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.
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.
Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?
Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.
After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.
Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.
The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.
What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.
Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.
Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.
Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.
We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.
As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.
Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.
Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.
Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.
Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.
Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.
If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?
It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.
2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players
Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.
The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.
But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.
The Top Dogs
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).
To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.
With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.
While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.
Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.
Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.
The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.
Best of the Rest
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.
Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.
Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.
NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers
The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.
Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers
While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.
It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.
So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.
Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.
The Potential Future All-Stars
DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters
Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players
Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs
The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust
Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs
Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.
If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.
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