VIDEO: Highlights from Sunday’s games
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Cousins, Kings at odds as season winds down — Tensions between All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and the team and front office with the Sacramento Kings have been a constant topic of discussion during Cousins’ six-season tenure there. As has been the case with Cousins throughout his time in Sacramento, he continues to deliver solid numbers on a pure stats basis — and last night was no different as he had a game-high 31 points to go along with 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks in a home loss to the Utah Jazz. Afterward, writes Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, Cousins didn’t hide his frustration with the team and his coach, George Karl, saying he was the one who suspended him last week:
There’s no hiding DeMarcus Cousins’ frustration.
The season that was supposed to be different from his first five, the season in which he had a real chance to make the playoffs, is unraveling just like the others.
No. 2: LeBron reminds Cavs they’re on a business trip — LeBron James has done plenty of talking recently on social media. But he opted for face-to-face communications before the Cleveland Cavaliers embarked on their current four-game road trip, which stops in Utah tonight for a game against the Jazz (10:30 ET, ESPN). So far, so good. The Cavs have responded the right way, not allowing the lure of Los Angeles and its bustling nightlife to interrupt their concentration. Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com provides some context:
“His main message was that this is a business trip,” J.R. Smith told cleveland.com. “Are we going to have fun? Absolutely, but first things first. We’re going to take care of business, and that’s playing the way we know how to play. Fortunately, we took heed of his message and played the way we were supposed to.”
James knew the temptation that would exist.
“You can certainly get caught up in the weather and stuff like that,” Smith said.
The scene is Southern California, home to one of the most attractive and entertaining evening atmospheres in all the country. It’s where fun takes place at various degrees, but it also can be a place for trouble. And for some youngsters, fun and trouble tend to go hand-and-hand when enjoying the nightlife.
At a crucial juncture of the season in which the Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to establish focus and consistency before the playoffs, the NBA schedule called for them to spend three nights in La La Land.
Cleveland defeated the Lakers on Thursday and had to hang around for Sunday afternoon’s game with the Clippers. It had all the makings of a trap game. How they would respond was the million-dollar question.
If the Clippers thought the Cavaliers were putty in their hands, they were sadly mistaken. After falling down 14-4 on the road in a hostile environment, Cleveland took control of that game, and made it mightily unpleasant for the opposition with each offensive possession.
The Cavaliers executed flawlessly with crisp passes into the shooting pocket of players, leading to wide-open spot-up opportunities. James and Kyrie Irving forced the Clippers to rotate over, but then that started the Clippers’ defensive breakdown. Los Angeles was at least two steps too slow locating the open guy.
Smith and Channing Frye had a field day, letting shots fly with no hesitation as they combined to go 10-of-15 from downtown. As a team, the Cavs converted 18-of-35 from 3-point range. It got to the point of being embarrassing. The Clippers found themselves down by as many as 26 before losing 114-90.
Exactly which team was doing the partying the night before?
“He (LeBron) just said having a couple of days off in L.A., we had to be professionals and getting our rest,” Cavs big man Tristan Thompson told cleveland.com. “Obviously you want to enjoy the weather and the atmosphere of being on the West Coast, but at the same time, we’re here for business and being professionals. That’s what we did and it was displayed this afternoon.”
VIDEO: LeBron James talks after the Cavs’ win against the L.A. Clippers
No. 3: Gap between Thunder and elite outfits grows — The numbers don’t lie. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s struggles against the other elite teams in the league this season are what they are. And the gulf appears to be growing as the regular season winds down. A 4-8 record since the All-Star break has highlighted flaws in the Thunder’s make up that have caused concerns, both internally and externally, heading into tonight’s game against Portland (8 ET, NBA League Pass). A team believed to be a championship challenger (and even a contender by some) suddenly looks to be a step or two behind the big boys in Oakland and San Antonio. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman shed some light on the issues after the Thunder lost another late lead and fell to the Spurs Saturday night:
Too many costly defensive lapses, too many turnovers (again), too many wide-open misses and, down the stretch, too much Kawhi Leonard. The result: OKC’s eighth loss in 12 games, an unprecedented slump for a franchise used to winning when its major players are healthy.
Is there cause for concern?
“Should be,” Westbrook said. “We gotta find a way to get wins — 4-8 is unacceptable for our team. We gotta find a way to get it together.”
The best way to start would be by fixing a turnover problem. In the Thunder’s eight losses since the All-Star break, it has lost the turnover battle by a combined 132-83. On Saturday, the Thunder committed 19 and the Spurs translated that into 24 points.
Kevin Durant’s ballhandling, for the first time in a while, wasn’t the major problem. Facing Leonard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Durant had eight assists and no turnovers through three quarters. The Thunder led by two going to the fourth.
In the final 12 minutes, Durant had zero assists and three turnovers while Westbrook committed two of his game-high nine.
Danny Green stripped Durant with 9:32 left, sparking a fast break that finished with a David West layup to tie it. Westbrook threw the ball away with 6:48 left, moments after ceding that huge Green 3-pointer in the corner.
Patty Mills stole it from Westbrook and passed it to Leonard, who nailed a 3 and shot the Spurs ahead by six.
“Just make better decisions,” Westbrook said. “It starts with myself.”
Besides the turnovers, the Thunder ran relatively crisp offense most of the night, making the extra pass and finding open shots. They just didn’t go down, often because the Spurs had funneled it into the hands of someone other than Durant and Westbrook.
Kyle Singler went 0 of 5 overall and 0 of 4 from 3, missing a batch of wide-open looks. Serge Ibaka continued his struggles, backing up a scoreless game against the Timberwolves with a 3-of-13 night, missing both the mid-range and all three of his 3s.
“Kyle has struggled to shoot the basketball,” Donovan said. “But if you go back to that Clippers (win), we got really good production. It’s the consistency part.”
As a team, the Thunder went 2 of 18 from 3 and shot 38 percent overall.
No. 4: Raptors want Lowry handling the ball more at crunch time — The two-headed point guard monster that has worked wonders for the Toronto Raptors this season is fine by coach Dwane Casey. He likes having the options All-Star starter Kyle Lowry and his understudy Cory Joseph provide. But at crunch time, he’d like to see Lowry handling a bit more of the facilitator’s duties for a team with designs on a deep playoff run. The slight change in philosophy might show in tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass). Doug Smith of the Toronto Star provides the details:
Dwane Casey loves to finish games by trotting out the two-point-guard backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph because it gives the Toronto Raptors more versatility — a couple of ball-handlers, solid decision-makers and good free-throw shooters for those crucial end-of-game possessions.
But despite how interchangeable they are, the Raptors head coach made it clear on Saturday night that a subtle change in tactics is necessary and coming.
Often this year, it has been Joseph initiating a lot of the offence, allowing Lowry to act as a spot-up shooter. It is a good division of responsibility because Lowry is a more reliable shooter at this point in the season.
But down the stretch of an eventual overtime triumph against the Miami Heat, it was Lowry running the show the vast majority of the time, and that is how it’s going to be.
“I think we got into a rhythm where Cory was handling it every time and Kyle was just going to space (the court as a spot-up shooting threat),” Casey said. “ We want Kyle to . . . maybe kick it, and DeMar’s a little bit freer that way . . . We want Kyle to handle (the ball) in crunch time.”
That’s not to say Joseph isn’t capable, because he has proven to be throughout his breakout season of ever-increasing responsibility and freedom. It’s also a huge boost earlier in games, because it lessens the already heavy load on Lowry, allowing him the luxury of easier offensive possessions when he is not taking a pounding running around screens or attacking the basket.
But Lowry’s knack for making big plays and big shots off his true point guard role makes Toronto that much more dangerous. Defenders have to stick closely to him, second opponents often cheat off their man to try to hold him in check; it’s not that Joseph can’t do it, it’s just that Lowry right now is better at it.
“Cory is growing into that role,” Casey said. “He’s doing an excellent job, and we’re not saying he’s not. But we don’t want to go away from Kyle in the crunch. He’s our guy with the ball. We want him to handle and make decisions, and not Cory every time.”
No. 5: Warriors will be tested without Iguodala — The Warriors’ chase for 73 wins will be tested this week, what with back-to-back road games in Dallas and San Antonio on Friday and Saturday. And there’s also the fact that they’ll be working without one of their most important players, reigning Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, who has to rehab a sprained left ankle for the next two weeks. It’s enough to make Steve Kerr worry if his team, which hosts the New Orleans Pelicans tonight (10:30 ET, NBA League Pass), can handle life without Iguodala, writes Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group:
Warriors coach Steve Kerr likes to praise Andre Iguodala by noting how the box score doesn’t quite reveal the importance of the forward’s contributions to the success of the team.
But when Iguodala is out of action, the negative numbers leap off the page. The Warriors committed 44 turnovers over a two-game stretch last week when Iguodala was out with a hamstring injury.
Iguodala’s latest injury is a sprained left ankle, and the Warriors will be tested with their Sixth Man of the Year candidate relegated to rehab for at least the next two weeks. Iguodala suffered the injury Friday night during a 128-112 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers and missed the Warriors’ 123-116 win Saturday over the Phoenix Suns.
“That’s just something we’ll have to get adjusted to however long he’s going to be out,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “We’ll have to get prepared for that, but at the end of the day, we run the same offense. It’s just one less playmaker, ballhandler, big-time defender obviously.”
The Warriors have won six of seven games during a stretch when Iguodala has missed four of those games because of injuries, but they have seen some slippage during that stretch.
Kerr said the combined 44 turnovers the Warriors committed in a loss to Los Angeles Lakers and a win against the Orlando Magic were “inexcusable” yet “probably not a coincidence” with Iguodala missing in action.
“You look at the schedule, and you see three or four games you think will be easy wins, and you can overlook a team and play down to their level of competition, and that can bite you,” Iguodala said. “It can create bad habits over the course of two or three games, so I don’t know if it was just my absence.”
Therein lies Iguodala’s significance. He has a calming presence on the court that has allowed the Warriors to stay consistent while compiling a 59-6 record, and it has saved them at times during a pursuit of the Chicago Bulls’ all-time single-season record of 72 wins.
He is the 61 percent free-throw shooter who hit two game-tying free throws in the last second of regulation in a game the Warriors won in overtime at Oklahoma City last month.
He is the player who after winning the Finals MVP based on his midseries entry into the starting lineup resumed being a super sub this season and flourished. Despite averaging a career-low 7.3 points per game this season, he has raised his shooting percentages and excelled at running the fast break with Curry.
He is the perimeter defender who goes up against LeBron James and Kevin Durant and would have been called upon to cool down Suns guard Brandon Knight, who had a 17-point third quarter Saturday in Iguodala’s absence.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Los Angeles Clippers’ loss on Sunday gave the Golden State Warriors their first back-to-back Pacific Division titles in 40 years … Pau Gasol is going to miss the Chicago Bulls’ next two road games due to his nagging knee issues … LSU phenom Ben Simmons will reportedly sign with LeBron James’ agent if he declares for the 2016 NBA Draft … Kobe Bryant has advice for New York Knicks fans — trust Phil Jackson … Devin Booker and Brandon Knight have switched roles in the Suns’ backcourt … Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers wants more consistency out of the notoriously inconsistent Jeff Green … Speaking of the Clippers, Kanye West has offered to redesign the team’s new mascot, Chuck the Condor … The Detroit Pistons’ bench crew is strictly on a day-to-day basis … The Houston Rockets are feeling the positive vibes after a winning road trip … The Memphis Grizzlies have turned to another familiar face in (Alex) Stephenson with their roster depleted by injuries … Steve Clifford believes the Charlotte Hornets have the smarts to make a splash in the playoffs …