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Phoenix Suns 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2016-17 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Last year, the Phoenix Suns seemed poised to take the next step in their development and challenge for a playoff spot. With a promising core of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Alex Len and Devin Booker along with veterans like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and more, it’s easy to see how they should have been in the playoff hunt.

The team jumped out to an 8-9 start last year, but then the wheels fell off and things went south quickly. They finished the campaign with a 23-59 record. Head coach Jeff Hornacek was let go in February and Earl Watson took over the position on an interim basis. With Watson now on board as the permanent head coach, the team hopes that a few veteran additions plus the team’s core taking the next step in their development will lead to improvement this season.

Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Phoenix Suns are a cautionary tale of what can happen when a rebuilding team experiences too much success too soon. After beating expectations early on under former head coach Jeff Hornacek, the franchise tried to skip a few steps in the normal rebuilding process by adding some players to help them win now. After those moves failed to make them anything more than fringe playoff contenders, the team seemingly went all in on the youth movement again this summer, drafting Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis and trading multiple picks to the Sacramento Kings for Marquese Chriss. The team now has young talent at every position and are led by Earl Watson, who earned the head coach position by connecting with his players last season. The Suns have a young core to build on and veterans like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler to help keep the team competitive in the short term, while mentoring the young guys. Having said all of that, there is no one more exciting on the Suns’ roster than Devin Booker, who came on strong towards the end of last season and looks like a potential star at guard.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

I really like this young core of players and I think the Suns have a lot to be excited about heading forward. Devin Booker exceeded my expectations during his rookie season and he still has so much potential. It seems like he could emerge as a star given his remaining potential, and watching his development will be fun. Throw in fellow up-and-comers like Brandon Knight, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ulis – all of whom are under 24 years old (and most are significantly younger than that) – and there’s a lot to like. It’s on head coach Earl Watson to lead this young unit, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Watson is well-respected throughout the NBA and one of the reasons he was given the permanent gig after serving as interim coach is because his players loved him and praised the job he did. Also, veterans like Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and Leandro Barbosa are in place to lead and help the youngsters maximize their full potential. I don’t think the Suns will be able to make the playoffs this upcoming season, but the young pieces are in place for this franchise to return to respectability and relevance in the near future.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Suns have been a relatively dysfunctional bunch over the past two seasons. From inexplicable trades of their top talent to players demanding trades and head coaching changes, things in Phoenix have resembled a circus as of late. But even with all of the chaos surrounding the franchise there are numerous bright spots. Devin Booker, the team’s 2015 lottery pick, averaged 19 points per game in 28 games post All-Star break (17.4 in 51 contests as a starter) this past season. The club also boasts a dynamic backcourt in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight and intriguing rookie forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The club also invested free agency money in veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley this summer to bring leadership into the young locker room. Expect an improvement of last season’s 23-59 mark, but the playoffs are a distant dream on the horizon at the moment.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

It’s hard to know what to expect from the Suns this coming season. Devin Booker has almost immeasurable promise, but unless Dragan Bender is the second coming of LeBron James, the Suns don’t necessarily seem to be heading anywhere anytime soon. The Brandon Knight-Eric Bledsoe tandem hasn’t paid huge dividends and Tyson Chandler didn’t have the same impact that he has had in some of his prior stops. The Suns will likely find themselves competing with the Lakers to avoid the final spot in the division, and that prediction shouldn’t really come as a major shock to anyone.

5th Place — Pacific Division

— Moke Hamilton

It was a rough year for the Suns last season, due largely to some of the injuries they experienced, but assuming everybody is healthy this time around they could be one of the sneaky good teams in the Western Conference this year. Devin Booker looks like he’s going to be an All-Star sooner rather than later, and he’s just one-third of an impressive backcourt rotation that also includes Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley are both back, giving Tyson Chandler a little help in the “veteran leadership” department, and two top-eight picks in Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender should send the ol’ hype train streaming into Arizona this fall at full speed. They’ve got some gelling to do, but the talent is there to make a run at the Western Conference Playoffs. They just have to stay healthy.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Eric Bledsoe

Although he appeared in just 31 games last season, Bledsoe led the Suns in points per game at 20.4. A knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year in December, and the Suns began their downward descent shortly after. While the team has capable scorers in Brandon Knight, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker, their success hinges largely on having a healthy Bledsoe around. He possesses great speed teams want out of their point guard and he has a great ability to drive to the rim and make defenders miss. He can be electric to watch at times and is active all over the court. Unfortunately, the story throughout his career is his health. It’s certain that if he can remain healthy this season, the Suns could be a fun team to watch.

Top Defensive Player: P.J. Tucker

While an argument can be made here for Tyson Chandler, we’re going to highlight Tucker instead. Tucker held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage last season when he guarded them compared to what the opponent normally shot. His opponents shot 44.6 percent on average, but that number fell to 43 percent when Tucker guarded them. That number doesn’t exactly place him into elite status around the league as a defender, but it’s still a promising number nonetheless. Tucker has always proven to be a guy that does the dirty work on the defensive end by grabbing loose rebounds, making hustle plays and putting the team’s needs ahead of his own. Look for Tucker to continue to be a workhouse on the defensive end for the Suns this season.

Top Playmaker: Brandon Knight

We like Bledsoe as the team’s playmaker, but Knight is also just as capable as Bledsoe. Knight battled through several various injuries last season and appeared in just 52 games, but he looked to be very effective when he did play. He averaged 19.6 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season. There have been questions on whether or not Knight would start in the backcourt alongside Bledsoe, but it looks as though Knight will be able to produce and continue being a great playmaker in the starting lineup or off of the bench. Knight is a proven starter, but he could flourish even more off of the bench when matched up against the opposing team’s second unit. It will be an intriguing decision for head coach Earl Watson to make when it appears Bledsoe, Knight and Booker could all start in the backcourt.

Top Clutch Player: Eric Bledsoe

Most analysts classify clutch stats as how they performed during the last five minutes of games in which their team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Seeing as how the Suns won just 23 games last season, there may not have been many games that qualified. Bledsoe ranked 82nd last season with 46 total points scored in the last five minutes of games in which the Suns were either ahead or behind by five points. Knight actually ranked three spots higher than Bledsoe in terms of total points, but Knight shot just 27 percent in those situations while Bledsoe was a bit better at 34 percent. It’s clear that both Bledsoe and Knight are the team’s go-to players late in games, but Bledsoe gets the nod here due to his higher field-goal percentage. He’s a guy that can be trusted to take care of the ball in crucial situations and can make his way to the basket when needed.

The Unheralded Player: Tyson Chandler

Ask any of his former teammates, and it’s likely most of them will say Chandler is a great locker room guy. The Suns want to build a positive culture and so far have done exactly that. The young players on the team rave about Chandler and what he’s meant for their development on and off of the court. While last season wasn’t exactly Chandler’s best as he averaged 7.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and .7 blocks, he still is a major part of this team. The former Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 brings so much to floor defensively, especially in the paint. That alone is a big reason why the Suns signed him last summer. Since his stats don’t exactly jump off of the page, Chandler brings so much more to the Suns than his production on the court and may not receive as much love as he should.

Best New Addition: Jared Dudley

In terms of a new player on the team that will be able to impact games, Dudley gets the nod here. An argument can be made for one of the many rookies the Suns added over the offseason, but the Suns know what they’re getting with Dudley. The team wanted to add a veteran player that can help mentor the younger players and Dudley is perfectly fine with that role. Dudley has become a prototypical player that can thrive in the pace-and-space style of play the NBA is shifting toward. He can guard multiple positions, he’s proven that he can play up-tempo and he is a career 39 percent shooter from three-point range.

– Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Earl Watson

Head coach Watson headlines the list of individuals we like within the Suns organization. He’s one of the most respected guys all around the league from his time as a player and that has clearly carried over into the team’s locker room. Watson was named as the interim head coach after Jeff Hornacek was fired in February and the players began buying in his system soon after. When new coaches are integrated into new situations, it’s easy for players to eventually tune them out, but it’s been the complete opposite with Watson and his roster. He took over the job last season as if it was his for the taking, and it’s that confidence that led him to become the permanent head coach starting this season.

2. Devin Booker

It was Booker’s strong second-half of last season that really gave him a lot of momentum heading into this year. In 48 games before the All-Star break, Booker averaged 10.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 23.3 minutes per game. In 28 games following the All-Star break, Booker elevated those numbers to 19.2 points, 4.1 assists and three rebounds in 35.4 minutes per game. He saw a much bigger role under Watson and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue this season. Booker was also one of the best players during the Las Vegas Summer League and he showed a lot of confidence in his game during his time there. It’s going to be very interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off from last season, but all indications are that he will be able to.

3. Ryan McDonough

General manager Ryan McDonough’s work in June’s draft has many impressed with what he did. The team added Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis in all throughout draft night. They drafted Bender with the fourth pick and then packaged Bogdan Bogdanovic along with the 13th and 28th draft picks to move up and take Chriss eighth. Drafting Ulis with the 34th overall pick in the second round seemed to be a steal considering Ulis was projected as a first-round player. It remains to be seen exactly what role each rookie will have moving forward, but each player they added features a ton of upside, and that’s basically what any team is looking for in the draft. The Suns as a whole have a lot of younger players, but also some crafty veterans to help those guys development into better players. The Suns look to be in a great position to see improvement this season.

4. Leandro Barbosa

The addition of Barbosa will certainly help the Suns in the backcourt. The team had good depth prior to Barbosa returning to the Suns, but his addition can only be seen as a positive. Barbosa of course brings his experience from his time with the Golden State Warriors and playing in the past two NBA Finals series. The Suns have made it no secret that they wanted to add high-character veterans into the locker room and Barbosa certainly fits that bill. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out in that backcourt with the likes of Bledsoe, Knight, Booker, Ulis, Archie Goodwin and Barbosa all sharing minutes.

– Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Suns are well below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with just $79.9 million in guaranteed salaries. The team has 14 players locked in for the season, with a decision to be made on John Jenkins, who is non-guaranteed at $1.1 million for 2016-17. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season, even with Jenkins, the Suns are $3.8 million under – any shortfall will be paid out to the team’s rostered players at the end of the year.

With at least $13.2 million in cap space, Phoenix will have significant flexibility in trade throughout the season. Looking ahead to next summer, the Suns could have in the neighborhood of $32 million in spending power. Before November, the team will need to make decisions on the rookie-scale options for Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, and extensions for Alex Len and/or Archie Goodwin. Keeping both Booker and Warren is a no-brainer, but the team will have to put serious thought into locking in Len and/or Goodwin before they become restricted free agents next July.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Perhaps one of the biggest strengths on this Suns team is their youth. In a time in the NBA when teams would like to be as young as possible to build up for the future, the Suns certainly fit the bill with an average age of 25.3 (fifth-youngest in the league). Led by Devin Booker, the Suns also have several other young core players like Len, Warren, Knight and Goodwin among others. Of course, they also added three new rookies in Bender, Chriss and Ulis. Another strength on paper looks to be the team’s depth. The backcourt seems to be its strongest right now with the addition of Barbosa in free agency. Watson will have a decision to make for his starting backcourt with Bledsoe, Knight and Booker all in contention for the two starting spots. Regardless of who starts, his second unit looks to be strong.

– Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

Just as the team’s youth can be seen as a strength, it can also be viewed as a weakness. Young players are bound to make mistakes and that showed all throughout last season. A big part to the team’s success this season will depend on those younger guys continuing to develop and minimizing their mistakes. Another critical thing will be learning how to close out games. We’ve seen time and time again how young teams can fall apart late in games. This will be something to monitor throughout the season to see if the team can move past those issues.

– Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Suns return to being competitive in the Western Conference?

Last year, the Western Conference didn’t look to be as dominant as it was in prior years. Even in a down year in the conference, the Suns didn’t come anywhere close to being competitive. In a year in which the conference looks to be picking up steam again, will the Suns prove to be players come the second half of the season? The roster didn’t go through many changes compared to last year, so the front office will be banking on these players taking the next step in their development. Don’t be surprised if the Suns can improve on last season’s 23-win mark, but locking down a playoff seed might still be a season or two away.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

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