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.

Report: Lakers have interest in Joakim Noah

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The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly interested in Dwight Howard. He has not yet been bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, but a return to L.A. for Howard would be one of the most Lakers things of all time.

Howard infamously left Los Angeles under an auspicious circumstances in 2013 after things went south during the 2012-13 season between him, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash. He signed with the Houston Rockets that summer.

But Howard is not the only aging center under consideration by the Lakers. According to Shams Charania, Los Angeles is also considering adding Joakim Noah to their roster.

Via Twitter:

DeMarcus Cousins’ ACL injury has created a dearth of center depth for the Lakers, one that cannot be easily filled quickly. There aren’t a lot of available players left, and Los Angeles doesn’t have much to help facilitate a trade.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis need some help moving forward if they want to go deep into the Western Conference playoffs, and having only JaVale McGee playing at the center position won’t help them do that. They need to add somebody, but Howard or Noah being the answer to that is a scary proposition for a team with championship hopes.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t like how Bruce Lee was portrayed by Quentin Tarantino

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was friends with Bruce Lee before the actor’s tragic death in 1973. He was his teacher, pal, and co-star in in 1972’s Game of Death. Naturally, Abdul-Jabbar is protective of his friend’s legacy, and he’s not too happy about how Lee was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.

Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a meandering, beautiful, boring tribute to the film industry as it was changing at the end of the 1960s. It’s worth seeing just as a thing to look at, but the narrative — or lack thereof — is plodding, and the ending harkens back to a kind of transposed version of Inglourious Basterds that leaves you wondering what the point of making the film was in the first place.

Somewhere in the middle of its long 2h 45m runtime, there’s an extended scene in Once Upon A Time where Brad Pitt’s character Cliff fights Bruce Lee. Why? Probably because Tarantino wanted to pay tribute to Lee being an important part of that era, and because Tarantino so untouchable that nobody could tell him to leave the extemporaneous scene on the cutting room floor.

Instead, what Tarantino’s tribute scene appears to have angered Abdul-Jabbar along with members of Lee’s family.

In an article penned in The Hollywood Reporter this week, Abdul-Jabbar called Lee’s portrayal “sloppy” and “somewhat racist”.

Via THR:

Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not live up to this standard. Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.

The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.

Lee’s family, including daughter Shannon, has also spoken up about how Lee was portrayed in the film. In an interview with The Wrap, Shannon Lee said that, “He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air.”

Once Upon A Time is a forgettable movie wrapped in the trappings of modern prestige media, where viewers are either unable separate production value from content, or unwilling to do so. It is beautiful, and the people involved are heavy hitters. But halfway through, the viewer is left asking “What’s the plot of this movie?” and that question remains until the final 15 minutes, when the inevitable, telegraphed ending finally, mercifully closes the story and the end credits roll.

Meanwhile, in true Tarantino form, his indulgences have created a mini-storm around one of his films in the most unnecessary way. An ill-conceived and executed scene that added nothing but length to Once Upon A Time has turned into a grating talking point for people like Abdul-Jabbar and Shannon Lee.

Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor to host ‘NBA Countdown’

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Things just keep getting better for NBA fans when it comes to national TV broadcasts.

It was announced in August that TNT would be doing away with the “Players Only” broadcast that appeared on NBA TV. Those broadcast crews were roundly criticized as being meandering and uninformed when it came to the product on the floor.

Now fans are getting more of what they want in the form of Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor.

According to a report from Richard Deitsch, Nichols and Taylor will be the hosts of ESPN’s pregame show, NBA Countdown.

Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups Won’t return as analysts on the pregame show next year, leaving just Jalen Rose. That means there are a couple of spots open, and we don’t yet know who ESPN will fill them with. Nichols will reportedly continue to host her regular show “The Jump”.

As the league continues to get more popular, it makes sense that broadcast partners listen to the audience. Nichols is an NBA favorite, so having her be more visible makes a lot of sense.

NBA players roast Kyle Kuzma over outfit posted to Instagram (PHOTOS)

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Kyle Kuzma is going to be expected to have a big year for the Los Angeles Lakers. He thinks he can have the impact of a third star for L.A., a team that didn’t add Kawhi Leonard to go alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis this summer.

That’s big talk from Kuzma, but perhaps that talk has boosted his confidence a little bit. In a photo posted to Instagram this week, Kuzma could be seen wearing… whatever this is.

Via Twitter:

Twitter had a great time with Kuzma outfit, which looks like something pulled straight out of an early 2000s episode of TRL.

Kuzma’s contemporaries in the NBA thought he was getting a little wild with it, too, with several hopping onto the post to roast the Lakers big man.

Via Twitter:

I don’t know what this means for the upcoming Lakers season, but I’m sure it’s something interesting.