Play-in Preview: Three things to look for in Cavaliers vs. Nets

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets
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Neither the Brooklyn Nets nor Cleveland Cavaliers expected to be here.

The Nets were the talent-rich preseason title favorites who expected to be a top seed in the East and have this week off. The young Cavaliers expected to be focused on ping-pong balls at the end of the season, a young squad with some talent but not one where fans anticipated a postseason appearance.

Cleveland will travel to Brooklyn for the 7/8 play-in game in the East tonight (Tuesday). The winner will enter the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and take on the Boston Celtics. The loser moves on to host the second play-in game Friday against the winner of the Hornets at Hawks game.

Here are three things to look for tonight.

Who on the Cavaliers guards Kevin Durant?

When these teams met last Friday night in a game with meaning — which team would host this game was one potential impact — Durant had 36 points on 11-of-20 shooting, and it felt like he could have had more if he wanted it. Durant was killing them from the midrange. The Cavaliers did not have a good matchup for him.

Lauri Markkanen got a chance because he has the size and some good mobility, but he’s not exactly an elite defender, and after that it’s the rookie Evan Mobley or Caris LeVert or other guys not up to the task. Durant running a two-man game with a shooter such as Kyrie Irving or Seth Curry created even larger matchup issues for the Cavaliers.

Durant is one of the five best pure scorers ever to play the game. Nobody has an answer to stop him, but some teams — Miami, Boston — have the personnel to make him work for it. Cleveland doesn’t, and if Durant has another big game the Cavaliers are in dire straights.

How much will the Cavaliers miss Jarrett Allen?

Tied into the Cavaliers’ defensive woes, center Jarrett Allen is out for this game, still not recovered enough from a broken finger to play. The Cavaliers have been without Allen since he was injured on March 6 and have gone 7-11 without him and 3-8 in their last 11 games.

In last Friday night’s game against the Nets, Andre Drummond had 15 points and 12 rebounds without a traditional big man who could slow him down while also protecting the paint.

“He’s obviously the anchor of the defense and the things he can do offensively and help the other guys,” Markkanen told the Associated Press. “And I think it’s obvious that we miss him a lot.”

Cleveland should be able to score, with Darius Garland leading a good offense against an unimpressive Brooklyn defense, but getting enough stops to win against a high-powered Nets offense will be the challenge.

Cavaliers’ youth vs. Nets experience

The core of the Brooklyn Nets — Durant, Irving, Patty Mills — have all got rings and have played in much bigger games than this. They know what playoff basketball is like.

Garland doesn’t. Mobley doesn’t. Markkanen doesn’t (he’s never been in a playoff game). Caris LeVert has played in nine playoff games in his career.

Outside of sixth man Kevin Love — who could see limited minutes because of his defensive shortcomings — this is not a Cavaliers team deep with postseason experience. The Nets have been here and done that, they are looking to be a threat in games bigger than this, but they also understand focusing on the task at hand.

Whatever happens, this game will be a good learning experience for a young Cavaliers team. The pressure of a playoff atmosphere and the attention to detail needed for those games are not something that can be explained in a walk-through. It has to be lived. The Cavaliers are about to get that experience, but from a team that knows how to win in these moments. The Nets surged in the fourth quarter to win last Friday when these teams played, but that surge could come earlier in this one.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers


CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”


Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.