5 Up, 5 Down: Team basketball is finally going to beat LeBron James, isn’t it?

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.
LeBron James looked like the destroyer of worlds. Right up until he didn’t. The Boston Celtics were all over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 despite LeBron being perhaps the main reason that Dwane Casey was fired from the Toronto Raptors.

Nothing in the NBA stays steady, which has made these playoffs supremely interesting even if some storylines — like the Raptors — seem to follow the path of years past.

Now we’re deep into the playoffs, with the conference finals taking shape and there’s more than ever to get to. So without further ado.

5 Up

The Boston Celtics beat LeBron James using good old teamwork

The Celtics have been great this postseason, and Brad Stevens has been praised both for his strategic game plan against major stars like LeBron James and for his in-game tactics. But while SLOBs are fun to watch when they’re drawn up by Stevens, the big thing that’s happening in Boston is just how well this team is playing together, unselfishly, in the face of this generation’s greatest star.

The Cavaliers dropped Game 1 by double-digits to the Celtics on Sunday, and it appeared Stevens finally had a plan for LeBron, who has been on an absolute tear during these playoffs. It felt representative of LeBron’s time in Cleveland — during both stints — that a roster with some talent wasn’t living up to their potential and instead had to be carried by James. Boston is a Team with a capital T, and the Cavaliers are not. It’s only one game, but it doesn’t look good for LeBron in Ohio.

LeBron’s photographic memory

While James didn’t have a good Game 1, scoring just 15 points, he did have perhaps the best moment on the podium with reporters after the game.

When asked about a sequence to open the fourth quarter in which the Celtics clearly got the better of Cleveland, James responded by perfectly recounting several possessions on each side of the ball.

It was uncanny:

The Philadelphia 76ers want to sign everybody

Who doesn’t want to sign LeBron or trade for Kawhi Leonard? The problem is not many teams can make those things happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Philadelphia 76ers. Reports out of Pennsylvania have the Sixers targeting James in free agency this summer, when they’ll have space to sign him.

Foregoing that, Philly is also apparently interested in trading for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. How that deal gets done without significantly hurting the Sixers is less clear, but the fact that Philadelphia isn’t going to stand pat this summer is exciting given the leap they took year-over-year.

Dwane Casey’s goodbye letter to Toronto

Just go read it. I’m not even going to try to do it justice.

Even SNL is bagging on Cleveland’s roster construction

The rosters around LeBron have always been oddly strange during his time in Cleveland, a fact lampooned in a cut sketch from Saturday Night Live with Donald Glover. The clip mostly focuses on this year’s roster and their uneven performances.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9HGjZd_Fm8&w=560&h=315%5D

5 Down

Dwane Casey getting fired

Judging by the amount of coaches who voted for Brad Stevens to win NBA Coach of the Year, it seems very likely that Casey will win the award this season. Unfortunately, Casey is no longer employed after being canned by the Raptors following their playoff sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers.

Contextually it’s not that crazy to see Casey leave, although that in no way excuses the roster construction in Toronto. Because the Raptors don’t have the flexibility to get better, and because their pillars are stuck where they are in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the only way at getting better this year is to take a stab at changing the coach.

It’s just a complete bummer and in any case it still feels like the wrong move.

The Raptors, just generally

What is Toronto doing? They got one season of thinking an offense could work by fundamentally changing how DeRozan attacks the game, then got proven wrong when everyone reverted under pressure in the Cavaliers series.

If you think teams like the Portland Trail Blazers are in a tough spot, they aren’t the only one. Toronto is in an equally weird position, all capped out with nowhere to go.

It’s doubly disappointing that things didn’t work out for the Raptors because their fanbase is completely devoted, DeRozan and Lowry seem fun, and getting a non-traditional team in the Eastern Conference Finals is always more fun than watching two blue bloods duke it out. It’s not really clear where Toronto goes from here, even with a new coach.

If the idea is Toronto needs a better in-game tactician, I think there’s a real question about whether the next person in that position will be able to replicate the strategic-level things Casey did this season. That’s directly related to changing how the Raptors offense works, by the way, and dictates DeRozan’s efficiency and usefulness.

What a mess.

The discussion about Becky Hammon

To be fair, Pau Gasol did come out strongly against naysayers regarding San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. That’s excellent. But the fact that dudes think it’s still a good idea to speak from a position of ignorance while being primarily motivated by innately sexist thoughts about American sport is wild. When Hammon gets a job, it won’t be given to her, she’ll have earned it.

Ben Simmons‘ jumper situation

OK, just to recap: Ben Simmons’ jumper wasn’t really a problem this year until he ran into the Boston Celtics and Brad Stevens. They aren’t going anywhere, so Simmons will need to make himself some kind of threat outside of 12 feet just for the sake of gravity.

Meanwhile, Simmons has said his jumper won’t undergo a complete re-tooling despite the advice of guys like Kobe Bryant. That doesn’t seem like the best choice, and it’s actually sort of in contradiction with what his own coach said.

There’s no working around it, and enough teams are trying to make square pegs fit in round holds. If Simmons wants to be a point guard in the modern NBA he needs to be able to shoot a basketball. Any argument contrary to that is just noise.

Whatever is happening with Marc Gasol in Memphis

This felt like it sort of flew under the radar, but we’ve now had Memphis Grizzlies big man Marc Gasol apparently at extreme odds with his last two coaches. We heard about the back-and-forth between Gasol and now-New York Knicks coach David Fizdale. That was jarring enough, and followed a report we heard back in December that former Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger apparently thought Gasol was trying to get him fired back when he was heading the team.

My gut tells me that Gasol isn’t a bad dude, but who is to say for certain? It’s also possible that Gasol is simply worn out in Memphis and doesn’t want to spend the twilight of his prime with a team that’s almost certainly in rebuilding mode. Juicy.

Pascal Siakam scores 37, Raptors remain red hot with win vs. Suns

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TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam had 37 points and 12 rebounds and the Toronto Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101 on Friday night for their 16th victory in 17 games.

Serge Ibaka scored 16 points, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis each had 14, Kyle Lowry had 13 points and 10 assists and OG Anunoby aded 12 points for the defending NBA champion Raptors.

After Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak ended with a loss at Brooklyn in the final game before the All-Star break, the Raptors bounced back by starting the second half with their eighth consecutive home victory.

The Raptors have not lost back-to-back games since an overtime loss at Indiana on Dec. 23 and a home loss to Boston on Christmas Day. Toronto has gone 19-1 since.

Siakam connected on 12 of 19 attempts, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

That was just one fewer than the six 3-pointers the Suns managed on 34 attempts. Phoenix shot 17.6%t from long range, its lowest mark of the season. No Suns player made more than one shot from distance.

Devin Booker scored 21 points and Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Ayton returned to the starting lineup after missing the final two games before the All-Star break because of a sore left ankle.

Phoenix trailed 93-78 through three quarters, but the Suns cut the gap to six points, 96-90 on a basket by Ayton with 8:08 left to play. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made a pair from the line, and VanVleet and Siakam both scored to put the Raptors up 102-90 with 6:58 remaining.

Booker missed a 3 with 4:45 left that would have made it a four-point game. Anunoby scored on a dunk and, after another missed 3 by the Suns, Ibaka banked home a 3-pointer to restore Toronto’s 12-point cushion.

Moe Harkless says no buyout with Knicks: “I’ll be here the rest of the year”

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Moe Harkless went from a guy often starting and playing critical minutes for a contender in the Clippers to being the matching salary in a trade and finding himself on the woeful Knicks.

“It is definitely an adjustment with the way things are,” Harkless told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Everything is different, the culture and everything.”

If there was a player nobody would blame for wanting a buyout and the chance to get back to a team playing for something, it would be Harkless.

That’s not happening. Multiple reports have surfaced that he is not talking buyout with New York running up to the March 1 deadline. The latest comes from Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then Harkless was even more direct speaking to Bondy.

“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said.

Harkless has fans in NBA front offices, with the Lakers rumored to be among them (although they are about to land Markieff Morris in a similar role). Harkless could play good defensive minutes on the wing down the stretch for a team, buying rest for key guys, plus in the playoffs he could be advantageous in certain matchups.

Morris and the Knicks have time to change their minds, but it sounds like he will play out the season in New York then be a free agent next summer.

Lakers reportedly will waive DeMarcus Cousins to clear roster spot

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If the Lakers are going to add Markieff Morrisas has been rumored — or anyone else via free agency, they are going to need to clear out a roster spot.

That has the Lakers looking to waive DeMarcus Cousins, a report broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Cousins signed with the Lakers over the summer but never set foot on the court with them after tearing his ACL during summer workouts (which led to a scramble and L.A.’s fortuitous signing of Dwight Howard). He was around the team and rehabbing, and while they would never officially rule him out, Cousins was never expected to play.

He was not waived before because his $3.5 million salary might have been useful in a trade. When that didn’t materialize at the deadline it, became likely he could get waived.

It’s highly unlikely a team picks up Cousins this season, while he continues to rehab from his injury. However, it might be a good roll of the dice this summer by a team to sign him to a minimum contract for next season. Cousins still has some NBA basketball in him, if he can just stay healthy.

Karl-Anthony Towns has fractured wrist, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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Karl-Anthony Towns was a surprise scratch from the Timberwolves last game before the All-Star break, a “left wrist injury” delaying the home debut of him with D'Angelo Russell (they did play a road game together in Toronto). Then came the rumors he could miss a few games when play started up again.

It’s going to be more than a few games, more than a few weeks.

Towns has a fractured left wrist, the team announced Friday. He is out and will be re-evaluated in two weeks. From the team press release:

“While Towns has been diligent in treatment with a goal of return to play, he has been assessed by multiple specialists over the last several days and the team continues to gather information on the optimal management strategies.”

Towns had been playing through wrist pain for a couple of weeks before this diagnosis.

Towns is having a career year on offense, averaging  26.5 points a game while shooting 41 percent from three (on 7.9 attempts per game), plus grabbing 10.8 rebounds a night. That has not translated into wins for Minnesota, however.

Towns being out doesn’t hurt the Timberwolves in the short term, they have fallen far out of the playoff chase in the West. However, this cuts into time Towns and Russell could have used to grow accustomed to each other’s games. It’s time lost for the coaching staff and front office as they evaluate the fit of players they have around Towns and Russell.