LeBron James shouldering historic burden in carrying Cavaliers to NBA Finals

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As the Cavaliers were presented with the Eastern Conference championship trophy, LeBron James lied on the floor off to the side. Soon enough, Doris Burke – hosting the televised ceremony – beckoned him.

“I got to talk again?” said a clearly exhausted LeBron after leading Cleveland past the Pacers, Raptors and Celtics and into the NBA Finals.

His teammates helped him to his feet, and he returned the favor in his interview.

“I know I get a lot of the headlines – win, lose or draw, whatever the case may be,” LeBron said. “But in order to be successful, it’s a team game. I learned that from when I first started picking up a basketball to play organized basketball at age 9.”

That is true. No individual wins by himself.

But some do more than others, and LeBron is doing more than anyone in a long time.

He has put the Cavs on his back after failed trades, bad signings and aging (exacerbated by deep playoff runs annually) have left his supporting cast inept. His teammates are literally the butt of the joke.

The problems started last summer, when LeBron’s top teammate – Kyrie Irving – requested a trade. The Cavaliers dealt him for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, and when those two didn’t work, flipped them to get George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. Though Cleveland also netted the No. 8 pick in that string of transactions (and relinquished its own first-rounder), that selection isn’t helping this postseason.

Neither are Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, two overhyped signings who were also sent away. J.R. Smith looks old. Tristan appears worn down.

Even the bright spots are blemished. Kevin Love is a star, but he has never neared his Minnesota-level contributions with the Cavs, and he’s not getting any younger. Plus, he’s still dealing with a concussion. Kyle Korver is a fine one-way player in a two-way sport. Jeff Green is finally providing surplus value – now that he’s earning a minimum salary. Jose Calderon has soared past expectations for someone who looked washed-up last year. Cedi Osman plays with a lot of energy but is deployed.

The other Cavaliers will have their moments, but so, so, so much falls on LeBron.

And he has risen to the occasion.

LeBron has posted 44% of Cleveland’s win shares this postseason. That’s the fifth-highest percentage ever for someone who led his team to the Finals and highest since the NBA-ABA merger.

The all-time leaderboard in percentage of team’s postseason win shares among players who led their team to the Finals:

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And here’s since the merger:

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Of course, win shares are far from a perfect measure. And these are all postseason-long marks. Perhaps, LeBron’s changes in the Finals.

But this matches what we’re all seeing unfold: LeBron is dragging an undermanned team deep in the playoffs.

The burden will probably become too great this round. The Warriors are stacked – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

One man can’t topple this Golden State team alone.

If LeBron’s teammates are as capable as he says, this would be a great time for them to step up.

He got them this far. Now, he needs more help.

LeBron James scores 33, Cavaliers rally to stun Wizards

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter and brought Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 17-point deficit to stun the Washington Wizards 119-115 on Thursday night and maintain the No. 3 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Cavs trailed 104-87 with 7:35 left before storming back behind James, who added 14 assists, nine rebounds and made sure coach Tyronn Lue got a win in his return after missing nine games due to health reasons.

Jeff Green added 21 points and Kevin Love had 16 for the Cavs, who are 10-1 since March 17, when Lue was forced to leave a game in Chicago with “piercing” chest pains. Lue, who has changed his diet and is taking sleep medication, has come back to a team that seems to be hitting its stride just in time for the playoffs.

But it took another of those patented James’ comebacks to down the Wizards, who have dropped seven of nine and are in a three-way battle with Milwaukee and Miami for playoff positioning.

Washington’s John Wall looked more like his speedy All-Star self in his third game back from knee surgery, scoring 28 points with 14 assists. But he had a costly turnover in the closing seconds and the Wizards couldn’t put away the Cavs down the stretch.

A basket by Markieff Morris gave the Wizards a 110-100 lead with 3:16 left, but James scored six straight, fed Green for layup, and Rodney Hood made two free throws to complete a 10-0 run by the Cavs.

Green’s two free throws – on a tough call against Washington – gave the Cavs a 116-115 lead, but after Walls missed a short jumper, James split a pair of three throws, giving Washington one last chance.

Wall drove the lane but his twisting pass back outside was stolen by rookie Cedi Osman, who made two free throws to close it out.

Playing in just his third game since surgery, Wall had that burst back in his first step and he found his touch after two tough games. Bradley Beal added 19 points, and Otto Porter had 18 for Washington.

Lue came back to a familiar situation as the Cavs, who have endured injuries for months, were missing point guards Jose Calderon (hamstring) and George Hill (ankle). Lue started Osman at point.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall lost weight during his recovery, and coach Scott Brooks said that should help the All-Star going forward. “It’s going to be good for his long-term recovery,” Brooks said. “It’s good for him. It’s good for us. He just needs to gets some reps.”

Cavaliers: Won their eighth straight at home. … James has scored 30 points in 429 games, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for fifth place in league history. … Osman is the seventh different starting point guard for Cleveland, which because of injuries has had 29 starting lineups. … Lue was sorry to learn Celtics guard Kyrie Irving will miss the playoffs with a knee infection. Irving had a great run with Cleveland and will be forever remembered for his go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing minutes of Game 7 in the 2016 Finals. “He was a big part of what we did here, a big part of winning the championship and even though he’s on another team you still don’t want to see anyone go through that,” Lue said.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Host Atlanta on Friday night.

Cavaliers: At Philadelphia on Friday night.

Cavaliers get Nance Jr., Thompson, Hood back from injuries

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers are closer to being at full strength.

Forwards Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Rodney Hood all returned from injuries on Friday night as Cleveland, which has been riddled with injuries all season, hosted the Phoenix Suns. Acting coach Larry Drew said none of the players will start and all will be on minutes’ restrictions.

Drew, who is filling in while coach Tyronn Lue is on leave to address his own health, plans to keep his starting lineup intact and ease the returning players into the rotation.

LeBron James, Jose Calderon, George Hill, Jeff Green and Kevin Love were scheduled to started against Phoenix, which has lost nine in a row. Drew said he and Lue will talk again Saturday about lineup changes for the upcoming trip to Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte.

“I really didn’t want to disrupt the starting five that we have out there right now and those guys will be playing limited minutes, so I wanted to get them slowly back and acclimated to what we’re doing,” Drew said. “There’s a chance that there could be some early substitutions to get the guys in there. I’m not ruling that out, but right now I just kind of want to stay with the flow, stay with what we’ve done the last couple of ballgames and then we’ll probably after tonight we’ll see as far as where we stand as far as starters are concerned.”

Thompson missed nine games with a sprained right ankle, Nance Jr. was out four with a hamstring issue and Hood was out the past three games with a bad back.

Drew said he did not know if Lue will accompany the team on its trip.

But while the Cavs are healthier than they’ve been in weeks, the team is still missing Kyle Korver, who is with his family in Iowa following the death of his brother, and rookie Cedi Osman, who is sidelined with a left hip flexor strain.

Three Things to Know: Nothing but takeaways from Cavaliers beating Raptors

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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. Today we’re doing things a little differently, despite some other interesting games — Dwight Howard dropping 30-and-30, the genuine concern about Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ankle, and the Pelicans beating the Pacers because Anthony Davis is ridiculous — we are going to focus on the likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Toronto at Cleveland, which the Cavaliers won 132-129.

What we are not taking away from this is a prediction of a playoff matchup between these two teams. Forget the fact that regular season meetings are crappy predictors of playoff series in general, here are three other issues: 1) Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven days, which factored into their poor defense and late fade; 2) Cleveland is going to be healthier and have different guys in the rotation come the playoffs; 3) If Dwane Casey or Larry Drew/Tyronn Lue have a tactic they think could be a great weapon against the other side, no chance they break it out for long in a late-season game — they will save it for the playoffs. Sort of like to NFL teams playing each other in week 16 when they know they could meet in the playoffs. We didn’t see the best of either side.

That said, let’s get on to the real three things.

1) The biggest factor in the Eastern Conference remains LeBron James and his level of play. There are questions about how well the new-look Raptors will carry over to the playoffs. There are more questions (at least in my mind) about how well this Cavaliers roster can defend, even when healthy. All that said, this game was a reminder of one simple fact:

LeBron James can lift a team to the NBA Finals almost by himself — he’s been to seven straight Finals for a reason. He is the force of nature, he’s still playing at an MVP-level (at age 33 in his 15th season), and he took over this game with 35 points, 17 assists, and zero turnovers.

LeBron shot 62 percent from three on the night, had 14 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter alone, and was the difference in this game. OG Anunoby is the guy the Raptors will likely lean on in the playoffs to make LeBron work for his buckets, but he looked like a guys still working his way back from injury (and like a rookie with tired legs late in the season), it was Pascal Siakam who did the best of any Raptor (LeBron was 4-of-10 with Siakam guarding him on the night). That’s something we would see in the postseason, but nobody really had an impact, and the Raptors need to figure out how to make LeBron work harder for his buckets.

Put simply, the Eastern Conference is all about LeBron James. Still. And it will remain so until further notice.

2) Which one of these teams will defend better come the playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 79 first-half points and allowed the Raptors a 135.8 offensive rating on the night (points per 100 possessions). Kyle Lowry put it this way after the game, “Disgraceful display of defense by us. We’ve got to be better than that.” The Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 140.4 (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Neither team defended well. If this was an Eastern Conference playoff preview, the team that improves their defense the most between now and then will come out on top.

Toronto has defended better all season — they are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating — but it didn’t show Wednesday. Maybe it was the back-to-back, fifth-game-in-seven-days that took their legs out from under them, particularly for the older Serge Ibaka who had an off night on both ends. (Tired legs also would explain the lack of transition points by the Raptors on the night, they needed those easy buckets). Maybe it’s the fact nobody has a good answer for LeBron. Maybe a lot of things, but the Raptors need to do better defensively in a playoff series or the outcome will be the same.

The Cavaliers lack cohesion on defense, and while they will get better defenders back from injury — Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. — that is not going to speed up the team getting used to each other on that end. Cleveland has to have better energy, they need to close out on shooters better (the Raptors got open looks late on kickouts, they missed injured C.J. Miles), and they just need more efforts like veteran Jose Calderon gave (it was a good night for him). Cleveland has time to get its defenders on the same page, but not a lot of it.

3) Is Toronto’s bench going to matter as much in the playoffs? Toronto’s bench unit has been key to their success all season — the Raptors took a double-digit lead in the second quarter thanks to their bench (who has done that to teams all season long). The Raptors lineup of Jakab Poeltl, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright was +6 in 10 minutes Wednesday. The Lowry plus bench unit has killed teams all season long.

Will it matter in the playoffs?

Right now coaches are going nine or 10 deep in their rotations, and the Raptors depth matters in that situation — their bench can beat your bench. It happened against the Cavaliers. However, come the playoffs the minutes that went to guys nine and 10 in the rotation go to guys one and two — the bench tightens way up, and the best players get more minutes. A deep bench doesn’t have the same impact.

What that bench will provide Casey in the playoffs is options — if Anunoby is struggling against LeBron bring in Siakam — but it’s not the same as the regular season. I love that in big games recently against the Thunder and Cavaliers Casey is still playing around with his lineups for stretches — now is the time to experiment. Now is the time to get guys used to playing with each other. That way, come the playoffs, Casey can throw the combination out there that he thinks works and there will be familiarity.

But the Raptors will need more from their starters in the playoffs because the bench will not have the same impact.

Report: ‘Several prominent’ Cavaliers express concern about aging, defenseless, redundant roster

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The Cavaliers look like they can’t hang with the Warriors, which is troubling enough for a team with championship aspirations.

But for that realization to come during a miserable 2-8 stretch only puts more stress on the Cavs, who already appeared to be ripping at the seems. LeBron James is performativity howling at his teammates. They’re pointing the finger back at him. Coach Tyronn Lue is talking about personal agendas.

And tensions aren’t easing.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 118-108 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, multiple players acknowledged growing discontent and a strong sense of concern that unlike past seasons, the team does not have the capability to fix its problems and get back on a championship track.

Several prominent players, speaking on condition of anonymity to ESPN, Cleveland.com and The Athletic, expressed doubt that the problems — an aging roster, defensively challenged personnel and a glut of redundant role players — could simply be worked out through patience and a chance to coalesce when fully healthy.

The Cavaliers have one preeminent player: LeBron. It’d be disingenuous to frame this article this way without including him, and I doubt McMenamin is doing that.

These concerns are perfectly valid.

Cleveland is the NBA’s oldest team, weighted by playing time, in a decade. That doesn’t bode well for building up steam toward and in a long playoff run. This is an even more extreme version of the problem LeBron’s last Heat team succumbed to.

Isaiah Thomas is a defensive liability, and Kevin Love – playing a lot of center – isn’t a rim protector. Several other players – LeBron, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jose Calderon, Channing Frye and Derrick Rose – are well past their defensive peaks, which weren’t necessarily high in the first place. The Cavs’ defense ranks 29, ahead of only the Kings.

Wade, Calderon and Rose can’t all serve as lead playmaker while LeBron sits – leaving the other two without clear roles when everyone is healthy. Smith and Korver would both be spot-up 3-point specialists if Smith were hitting shots. Jae Crowder and Jeff Green look similar (a compliment to Green, but a telltale sign of how underwhelming Crowder has been). Frye is a lesser version of Love as a stretch five. Tristan Thompson can’t get going, and Iman Shumpert can’t get healthy.

To be fair, the Cavaliers are 26-17 – hardly bad, but not quite championship-caliber. This portrait of doom and gloom is accurate only when measured against the highest of expectations.

The Cavs can still trade the Nets’ first-round pick to upgrade the roster, though they’re reportedly disinclined to do so. This report sounds like a plea from top players for the team to reconsider. And if owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman don’t, it’ll read as LeBron framing his exit in free agency next summer.