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Screens should be big in Cavs-Warriors trilogy worthy of the big screen

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lebron steph

                                                                                                                                     USA TODAY Sports

The top of any list of great sequels in cinema could easily double as a list of some of the finest – and most financially successful – movies ever made. The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, Terminator II, Aliens – we could go on.

That’s typically where the creative juices stop flowing.

Sure, there are some noteworthy third acts. The Return of the King is the best Lord of the Rings movie, though that’s more properly viewed as one colossal installment instead of three smaller ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both made up for the weirdly terrifying Temple of Doom and was popular enough for Harrison Ford to keep playing the character as a senior citizen. Goldfinger was arguably the best James Bond movie and has inarguably the most sexually suggestive name for a character in pop culture history. Naked Gun 33 1/3 was … well, it was O.J’s last starring role in something less than nefarious.

There haven’t been many third acts in the sports world, which is just one small reason why Cavs-Warriors: Part III should be so compelling. The Lakers and Celtics have met in 12 Finals, but never three in a row. It’s a first for the NBA and just the fourth such threequel in American professional sports history, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Red Wings and Canadiens battled for three straight Stanley Cups in the 50s.

We’ve already detailed the lack of big-screen triumphs when it comes to third acts, but the success of screens could have everything to do with a Finals that’s rightly drawing as much hype as anything since the days of Jordan, Magic and Bird. Let’s take a look at what the Cavs need to do to repeat and what the Warriors can do to make these Finals more Rise of the Machines after last year’s epic Judgment Day.

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When you have 30 percent of the All-Stars from a few months ago in one Finals series, it’s easy to get excited about matchups. Will Steph Curry or Klay Thompson guard Kyrie Irving? Does LeBron have no choice but to spend most of his time checking Kevin Durant? We know Draymond can cause issues for Kevin Love, but can Love be matched up with him on the other end?

Those seven will all find one another at some point, but the winner of this rubber match figures to be the team that consistently creates, and then takes advantage of, the most opportune mismatches.

That the Warriors move the ball and move away from the ball better than any team in the league is no great secret. It’s what almost every team in the league dreams of emulating and one day building themselves. Setting screens is still a major part of an offense that hums like a Ferrari when it’s at its peak, but ball screens are a different story. Golden State set 3,324 of those in 2016-17, per STATS SportVU, its third straight season bringing up the NBA rear in the category. Orlando was 29th, yet the Magic set more than 4,000.

There’s less movement in Cleveland’s offense because it’s less necessary. Possessions can come to a screeching halt in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock and Irving and James can save the day as few individual players can. Irving was the best isolation player in the league this season at 1.12 points per ISO, and he’s been even better in the playoffs. James can’t blow by defenders 1-on-1 like he used to, but his 42 percent success rate from 3 in the postseason adds a more complicated wrinkle for opponents than Batman suddenly wielding an assault rifle would for Gotham miscreants.

The Cavs relied on ball screens to generate offense less this season than they had in the past two, funneling through around 57 per game instead of the 65 or so they’d used in James’ first two seasons back home. Whatever way you slice it – and given the overall levels of talent and execution, this shouldn’t be a surprise – both Cleveland and Golden State get a lot out of their screens. Individually, the Warriors were third in the regular season in points per play (a screen that results in a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover by either the ballhandler or screener) at 0.934; the Cavs were fifth (0.925). As far as team points per possession – this adds in the other three offensive players on the floor as potential factors post-screen – Golden State was fourth (1.12), a tick ahead of Cleveland (1.11).

But those numbers take into account Derrick Williams setting a pick for Kay Felder on a cold February night in Minnesota or James Michael McAdoo trying to free up Patrick McCaw on a November back-to-back in Milwaukee. Let’s eliminate some of the noise and concentrate on what both teams should be focusing on – and what they must work to avoid at all costs.

Golden State DO: Get Curry/Draymond rolling

There was no Love in the 2015 Finals and there was no Irving for the final five games, and while those two are a generally dubious defending combination on ball screens, the Curry/Green combo likely couldn’t have done much better if they were both on the floor. Those six games featured 85 Green screens for Curry, which resulted in the Warriors eviscerating the Cavs defense for an average of 1.26 points.

Fast forward to 2016 and it turns ugly for Golden State. Seven games, a total of 39 Curry/Green ball screens and just 0.78 team points per action.

Green is fronting for Curry 6.7 times per game in these playoffs with excellent results: 1.30 team PPP. If that number stays in that vicinity – like it did two years ago – start sizing up the Warriors for their rings, and perhaps 16-0.

Cleveland DO: Target Curry when he’s guarding the screener

Irving has been known to struggle when he’s checking the ballhandler in the pick and roll, often never finding his original man or the roller and easily providing the opposition with a 2-on-1 toward the hoop. But that Irving/Love combo we discussed a few paragraphs ago? They actually defended quite well when put on an island in the 2016 Finals. There were 19 ballhandler/screener combos that defended at least 10 screens last June, and Irving/Love was by far the MOST effective despite getting torched overall in the postseason (1.31 PPP). Irving fared pretty well in the Finals when paired with Tristan Thompson as well.

Ballhandler Screener Screens Defended Team PPP
Irving Love 39 0.59
K. Thompson Green 12 0.73
Iguodala Livingston 14 0.77
Livingston Green 11 0.78
Irving T. Thompson 41 0.85
Curry Bogut 18 1.00
kevin kyrie

                                                                                                                                   The Plain Dealer

As for Curry, Cleveland preferred to have whomever he was guarding set the pick for the ballhandler. With Curry already banged-up to some degree in the Finals, the Cavs were physical while guarding him and made him work overtime at the other end. Curry was involved in 88 screens as the screener, nearly 50 more than the Warriors made Irving take on. A look at the difference in how both point guards were attacked in the pick and roll in last year’s sequel:

Player Screens starting on ballhandler Team PPP Screens starting on screener

Team PPP

Irving 118 0.805 33 1.06
Curry 68 1.096 82 1.07

On Christmas Day in Cleveland, the Cavs ran Curry through nine more with him initially on the screener, scoring 12 points. Klay Thompson was the targeted on-ball defender – often on Irving – with Cleveland putting him through 28 screens and scoring 40 points. Overall, the Cavs celebrated their comeback win at The Q with 75 total points (1.19 team PPP) as the result of screens – 51 more than Golden State (0.71).

Cleveland DON’T: Let Iman Shumpert get screened into submission

The Warriors’ holiday in Northeast Ohio may have been dampened, but they took out seven months’ worth of frustration on the Cavs three weeks later in Oakland. Golden State used 46 ball screens in this one and particularly attacked Iman Shumpert on the ballhandler, often when he was checking Curry. Ten screens of Shumpert led to 22 Warriors points, further lending credence to this stat: In the 128 minutes Shumpert was on the floor in the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were outscored by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 208 he sat, Cleveland enjoyed a plus-9.1 edge.

Golden State could drive Shumpert off the floor entirely in these Finals. In theory, he’s an ideal guy to stick on Curry or Thompson to hide Irving for a bit, but in reality he tends to get lost when he’s asked to do more than guard someone 1-on-1. Richard Jefferson played a key role against the Warriors last season and seems more suited to have a chance of defending Durant than Shumpert. With Kyle Korver a potentially vital offensive piece to stretch the floor, Shumpert may wind up a DNP-CD (can’t defend).

Golden State DON’T: Ignore Kevin Durant as a ballhandler

Let’s get to the elephant in the room of why many expect this series to be short. The Warriors added one of the three best players in basketball at the expense of Harrison Barnes, who went 5 for 32 from the field once Golden State went up 3-1 last year.

As we’ve covered, the Warriors aren’t going to rely nearly as much on the ball screen as the Cavs. But when things start to break down – particularly in the fourth quarter – there will be instances when it could be a necessity.

Logic tends to dictate that should a critical Golden State possession become bogged down, Durant will ISO, Curry will launch a 3 or, perhaps, Durant will come to the ball and screen for Curry. But there’s another option.

durant

                                                                                                                                                USA TODAY Sports

Durant has an awfully good handle himself. Curry screening for him should allow KD a moment to turn the corner and pop away from the secondary defender for an open 3. And if Curry can’t get free, Durant proved during the regular season that he was fantastic finishing in these situations. Of the 144 players who participated in 300 screens as the ballhandler, only Wilson Chandler and Paul George scored more points per individual screen than Durant (0.48).

It’s been even more absurd during the playoffs. Durant’s 0.66 average is a full tenth of a point better than any of the other 46 players who have participated in at least 50 screens. From a team perspective, the Warriors’ 1.36 PPP off screens with Durant as the ballhandler is second – and the chart below shows how infrequently that’s used compared to some of the other big names at the top.

Ballhandler Screens Team PPP
Stephenson (IND) 56 1.38
Durant (GS) 77 1.36
James (CLE) 271 1.35
Leonard (SA) 222 1.28
Curry (GS) 256 1.25

They’ve only broken the Curry-screening-for-Durant combo out 13 times during the playoffs but it’s led to 21 Warriors points, and frankly, there was no need to even do it that much. It’s a wrinkle that Steve Kerr and Mike Brown have largely been saving to unleash only when they need it, and that alone should terrify the Cavs.

Cleveland and Golden State DO: Get the big men involved

There have been 72 two-man combos that have run at least 30 screens in the playoffs, and the top two involve, as you might expect, James and Curry. But the other half of those equations probably isn’t who you’d expect. JaVale McGee has teamed up with Curry for 52 screens that have resulted in 1.47 Warriors PPP, tied with James and Tristan Thompson for the most effective in the league this postseason.

The James and Thompson combo has been a special kind of deadly on their 112 screens. James has hit 7 of 14 3s directly after Thompson frees him up, and the duo is 31 of 53 (58.5 percent) overall immediately after Thompson screens for James. Thompson is one of the league’s best at rolling off a screen and flushing an alley-oop from James or Irving, and he and James went for an impressive 1.14 PPP in last season’s Finals as well.

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There you have it. There’s no shortage of storylines in the most star-studded Finals since Lakers-Celtics was in its mid-80s heyday. Durant’s chasing his first title. LeBron is chasing MJ’s legacy. Curry and Green are seeking Finals redemption. Klay Thompson wants to prove his subpar playoffs so far have been a fluke. Love wants to show that he can play – and play effectively – against the Warriors. Irving wants a few more weeks in the spotlight to pepper America with his flat-Earth theory.

Golden State knows what’s coming. It’s up to the Warriors to keep Cleveland from catching them in bad ball screen combos while picking and choosing their own spots to use them in an offense that rarely does.

In a third act worthy of the big screen, we’re about to find out how big the screen can be.

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Justin time: Previewing the first round of the NBA playoffs

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Kemba Walker

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

The Warriors broke the Bulls’ seemingly unbreakable record, the 76ers avoided matching their own seemingly unbreakable record and Kobe got to take 50 shots in a game. With another exciting regular season in the books, let’s look ahead to what should be a thrilling two-month playoff journey. Unless, of course, it’s interrupted by the pride and joy of the Canadian pop scene.

The matchup: No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. No. 8 Detroit (44-38)

Offensive rating: Cavaliers 108.1 (4th), Pistons 103.3 (14th)

Defensive rating: Cavaliers 102.3 (10th), Pistons 103.4 (13th)

Net rating: Cavaliers 5.6 (4th), Pistons -0.2 (16th)

STATS primer: The Pistons rely on their starting five A LOT. The league’s most-used quintet this season (915 minutes) came from the Motor City, which is amazing considering that group hasn’t been together since Ersan Ilyasova was traded to Orlando on Feb. 16. Enter Tobias Harris, who joined Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond for 462 minutes over the last 25 games to rank second behind Minnesota’s starters since the All-Star break. A ludicrous 74.3 percent of Detroit’s points come from its starting unit, the largest figure in the NBA and just ahead of … Cleveland’s 73.1.

Can the Pistons win? Probably not. They did beat the Cavs three out of four this season, though one of those came without Kyrie Irving and another came Wednesday night as Jordan McRae took 29 shots and Joel Anthony played 25 minutes. The Pistons are one of a few teams that can hang with the Cavs on the boards, as their 52.1 rebound percentage was a tick above Cleveland’s for second best in the league. The Cavs are at their best when Tristan Thompson is grabbing alley-oops off the pick-and-roll and crashing the offensive glass to create extra possessions, but he’s been marginalized against Detroit. In Thompson’s 74 minutes in the series, the Cavs have been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s an extremely small sample but the worst Cleveland has fared with Thompson on the floor against anyone in the East.

BAI (Bieber Affected Index): 10: Justin Bieber has a concert at Quicken Loans Arena scheduled for April 26 – the same date as a potential Game 5 – so if the Cavs can’t sweep, the teenage girl population of Northeast Ohio may be set for a mutiny.

The pick: Bieber gets bumped, which upsets Drake, creating additional hostility for a potential Cavs-Raptors conference finals. Cavs in 5


 

The matchup: No. 2 Toronto (56-26) vs. No. 7 Indiana (45-37)

Offensive rating: Raptors 107.0 (5th), Pacers 102.4 (23rd)

Defensive rating: Raptors 102.7 (11th), Pacers 100.2 (3rd)

Net rating: Raptors 4.3 (6th), Pacers 2.2(11th)

STATS primer: The Raptors have won the last three Atlantic Division titles and have a grand total of three playoff wins to show for the first two. Can Toronto finally win just the second playoff series in franchise history and first since Vince Carter could jump? It’s hard to look at the numbers and see a title contender here, but the Raptors can make some noise in the East.  DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be the big addition, but the former Hawks forward only played 26 games, and Toronto’s jump from a nice regular-season team in a bad division to a legit power boiled down to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan getting to another level. Lowry’s average rose from 17.8 points to 21.2 as his 3-point shooting hit a career-high 38.8 percent, while his VORP of 6.3 is ahead of Kawhi Leonard’s and Chris Paul’s. No player in the league scored more points per game on drives than DeRozan (8.7), who also drew 166 fouls when bolting toward the rim – just five behind league leader James Harden.

Can the Pacers win? Maybe. Only the Suns allowed opponents to shoot better from 3 than the Raptors (37.3 percent), and Paul George, George Hill and C.J. Miles are all capable of going off from beyond the arc. A league-high 48.9 percent of the Raptors’ field goals are unassisted, and while letting Lowry and DeRozan penetrate and create worked in the regular season, relying on refs to call contact consistently in the playoffs is a dangerous line to toe. It did work against Indiana during the season. Toronto won three of four and got to the line at least 38 times in each victory, ultimately hitting the stripe 51 more times than the Pacers.

BAI: 4.5. Biebs isn’t set to invade Bankers Life Fieldhouse until June 25, which is after the Finals, but a two-night stop in Toronto in mid-May could provide trouble in the conference finals. In the meantime, there are other issues. Mumford and Sons has already moved a concert scheduled for the same night as Game 4 in Indianapolis to April 24, with lead singer Marcus Mumford politely claiming “it was not your fault, but mine.” That’s not all. The Who are set to play at the Air Canada Centre on the same night as Game 5, so a retirement tour that makes Kobe Bryant’s seem expeditious will be pushed back a night.

The pick: George and Miles shoot the Pacers to a pair of wins, but the Raptors embrace their musical guests and decide not to get fooled again. Raptors in 6


 

The matchup: No. 3 Miami (48-34) vs. No. 6 Charlotte (48-34)

Offensive rating: Heat 104.2 (12th), Hornets (105.1, 9th)

Defensive rating: Heat 101.5 (7th), Hornets (101.8, 9th)

Net rating: Heat 2.6 (10th), Hornets 3.3 (8th)

STATS primer: We’ve entered the 48-34 portion of the proceedings with the Battle for Josh McRoberts’ Soul. The East’s middle four playoff teams all finished with the same record, and the way things shook out gives us a rematch of the last time the Hornets – who are 0 for 8 in playoff games since 2002 – were in the postseason. Things figure to be much more competitive this time in a series that Vegas considers the toughest first-round matchup to call. Charlotte was the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season (31.8 percent) on the eighth-fewest attempts. Now it’s the eighth best (36.2 percent) while jacking up more 3s than everyone but Houston, Golden State and Cleveland. Kemba Walker is no longer a sub-40 percent shooter who can’t make a 3, Nicolas Batum averaged a 14-6-5 on fewer than 13 shots a game (Draymond Green this season is the only other player to do that in the past 10) and Marvin Williams reinvented himself as a 40 percent 3-point shooter who’s actually willing to rebound and play defense. The Heat don’t take 3s (18 per game, 28th) and rarely make them (33.6 percent, 27th), but shoot better in the restricted area than anyone in the league (65.3 percent).

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win?: Steve Clifford has Charlotte playing like a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts – though the parts, as we detailed above, are pretty solid – while Miami is still heavily reliant on the offensive brilliance of Dwyane Wade and the game-changing interior presence of Hassan Whiteside. This is probably not a series for Al Jefferson even though the 12-year vet has shown flashes of his former self off the bench since returning from knee surgery. The Hornets were outscored by 12 points in the 49 minutes he played against Miami but were a plus-20 when he wasn’t around. How’s this for a starting point? In the 60 minutes Batum, Walker, Williams and Cody Zeller shared the floor against the Heat – easily the most of any Charlotte foursome – the Hornets were a plus-38. That’s significant. Stick Courtney Lee or Jeremy Lamb out there to check Wade and Whiteside might be hanging around the rim with nothing to do. For Miami to win, it actually might matter more how its young guys – Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson – perform as opposed to the veterans.

BAI: 1. The pride of London, Ontario, isn’t set to hit South Beach until early July and Charlotte was not deemed a worthy enough stop by His Biebness. Heat fans will have to make a tough call prior to Game 3, though: Watch their team play in Charlotte or attend something called “Miami Bash,” which features such acts as Alex Sensation, Ken-Y, De La Ghetto and Jacob Forever. D Wade or Jacob Forever? Now that’s a Decision.

The pick: Those touting playoff experience will favor the Heat, but many of these Hornets have been there before. If Chris Bosh were healthy, this might go the other way, but Charlotte gets the slight edge. Hornets in 6


 

The matchup: No. 4 Atlanta (48-34) vs. No. 5 Boston (48-34)

Offensive rating: Hawks 103.0 (18th), Celtics 103.9 (13th)

Defensive rating: Hawks 98.8 (2nd), Celtics 100.9 (4th)

Net rating: Hawks 4.1 (7th), Celtics 3.0 (9th)

STATS primer: On paper this might be the most interesting first-round matchup between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, but on the court Atlanta exposed the otherwise brilliant, swarming system employed by Brad Stevens. The Hawks put up 110.4 points per 100 possessions in winning the final three meetings and Boston had no answers for Paul Millsap. One of the league’s best defenders was a nightmare at the other end for the Celtics, averaging 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks in three games the Hawks won by a combined 43 points. Atlanta’s Spursian ball movement and Kyle Korver’s amazing accuracy were the big stories when it won 60 games last season, but the defense was good then and better than anyone this side of San Antonio’s in this one. Most of the Hawks’ best lineups come without Jeff Teague on the floor – they’re better defensively with Dennis Schroder – but what’s lurking behind either point guard allows for some leeway in non-pick-and-roll situations. It’s safe to say Isaiah Thomas will be able to break down either to some extent, but the Celtics are going to need more than their point guard running at an optimal level to beat Atlanta. This feels like a series Evan Turner could swing, but he could just as easily put Boston out of it as he could help it go the distance.

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win? These are two of the league’s eight fastest teams in terms of pace, but getting up and down the floor did nothing to favor the Celtics against the Hawks this season. The three Atlanta wins featured 106, 105 and 105 possessions while Boston’s lone victory back in December was a 97-possession slog they pulled out even with Avery Bradley sidelined. The Celtics are going to have to do a bulk of their work from outside the paint, as Atlanta is the best team in the league defending the restricted area (56.7 percent). Only the Lakers shot worse on catch-and-shoot 3s than Boston’s 34.6 percent, so that’s not going to be easy. Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder each attempt five 3s a game, but none is what you’d call a knock-down shooter.

BAI: 3. Add Boston to the list of cities Bieber could infect invade in later rounds, as he’s due for May 10 and 11 stops at TD Garden. Atlanta got its two shows out of the way on the last two days of the regular season, which is a total baller move by a team that knew it would be playing important games in late April and May. Or … that’s just how the “Purpose World Tour” worked out geographically. The Bruins conveniently missed the playoffs and the Thrashers haven’t been a thing for five years, so these arenas are wide open.

The pick: The Celtics are fun to watch, make the most of their talent level and are about to add a top-five draft pick courtesy of the Nets’ stupidity. But for now, this is a tough matchup. Boston probably beats either of the other 48-34 teams, but not this one. Hawks in 6


 

Halftime! Here’s a picture of Bieber pretending like he knows who Mark Wahlberg is.

Justin Bieber, Mark Wahlberg

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


 

The matchup: No. 1 Golden State (73-9) vs. No. 8 Houston (41-41)

Offensive rating: Warriors 112.5 (1st), Rockets 105.5 (8th)

Defensive rating: Warriors 100.9 (6th), Rockets 105.6 (20th)

Net rating: Warriors 11.6 (2nd), Rockets -0.2 (15th)

STATS primer: Yes, it’s a Western Conference finals rematch in Round 1 that features the league’s top two scorers, the two teams who fire up the most 3-pointers and two teams who were each coached by two men this season. That’s about where the similarities end. The Warriors are much better than last season’s title winner and the Rockets are much, much worse. Golden State was missing Steve Kerr as he recovered from back surgery while Houston waited only 11 games before showing Kevin McHale the door and never quite looked like they were on the same page for the next 71. What were once an assortment of enticing options around James Harden now looks like a rotating cast of question marks centered by none other than Dwight Howard, who barely took six shots a game over the final month of the season amid reports his teammates were freezing him out. So yeah, it’s hard to look at the Rockets and get excited about the fact that they took nearly as many corner 3s (799) as mid-range 2s (899).

Can the Rockets win? Wellllll….

BAI: 0. Beebs hit Oracle Arena on March 18 and the Toyota Center on April 9. Coincidence that Golden State went 39-2 at home and the Rockets haven’t lost at home since (they’ve played two games)? Yes. Actually, that’s not even a coincidence. Let’s move on.

The pick: Harden has a huge first half in Game 3 – think like 30 points – and the Rockets lead by double digits at the break. But they won’t win that, or any other game, in this series. Warriors in 4



The matchup:
No. 2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. No. 7 Memphis (42-40)

Offensive rating: Spurs 108.4 (3rd), Grizzlies 102.6 (22nd)

Defensive rating: Spurs 96.6 (1st), Grizzlies 105.4 (19th)

Net rating: Spurs 11.8 (1st), Grizzlies -2.9 (22nd)

STATS primer: Poor Memphis. The Grizzlies have played almost an entire NFL 53-man roster worth of players this season thanks to an injured list that looks like Jack Bauer’s body count, and they almost built such an insurmountable lead for the No. 5 seed when healthy that it looked like they’d get a somewhat reasonable matchup with the Clippers in Round 1. But their 3-14 tailspin ultimately dropped them to seventh and a matchup with a team that, in many ways, is BETTER than the one that won 73 games. No Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, but Jordan Farmar played in the Finals six years ago! Heck, Chris Andersen was there two years ago! And Vince Carter? Well, he’s no stranger to playing basketball! JaMychal Green, Xavier Munford, Raheem McCullough, Jarell Martin and Bryce Cotton? Four of those five guys are real! Dave Joerger has done an amazing job keeping this M.A.S.H. unit together at all, but the Grizzlies weren’t going to beat the Clippers. Or the Thunder. They probably wouldn’t beat a few non-playoff teams in a seven-game series right now. Yet, we have to ask…

Can the Grizzlies win? Ummmmm

BAI: -10. These are the only two playoff teams whose arenas will not be graced with JB’s presence. Therefore, this series means nothing.

The pick: Gregg Popovich gives Boban Marjanovic at least 25 minutes in at least one of these games. At some point, Pop trots out what will forever be known as “The Molasses Lineup” of Boban, Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Kevin Martin and Andre Miller, but that unit still goes on a 13-2 run. Spurs in 3. OK fine, 4


 

The matchup: No. 3 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. No. 6 Dallas (42-40)

Offensive rating: Thunder 109.9 (2nd), Mavericks 104.8 (10th)

Defensive rating: Thunder 103.0 (12th), Mavericks 104.3 (16th)

Net rating: Thunder 6.9 (3rd), Mavericks (14th)

STATS primer: The Thunder would certainly have preferred a matchup with the Grizzlies, but it’s not like the Mavericks should have them questioning whether they’ll survive to see the Spurs in Round 2. Oklahoma City swept four meetings with Dallas this season, twice winning by three points and twice cruising. That’s probably about what it should expect here, but the Mavericks can at least look to the sidelines for an edge. Rick Carlisle’s club gave the eventual champion Spurs their toughest test in the first round two years ago, and he’ll come into this series with a plan of how to contain Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The odds are long, of course, that it will work. The Thunder have made a living crashing the offensive glass this season, with a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage that’s easily the NBA’s best and a 54.7 total percentage that’s also far and away atop the league. The Mavericks are 26th overall at 48.5, and those numbers have bared themselves out head-to-head. Oklahoma City outrebounded Dallas 194-152 in the four meetings, with their 58 offensive rebounds leading to 72 second-chance points. Enes Kanter, a defensive liability in many ways, has helped the Thunder grab 42.3 percent of available offensive boards in the 80 minutes he’s played against Dallas.

Can the Mavericks win? It’s fairly amazing Dallas is even in the playoffs. There are game when J.J. Barea is their best offensive player, or at least the one most capable of creating his own shot. But he’s slowed by a groin injury and he’s not exactly been a positive presence overall to begin with considering the Mavs have allowed 109.7 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break when he’s played. There’s enough offense elsewhere for Dallas to be able to hang in most games, but Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams aren’t likely to all have it going at the same time. This is where the absence of Chandler Parsons kills, and he lit up the Thunder in three separate Mavs wins a year ago. It comes down to this, particularly given Oklahoma City’s rebounding edge – Zaza Pachulia has to stay on the floor, and has to control the boards when he is.

BAI: 0. Bieber made all the tweens swoon at Dallas’ American Airlines Center on April 10 and wasn’t invited to Oklahoma City. Amy Schumer played Chesapeake Energy Center on Friday, the eve of the series opener. Perhaps a sign of Trainwrecks to come?

The pick: Dirk has one of those vintage Dirk games where the fadeaways are falling, Matthews gets hot from deep and the Mavs steal a game in Dallas before going out quietly to allow the Stars use of the arena to continue their Stanley Cup playoff run. Thunder in 5



The matchup:
No. 4 LA Clippers (52-29) vs. No. 5 Portland (44-38)

Offensive rating: Clippers 106.5 (6th), Trail Blazers 106.1 (7th)

Defensive rating: Clippers 100.9 (5th), Trail Blazers 105.6 (21st)

Net rating: Clippers 5.5 (5th), Trail Blazers 0.6 (13th)

STATS primer: Terry Stott’s team lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum and somehow managed to win only seven fewer games, so if you’re wondering why he might win Coach of the Year, look no further. CJ McCollum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoff loss to Memphis and became a 20-point scorer in more extended minutes, also showing that he could thrive as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters (41.7 percent) in a bigger role. Beyond him and Damian Lillard, who took a step toward superstardom now that the show is officially his, it’s tough to find a reason why these Blazers finished as high as they did. The rest of the rotation is mostly full of spare parts, and there’s no consistent secondary scorer to rely on. That’s a problem when they’re going up against a backcourt that’s at least similar offensively in Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and can get points from Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford just as easily. There’s no answer for Griffin or DeAndre Jordan now that LaMarcus Aldridge is a Spur.

Can the Blazers win? Portland was starting Noah Vonleh at the four from about mid-November to mid-March before Stotts inserted Mo Harkless in his place, and that move has paid dividends. The Blazers have outscored teams by 13.3 points per 100 possessions since Harkless became a starter and they’ve been outscored by 8.3 with him off the floor. Harkless, McCollum, Lillard, Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu have posted a 16.0 net rating in that stretch, giving Portland a five-man starting unit it can feel good about, and the Clippers’ bench isn’t exactly great. The question will be if the Blazers can find a scoring option when the second units are on the floor.

BAI: 0. Bieber paid his respects to both the Moda Center and Staples Center in March. The Clippers have to share Staples with the Kings – and definitely, definitely not the Lakers – while the biggest thing happening in Portland besides the Blazers is something called the Pentatonix World Tour. I’ve been assured that’s an a capella group, so one more pitch perfect prediction and we’ll get out of here.

The pick: The Blazers are too good offensively and the Clippers too inconsistent for this to be a short series. The Lillard-Paul matchup alone should make this arguably the most entertaining first-round series, even if it doesn’t quite go the distance. Close enough. Clippers in 6

The Cavs, Andrew Wiggins and Love That Must Go Unrequited

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kevin love 1

You know what happens when you go to the grocery store hungry?

You arrive with good intentions. You’re there to pick up a few ingredients to throw in that jambalaya you’ve been dying to make ever since you saw Emeril “bam!” his way through the motions on the Cooking Channel a few weeks ago. You like the way the HD captures the close-up look of his flared nostrils when he gets excited about garlic. You finally set aside an afternoon to clean the shrimp, peel the onions, make homemade chicken stock and just generally kick things up a notch.

But to get to the seafood counter and produce and poultry, you have to walk through the bakery. And man, that German chocolate cake looks good. Oh, is that the rotisserie? Wow, they’re roasting whole pork loins on there now? Hey, look, it’s the deli counter! Are those … are those miniature croque monsieurs they’re handing out to shoppers? You don’t mind if I take two? Or three? Of course, ma’am, I’ll be happy to wash those down with a blueberry passion fruit acai peach smoothie that contains enough antioxidants to fell a rhinoceros and is spiked with a little bit of your premium tequila!

Screw the jambalaya. You can make it tomorrow. Or the next day. What matters is you were hungry, and now you’re not. It’s not important that the brioche and pig and gruyere and that buttery, fattening, highly caloric rich, velvety cake and random alien berries and rogue liquor are all floating around in your stomach.

You rolled the dice on glory and gluttony. And the fact that you spent the next 24 hours unable to emerge from the fetal position with a bucket an arm’s length away proves it might not have been the best idea.

Were those first few bites worth it?

*****

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He's not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He’s not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

Kevin Love is not a decadent ham sandwich (though if he were, he would certainly be the Jamón ibérico). He’s a basketball player who is, without question, one of the five or 10 best players in the NBA – an outstanding scorer, a practically unparalleled rebounder, an underrated passer and a phenomenally skilled shooter for someone who stands 6-foot-10.

After the initial shock of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers died down, the logical next question was “How can this team compete RIGHT FREAKING NOW?” LeBron is 29, at the peak of his prime, but he has some serious miles on those tires that have been running non-stop since he was 18. Sometime in the first quarter of the first game of his second stint in Cleveland, he’ll pass the 40,000 minute mark – playoffs included – for his career. Only two players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, have ever topped 60,000. He’s already played more minutes than Isiah Thomas, Dikembe Mutombo and Elgin Baylor. Sometime before Christmas, he’ll pass Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson. He’ll catch Larry Bird shortly after the new year. The two biggest preps-to-pros stars other than James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, are just north of the 54,000-minute mark. Kobe is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee, will be 36 by the time training camp starts and doesn’t seem to have much left. Garnett was pronounced legally dead sometime in late February.

Those precedents would figure to give LeBron, averaging 3,500 minutes per season including what figures to be fairly deep playoff runs, about five more solid years before he hits a wall. But he’s also a completely unique athletic freak of a specimen who has never missed more than seven games in a season. Think back to the most serious injury he’s suffered in his career. Tough, huh? It probably had something to do with this.

Love will be 26 when the 2014-15 season begins. He’s logged 11,933 regular-season minutes in the NBA and 11,933 total minutes because he’s never made the playoffs. That’s not a knock on the first guy to average 26-12-4 since Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76. The best teammate in his seven NBA seasons has been Al Jefferson, for the first two. The second is either Nikola Pekovic or Ricky Rubio. Fourth and fifth, in all seriousness, are probably Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. Umm…

The concept of a Big Three worked out pretty well for James in Miami. Two championships, four Finals appearances surrounded with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh surrounded by a revolving door of young, inexpensive role players and past-their-prime veterans chasing rings. It just didn’t look particularly promising once Wade and Bosh’s age began to show a bit, and LeBron got out as soon as possible when it did.

The idea sounds great, in theory. Kyrie Irving just signed a five-year extension worth $90 million. He’s 22 and the reigning All-Star Game MVP. LeBron, for all the overwrought calamity drummed up when he ONLY agreed to two-year deal with Cleveland – and with an OPT OUT! – is around for the long haul, according to sources named LeBron James. Throw in Love and there’s a younger, spryer Big Three for James to mold into a championship club.

Love is heading into the third year of a four-year contract that can pay him up to $62 million, but he can opt out after this season and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s made no secret of his desire to get out of Minnesota, and while prevailing wisdom is that the West Coast native had a strong interest in playing somewhere in California, he’s reportedly intrigued by the idea of teaming up with James and Irving on a team that would instantly be the favorite in the Eastern Conference.

The Timberwolves would be fools to let Love walk at the end of next season, so sometime between now and the Feb. 19 trade deadline, he’s going somewhere.

As long as the cost is Andrew Wiggins, though, it shouldn’t be Cleveland. Let’s run down the reasons why trading the No. 1 overall pick from an absolutely loaded draft that happened 27 days ago shouldn’t happen.

That smiles fades quickly if Wiggins goes from playing with LeBron and Kyrie to Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

That smile? Probably gone if LeBron and Kyrie become Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

1. ) The Timberwolves don’t have much leverage – and it’s dwindling by the day

Golden State is the other known, serious suitor for Love, and, like Minnesota’s apparent requirement that Wiggins be included in a deal with the Cavs, the Timberwolves want Klay Thompson as part of a Warriors package or else that’s seemingly a no-go. Golden State hasn’t budged, but it has much more reason to do so than Cleveland. Thompson, currently in the final guaranteed season of his rookie contract, is eligible for an extension after next season and wants a max deal that would start at $15.7 million – not far behind what Love would get paid in his new deal. While Thompson is one of the league’s better shooting guards in a league severely lacking at the position, the looming prospect of that hefty extension makes him much more palatable to give up.

The Cavs control Wiggins for the next four years at a total of approximately $22 million. No team has a more valuable asset that it would realistically be willing to offer for Love, and that won’t change in the next seven months. Cleveland can pull out that trump card if it wants, but there’s really no need to. The closer this gets to February, the better a package of Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and one or two first-round picks will look to Minnesota. Is it fair value for Love? No. Is 65 cents on the dollar the best the Timberwolves can hope for the longer this goes? Almost certainly.

2.) Defense

The last eight NBA champions ranked in the top seven in defensive efficiency, and you have to go back to the 2000-01 Lakers to find a team that finished outside the top 10. “Defense wins championships” is a cliché in the NFL, but it’s absolutely true in the NBA. Scoring has spiked in the NFL playoffs by an average of 4.5 points in the last five years compared to the 16-game season. You have to go back 12 years in the NBA to find the last time an average playoff game featured more points than one in the regular season.

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Love is a below-average defensive player. There were 108 players who faced at least four shots per game at the rim in 2013-14, and Love’s opponents had the fourth-highest field-goal percentage (57.5) of that bunch. Defensive metrics are still very incomplete, but you don’t need numbers to tell you that Love doesn’t rotate well, provides nothing in the way of rim protection and often seems solely concerned with being in position to rebound.

Wiggins was a defensive stud in his one season at Kansas and was impressive in his four summer league (I know, I know, SUMMER LEAGUE) games with the Cavs, who badly need a defensive presence on the perimeter. Sure, LeBron will help in that regard, but remember that whole “miles on the tires” thing? Forcing him to stay in front of the John Walls and Derrick Roses of the world in crunch time and spending 35 minutes a night on the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is not a way to prolong a career. The trickle-down effect with Wiggins will be palpable. His presence not only gives James a breather on an opposing team’s best perimeter scorer, but he can rescue the defensively challenged Irving from having to stay in front of some of the league’s best ball-handlers as well. Cleveland’s defensive efficiency rankings since James left in 2010: 29, 26, 26, 18. His return alone won’t make the Cavaliers a top-10 defensive club immediately, but with Wiggins providing some help, they might get there.

3.) Flexibility

Give up Wiggins for Love and your Big Three is set in stone, assuming Love signs a long-term extension starting at around $20M per year next offseason. That would put the Cavs on the books for nearly $60M committed to just Irving, Love and James in 2015-16, a year in which the salary cap is expected to be around $67M. That number is expected to rise above $80M once money from a new TV deal starts coming in a year later, but Love and James’ salaries could be significantly higher than $20Mish apiece if they continue to choose short-term deals.

Keep Wiggins and the Cavs might even be able to carve out enough space to add a big free agent next offseason in a class that includes Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and, likely, Love himself. If I can trot out Irving, Wiggins, James and one of those three big guys, I’m willing to fill in most of the rest of my roster with guys on veteran minimums chasing rings.

4.) Patience

Two months ago, the Cavs were coming off their fourth straight season finishing well below .500, had legitimate questions about Irving’s long-term future with the franchise, had just watched their other No. 1 overall pick loaf through a disastrous rookie season, had no indication James was serious about returning and were looking at getting the No. 9 pick in the draft. Now Irving is locked up long term, Bennett is in shape and looked like a legitimate NBA rotation player in Summer League (I know, I know), James is back and Cleveland lucked into another No. 1 overall pick and a guy who was one of the most hyped players to enter the draft since James 11 years earlier.

Don’t the Cavs owe it to themselves to watch the pieces they have, even if just for 40 or 50 games? To see what kind of effect James has on Wiggins, Bennett, Thompson and Irving. To see if Wiggins is ready to contribute to a contender now or if he’s really two or three years away from making a big impact. Aside from suffering a serious injury, Wiggins’ stock isn’t going to plummet by the trade deadline. If he plays well, it goes up. If he struggles somewhat, he’s 19.

5.) Bidding against themselves

If Minnesota decides to move Love elsewhere between now and then, it’s not getting a piece that’s more attractive than Wiggins. And if it does deal him, the Cavs should be thankful they didn’t overpay for a player whom the Timberwolves were going to see walk at the end of next season.

The absolute latest rumors surrounding Love have the Bulls entering the mix with a package that includes Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler – fine players, but yawn – and the Nuggets being a possible suitor as well. Denver has nothing on its roster that should be even remotely compelling to Minnesota save for rookie Gary Harris, who would only be one of a few pieces needed to get anything going.

On Monday, the stance was held that the Cavs had not offered Wiggins. On Tuesday, according to some of the most connected national reporters around the league, they all of a sudden were. Sounds to me like the Timberwolves trying to drum up that fleeting leverage that we covered earlier.

Again, look at the suitors. Golden State’s best offer involves David Lee’s albatross contract and Harrison Barnes. Gibson is a solid role player, but he’s 29 and finished 30th in PER last season – among power forwards(!). Butler is a fine defender on the perimeter, but he’s also a shooting guard who can’t shoot. Below is a list of players who shot less than 40 percent over a full season and averaged at least 13 points in the past five years. Butler may need to change his name to JaBrandon Crawfings with a few more of these.

jimmy butler

The Nuggets have nothing but spare parts, most of which are highly paid. The Celtics have a boatload of draft picks, but so do the Cavs. Minnesota president/coach Flip Saunders is said to want to acquire pieces to help the team win now should it trade Love, which, in the Western Conference, sounds about as improbable as losing your hair, gaining 50 pounds and then beating a bunch of 27-year-old hedge fund managers who moonlight as romance novel cover boys on The Bachelor.

You don’t offer Channing Tatum when everyone else is coming to the table with David Koechner.

*****

kevin love 2

James isn’t going anywhere. The Cavs fell ass backwards into the services of the best player on Earth and one of the most promising players to enter in the league in the last decade. James figures to age better than Bryant and Garnett, but that’s even more likely to be true if he’s surrounded by a young, talented core that can pick him up and limit his regular-season minutes when he’s 32, 33, 34.

This team can contend for a championship as it’s currently constructed, and although it probably won’t win one in Year One, that’s OK. The Cavs will have a season to see what they need, and then the resources to go out and plug those holes.

Does trading Wiggins, Bennett and draft picks for Love make them a team with a considerably better chance of winning the 2015 NBA title? Probably not. Cleveland is arguably the favorite to win the East as is, and adding Love at the expense of those two isn’t likely to tilt the scales in its favor against whichever team emerges from the West.

Let this play out. Let those flavors meld together. That immediate hunger will subside once you get a look at what’s simmering.

It’s easy to go for the quick fix in a city that hasn’t experienced a championship since the same year the Beatles came to America. It’s just not necessary.

Sometimes, you just have to wise up and listen to Meatloaf.