NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Lue, Cavs anxious to get started against Hawks — A long layoff works in different ways for different teams. The San Antonio Spurs used their extended time off before their Western Conference semifinal opener against Oklahoma City to perfection (and blew out the Thunder). Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue hopes his team can do the same. That’s why he’s so anxious to get started against the Atlanta Hawks tonight (7 p.m. ET, TNT), as Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com explains:
The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t played a game since completing the sweep against the Detroit Pistons one week ago. The East’s top team has been waiting patiently, first for the opponent, and then for the opening game of the next round.
“Very anxious,” head coach Tyronn Lue said following Sunday morning’s practice. “A lot of messin’ around, not messin’ around, but you could tell we’ve been off for eight days and guys ready to start playing and getting ready and getting focused for the game. It’s time and we’re ready to play.”
The wait is almost over, with the Cavaliers set to begin their second-round matchup with the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks on Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
“This is a long layoff,” veteran Richard Jefferson said. “You look at San Antonio after a long layoff and they came out and played well so you have to use this rest, but at the same point in time you have to try to stay sharp mentally and physically you have to stay sharp — not just eat, hang out and chill. You have to stay locked in this whole time.”
Lue admitted that he didn’t start formulating his plan for the Hawks until the series ended on Thursday night when Atlanta topped Boston in Game 6. Instead, the Cavs focused on themselves, looking at what they had to do to get better.
“Game 1 is a new series and it doesn’t matter what you shot, how well you played, what adjustments you made in the first series,” Jefferson said. “The second series is different against a better team.”
During off days, the Cavs did conditioning work and players stayed in the gym late, getting extra shots. To stay loose following practice, they played other sports — throwing the football around or grabbing mitts to toss the baseball back and forth.
But this time of year, there’s always the question of rest vs. rust, especially after the rhythm Cleveland found against Detroit in Round One.
“Obviously, you can’t get cute and overthink it,” Lue said. “We have our principles, we know what we want to do going into a game and then if things don’t work and you have to adjust. But we know what we want to do right now and we’re ready.”
When Lillard had the ball, the Warriors pressed up on him, turning him into a driver. Thompson made sure Lillard felt like a 6-foot-7, 215-pound man was hounding him. When it wasn’t Thompson, it was 6-7 guard Shaun Livingston, or 6-7 athlete Andre Iguodala, forcing Lillard to take the long way around them or shoot over the top.
When they had the ball, they sought out Lillard, attacking him in the post and off the dribble, forcing him to burn some of his tank muscling up on defense.
“Not many guys in the league who could chase Damian Lillard around for 37 minutes and score 37 points, too,” coach Steve Kerr said of Thompson.
Waiting in the paint was Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, waiting to contest his shot or make him pay for entering the lane. After one block, Green screamed at Lillard while he sat on his backside in the lane, the raucous Oracle crowd yelling him on.
Lillard was at home in Oakland, but the Warriors went out of their way to make sure he didn’t feel welcomed on the court.
Here is one thing the Warriors clearly believe: The only hope Portland has is Lillard. He has to be spectacular if the Blazers are to upset the best team in basketball, even though Curry is sidelined by a sprained right knee. The Warriors’ plan is to cut the head off the snake.
It worked in Game 1. Lillard had 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting through the first three quarters as the Warriors led by 20 entering the fourth quarter.
“We know he’s going to go off,” Livingston said. “We just want to make him work.”
No. 3: Raptors clean slate with Game 7 win — The ghost of dreadful playoff pasts is finally dead in Toronto. It took a grueling seven-game battle against the Indiana Pacers to get it done, but the Raptors have finally moved on to the next stage, the conference semifinals after back-to-back first round playoff exits. The slate is clean for Dwane Casey‘s team as they prepare for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, writes Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star:
DeMar DeRozan knows what it’s like to play with hardly anybody watching and almost nobody really caring. When he arrived in Toronto in 2009, the Raptors were a year into missing the playoffs for five straight seasons. Chris Bosh left. The bottom fell out. For a long while, Raptorland was synonymous with irrelevance.
So maybe it took a little time to get used to the current reality of attention-soaked intensity.
Maybe it took two previous post-seasons of disappointment to set up Sunday night’s joyous moment of redemption, when DeRozan and the Raptors finally managed their first-ever Game 7 win. Their 89-84 victory over the Indiana Pacers marked the franchise’s first victory in a best-of-seven series, and it set up something Raptor fans had waited 15 years to enjoy — specifically a return trip to the second round, where the Vince Carter-led Raptors first ventured in 2001.
DeRozan was central enough to the effort, scoring 30 points. But this wasn’t some crowing individual achievement. DeRozan needed a sloppy 32 shots to get his number. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. It was, in the end, when the Raptors scored just 11 fourth-quarter points and the Pacers cut a 16-point Toronto lead to as little as three, far closer than it needed to be. But it was also more than functional — a long-awaited delivery to what seemed like a forbidden territory, and a lifting of an immense pressure that had weighed down a franchise while a fan-base waited.
General manager Masai Ujiri expressed his post-game relief, not with another of his infamous public-square curses but with a televised kiss — a congratulatory smooch to the head of coach Dwane Casey as Casey delivered a post-game media address.
“Good job, coach,” Ujiri said. It wasn’t a signature on contract extension. But it seemed about as good as one.
And oh, how close the Raptors came to a far grimmer interaction between the GM and the head coach. On the way to Sunday’s milestone, there were plenty of down moments, and plenty of reason to wonder if the accumulation of those moments were becoming too much for the Raptors — and specifically for DeRozan and fellow all-star Kyle Lowry.
Toronto’s pair of all-stars came into Sunday with post-season numbers that looked disturbingly similar in their futility. DeRozan was averaging 15.8 points a game and shooting 32 per cent from the field, Lowry 14.3 points and 31 per cent. Combined, they were shorting their team nearly 15 points a game and many percentage points in field-goal efficiency from their nightly regular-season production.
That was part of the beauty of Sunday’s ugly win. The Raptors won in a different way than they did while posting a franchise-record 56 wins in the regular season, when DeRozan and Lowry often took turns going one-on-one. There was still plenty of that on Sunday. But with Lowry obviously struggling — he finished with 11 points — the Raptors needed more hands on deck. The hands, it turned out, were more than capable in coming up big.
The Raptors won because the ball moved better than they had for most of the series; they combined for 14 assists in Sunday’s first half alone, this in a series in which they’d been averaging a paltry 15 assists a game. That good work, and the lead it built, gave them the cushion to bumble their way through the final 12 minutes in which Casey said his team “ran out of gas,” not to mention common sense. Toronto shot 4-for-20 from the field in a fourth quarter played in a panic-stricken frenzy.
“They were so jacked up and wanted it to bad, I think they were just exhausted emotionally, physically,” said Casey.
No. 4: Is it time for the fearless Thunder to fear Kawhi Leonard? –It is an appropriate question to ask after Kawhi Leonard and his San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series. Even a group with fearless leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might be wise to embrace an “appropriate” level of fear at what Leonard is capable of in Game 2 tonight (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT), writes Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman:
Gregg Popovich uses a term to remind his San Antonio Spurs of playoff land mines. “Appropriate fear,” he calls it.
Respect your opponent. Don’t underestimate the task at hand even when riding a wave of momentum.
Appropriate fear. It’s a good term. Wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Thunder to adopt it themselves in their quest to beat the Spurs in these Western Conference semifinals, a quest which has gone from uphill to as steep as a lighthouse staircase.
Time for the Thunder to appropriately fear Kawhi Leonard.
The Spurs have a great team, as always. Great coaching, great system, great culture, great teamwork. But now they’ve got an old-fashioned Spurs team. All that great culture stuff, but a superstar to boot. The Spurs ignited their run of excellence two decades ago with a young Tim Duncan, a player for the ages.
The Spurs haven’t had the culture/superstar combo in years, since Duncan became a player for the aged. Until now.
Saturday night, San Antonio’s superstar was on full display. And it wasn’t LaMarcus Aldridge, who torched the Thunder with 38 points on 18-of-23 shooting. Leonard had 25 points himself, on 10-of-13 shooting, and that wasn’t even the best part of his game. Like Ingrid Bergman, Leonard’s profile is extraordinary from both sides.
Leonard started off Game 1 guarding Kevin Durant and spent the majority of Game 1 guarding Russell Westbrook, both with supreme efficiency. They combined to make just 11 of 34 shots.
Leonard, 6-foot-7 and strong, is uniquely built to match up with both the freakishly tall-and-talented Durant and the fantastically quick-and-strong Westbrook. A player who can score 25 points while guarding both Westbrook and Durant into off nights, and it’s not even a big deal, is an NBA marvel. A cross between Julius Erving and Sidney Moncrief.
The Spurs’ 38-year-old Manu Ginóbili has been around a long time. He’s seen few players to match Leonard.
“There are some players that did it for moments or for playoff series,” Ginobili said. “But playing with that type of intensity and having so much to do on every game? We rely on him now to score 20 to 25, and guarding the best opponent. So it’s something tiring and exhausting. He’s done it amazingly well this year. Now we’re used to that and we rely on that. One of the big reasons we won 67 games in a season, because we’ve got a guy like that.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat have reason to celebrate, albeit briefly, after hard-fought battle against Charlotte … David Blatt‘s name keeps coming up in coaching searches around the league, this time in Sacramento … The Indiana Pacers were sent packing by the Toronto Raptors but they have the three key pieces in place for a bright future … A Game 3 return is definitely a possibility for Stephen Curry, at least according to Curry … In the absence of matching star power against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks will have to rely on their stellar team defense …