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.

LeBron James drops 31, leads Lakers comeback to beat Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rode a big third quarter to a a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

The Lakers bounced back after a loss to Orlando on Wednesday night that snapped their nine-game winning streak. The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which ties a season high, and they have dropped four of five.

Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.

Los Angeles didn’t lead in the first half but used a 32-point third quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth.

Houston used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 with about seven minutes left, but the Lakers scored the next six points to extend it to 110-94 midway through the quarter. That sent many Rockets fans streaming for the exits and caused a large contingent of Lakers fans to start chanting, “Let’s go Lakers.”

The Rockets did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.

The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 69-68, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter. James capped that run by making a basket and then added another one seconds later after JaVale McGee blocked a dunk attempt by Clint Capela. McGee beat his chest and screamed after in Capela’s direction after the play and received a technical foul for taunting.

There were about seven minutes left in the third when Westbrook and Anthony Davis, who missed the game with an injury, both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

The Lakers led by three later in the third when Kuzma scored the first four points of a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 85-75.

Houston had a chance to cut the deficit at the end of the third quarter, but Westbrook missed two free throws to leave the Lakers up 91-82 entering the fourth.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.