Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers preview: Three things to watch

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Before the season tipped off, this is the Eastern Conference Finals we expected. However, the path to get here was nothing like we envisioned. Gordon Hayward out. Kyrie Irving out. Cleveland radically shaking up its roster at the trade deadline.

Yet in the end, here we are — a repeat of last year’s conference finals that the Cavaliers won. They are the favorites again, but this series is not going to be a sweep like the round before, the Celtics are disciplined and playing at a higher level than anyone the Cavs have seen this postseason. Boston has a shot to win this.

Here are three things to watch in this series.

1) Can the Celtics wear down LeBron James with multiple fresh defenders? The question isn’t “who is guarding LeBron?” but rather “how many guys will be guarding LeBron?” The Celtics have a wealth of defenders who will get their turn on The King: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum (in very limited stints), Semi Ojeleye (off the bench), heck I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brad Stevens ask Dave Cowens if he can still give them 10 good minutes. The idea is to keep fresh bodies on LeBron and hope that he wears down just a little having to work harder to get his shots.

The bigger question is how will the Celtics choose to defend LeBron? In the last two series, Boston was willing to largely single cover the opposing team’s star and let him rack up points — Giannis Antetokounmpo then Joel Embiid — but then stay home on the shooters and the rest of the players. It’s a good plan, one the Raptors tried to employ last round — rookie OG Anunoby did a respectable job on LeBron (as much as can be expected) but the Raptors did not silence Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, or J.R. Smith. If Boston goes with this system they will face a serious challenge because LeBron is both a high IQ player and a gifted passer. However, Boston is a far more disciplined defense that is far more switchable, has far more mobile big men, and doesn’t make the mistakes that Toronto (and before them Indiana did). Boston is going to follow the standard book to a degree and try to turn LeBron into a jumpshooter. LeBron is going to have to carry an even bigger load this series. He’s also fully capable of that.

2) Will a season of bad defensive habits from the Cavaliers catch up with them? No need to rehash how the Celtics were 29th in the NBA in defense during the regular season, but if you think they have been much better in the playoffs, think again: Cleveland allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, it has been 108.4 per 100 in the playoffs (10th out of the 16 teams). Cleveland’s defensive effort has been better, as it will be in this series, but their communication and recognition have not been sharp.

That’s something Boston can exploit because this is not a team where the defense can just target one guy (Victor Oladipo) or even two (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan). The Celtics get their buckets out of their system and trust all five guys on the floor to make the right pass, the right cut, and when the time comes take the shot.

Boston makes a defense work for the entire 24 seconds, Cleveland has not been good at second and third defensive efforts. Cavaliers’ defenders can get twisted around on pick-and-rolls, and particularly dribble handoffs (which the Celtics run a lot of). All of which is to say Boston is going to rack up points in this series. The challenge will be getting stops against that Cavalier offense on the other end.

3) How will Cleveland primarily defend Al Horford, with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson? The answer to this question is less about Horford and more about Tyronn Lue’s philosophy for the series, is he thinking offensively or defensively? We’ll find out quickly with how he chooses to start the game against Boston. In the previous series against Toronto, Kevin Love started at the five and it was a huge advantage for Cleveland on offense because it pulled Jonas Valanciunas away from the basket and forced him to defend in space, something he struggled with (and JV couldn’t make Love pay on defense). However, in the first round against the Pacers, Thompson and his defensive presence in the paint — and on the offensive glass — proved to be important for Cleveland.

Boston brings Horford to the table — he is comfortable protecting the rim and playing inside, plus he can step out and defend on the perimeter. Love and Korver’s corner action is not going to flummox Horford like it did JV and the Raptors, he will sniff it out and make plays.

On the other end, something to watch: Boston may try to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Horford setting the screen for LeBron’s man (or, if LeBron is on Jaylen Brown as he was often during the season, Brown sets the screen) just to force LeBron to switch and be active on defense. Yes that means pulling Cleveland’s best defender into the play, but it also makes LeBron work on defense, where mostly the Cavs try to hide him and let him rest until key moments of the game. This is part of the “wear him ou”t strategy from above.

Knicks will not offer Kristaps Porzingis max contract extension to preserve cap space

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Inking Kristaps Porzingis to a max five-year, $158 million extension to his rookie contract seems like a no-brainer for the Knicks. Porzingis is more than the best player on the Knicks, he is where the fans have placed their faith. Yes, he’s coming off an ACL tear that will keep him out for at least part of this coming season, but he is the Knicks’ cornerstone to their rebuild. The man should get paid.

And he will the Knicks say… just not this summer.

Team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry said at a press conference they talked with Porzingis about paying him as a restricted free agent next summer to preserve cap space to land more talent to play alongside him. From Marc Berman of the New York Post.

The Knicks hope to re-sign Porzingis when he is a restricted free agent in 2019. That way, the team could climb over the salary cap. An extension now would take up precious cap room. Doing it next summer would open up $10 million in cap space.

“Our philosophy is that we’re going to stay connected with [the Porzingis camp],” Perry said. “It’s a long-term thing. Obviously, you mentioned the point of the cap space in July. But we just feel like we’re in a real good space with him, as well as he is with us. And we’re going to do the right thing by him and this organization.”

“He’ll never feel like he’s not a cornerstone part of what we’re trying to do here,” Mills said. “He understands that. We make that crystal clear to him and his representation.”

The Knicks are going big game hunting next summer and Kyrie Irving is reportedly at the top of their target list. Jimmy Butler also could be an option (the Knicks are on his short trade list, but the team made it clear they are not giving up assets to get a player they can land in free agency).

What the Knicks are doing with Porzingis has been done before by teams, most notably the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard (and that move is not part of the ill-will between the sides that led to the trade to Toronto). It can work — if the player fully understands this is simply a cap/flexibility move and is not offended by the “snub.” The question is how does Porzingis and his camp feel about it? We will find out down the line.

Either way, the Knicks will be able to keep Porzingis, they can offer the same extension next summer, and can match any offer another team might make to poach the star big man. However, to get to that point Porzingis would have had to sign that offer sheet from another team, a sign of discord between the sides. The Knicks cannot let it get to that. They cannot allow bad blood build up. New coach David Fizdale flew to Latvia this summer to talk to Porzingis and get him on board with the plan. The energy seems good between them, the Knicks can’t let money get in the way of that.

At the press conference, the Knicks’ brass also refused to put a timetable on Porzingis’ return from the ACL surgery last February. He is expected to miss much of the season, not returning until around Christmas at the earliest and maybe closer to the All-Star break in February. Or later. The Knicks are not going to pressure him.

J.R. Smith gets shirtless as Browns win first game since 2016 (VIDEO)

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LeBron James may be a Los Angeles Laker now, but JR Smith is still with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Media day is right around the corner, and so NBA players are trickling in to their respective cities from their offseason locations.

Thankfully for us, Smith is already in Cleveland.

On Thursday night, the Cleveland Browns of the NFL won their first regular season game since Dec. 24, 2016. In attendance was none other than Smith, and lo and behold he was once again shirtless.

Just the way we like him.

Via Twitter:

Smith was famously shirtless in 2016 during the Cavaliers’ championship parade (and seemingly for much of that summer) after they beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Someone even printed out a shirt you could wear that turned you into a shirtless JR.

There probably won’t be much celebrating in Cleveland for Smith this season, and therefore not many reasons for him to get shirtless on everyone. The Browns winning a Thursday night game seems like an appropriate arena for this type of thing now.

Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, John Wall team up for Hurricane Florence relief

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Along with Michael Jordan, several other NBA players, teams, and the league have decided to team up in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Relief for the eastern seaboard, specifically the Carolinas, has been the subject of many charitable efforts thus far.

Now we can add Chris Paul, John Wall, and Stephen Curry to the list of players trying to help the beleaguered coastal states.

All three players are natives of North Carolina, with Curry being from Charlotte, Wall being from Raleigh and Paul being from Winston-Salem. The three are the public face of an effort to raise $500,000 to help aid in post-hurricane relief.

Via Twitter:

The damage from Florence has been significant. According to one report from NBC News, home losses in the town of New Bern, NC (pop: 30,101) have reached an estimated $32 million.

Moody’s Analytics released a report that said that a conservative estimate of total damage caused by Florence is in the range of $17 billion.

Video from the North Carolina Department of Transportation published on social media this week confirmed how great the flooding was just in terms of visual scale.

If you’d like to help donate to the effort, you can do so by clicking the link in Curry’s tweet or following the link here.

Richard Jefferson’s father killed in drive-by shooting in Los Angeles

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Richard Jefferson Sr., 65, the father of NBA veteran Richard Jefferson Jr., died on Wednesday when he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles.

The report comes to us from TMZ, who says that it is still unclear whether the elder Jefferson was the target of the attack or if it was something more random.

Via TMZ:

Richard Jefferson Sr. was in front of a liquor store in a primarily residential area around 6:52 PM when a vehicle rolled up and someone inside opened fire.

Jefferson Sr. was struck multiple times in the torso. He was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Sources say Jefferson Sr. was with 2 other men at the time of the shooting. It’s unclear if Jefferson Sr. was the target.

The Los Angeles Police Department is still investigating the shooting, and we of course are hoping they will get to the bottom of this crime.

Thoughts are with Jefferson at this time, who according to ESPN grew closer to his father in recent years. Jefferson’s parents split when he was young and Junior grew up in Arizona with Senior residing in California.