Three Things to Know: Nothing but takeaways from Cavaliers beating Raptors

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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. Today we’re doing things a little differently, despite some other interesting games — Dwight Howard dropping 30-and-30, the genuine concern about Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ankle, and the Pelicans beating the Pacers because Anthony Davis is ridiculous — we are going to focus on the likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Toronto at Cleveland, which the Cavaliers won 132-129.

What we are not taking away from this is a prediction of a playoff matchup between these two teams. Forget the fact that regular season meetings are crappy predictors of playoff series in general, here are three other issues: 1) Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven days, which factored into their poor defense and late fade; 2) Cleveland is going to be healthier and have different guys in the rotation come the playoffs; 3) If Dwane Casey or Larry Drew/Tyronn Lue have a tactic they think could be a great weapon against the other side, no chance they break it out for long in a late-season game — they will save it for the playoffs. Sort of like to NFL teams playing each other in week 16 when they know they could meet in the playoffs. We didn’t see the best of either side.

That said, let’s get on to the real three things.

1) The biggest factor in the Eastern Conference remains LeBron James and his level of play. There are questions about how well the new-look Raptors will carry over to the playoffs. There are more questions (at least in my mind) about how well this Cavaliers roster can defend, even when healthy. All that said, this game was a reminder of one simple fact:

LeBron James can lift a team to the NBA Finals almost by himself — he’s been to seven straight Finals for a reason. He is the force of nature, he’s still playing at an MVP-level (at age 33 in his 15th season), and he took over this game with 35 points, 17 assists, and zero turnovers.

LeBron shot 62 percent from three on the night, had 14 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter alone, and was the difference in this game. OG Anunoby is the guy the Raptors will likely lean on in the playoffs to make LeBron work for his buckets, but he looked like a guys still working his way back from injury (and like a rookie with tired legs late in the season), it was Pascal Siakam who did the best of any Raptor (LeBron was 4-of-10 with Siakam guarding him on the night). That’s something we would see in the postseason, but nobody really had an impact, and the Raptors need to figure out how to make LeBron work harder for his buckets.

Put simply, the Eastern Conference is all about LeBron James. Still. And it will remain so until further notice.

2) Which one of these teams will defend better come the playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 79 first-half points and allowed the Raptors a 135.8 offensive rating on the night (points per 100 possessions). Kyle Lowry put it this way after the game, “Disgraceful display of defense by us. We’ve got to be better than that.” The Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 140.4 (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Neither team defended well. If this was an Eastern Conference playoff preview, the team that improves their defense the most between now and then will come out on top.

Toronto has defended better all season — they are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating — but it didn’t show Wednesday. Maybe it was the back-to-back, fifth-game-in-seven-days that took their legs out from under them, particularly for the older Serge Ibaka who had an off night on both ends. (Tired legs also would explain the lack of transition points by the Raptors on the night, they needed those easy buckets). Maybe it’s the fact nobody has a good answer for LeBron. Maybe a lot of things, but the Raptors need to do better defensively in a playoff series or the outcome will be the same.

The Cavaliers lack cohesion on defense, and while they will get better defenders back from injury — Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. — that is not going to speed up the team getting used to each other on that end. Cleveland has to have better energy, they need to close out on shooters better (the Raptors got open looks late on kickouts, they missed injured C.J. Miles), and they just need more efforts like veteran Jose Calderon gave (it was a good night for him). Cleveland has time to get its defenders on the same page, but not a lot of it.

3) Is Toronto’s bench going to matter as much in the playoffs? Toronto’s bench unit has been key to their success all season — the Raptors took a double-digit lead in the second quarter thanks to their bench (who has done that to teams all season long). The Raptors lineup of Jakab Poeltl, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright was +6 in 10 minutes Wednesday. The Lowry plus bench unit has killed teams all season long.

Will it matter in the playoffs?

Right now coaches are going nine or 10 deep in their rotations, and the Raptors depth matters in that situation — their bench can beat your bench. It happened against the Cavaliers. However, come the playoffs the minutes that went to guys nine and 10 in the rotation go to guys one and two — the bench tightens way up, and the best players get more minutes. A deep bench doesn’t have the same impact.

What that bench will provide Casey in the playoffs is options — if Anunoby is struggling against LeBron bring in Siakam — but it’s not the same as the regular season. I love that in big games recently against the Thunder and Cavaliers Casey is still playing around with his lineups for stretches — now is the time to experiment. Now is the time to get guys used to playing with each other. That way, come the playoffs, Casey can throw the combination out there that he thinks works and there will be familiarity.

But the Raptors will need more from their starters in the playoffs because the bench will not have the same impact.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers look like playoff threat

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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) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers get the win and look like playoff force. Here’s the one big takeaway from Philadelphia going into Milwaukee and getting a 130-125 victory:

Good lord the East playoffs are going to be fun.

Sunday, against a long and athletic defensive team that put Joel Embiid on him for much of the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP. He was too overpowering and too athletic to stop on his way to 52 points and shooting 12-of-18 in the paint (and 3-of-8 from three). The Greek Freak looked every bit the MVP (but after the game did praise Embiid’s defense).

That wasn’t enough to get the win. In part because Bucks who don’t have 13 letters in their last name didn’t step up in the ways needed and shot just 31 percent from three (while the Sixers were 15-of-32 from deep). In part because the Sixers powerful starting five could hang with the Antetokounmpo-led Bucks starters despite the 52 because they moved the ball, sacrificed, and played a team game.

Also in part because Joel Embiid impressed with 40 points and 15 boards himself.

But mostly it was how Brett Brown found rotations where a couple starters with some bench players could work. The fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic were +12 in just under 11 minutes. Finding bench lineups and rotations that work will be critical for Philly over the remaining dozen games, but if it comes together like it did Sunday the Sixers could be making a deep playoff run. Like into June.

2) We live in a universe where Mario Hezonja blocks a LeBron James game-winning attempt. It was set up to be another moment where a non-Knicks superstar steps up in the clutch and puts on a show in Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks were up by one with 22.3 seconds left, the Lakers inbounded the ball to LeBron James, who already had 33 points on the night. The King isolated on Mario Hezonja, drove the lane and… denied.

Hezonja’s defense for the win. (There’s a sentence I never expected to type.)

The Knicks — the worst team in the NBA this season (by record) — finished the game on a 13-1 run to beat the Lakers. What does that say about Los Angeles at this point of the season?

3) Lou Williams just gets buckets, hits game-winner for Clippers over Nets. In the battle of two League Pass favorites, two of the league’s most scrappy teams in the Nets and Clippers, Lou Williams stepped up and made the “this is why I’m Sixth Man of the Year” play.

Tied 116-116 with 5.3 seconds left, Doc Rivers kept it simple: inbound to Danilo Gallinari, have him pass then set a screen for Williams. It didn’t create much space, but it created enough.

The Clippers and Nets most likely will not make it out of the first round of the playoffs in their respective conferences, but whoever gets these teams is going to have a first-round battle on their hands. These teams will make it tough.

BONUS THING TO KNOW:C.J. McCollum out with strained muscle but it could have been much worse. If the Trail Blazers do not have C.J. McCollum for the playoffs their stay in the postseason is guaranteed to be short.

After what looked to be a scary injury, McCollum just has a strained the popliteus, a muscle in the back of his left knee. “Just” may be the wrong word as back in 2009 Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and basically the playoffs because of this injury — Portland has 13 games left in the season.

McCollum will miss most if not all of the remaining regular season games and Portland could slide down the standings in the tight West because of it. But he may be back for the playoffs, and with him Portland will have a chance. His recovery will be something to watch.

Dwyane Wade switches up jersey swap with NFL’s Ryan Shazier (PHOTO)

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Dwyane Wade has been on a goodbye tour all season long, and part of that has been him swapping jerseys with various players around the league. One of the most memorable exchanges came with longtime playoff foe Dirk Nowitzki, who could be playing in the final season of his own career.

But during the Miami Heat’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, Wade decided to switch things up.

In attendance was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spine injury in 2017 that left him unable to play ever since. Shazier has been an inspiration to those trying to battle back from catastrophic spinal trauma, and as recently as late 2018 started walking unassisted again.

Wade decided to give Shazier his jersey after the Bucks game, and even called him a hero on his Instagram.

Via IG:

Wade’s game hasn’t aged all that gracefully, but his final season has been a feel-good story from a star in a year where it feels like all the news from superstars is negative. If this really is his last year in the NBA, he’s making the most of it and doing it right, securing his legacy and setting the stage for his legend to grow through the lens of nostalgia as he rides off into the sunset.

Good for Wade for sharing this moment with Shazier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 52 but Joel Embiid gets last laugh (VIDEO)

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 52 points, but Joel Embiid had 40 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers over the Milwaukee Bucks 130-125 on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo was 15 of 26 from the field, including 3 of 8 from 3-point range, and made 19 of 21 free throws to better his previous career best by eight points.

Embiid and the Sixers weathered a late charge by Milwaukee to beat the team with the best overall record in the NBA (52-18) and the top home record (27-6). It was the fifth time this season Embiid scored 40 or more points and came in his fourth game back after missing nine straight with left knee soreness.

Jimmy Butler added 27 points, JJ Redick 19 and Tobias Harris 12 for the Sixers, near the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 45-15.

Milwaukee had a brief scare when Antetokounmpo was fouled on a driving layup and landed awkwardly late in the third. He got up favoring his right leg, but then sank one of two free throws.

Embiid scored 18 points and Butler had 14 in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo’s three-point play pulled the Bucks to 118-114 with 1:18 to go, but Ben Simmons then tipped in Embiid’s miss.

The Bucks got to 3 points twice in the closing seconds, but Embiid and Harris each made two free throws to seal the win.

Khris Middleton scored 13 points and Brooks Lopez added 11 for the Bucks.

Mike Scott hit a wide-open 3 to give the Sixers a 98-86 lead early in the fourth and force the Bucks to burn a timeout.

Scott also provided a fun highlight – late in the first quarter, he made a dive into the stands trying to save a loose ball. He landed in the second row, surprised a fan by taking a quick sip of her drink, and ran back on defense as play continued.

TIP-INS

76ers: Philadelphia moved to a season-high 20 games over .500

Bucks: Nikola Mirotic started for Malcolm Brogdon, who is out with a minor plantar fascia tear in his right foot. Brogdon had started 64 of 69 games and is out indefinitely. . Recalled F Christian Wood from the Wisconsin Herd.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

There was a pregame moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the New Zealand mosque attacks.

UP NEXT

76ers: Play at Charlotte on Tuesday.

Bucks: Host the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

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

LeBron James gets blocked on game-winning shot attempt vs. Knicks (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is not having a great first year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s now on a minutes restriction, and the team has been mired in controversy surrounding potential trades for Anthony Davis on the way to missing the playoffs.

It’s called James’ public persona into question for many, and Sunday night’s failure at Madison Square Garden felt like the perfect encapsulation of what it’s been like for LeBron.

The play of the game came with just 2.3 seconds left. New York Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay had previously sunk two free throws to give his squad the lead, 124-123.

On the ensuring possession, James had the ball on the left mid-post with New York’s Mario Hezonja  guarding him. James went up for the shot, which Hezonja promptly blocked.

Via Twitter:

Space Jam 2 can’t get here fast enough for ol’ LeBron.