the trade deadline this team tries on defense but the players are not all on the same page. Building that takes time — a training camp, a season of playing together — and the Cavaliers simply don’t have that much time left.

Meanwhile, Toronto goes into Indiana against a Pacers team that has been hot and wins (Myles Turner suffered a high ankle sprain in this one for Indy, a concern because the pick-and-pop big had been playing well of late). That’s 10 in a row for Toronto — and they didn’t play their best game. Kyle Lowry was rather “meh” with 3-of-10 shooting, and it wasn’t a great night for Serge Ibaka.

Didn’t matter. Under pressure from a good team — the current three seed in the East — the Raptors defended well, kept the ball moving on offense, got a big night from DeMar DeRozan (24 points on 15 shots with a couple of threes) and Jonas Valanciunas had 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 blocks. Dwane Casey is making the adjustments needed every night to get the win.

I get the hesitation, having watched Lowry and DeRozan struggle in the postseason before, but this season feels different in Toronto. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers just keep adding more questions to the mix.

2) West playoff update: Blazers, Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs all win, while Pelicans and Clippers lose. There were some critical head-to-head matchups in the West last night that could have major playoff implications down the line. The Rockets were attacking and playing downhill, Doc Rivers was pissed at the officiating, and Houston beat the L.A. Clippers 101-96 at home. LaMarcus Aldridge was too much for the Pelicans to deal with and San Antonio beat New Orleans 98-93 — do not count the Spurs out. (You would think people would learn that lesson by now.) As noted above, Portland beat Cleveland. The Jazz had little trouble with Phoenix, but that one guy feisty at the end as Marquese Chriss and Jared Dudley cheap shoted Ricky Rubio and were ejected. Finally, Denver got a triple-double from Nikola Jokic as the Nuggets beat the fading Pistons 120-113.

What does all that mean for the standings? Portland looks like a playoff lock right now, 4.5 games up on the nine seed with 14 to play. OKC (idle Thursday) remains the four seed, but Minnesota climbs up to fifth while New Orleans slides to sixth. Utah and San Antonio are tied for the 7-8 seeds, the final two playoff spots, while the Clippers and Nuggets are in a virtual tie for the 9-10 spots, just one game back of the Jazz and Spurs.

Just 2.5 games separate OKC in fourth and the Clippers/Nuggets just out of the playoffs. Anything could happen still in that mix. Although with Utah having won eight in a row and having the easiest schedule remaining of any team in this chase, I like their odds of staying in.

3) RIP Tom Benson. No New Orleans Pelicans fan — or NFL Saints fan, for that matter — would consider Tom Benson an ideal owner. There were plenty of warts.

However, there would be no NBA team in New Orleans right now without him.

Benson passed away Thursday from the flu at the age of 90. He had been hospitalized for a month as the flu evolved into pneumonia.

His biggest NBA legacy is that there is still a team in New Orleans. If you recall, back in 2011, George Shinn (you might remember him as the guy who almost completely poisoned the Charlotte market for the NBA) walked away from the then New Orleans Hornets and sold the team to the league. There was a line of potential new owners ready to move the franchise to another city. Benson, who had owned the NFL’s Saints since 1985, stepped up and took control of the team. He eventually had it renamed the Pelicans, something local and more meaningful to the region (and allowing the Hornet name to go back to Charlotte, where it has local significance).

Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Benson’s wife Gayle now has control of both sports franchises and the rest of his business empire (car dealerships and a bank, mostly). That line of succession is disputed by family members cut out right now, but so far the courts have sided with Gayle. What this means long term for the Pelicans is unclear, but don’t expect major changes short term.

L.A. Lakers will stay big, start Dwight Howard at center

Dwight Howard start
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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While it is easy to say the Lakers’ best lineups have Anthony Davis at center, the numbers say the Lakers are best playing big with another player at center and Davis at the four.

That’s how the Lakers will start the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Wednesday — and Dwight Howard gets the call, the team announced.

This start was expected, especially after how well Dwight Howard played in the Denver series against Nikola Jokic.

It creates an interesting defensive choice for Erik Spoelstra and the Heat: Do they start Bam Adebayo on Davis and have Jae Crowder on Howard, or reverse that. Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player who may be the best one-on-one matchup in the league for Davis,  but does Spoelstra want to risk early foul trouble for his star center, and would it wear Adebayo down to have to work so hard on both ends. Expect Crowder to start on Davis and Adebayo to get the key minutes later in the game.

The challenge for the Lakers: Howard fouls a lot.

“Probably fouling,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said when asked what was at the top of the team scouting report for the Heat. “I think they are great at getting to the free throw line. If we can play with discipline, not give them opportunities to shoot free throws, set their defense, that will help us win games, because they are great at getting to the free throw line.”

Howard can’t mess that plan up for Los Angeles. But he’s going to get the chance.

 

Two men charged with taking over NBA player’s social media accounts, selling info

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — A Louisiana man and a Florida man allegedly gained access to professional athletes’ social media accounts and either sold the information or used it to extort payments, according to federal criminal complaints released Wednesday.

Trevontae Washington and Ronnie Magrehbi each face wire fraud conspiracy and computer fraud conspiracy counts filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey.

The 21-year-old Washington, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, allegedly obtained usernames and passwords for multiple NFL and NBA players and sold access to the information.

Magrehbi, 20, of Orlando, Florida, allegedly obtained an NFL player’s email and Instagram account information and extorted money by publishing explicit photos of the player and threatening to publish more.

Washington and Magrehbi were scheduled to make initial court appearances Wednesday in their respective states. They were not alleged to have worked together on the scams.

Their alleged victims included two NFL players and one NBA player, all of whom lived in New Jersey at the time of the alleged crimes.

According to the complaint, Washington used a “phishing” scam — requesting login information purportedly for a legitimate purpose — to gain access to the accounts of one NFL player in 2018 and locked the player out of the accounts.

Washington also took over the accounts of at least two other players, and acknowledged to investigators after his arrest last year that he had sold access to players’ accounts for between $500 and $1,000 each, the complaint alleged.

Magrehbi also used phishing to take over the social media accounts of an NFL player living in New Jersey in 2018 who eventually paid him $500, according to the complaint.

A few days later, explicit images of the player were posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts and he was asked for an additional $2,500 to prevent the publishing of additional photos, the complaint alleged. The request came from a prepaid cellphone linked to Magrehbi, according to the complaint.

Court personnel for the Eastern District of Louisiana didn’t provide information on an attorney representing Washington. A message was left Wednesday at the Middle District of Florida seeking attorney information for Magrehbi.

Wire fraud conspiracy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Computer fraud conspiracy has a five-year maximum sentence.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis have two of top three selling jerseys during bubble

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The Los Angeles Lakers have the biggest, most popular brand of any NBA franchise. LeBron James is the biggest brand of any active NBA player, nationally and globally.

Combine them and it sells a lot of jerseys.

LeBron sold more jerseys during the NBA restart in Orlando than any other player, the NBA announced Wednesday, hours before LeBron and his Lakers tipped off in the NBA Finals. LeBron’s teammate, Anthony Davis, was third on the list. Here is the list released by the NBA.

Top 15 Most Popular NBA Jerseys

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
7. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
9. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
11. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
12. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
15. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

A few notes of interest:

• The sixth and seventh best selling jerseys were players who did not suit up in the bubble, Curry and Durant.
• Rookie Ja Morant sold the 15th most jerseys, making his first appearance on this list, while Zion Williamson did not make the top 15.
• Second is the highest Luka Doncic has ever finished on this list, his spectacular play in the bubble helped spike his popularity.
• These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from July 30 through Sept. 28.

Top 10 Most Popular Team Merchandise

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Chicago Bulls
4. Miami Heat
5. Golden State Warriors
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Milwaukee Bucks
9. Portland Trail Blazers
10. Denver Nuggets

Lakers have historically easy path to championship*

Lakers star LeBron James
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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By the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James was feeling the stress of facing the mighty Warriors again. LeBron and the Cavaliers toppled a 73-win Golden State in 2016… only for the Warriors to add Kevin Durant. Golden State beat Cleveland in the 2017 Finals and was on the way to repeating. The too-often overlooked aspect of LeBron’s 3-6 NBA Finals record: His competition on that level has been EXCELLENT.

Not so much this year.

At least on paper.

The fifth-seeded Heat are among the lowest lowest seeds ever to reach the NBA Finals. Miami (44-29) outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in regular-season/seeding games. That’s the lowest margin for a Finals team in the last 20 years outside the 2018 Cavs (+0.9).

And it’s not as if that’s just an East-West issue. The Lakers’ road through the Western Conference looked remarkably similar to LeBron’s challenge while he dominated the East for eight years – i.e., not that imposing.

Los Angeles’ postseason opponents’ margins per game during the regular season/seeding games:

  • Trail Blazers: -1.1
  • Rockets: +3.0
  • Nuggets: +2.1
  • Heat: +2.9

Not including themselves, the Lakers avoided the top five teams! The Bucks (+10.1), Celtics (+6.4), Clippers (+6.4), Raptors (+6.3) and Mavericks (+4.9) all had better margins per game than Houston.

Still, at the very minimum, the Lakers must win four series to win a title. In the NBA’s early days, that was just two.

The 1957 Celtics won the championship by beating the Syracuse Nationals (-1.4) and St. Louis Hawks (-0.1). That’s all it took!

Even for dominant teams, each additional series is an opportunity for something to go wrong. So, the Lakers have it tougher than many prior champions. It’s difficult to compare across eras, anyway.

But since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984, this is an incredibly soft-looking run.

The Lakers’ playoff opponents have an average margin of +1.7, which would be second-lowest for a championship team in this format. The 1987 Lakers’ opponents had an average margin of just +1.0.

Simply averaging opponents’ margins probably isn’t the best method, though. What does it matter whether a championship team faces a team barely over .500 or a team with a losing record in the first round? An eventual champion usually easily dispatches either. The more significant differences in opponent quality come in later rounds.

So, I created Postseason Strength of Schedule Score (PSSS) for title teams since 1984.

For each championship team, I multiplied the margin of their top opponent by four, the margin of their second-best opponent by three, the margin of their third-best opponent by two and the margin of their worst opponent by one then added the totals. (There is room to quibble with the ratios. I chose this for simplicity.)

The higher the PSSS, the more difficult the schedule.

The 2020 Lakers would have the lowest PSSS (23.7), narrowly behind the 1987 Lakers (23.9) but way below everyone else:

For what it’s worth, the Heat would have the highest PSSS (72.8), topping the 1995 Rockets (68.9):

The big asterisk over this entire discussion: It’s impossible to assess a team’s overall level at the exact time of a playoff series. True in a normal year, it’s especially difficult this year with a long layoff and bubble weirdness.

Yes, the Heat outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in the regular season/seeding games. How much does that have to do with Miami’s current ability, though? The Heat have looked awesome in the playoffs.

Maybe they’re particularly resilient in a way that helps in the bubble. Maybe young players like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have developed far beyond where they were in the regular season, which ended more than half a year ago. Maybe in-season acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted Miami after the Heat built most of their regular-season record.

There are infinite reasons Miami might not be the team suggested by its regular-season/seeding-game record.

Ditto Portland (which got back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and developed momentum while winning the play-in), Houston (which looked gassed when the regular season was halted) and Denver (which, honestly, might have gotten worse with Will Barton hurt and so many players recovering from coronavirus).

That said, regular-season success tends to be a strong predictor of postseason success. There’s still something to the Lakers’ playoff competition.

The Lakers would’ve been lauded for beating the Clippers and Bucks. So, shouldn’t the Lakers get more credit for beating the teams that beat the Clippers (Nuggets) and Bucks (Heat)?

There’s certainly an argument to be had. But it’s also plausible that, even though Denver and Miami won each series, the Clippers and Bucks were still better teams overall. Milwaukee had matchup issues with the Heat that wouldn’t have necessarily manifested against the Lakers. Though the Nuggets deserve credit for winning, if the teams played again fresh – even knowing the results of the series that happened – the Clippers would be favored. The Clippers definitely had a higher ceiling, and maybe they would’ve come together during a longer playoff run.

Or maybe they would’ve gotten even sicker of each other.

It’s impossible to know. All we can say: The Lakers beat the teams in front of them. That’s a great accomplishment. They have prevailed where other favorites have faltered. Every NBA title is hard to win.

Some are harder than others, though.