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.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.