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How Cavs Can Level NBA Finals Playing Field

What can the Cavaliers do to seriously compete with the Warriors? Ben Dowsett has the blueprint.

Ben Dowsett

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A league-best 12-2 playoff record, a gaudy point differential and plenty of rest all mean next to nothing now – the Cleveland Cavaliers are sizable underdogs in the NBA Finals.

Staring Cleveland in the face isn’t just the most successful single-season team ever, fresh off their first true challenge in their two-year run of dominance, or even just a team that handily dispatched these Cavs a year ago on this same stage. It’s also a Golden State Warriors team that holds sizable and visibly apparent tactical advantages within the specific matchup, and we’ve yet to see these Cavs prove they have the skill and (especially) the discipline to combat these for a full 48 minutes four times in seven games.

What’s been working for Cleveland as they’ve walked through the East won’t work here, at least not in the same ways. The Cavaliers have yet to face an opponent capable of simultaneously neutering their aerial attack without sacrificing interior defense, a reality that’s about to change in swift fashion. They’ve been able to dry-erase mostly lukewarm defense by simply overwhelming teams on the other end of the floor, but the Warriors use permanent marker.

Cleveland has found a comfort zone over this last month and change; now they have to be willing to leave it. This series is only competitive if the Cavs are able to swing a number of minutiae in their favor and dominate in their few advantageous areas, and doing that will take a commitment and potential willingness to sacrifice that has never been asked of at least a couple primary cogs. They’ll be asked to combine some lessons they learned last time around with new (albeit flawed) personnel and a negative margin for error. Let’s examine a few of the most vital tipping points.

Hide-and-Seek

The Cavs go right from over-matched opponents incapable of punishing their occasional defensive laziness often enough to one of the most ruthless, exploitative teams in recent memory. The Warriors will find the tiniest scar tissue in your defense, rip it open and pour salt water in it repeatedly until you find a way to cover it – and NBA basketball offers limited Band-Aids.

If how to adequately defend lineups featuring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson while either of Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving is on the floor is a quandary, how to do so while both play at the same time is a MENSA project. The Dubs will seek these two out regardless of the matchups Cleveland chooses to place them in.

Love has succeeded most in Cleveland when the Cavs have kept things simple for him and involved the entire five-man unit in covering his weaknesses, and that will be the name of the game here.

Pick-and-roll defense is the tipping point against this opponent, and the switch-everything approach the Thunder used so well last round isn’t an option for Love. He should guard Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli whenever one of them is on the court, and when the Warriors involve him in Curry’s pick-and-rolls in these situations, expect to see the Cavs aggressively trap Curry and force the ball out of his hands. Bogut and Ezeli aren’t the playmakers Draymond Green has proven to be in space, and the Cavs have shown the ability to recover quickly and fly around in passing lanes when they’re engaged. They often find a majority of their transition points following these sorts of possessions, an added benefit if they can get enough stops.

It’s not a perfect option, but it seems preferable to the alternatives: switching Love onto Curry repeatedly or allowing Steph his bread-and-butter looks off the bounce with more traditional pick-and-roll defense. This might leave Love as the last line of defense at the rim more often than Cleveland would prefer, but the Cavs know they need a team effort on the interior regardless. Things get dicey anytime Love finds himself checking Green or a Warriors wing, and Golden State will hunt out these opportunities both in transition and in screen action away from the ball in the halfcourt – the Cavaliers simply can’t afford to make many mistakes in these quick-decision areas.

Love’s success could also depend in large part on coach Ty Lue’s willingness to put aside any distractions like salary or previous role while deploying his stretch power forward in this series. Lue should be ready to alter Love’s rotations in the pursuit of keeping him on the floor for virtually every conceivable second the Warriors play a traditional center; he’ll drown against the Death Lineup or any iteration that forces him onto Green or a Warriors’ wing for any stretch of time. Whether Lue is prepared to potentially deviate in a big way here, including periods when Love just won’t be a viable option, is a big question.

Like with Love, the Cavs do have a few simple options for defending Curry with Irving on the ball – a place he’ll end up in enough to make it relevant given that the presumed starting lineups don’t really offer a reasonable hiding place for huge minutes.

The Cavs should trap anything that includes Love’s man as well as Irving’s, but look for a switch-heavy scheme otherwise. Outside Love and perhaps Channing Frye, the Cavs boast a roster full of guys at least moderately capable of jumping out to check Curry for a few seconds at a time. The Dubs diverting from their offense to try and punish Irving in the post on these switches would almost certainly be a welcome sight for Cleveland, especially later in the shot clock.

The larger problem for Irving and the Cavs as a whole is away from the ball, where the Warriors will look to destroy the few manageable defensive matchups available while simultaneously hunting their brand of quick, lethal shots.

This is where the approach has to diverge from the one Oklahoma City employed last round. No mismatch the Thunder could cede while switching everything off the ball was large enough to abandon the tactic and yield the sort of open looks that would result in letting their primary defenders fall behind Steph or Klay navigating the trees – the Cavs lack that luxury. Remember, the Warriors will exploit every little thing: Love ends up on Thompson rocketing around a pick? He’s about to be involved in a pick-and-roll, where no trap or switch is safe.

The Cavs will be openly looking to keep the likes of Irving and Love away from certain matchups, and this will be Golden State’s counter. Cleveland is going to get burned here now and then regardless, but staying focused and communicative enough to prevent it from becoming a rampant problem is paramount.

In a broad sense, defending the Warriors will be a war of attrition for Cleveland. They’re giving up clear deficits in obvious areas; can they plug just enough of the right holes to stay afloat? We saw them briefly narrow an even larger talent gap last year, but the puzzle is much more complex this time out.

The King (Needs To) Stay the King

LeBron James is better-rounded than his defensively challenged star teammates, but he’ll need to be similarly open to venturing outside his comfort zone to succeed in this series. He’ll look to strike a balance between last year’s Herculean solo effort and the five-man success the Cavs have enjoyed in the playoffs thus far.

Cleveland will need peak-energy LeBron on the defensive end for longer stretches than we’ve seen from him in the last couple years. He sets the tone for their activity level on back-end rotations, a theme that will become vital if the Cavs indeed choose to trap certain Curry pick-and-rolls. He can blow up a few plays a game if he stays engaged, and will often turn these into points the other way on easy buckets Cleveland will desperately need. On the other side of that coin, the results could be disastrous if James settles into the roaming, detached, “my presence scares you more than anything I’m actually doing” defense he often gets away with against lesser opponents. The Dubs are too smart for it.

Offensively, LeBron and the Cavs need to be prepared for a team that will practically beg him to do too much. The Warriors will disrespect his jumper more emphatically than anyone to this point, and will be content with an over-reliance on isolation play during the bulk of his minutes while he’s guarded by Andre Iguodala. They’ll shade his post-ups with well-timed strong-side overloads from guys like Bogut and Green, throw tons of pressure at his pick-and-rolls and generally make his life uncomfortable.

Like in every other area, the Cavs will have to out-ruthless the Warriors when the opportunities present themselves. On the rare occasions James finds anyone but Iguodala in front of him, he should attack the mismatch immediately – before the Dubs have a chance to slide back into their preferred alignment, something they’re the best in the league at doing. If there’s even a hint of a possible transition chance, LeBron has to push for it.

In the slower halfcourt, leveraging James’ strengths are vital. Any time he spends on the perimeter is time the Warriors can spend loading up on the paint and more dangerous shooters; Lue should do his best to limit LeBron pounding the rock unless a mismatch is imminent. Cleveland has used James as the roll man in pick-and-roll sets much more often this postseason, up to 8.2 percent of his finished plays compared with 3.6 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports; that number should be in the double digits this series, even assuming his gaudy 1.4 points scored per-possession in these sets to this point in the playoffs has no chance of maintaining.

Kevin Durant roundly outplayed and even marginalized Green in the Western Conference Finals, and it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a chance, James will need to be the best player on the floor. He should spend chunks of time in Durant’s Green-stopper/Curry-switcher role that helped the Thunder neutralize that pick-and-roll combo, and others stifling Thompson if Klay gets hot. He’s as fresh as ever at this point in a postseason, and the Cavs will need every ounce he’s got left.

Frye With That?

Cleveland’s secret weapon throughout this postseason, Channing Frye is another piece yet to be tested under the crucible of a strong opponent capable of exploiting him as much as he exploits them.

The James-Frye frontcourt duo that’s opened most second and fourth quarters for Lue over the last month is one of the few legitimate matchup issues for Golden State if one assumes Steve Kerr’s rotational patterns stay the same – and it may very well force them to change up. Guys like Mo Speights won’t survive defensively against these lineups and can’t hurt the Cavs enough on the other end, meaning Kerr could be forced to sub Green out a hair earlier in the first and third quarters to bring him back against these units.

Lue should be willing to mix and match Frye’s minutes pending matchups and situations, and potentially to lean on him if he proves he can hold up defensively. Frye will struggle defensively while Curry plays, but the Cavs can do many of the same things mentioned above with Love to help mitigate the damage here. Frye isn’t the rebounder Love is (another team effort thing that will spring up while he’s on the court), but has more length and might be a tad more effective as a rim deterrent. It’s easy to see a world where these units do just as well defensively as their more common looks; in this scenario, these lineups could swing a game or two in this series.

Win the Margins

It’s been our entire theme here, but it bears even further reinforcement: This series will be over in a hurry if the Cavs aren’t able to maximize every tiny advantage available to them.

The potential applications are broad and nearly endless. Cleveland has to be ultra-smart crashing the offensive glass; they badly need those extra chances to score, but it won’t matter much if they over-pursue and get killed in defensive transition. They should aggressively attack any key Warrior on the precipice of foul trouble, both to find easier points and potentially muck up Kerr’s rotational versatility.

The Cavs have done a great job limiting turnovers to this point in the postseason, and must continue the practice – even a few extra live-ball opportunities that turn into transition points the other way each game would likely bury them. Lue should be ready to react quickly to changing circumstances, and to potentially step outside the box with lineup decisions. Don’t be shocked to see more of Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert, potentially even alongside the more traditional “starters” at their positions.

More than anything, Cleveland’s focus simply cannot wane. A group prone to letting their guard down at weird times needs to be able to convince themselves that a 10-point lead is actually closer to a tie game against this opponent (this nearly has some basis in fact at this point). A full 48 minutes every night just might be enough against this behemoth, but 45 simply won’t.

The Cavs get their shot for redemption, and the full crew is on hand. Can they leverage a flawed skill influx enough to level the playing field? We’ll find out starting Thursday.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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