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.

Cavaliers make consecutive NBA Finals with unprecedented roster turnover between

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The Lakers got Wilt Chamberlain in 1968. The 76ers got Moses Malone in 1982. The Warriors got Kevin Durant in 2016.

And the Cavaliers lost Kyrie Irving in 2017.

It’s not uncommon for a team to be involved in star movement between back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. But teams good enough to make the Finals usually lure a star, not lose one.

Cleveland is the exception, dealing Irving to Boston after he requested a trade last summer. Not only did they lose half of LeBron James‘ supporting stars, the Cavs moved on from several other players who participated in their 2017 playoff run – Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Derrick Williams, Dahntay Jones and James Jones.

Yet, the Cavaliers are back in the Finals again.

Cleveland’s returning players account for just 62% of its postseason minutes the year prior. That’s the lowest mark for a returning finalist since the NBA began tracking minutes in 1952.

Only the Chamberlain-acquiring Lakers, Durant-acquiring Warriors and Malone-acquiring 76ers are even within shouting distance.

Here’s how every team to reach consecutive NBA Finals ranks in percentage of playoff minutes returned from the first year (counting only players who played in both postseasons):

image

Though the Cavaliers already rank first in roster turnover, this method even underrates their transformation.

Since the 2017 Finals, Cleveland acquired, gave significant roles to then traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. None of those four factor into this calculation, but they obviously contribute heavily to the Cavs’ instability.

Irving counts, and he thrusted the Cavaliers into this historic situation.

Sure, the Lakers, 76ers and Warriors moved significant pieces to get Chamberlain, Malone and Durant. But those were clear upgrades and easy organizational decisions.

Irving chose to be traded far more than Cleveland chose to trade him. That decision sent the Cavs spiraling… but also wound up with them right back where they started.

If there’s a lesson in all this: No how matter how much surrounding chaos, LeBron wins the East.

Three Things to Know: Raptors stave off creeping doubt

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) The Raptors got a much-needed win over the Celtics. Toronto had lost five of eight, including two straight – to the Celtics and Cavaliers, its chief competition in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors had been the East’s best team throughout the season. A “reset” offense and a deep bench seemingly had them poised for playoff success. But this late skid instilled plenty of doubt in a team that has disappointed annually in the postseason.

A 96-78 win over Boston ought to calm panic in Toronto.

This wasn’t the prettiest game, but the Raptors played with more purpose. They defended more aggressively, kept the ball moving and relied on balanced contributions. Kyle Lowry made a positive impact the day after his dud against Cleveland, which followed him going to San Antonio to watch Villanova win the national championship. The reserves came up big.

These weren’t necessarily the Celtics that Toronto would face in the postseason. Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin were out. Boston used 11 players through three quarters.

But that only increased the impetus for the Raptors to win.

They didn’t prove anything last night. This team can’t do that until the playoffs, anyway. But at least Toronto stopped the bleeding (of a boo-boo that probably looked worse than it actually was).

2) The Mavericks out-tanked the Magic. Dallas’ 105-100 loss to Orlando might wind up last night’s most significant game on the NBA’s long-term landscape. The defeat dropped the Mavericks (24-55) ahead of the Magic (24-54) in the tight tank race.

Dallas pulled out all the stops. Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki – who all started the previous game – sat last night. Two-way player Johnathan Motley started and played 41 minutes. Aaron Harrison started and played 42 minutes. Kyle Collinsworth and Dorian Finney-Smith each played 35 minutes. Another two-way player, Jalen Jones, played 27 minutes. It’s as if the Mavericks were trying to overwhelm their already-overmatched players.

Orlando didn’t idly watch Dallas tank. The Magic rested Nikola Vucevic. Three starters – Aaron Gordon, D.J. Augustin and Bismack Biyombo – sat the entire fourth quarter. Jamel Artis played 32 minutes.

But Gordon (20 points in 26 minutes) did too much in his limited playing time and got the Magic the unneeded win.

3) The Spurs fell to the Lakers, but at least remain in playoff position. Last night’s games otherwise featured chalk between a team in the playoff race and a team not – 76ers over Pistons, Heat over Hawks, Pelicans over Grizzlies. But San Antonio fell to Los Angeles, 122-112, in overtime.

The Lakers, without their own draft picks this year, are still feisty. They’ve got nothing to tank for. Kyle Kuzma scored 30 points, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (21 points on nine shots) and Channing Frye (19 points on nine shots) were remarkably efficient.

The Spurs still haven’t clinched a playoff berth, so a loss to an eliminated team is a real letdown.

The Western Conference playoff-race standings now:

4. Utah Jazz (45-33)

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34)

5. San Antonio Spurs (45-34)

7. Minnesota Timberwolves  (44-34)

7. New Orleans Pelicans (44-34)

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9. Denver Nuggets (43-35)

10. Los Angeles Clippers (42-36)

Tonight will feature a couple big games – Clippers at Jazz and Timberwolves at Nuggets.

Trey Lyles had some not-so-nice things to say about playing for the Utah Jazz

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Trey Lyles is now a member of the Denver Nuggets, but the University of Kentucky product started his career with the Utah Jazz, and although he played significant minutes it wasn’t the best start to a career.

Lyles was moved on draft night in 2017 for Donovan Mitchell, who is now a Rookie of the Year candidate for the Jazz. Lyles, meanwhile, has been a better player for Denver during the 2017-18 season.

Still, that doesn’t mean the bad taste from his experience in Utah has left Lyles’ mouth. During a recent edition of Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye‘s “Road Trippin'” podcast, Lyles voiced his general displeasure with Utah, Salt Lake City, and coach Quin Snyder.

Via Deseret News:

Jefferson: “I liked playing in Utah. I really did.”

Lyles: “Who was your coach then?”

Jefferson: “I had Tyrone Corbin.”

Lyles, grumbling: “So y’all didn’t practice? Y’all didn’t do nothing, yeah. See, we had practice every day (under Quin Snyder). I thought I was in Kentucky again.”

Jefferson, sarcastically: “You had practice every day? Oh, sorry for making you work hard. Sorry. What’s wrong with working hard, Trey?”

Lyles: “I didn’t say nothing about working hard. Three-hour practices? C’mon now.”

Lyles went on to say he “just didn’t like” playing for the Jazz, adding that he felt players who buy into Salt Lake City are usually people with families. Translation: young NBA dudes in SLC don’t have their choice of clubs for post-game relaxation and that didn’t rub Lyles the right way.

Here’s my favorite part of the whole exchange, again from the Deseret News:

“It’s sunny all the time in Utah,” Jefferson said.

Lyles: “Hmmmm.”

“The fans are really, really good.”

“Hmmmm.”

Lyles didn’t want to practice all that much and he’d rather his city has more nightlife. To each his own, although I doubt many NBA franchises listening to that are going to be impressed. Lyles’ current contract runs out in 2018-19.

Will pending free agent Isaiah Thomas get career back on track?

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DETROIT – Some people believe a bad ending between Isaiah Thomas and the Cavaliers was inevitable.

“I think somebody is f—ing stupid,” said Channing Frye, whom Cleveland traded with Thomas to the Lakers as part of a deadline day shakeup.

Nothing was inevitable with Thomas. Nothing is inevitable with Thomas – certainly not his desired Brinks truck.

Thomas will enter unrestricted free agency this offseason trying to reclaim his star standing. Less than a year after finishing fifth in MVP voting, he’s just trying to convince everyone he’s not a sixth man.

Time is running out. In one of the most unfortunate aspects of the trade for him, Thomas went from a team that would have given him an extra couple months to show progress from his hip injury to one that will end its season in a couple weeks. Thomas might finish even sooner, as he left the Lakers to consult doctors about treatment options for his still-ailing hip.

The trade also dented Thomas’ reputation. The Cavs and Lakers seemingly used him more for his expiring contract than on-court ability. The good team didn’t want him. The bad team just wanted to clear cap space. Fairly or not, Thomas not working in Cleveland will reflect poorly on him.

But it didn’t have to turn out this way.

What if Thomas underwent surgery? What if he played for the Cavs’ minor-league affiliate in an extended rehab stint? What if he assumed a smaller offensive load while not yet at full strength? What if the Cavaliers tweaked their system more to accentuate his skills? What if he realized things he said wouldn’t go over well while he was struggling on the court? What if teammates had been more sensitive to what he was trying to overcome? What if Cleveland had been more patient? What if everyone made more of a concerted effort not to judge him against Kyrie Irving, whom the Cavs dealt to the Celtics for a package that included Thomas?

“There are so many things that had to have happened for the situation to be what it what was,” Frye said.

Yet, this is the way it went, and Thomas now has no choice to deal with it.

He has played a little better with the Lakers – but not well and certainly not near his peak form. Still, there advantages to being with Los Angeles.

“Here, he was able to play through his mistakes, where in Cleveland, there was a lot of pressure to be, you know, Isaiah,” Frye said. “Which is almost unrealistic at times, now that I look back at it.”

The big question: Will it ever be realistic again?

Thomas’ determination is incredible. Just 5-foot-9 and the last pick of the 2011 draft, he built himself into a star.

But he’s also 29 now and dealing with a lingering hip injury. Quickness and agility are built into Thomas’ game, and he can’t be the same player if he doesn’t move as well.

Especially in a tight salary-cap environment, teams will have major questions about his health.

They’ll also inquire about his willingness to be a team player. Many of those concerns stemming from his time in Sacramento and Phoenix dissipated in Boston. But they reemerged in Cleveland.

The day Thomas joined Los Angeles, Lakers coach Luke Walton took him out for dinner and calmed a brewing storm. Walton told Thomas told each other what they wanted from each other.

“It’s been a great relationship ever since,” said Walton, who wouldn’t divulge specifics of their conversation but just kept gushing about Thomas:

“He’s been amazing teammate.”

“He’s kind of like having an extra coach on the floor.”

“What he has brought to our group from a leadership standpoint has been awesome.”

Until saying he needed to leave the team, Thomas kept insisting he was healthy enough to play.

“Whatever it is, it hasn’t shown on his face at all,” Walton said. “He’s upbeat. He’s great with his teammates, great with the coaching staff. He’s got just a great way about him that’s fun to be around.”

It’s the type of assessment that could make the difference in a team gambling on Thomas next summer. As the previous couple seasons showed, the upside is high.

“I think Isaiah is a great player, and I think when he gets this opportunity, the way he’s built and wired, he’s going to shock the world or prove somebody wrong,” Frye said. “Or I’m going to be wrong.”

It’s so easy to root for Thomas, the underdog made good. He made it this far. Why can’t he rise from the bottom again?

But injuries are fickle, as the Cavs learned the hard way. Even if Thomas overcame hip woes earlier in his career, it only gets harder with age.

This can’t be what Thomas imagined while playing through injury and on a cheap contract to help the Celtics advance in the playoffs last season. But after he aggravated the injury, Boston pawned him off in the Irving trade, and the Cavaliers cut bait last month.

So, Thomas must face an uncertain future where nothing is inevitable – just as always been the case.