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Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

NBA teams once complained about weight of numbers or logos on lottery ping-pong balls

AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove
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Most NBA lottery conspiracy theories rely on silly reasoning. Representatives of each involved team monitor the actual drawing, which the league also shows publicly after the made-for-TV reveal. Fixing the lottery would require getting unevenly weighted ping-pong balls into the hopper unbeknownst to every team (except one) and the collaboration or ignorance of the security firm charged with maintaining the event’s integrity.

But what about accidentally favoring some teams over others?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Other lottery nostalgia, going back to the very first drawing and its infamous conspiracy theory: Steve Mills, the current Knicks president, worked for the league in the 1980s and 1990s, and said Tuesday that he set up the room where the so-called “frozen envelope” drawing happened (granting the Knicks the right to draft Patrick Ewing). A half-decade later, the league switched from envelopes to ping-pong balls. Mills and Joel Litvin, the NBA’s former president of league operations, were in charge of testing out the new balls, they both recalled.

They started by numbering them. Some teams complained that balls with double-digit numbers would weigh more, perhaps impacting the odds somehow. Mills and Litvin switched to team logos. Teams objected that a logo-based system might bring the same issue. Never let a team executive tell you fans are nuttier about conspiracy theories than they are.

Apparently, the league settled on different-colored ping-pong balls:

Now, the league draws four of 14 numbered ping-pong balls for each of the top three picks. Each lottery team gets four-number combinations. So, no team has any specific balls in the hopper.

But I don’t blame teams for being paranoid during the previous setup (or even this setup). Millions of dollars and jobs are on the line.

The lottery is absurd – in part because it’s so important.

Mohamed Bamba: NBA should change rule preventing players jumping straight from high school

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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CHICAGO (AP) — Mo Bamba is fully convinced that he’s ready for the NBA.

He also believes that was the case a year ago.

If Bamba – the massive Texas center who will likely be taking his 7-foot-10 wingspan to a lottery team at the NBA draft next month – was a high school senior in 2020, he probably would have bypassed college and made the jump straight to the league. The expectation around the NBA is that will be the year where so-called “one-and-done” rule will come off the books and players will no longer have to wait a season before going to the pro ranks.

So Bamba went to college and waited his turn, though he’s not sure it was needed.

“I thought about it a lot,” Bamba said. “It’s an area I probably would have explored.”

Out of the 30 first-round picks that will be made at the draft, it’s entirely possible that as many as 25 will have played no more than one season of college basketball. Some didn’t even play in college – there are a couple of European players likely to be first-rounders, and intriguing combo guard Anfernee Simons did a year of postgraduate work at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Simons tested off the charts at the draft combine this week, with a 41 1/2-inch vertical. He’s a former Louisville commit, who decided to hold off on college after the scandal that ultimately led to the dismissal of coach Rick Pitino.

“I’ve just been working hard on all aspects of my game, trying to get better every day,” Simons said.

The NBA makes no secret of the fact that one-and-done doesn’t work ideally for any party involved – the pro ones or the college ones. The league has talked about making 20 the minimum age where a player can enter the NBA; the players’ union has said it would prefer it going back to 18. And now with the college game on the cusp of massive changes amid an ongoing federal investigation, it seems quite likely that the one-and-done policy will be scrubbed soon.

Bamba’s reaction to that: About time.

“It’s only right by the athletes,” Bamba said. “Some kids have lifelong dreams of wanting to play in the NBA. Not manipulating, but changing the rules so we have more of an option as players is what’s most beneficial to us.”

There were 38 freshmen who applied to be early entry candidates in this draft. Some will go back to college, but the majority of those should get picked.

Some guys simply needed the year.

Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played his way onto NBA draft boards and decided to leave after one season, with Wildcats coach John Calipari raving about how hard he worked and how much better he got in his one college season.

And Duke’s Trevon Duval, who had 207 assists in his lone college year, isn’t exactly sure that he was ready to go pro out of high school either.

“My whole thought process and training process would have been a little bit different if the rule was in effect,” Duval said. “I think it’s a good rule. There are definitely kids who can go straight from college to the NBA.”

Sometimes, the perceived one-and-dones get to college and realize they’re not ready.

Miami guard Bruce Brown Jr. came to the Hurricanes with that one-and-done label. He wound up staying for two seasons, and knows that was the better move for his development. Same goes for Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, who insists he’s better for having stayed.

“I’m more ready now,” Bridges said.

In his interviews with teams this week at the combine, Bridges was often asked about why he didn’t come out as a freshman. His sense was that they liked his answer.

“They were kind of impressed with that,” Bridges said. “So, me staying was a good thing. I stayed so I could mature and they respect that about me.”

Bamba sees a similar payoff in himself as well.

As much as he would have liked to be in the NBA already, he’s not resentful about having to wait. And he does concede that the college experience made him better than he was when he exited high school.

“I got everything I wanted out of Texas,” Bamba said. “Obviously, you’d love to win more. You’d love to win a national championship and compete at that level. But as far as relationships and development, I couldn’t be happier.”

Rumor: Team promised to draft Boise State senior Chandler Hutchinson in late first round

AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian
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NBA teams are increasingly using three, even four, versatile wings at once. Such lineups can spread the floor, play fast and switch.

But teams haven’t quite caught up to emphasizing wings in the draft. The top seven picks in our mock draft are bigs and point guards.

There are plenty of wings available lower in the draft, though. Is a team particularly intrigued by Boise State senior Chandler Hutchinson?

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

Hutchinson is a 22-year-old who didn’t really excel until he became older than most of his mid-major-conference competition. I’m skeptical of any prospects of that rough mold.

Hutchinson impresses as a driver – particularly against closeouts or in transition. His strides are long, and he adeptly changes speeds and direction. He finishes well at the rim and even passes well while attacking.

But those opportunities to drive against closeouts won’t exist if his outside shot isn’t a threat. Though he’s significantly improved, his 3-pointer is not reliable. He’s far better on catch-and-shoots than hoisting off the dribble from deep, and he’ll likely eliminate those low-efficiency pull-up attempts while in a smaller role in the pros. So, that should help.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hutchinson has the physical to defend well in the NBA. But he’ll have a lot to learn after playing in Boise State’s zone.

Hutchinson has a projectable skill set for a league that increasingly desires players of his style. That ought to get him strong consideration. But becoming convinced he’s worth a first-round investment? That’s a tougher case.

Apparently, at least one team is sold, though.

Elfrid Payton gets haircut

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
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Elfrid Payton‘s distinctive hairstyle has been blamed for his poor shooting.

That won’t be a problem now.

Former Magic teammate Evan Fournier:

Payton will be a free agent this summer. (The Suns can make restricted.) Could this actually improve his offers?

I know this: If Payton shoots better next season, his haircut will be seen as the primary reason, accurate or not.