It’s not just the stars: Cavaliers don’t have the role players to match Warriors

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LeBron James played well again in Game 2 on Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors. The Cleveland Cavaliers star followed up his 51-point performance in the Game 1 with a near triple-double of 29 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds.

Still, it just wasn’t enough.

Despite double-digit contributions from three other starters and reasonable shooting percentages throughout most of the game, the supporting cast for the Cavaliers could not measure up to the intensity brought by the reigning world champions. Even worse, three players attributed with 49 of Cleveland’s most vital bench minutes combined for just nine points. Those players — Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, and Larry Nance — collectively shot 2-of-11 with 10 rebounds and three assists.

Meanwhile, despite lacking Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ supporting cast was what you’d expect from such a disciplined squad. David West grabbed a few rebounds, dished a couple assists, and had three blocks in 11 minutes. Shaun Livingston went 5-of-5 from the field. JaVale McGee, who started, scored 12 points and didn’t miss a shot from the floor.

The differentiation in play between Golden State’s and Cleveland’s role players was not just the story of Game 2, but it’s what sets them apart fundamentally in roster construction and organizational strategy.

It’s a running joke on Twitter at this point, but the idea that Nick Young and McGee are contributing minutes to Golden State (they combined for 36 on Sunday) is wild beyond our NBA-watching dreams. It’s something you’d only expect to click for the Warriors or perhaps the San Antonio Spurs. But while that meme runs its course on social media, the reality is that Cleveland is running out a roster of players with similarly historically low expectations with very different results.

Jordan Clarkson looks like he’s not ready to be a rotation player; Rodney Hood nearly got DNP-CD’d again (he played garbage time on Sunday); Green looked extremely Jeff Green-y; Tristan Thompson didn’t contribute to his salary level; Nance got eaten alive against Warriors starters.

The gap between the stars on the Warriors and the stars on the Cavaliers is expansive. But the benches and role players, on paper and with Iguodala sidelined, are closer than we think. That’s doubly so when McGee and Young are getting significant run. It’s the execution that sets them apart, and as the rotation mixes over the game, how the stars are able to cover for their lesser teammates.

Cleveland isn’t the kind of team that’s going to be able to hide that many holes in a Finals matchup. They need their role players not just to fill in, but to push past their expectations in some kind of consistent manner. After Game 2 Tyronn Lue said as much, specifically with regard to Green.

“Jeff could be more assertive, I think,” said Lue. “[He needs to] be more aggressive offensively, not just settle for threes, [and] attack the basket.”

Green was important during Cleveland’s series against the Toronto Raptors, and vital to their Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. But for the most part, Green hasn’t been able to handle his share, particularly when opponents have zeroed in on Love and Korver. That rang true again on Sunday when Green finished with six points, two rebounds, and one assist on 28.5 percent shooting.

In these NBA Finals, we’re seeing the truths our facts, figures, and theorems can teach us when we put them into a real life experiment. The result, for the Cavaliers, isn’t good. Outside of the record-breaking 3-point makes by Stephen Curry and the high-scoring of Kevin Durant are guys like Livingston, West, Kevon Looney, and even Jordan Bell, grinding away and playing their part. Cleveland hasn’t been able to find the same spark from their bench.

Golden State has been able to suppress the effectiveness of Cavaliers starters outside of LeBron, limiting Love’s shooting or keeping Thompson off the boards. That should naturally leave space for players with smaller roles to step up, but with the way the roster is constructed and the continual failure to get just about anything out of their bench, the reality of Who the Warriors Are vs. Who the Cavaliers Are is here, and it’s clear.

LeBron can play as hard as he can. He has, really. Game 1 was a masterpiece, and Game 2 was an efficient, superstar kind of night. But no matter the effort from James, the averages always come to bear during a playoff series. That’s especially true during the Finals, and it’s not just Golden State’s stars that are better than Cleveland’s.

It’s their bench, too.

After impressive playoff run, Jerami Grant expected to opt for free agency

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Jerami Grant has a $9.3 million decision to make: opt-in and take that cash in hand, or become a free agent and try to get more on the open market.

After an impressive playoff run where he averaged 11.6 points a game and played strong wing defense for the Nuggets  — guarding Kawhi Leonard and then LeBron James — Grant is expected to choose the open market, reports Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

A league source suggested Grant could command anywhere from $14 million to $16 million annually over several years.

That sounds about right, above-average starter money, in the three years, $50 million range. He’s a quality perimeter defender who shot 39% from three the past two seasons, players like that are in demand around the league.

Denver has some roster decisions to make next season. They have $91.5 million in salary locked up in Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton alone. Assuming the team keeps Monte Morris ($1.7 million non-guaranteed, and they should extend him), the Nuggets will have about $30 million in cap space to play with, but they need to re-sign or replace Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, and now Grant.

That’s not going to be easy but Denver wants to keep its core together, including Grant.

“I think we have something special brewing,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. “And I think most importantly, I think people around this country, around the world, who were watching the playoffs, this group of guys, you would be hard pressed to find a better story coming out of this bubble. A bunch of young kids faced elimination, looked it in the face and just kept on surviving and advancing.”

Denver is counting on some internal improvement from their young core, Michael Porter Jr. in particular could make a leap to become the third offensive option for the team (even if he keeps coming off the bench). Beyond that, GM Tim Conley has some decisions to make.

Bringing back Grant shouldn’t be a hard one.

Returning to Finals, LeBron James talked about motivation from doubters

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LeBron James is headed back to the NBA Finals for the 10th time.

The Los Angeles Lakers are headed back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 10 years, the longest the iconic franchise has ever been off of the league’s biggest stage.

When last season ended all of that seemed a long shot.

The Lakers had just missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season (the longest drought in franchise history), LeBron had missed 17 games with a groin injury leading to questions about his durability as he was about to turn 35, and the fit between LeBron and a young core of Lakers players seemed off.

What LeBron heard through all of that was doubters, and that fueled him.

“This is what I came [to the Lakers] for,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ eliminated the Nuggets in a game he took over late. “I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to L.A. — the reason I came to L.A., it was not about basketball. All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me.

“But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”

All season long LeBron has said he was fueled by doubters, even when they weren’t really there. He said he was motivated by the people calling him washed even if nobody outside of Twitter trolls did that. Creating strawmen motivations is something Kobe Bryant did for years with the Lakers, LeBron continues on that tradition — and the tragic passing of Kobe was another motivation for LeBron as well.

It took a lot more than LeBron James’ willpower to get the Lakers back to the Finals. The Laker roster underwent an overhaul, with most of the young players going to New Orleans in exchange for Anthony Davis. Then those roster spots were filled in by veterans that other teams were slow to snap up — Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee — and appeared to give the Lakers unpredictable chemistry.

Then there was the coaching change, with Luke Walton out and Frank Vogel — with a veteran staff of assistants led by Jason Kidd — in.

“He’s been great,” LeBron said of Vogel. “He’s been unbelievable. I mean, we’ve faced, it’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year. I’m not going to sit here and give all the details, but you guys, everyone can go back and just see from the start of the season all the way up until now what we’ve gone through as a team. He’s been able to manage it the whole time. Bringing in guys, losing guys. He’s just always been the anchor, and our coaching staff has been right behind him. I can’t say anything more than that.”

LeBron brought it all in line and kept everyone focused on the goal.

That goal was not just to reach the NBA Finals but to win it. LeBron hasn’t lost sight of that. Now his body gets a few days off before that final journey starts.

And he has time to find a few more doubters to motivate him.

 

Minnesota’s Malik Beasley arrested, to be charged with receiving stolen property

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Malik Beasley — the Minnesota Timberwolves guard heading into free agency this offseason — has been arrested at his home in Minnesota and taken into custody, facing a couple of charges: receiving and concealing stolen property, and marijuana possession.

Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic broke the story.

Police arrived at Beasley’s home in Plymouth, Minnesota, on Saturday night and took the 23-year-old into custody. Beasley was being held without bail at Hennepin County Jail until he sees a judge, which could be another 24 hours, sources said…

Steve Haney, Beasley’s attorney released the following statement to The Athletic: “At the time of the incident, multiple individuals were present at the residence. The allegations against Malik will be defended vigorously.”

Beasley has been released from jail and the charges will not become official until he goes before a judge this week, reports Charania.

“We’re aware of the situation with Malik and are gathering more information,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said Sunday morning.

He added that Beasley — a restricted free agent this offseason — had worked out at the team facilities in previous weeks but had not been with the franchise this week as they moved into 5-on-5 play and scrimmages. The Timberwolves are in the middle of their off-season, voluntary training camp.

Beasley played the best basketball of his career in the 14 games after being traded to Minnesota (before the coronavirus shut down the league). He was the floor-spacing wing the Timberwolves desperately needed with D'Angelo Russell at the point and Karl-Anthony Towns at center. Beasley averaged 20.7 points a game, and he brought a needed feistiness to the lineup.

Beasley is in line for a big payday as a restricted free agent (he turned down a three-year, $30 million extension offer from Denver before the season and that looked like a smart move). Timberwolves GM Gersson Rosas said he wanted to bring Beasley back next season and he has the right to match any offer.

If or how Beasley’s arrest changes his free agency and the demand for his skills remains to be seen.

Boston focused on Miami three-point shooters heading into Game 6

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — There have been two undeniable truths about the Miami Heat this season.

They must make 3’s to win.

They aren’t invincible with sizable leads.

The Boston Celtics have scouting and analytics teams that undoubtedly know these trends. But, really, so would anyone who simply can read a boxscore.

Take away Miami’s 3’s, and the Heat are easier to beat. The Celtics proved that again in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when they extended their season with a victory — and will aim to take the same tact Sunday night when they meet the Heat again in another must-win for Boston.

“They’re going to hit some shots, they’re going to make some plays,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “They’ve got some good players. We’re just trying to make it as tough as we could.”

The Heat have played 87 games this season and shot below 20% from 3-point range in just three of them — one of them being Friday night, when the Celtics prevailed 121-108 to cut Miami’s lead in the series to 3-2.

Miami was 7 for 36 from deep, just 19%.

For whatever reason, 31.1% is the magic number for Heat 3-pointers this season. When the Heat shoot 31.1% or worse from beyond the arc, they’re 2-17 (.105). When they shoot better than that, they’re 53-15 (.779).

“Regardless of whether it’s going in or not, that can’t affect your commitment on the other side of the floor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And it felt like it did.”

The Celtics confined most of their Saturday plans to a film session; the Heat were doing the same along with some optional workouts. Heat center Bam Adebayo, who blamed himself for the Game 5 loss despite teammates saying otherwise, said he would spend some of Saturday on the floor looking for answers.

“This team has good resolve,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Saturday. “I thought we showed that last night. We’ll have to continue to show the ability to be able to handle good and bad throughout a game.”

Even though the disappointment was clear Friday night, the Heat still understand where they are: a No. 5 seed, one that didn’t even make the playoffs last season, one win from the NBA Finals. Miami needed two tries before ousting Milwaukee in the second round, saying then it learned at what level a team needs to be to win a closeout game.

The Celtics provided them another reminder of that Friday night, when they outscored Miami 70-50 after halftime and erased a 12-point second-quarter deficit.

“As you go on, the wins get harder and harder,” Heat guard Duncan Robinson said. “And doing what we want to do and advancing from this round is going to be the hardest thing we’ve done all season and our in our athletic careers for many of us. Fortunately, we have coaches and guys that have been there and know what it takes.

“But this is certainly a reminder — to think that we were just going to have a good first half and just kind of coast to a victory in this stage of the playoffs, we’re misguided for thinking that.”

Miami is 55-32 this season, and 18 of those losses have come in games where the Heat held a double-digit lead. Boston has beaten Miami four times this season, rallying from at least 11 points down in three of those games — including a pair of 12-point comebacks in this series.

Miami has lost games this year where it led by 10 points once, 11 (four times), 12 (five times), 13 (once), 14 (twice), 15 (once), 20 (once), 22 (twice) and 23 (once).