Five questions that will decide NBA Finals

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This was the matchup we expected in June before the season started: Golden State vs. Cleveland for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Again.

However, the road to get here was far different — and with far more twists and turns — than we imagined. It was the kind of season that left us with questions — including questions about how the Warriors and Cavaliers match up in the Finals.

Here are the five questions whose answer will determine the winner of the NBA Finals.

1) How challenged, how engaged will the Warriors be this series? It’s easy to say the Golden State Warriors shouldn’t need more motivation to bring their “A” game every night — they are in the NBA Finals, the biggest stage in basketball. They are four wins away from a third NBA title in four years. They are playing to be considered a dynasty.

Yet, as we have seen this all season from Golden State, if this team doesn’t feel challenged, if it doesn’t get pushed, the Warriors coast and fall bad habits, making mistakes on both ends. The question isn’t even “will they coast in the Finals” as much as “how much will they coast in the Finals?”

The Warriors are unquestionably the more talented team in this series — for the Cavaliers to have any shot the Warriors have to be party to their own demise. The best way to tell if that’s happening (outside just missed threes by Golden State) is if Cleveland can replicate what Houston did last series — take away Golden State’s off-ball movement with good switching defense, and force them into a slowed down game in the halfcourt featuring Kevin Durant isolations. The Warriors will fall into that trap, if led there. The Rockets had the defensive talent, the defensive recognition and communication to pull that off. The Cavaliers… that brings us to our next question.

2) Can Cavaliers’ defense even begin to slow down Warriors’ offense? The Cavaliers are playing better defense in the playoffs than they did the regular season — Cleveland gave up 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the season (29th in the league), but it has been down to 105.9 per 100 in the postseason (7th in the playoffs, the equivalent of 15th in the league for the season). Cleveland players are putting in the effort, or at least they are when LeBron James is putting in that effort.

None of that may matter against the Warriors.

The Rockets had success shrinking the floor, switching everything, and defending the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but the Cavaliers do not have the same personnel to make that defense work. Cleveland doesn’t have a rim-protecting big the likes of Clint Capela who can also switch on the perimeter and hold his own. The Cavs don’t have a good matchup for Kevin Durant (not that anyone does, but Trevor Ariza did a respectable job; now the defense of Durant likely falls to Jeff Green and LeBron). They don’t have switchable wing defenders who can play a physical style, like P.J. Tucker. They don’t have anyone who can hang with the off-ball movement of Klay Thompson.

George Hill, with his length and veteran savvy, may do okay on Stephen Curry. However, expect the back cuts, split cuts, and other off-ball movements that the Rockets took away from the Warriors last round to come back. And expect a lot of finger-pointing and glaring at each other from the Cavaliers after wide open made Warriors baskets.

3) Who will be the fifth man for the Warriors? Golden State hopes Andre Iguodala will be back this series — he is out for Game 1 at least. He would help their cause, primarily as a quality defender on LeBron James (so that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green don’t have to shoulder that burden all the time). Iguodala matters — in the 2017 Finals the Warriors were +60 when he was on the court and -26 when he was not. On offense, Iguodala is a smart playmaker who keeps the motion offense going.

Shaun Livingston has been the best fifth man with the rest of the Hampton’s lineup (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green), but he’s not as good a defender and more of a midrange shooter. Jordan Bell brings athleticism and energy, but for every good play he makes he also seems to bring a rookie mistake. Kevon Looney tries. There is just not a great fifth option without Iguodala, but how much can the Cavaliers exploit that.

4) Can the Cavaliers knock down their threes? In the regular season, the three ball accounted for 34.8 percent of Cleveland’s non-garbage time shots, fourth highest percentage in the NBA (higher than the Warriors at 31.3 percent). In the playoffs that hasn’t changed, with 35 percent of Cleveland’s shots coming from beyond the arc (second highest percentage of playoff teams).

This isn’t rocket science — the Cavaliers need a high percentage of those shots to fall. Cleveland is shooting 34.7 percent on playoff threes (non-garbage time) and that simply isn’t going to be good enough against the high-powered Warriors. LeBron James, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and every other Cavalier player taking threes has got to knock them down this series at a high clip — Cleveland doesn’t defend well enough to lock Golden State down, the only way the Cavs win is outscoring the Warriors in a shootout. Which means making a lot of threes.

5) Will LeBron’s supporting cast be anywhere near enough? Last year, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five games in the NBA Finals — and that was a Cleveland team that had Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, and James Jones. None of those guys are back this season.

LeBron has had to carry an incredible burden to get this team roster to the NBA Finals.

He’s got a few veterans who have been here before — Korver, Smith, Tristan Thompson — but not as many and some not as good as who they replaced. Then there are the newcomers such as George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson — those guys are going to have to step up and have big series on a stage they have never been on before.

Kevin Love’s return from a concussion — his status is not known for Game 1 as of this writing — would be a big boost. He can score, he is a matchup problem, and he’s got a ring to show he can play under this kind of pressure.

Can the rest of this team? The Cavalry is not charging over the hill to save the day for LeBron, he’s got to make due with the guys around him. That just doesn’t look like it will be enough.

Clippers guard Landry Shamet tests positive for coronavirus

Landry Shamet coronavirus
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Clippers’ guard Landry Shamet just a few days ago talking to the media: “There’s no option with no risk at this point.”

Saturday we learned that Shamet has tested positive for the coronavirus. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

This comes a couple of days after a positive test for one member of the Clippers traveling party caused the team to shut down its training facility (that may have been Shamet, it may not have been, the Clippers are not saying).

Shamet has to go through a 14-day quarantine and two negative tests 24 hours apart before he can join his teammates in Orlando, which he still plans to do. If there are no setbacks, he will be in Orlando and cleared well before the Clippers take on the Lakers on opening night.

The second-year shooting guard is an important role player for the Clippers, scoring 9.7 points per game but shooting 39.2% from three — he is critical to their floor spacing in certain lineups. He is exactly the kind of player that will need to have a couple of big playoff games — when defenses collapse on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — if Los Angeles is going to be a threat to win it all. As they believe they are.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert ‘in a good place,’ trying to move forward

Rudy Gobert
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There were the tweets from strangers.

“I hate you.”

“You ruined the whole world.”

“You deserve it.”

And there was the scorn from inside his own locker room, the presumption that he infected a teammate with coronavirus, the suggestion that his recklessness somehow caused the entire sporting world to come to an absolute standstill.

Utah center Rudy Gobert is still standing tall, after all that and more.

Plenty of eyes will be on Gobert when the NBA season, the one that shut down March 11 when he became the first player in the league to be diagnosed with the coronavirus, takes a giant step toward returning by having teams gather at the Disney complex in Central Florida over the next few days. The Jazz will be a fascinating case study during this restart, particularly regarding whether or not Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — a fellow All-Star who was diagnosed with the virus shortly after the shutdown began and did not hide his anger with Gobert about it all — can coexist peacefully again.

“I’m happy now. I’m in a good place, you know,” Gobert told reporters Friday. “And I’m happy that I get the joy back from playing basketball with my team and the competitiveness is back. I’m ready to try to go out there and try to win the championship. That’s the goal. And to be honest, after everything we’ve been through as a team and as human beings, it would be a great comeback.”

Gobert answered questions for about 11 minutes. He talked about the relationship with Mitchell. (“It’s never going to be perfect,” he said, acknowledging strains that have been no secret.) He talked about the potential of signing a lucrative extension — he’s supermax-eligible — with the Jazz, which could happen before next season. (“I don’t plan on leaving right now,” he said.) He talked about his recovery from the virus, which is ongoing, at least in how his sense of smell hasn’t totally recovered. (“Smelling, I took that for granted too. It’s back now, it’s back at 80%, I’m not worried,” he said.)

He spoke softly, calmly, thoughtfully. And even though he is the two-time reigning NBA defensive player of the year, he didn’t swat any question away.

“Obviously, when you have the whole world judging you and threatening you or sending you a lot of negative energy and stuff like that, it’s something that I would say is not easy as a human being,” Gobert said. “But at the same time, people just judge you on the perception they have and the perception they get. Sometimes it can be one picture, one video, one interview, one action.”

In this case, that’s pretty much exactly what happened.

A picture, a video, an interview, an action. It was the start of the downfall.

It was the morning of March 9: Before leaving a media session at shoot-around in Salt Lake City on Monday in advance of a game against Detroit, Gobert touched all the tape recorders that were placed before him on a table, devices that reporters who cover the Jazz were using. He meant it as a joke. When he tested positive two days later, it was no laughing matter.

The Jazz were in Oklahoma City, just moments away from starting a game against the Thunder, when word came that Gobert tested positive. The game was called off. The season was suspended that same night.

Just like that, Gobert was a center of negative attention.

“First of all, you make sure he’s OK,” said Orlando guard Evan Fournier, a fellow French national-team player, who reached out often to check on Gobert. “You know, you call him and once we’re on the phone or just talking, text, whatever, you just ask him a few questions. How is he feeling, blah, blah, blah. And then once he starts to open up and say things about how he sees the whole situation, then you just try to give your best judgment to him. And you know, that’s what I did.”

Gobert immediately started trying to show remorse. He donated $200,000 to a fund established to help those who work part-time at Jazz games, people who lost income because contests were canceled. More money — about $310,000 — went to families affected by the pandemic in Utah and Oklahoma City, plus in his native France. He taped a public-service announcement for the league.

“I won’t be able to control everyone’s perception of me, but I can control my actions,” Gobert said. “I can control, you know, the things I do for the people around me, for the community, the things I do for my teammates on the court, off the court. All that stuff, I can control and that’s what really matters to me.”

For his part, Mitchell said the relationship with Gobert has improved.

“Right now, we’re good,” Mitchell said Thursday. “We’re going out there ready to hoop.”

The Jazz have secured a playoff berth. They’ll be without the injured Bojan Bogdanovic for the remainder of the season, yet still have enough depth to be considered a contender in the Western Conference.

And Gobert expects he and Mitchell, on the court anyway, will be fine.

“As long as we respect one another and we both share the same goals and we both do what’s best for the team, that’s what matters,” Gobert said. “And, you know, I think over the last few years that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we plan on continuing doing.”

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward may leave bubble in September for birth of child

Celtics' Gordon Hayward
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The Celtics’ Gordon Hayward has been at his wife’s side for the birth of their three children, he’s not going to miss the fourth — even if that means leaving the bubble.

Hayward’s wife Robyn is due with their fourth child in September — very possibly while the team is still playing — and he said in a conference call with reporters that he will leave the bubble to be with her. Via Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

“There’ll be a time if and when we’re down there and she’s going to have the baby, I’m for sure going to be with her,” Hayward said of his wife, Robyn. “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there…

“It’s a pretty easy decision for me on that,” Hayward said. “I’ve been at the birth of every one of my children, and I think there are more important things in life. So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

“I know the NBA has a protocol for that type of thing, and hopefully I can do the quarantining and testing the appropriate amount of time and then be back with the boys.”

That protocol says that if Hayward notifies the team and league, is gone fewer than seven days, gets tested and is negative every day he is outside the bubble, then upon his return he will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). This applies to all players who might need to leave the Walt Disney World campus for a family emergency or situation (Utah point guard Mike Conley‘s wife is due with their child in late August, for example).

If Hayward is gone longer or isn’t tested every day outside the bubble — or, if a player leaves the bubble without notifying teams — he has a 10-day quarantine upon his return.

The second round of the playoffs are set to begin Aug. 30 and will run as long as Sept. 13. The Eastern Conference Finals — which the Celtics have a good chance of making, but likely would need to beat out a strong Toronto squad — start Sept. 15 and run through the end of the month.

Hayward will be missed, and it’s not just his 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, or 4.1 assists per game, or the fact he shot 39.2% from three and is an important part of the Celtics’ floor spacing. It’s also that Brad Stevens uses Hayward in versatile lineups — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Hayward make a very switchable foursome — that can both defend and difficult for opponents to stop. Boston loses some of that versatility without him, Semi Ojeleye is not going to be able to give the Celtics the same quality minutes.

 

NBA releases scrimmage schedule for restart, games tip-off July 22

NBA scrimmage schedule
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We are 18 days away from NBA basketball.

Well, NBA scrimmages at least. On the Fourth of July, the NBA released the schedule of scrimmage games for teams, which begin July 22 and run for six days, leading up to the start of the season July 30.

Here is the full schedule, with each team having three scrimmage games, all against teams from the other conference or unlikely playoff matchups.

The details on the broadcasts of the NBA scrimmage schedule of games have not been released, but it’s safe to expect they will be available on the team’s regional networks at the least (with maybe a few games picked up nationally).

Teams arrive at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando starting next week. After players and team staff go through a 24-48 quarantine period (with two negative tests 24 hours apart), they will begin full team practices in the run-up to these scrimmages, and eventually the eight “seeding” games, which count as regular-season games.

Those seeding games start July 30 with a TNT double-header of Utah vs. New Orleans followed by the battle of Los Angeles, the Lakers vs. the Clippers (the top two seeds in the West heading into these games).