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.

Kemba Walker scores 60 but Jimmy Butler hits game-winner with .03 in OT, Sixers win

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Kemba Walker was putting on a “how dare you leave me off your list of top free agents next summer” kind of show in Charlotte, dropping 60 on Philadelphia while Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler trying to stop him. It was a virtuoso performance.

And then Jimmy Butler did this.

This is why the Sixers wanted Butler (or at least one reason). When it got to the end of games Joel Embiid can’ really create his own shot, Ben Simmons can create but his lack of shooting has defenders playing off him and daring him to take jumpers. J.J. Redick can create a little, but that’s not what he does.

It is what Butler lives for. And it’s not the only big play he made late, look at this block and save on Walker to set up the game-winner.

Report: Kings’ front office, coach Dave Joerger disconnect could lead to his firing

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The 8-7 Sacramento Kings are one of the best surprises of the young season. Sacramento has found an identity with point guard De'Aaron Fox pushing the pace — they are the second fastest team in the NBA at 106.3 possessions a game, with 20 percent of their trips down the court starting in transition (also second in the league). While the Kings are middle of the pack in both offense and defense ratings, that is a massive step up from where most predicted this young team to be this season.

So, of course, Sacramento is finding a way to screw that narrative up. Because… Kings.

A disconnect between the front office led by Vlade Divac and coach Dave Joerger could lead to the coach’s dismissal, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Joerger’s handling of 2018 No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III could eventually lead to the coach’s dismissal, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Sources said the franchise is growing frustrated with how Joerger is distributing minutes and assigning roles to the team’s young prospects.

The front office views this season as a development year, sources said, but it was still confident that the team would be competitive and grow with Bagley, promising guard De’Aaron Fox, and forwards Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere getting meaningful minutes. Joerger, generally regarded as one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the league, has favored playing veteran players over developing youth, especially in crunch time.

Vlade Divac, the general manager of the Sacramento Kings, quickly came out in a statement given to NBC Sports and said:

“Dave has our full support and confidence. We continue to work together to develop our young core and compete.”

All season long Jeorger has gone with Nemanja Bjelica over Bagley down the stretch (Bjelica also starts over Bagley). When Kosta Koufos was healthy, he also was a guy Joerger trusted in key moments. Two-way contract player Troy Williams has earned a lot of minutes from Joerger, more than Bagley at times. Joerger’s rotations are not consistent and the report says players don’t feel the coach is communicating clearly about their roles.

All NBA coaches are constantly dealing with the developing vs. winning balance (even the elite teams like the Warriors have young players they are trying to bring along). It’s an age-old problem to have the GM wanting the youth learning on the fly and the coach wanting to win now.

Instability for coaches has been a hallmark of the Kings under owner Vivek Ranadive, going back to before when the Kings pushed out Mike Malone — a DeMarcus Cousins favorite — for George Karl. Malone had taken over for Keith Smart, who coached a season and a half. Jeorger took over for Karl and is in his third season.

The constant coaching upheaval leads to system upheaval and a lack of continuity. It’s been an ongoing issue for the Kings, but as their young players start to develop and show potential — Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein are playing well.

Expect denials all around, but this sounds like about the most Kings thing ever.

Dwight Howard was heckled by arena clean up worker during postgame workout

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Dwight Howard was a beast against the Brooklyn Nets Friday night, dropping 25 points and grabbing 17 rebounds against one of his former teams. Well, he was dominant in the first half, when he picked up a fourth foul relatively early in the third quarter Scott Brooks went away from Howard for too long, the Nets scored at will and pulled away for the win. Still, Friday was Howard’s best game of the season.

And yet he was 3-of-10 from the free throw line, so he went out after the arena closed and practiced his foul shots.

What that video didn’t show was Howard getting heckled during that workout by one of the people hired to clean up the arena. From Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

…before hitting the showers, [Howard] returned to the main court to practice his free throws. He had missed 3 of 10 attempts during the game. So, while Howard got into a shooting rhythm, tuning out the background noise with music playing in his ear buds, a contract worker who was part of a team hired to clean around the 400 level tried to break his concentration.

“Brick!” the worker yelled, but as Howard’s shots swished through the net, he switched to: “’That’s right, Dwight! You better make them!”

While many fans would like to buy that worker a beer, it did not go over so well with the Wizards’ staff, and the man was removed from the arena.

The Wizards are 5-10 on the season with the third worst defense in the league. The Wizards’ defense is not better with Howard on the floor — he’s not the cause of their problems, but he’s not solving them either. His defense was part of the reason the Wizards thought he would be a fit.

Draymond Green to sit out Saturday, likely longer, with sprained toe

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Before the drama around Draymond Green and Kevin Durant against the Clippers, Green had missed a couple of games due to a sprained toe. Against the Clippers, he was 3-of-9 shooting and did not move like he is capable of. Then, after a one-game suspension, Green came back against the Rockets and struggled again, shooting 0-of-3 and not looking like himself.

While some will want to tie this to the Durant incident, the fact is Green’s toe needs more time to heal and he is going to get it, starting with sitting out Saturday vs. the Spurs.

Green said this after his suspension game, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“After playing 42 minutes against the Clippers, it was pretty sore that next day,” Green said of his injured toe, and he then joked, “Thank God I got suspended. I was sore, really sore, so I sat there and iced the whole day. Did some treatment at home. … Everything happens for a reason.”

Kerr said “We decided to give [Green] some time off. Don’t know how long it’ll be.” Which makes it sound like this will be more than one game.

The Warriors are -10.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Green is off the court. Combine that with Stephen Curry still being out with a strained groin and the Warriors are battling through some injuries, and suffering some ugly losses because of it, early this season.