Posts Tagged ‘J.R. Smith’

Numbers preview: Cavs-Raptors

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference. At any point in the season, you would have a hard time finding a neutral party who believed that any other East team could stop the Cavs from getting back to The Finals.

Still, the Cavs were always, at best, the third-best team in the league. They were never nearly as good offensively as the Golden State Warriors or nearly as good defensively as the San Antonio Spurs.

But Cleveland has found a new gear in the postseason. The Cavs’ haven’t been a great defensive team in the playoffs, but they haven’t needed to be, because they’ve scored a ridiculous 117 points per 100 possessions as they’ve swept through the first two rounds.

The Cavs have become the most prolific and the most proficient 3-point shooting team in the postseason. The Atlanta Hawks were the league’s best defensive team since Christmas, but couldn’t stop the Cavs’ onslaught in the conference semifinals.

The Toronto Raptors are seemingly just happy to be in the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. But there are reasons the Raptors won 56 games, including two of the three they played against the Cavs this season. They were a top-five offensive team with a much-improved defense. They’ve escaped the competitive bottom half of the East bracket and they played their most complete game of the postseason in Game 7 against the Miami Heat on Sunday.

The Cavs have the opportunity to be the first team to ever go 12-0 on its way to The Finals. To keep that from happening, the Raptors will have to find a way to slow down Cleveland’s potent offense.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for the Eastern Conference finals, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)

First round: Beat Detroit in four games.
Conf. semis: Beat Atlanta in four games.
Pace: 91.6 (14)
OffRtg: 117.0 (1)
DefRtg: 106.6 (11)
NetRtg: +10.4 (2)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Toronto: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Cavs playoff notes:

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Toronto Raptors (56-26)

First round: Beat Indiana in seven games.
Conf. semis: Beat Miami in seven games.
Pace: 92.0 (12)
OffRtg: 99.4 (11)
DefRtg: 101.5 (6)
NetRtg: -2.1 (9)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Raptors playoff notes:

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The matchup

Season series: Raptors won 2-1 (Home team won all three games).
Nov. 25 – Raptors 103, Cavs 99
Jan. 4 – Cavs 122, Raptors 100
Feb. 26 – Raptors 99, Cavs 97

Pace: 89.6
CLE OffRtg: 119.7 (1st vs. TOR)
TOR OffRtg: 111.1 (5th vs. CLE)

Matchup notes:

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Analytics Art: Cavaliers sizzle from 3-point range in 2016 playoffs

By Will Laws, Special to NBA.com

One could say the Cleveland Cavaliers made 3-pointers looks like lay-ups during their conference semifinal series against the Atlanta Hawks. That wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though, because the Cavaliers cashed a higher percentage of their shots from beyond the arc than they did on attempts within five feet of the hoop.

That’s just one of the inexplicable factoids to emerge from Cleveland’s impressive march to the Eastern Conference finals, which has left a pair of shell-shocked teams in its wake. PointAfter‘s visualizations help illustrate just how deadly the Cavs’ offense has been.

Previously, only one team in NBA history had made at least 43 percent of its 3-pointers while attempting at least 31 of them in back-to-back playoff games (Dallas Mavericks, Games 2-3 of Western Conference semifinals). The Cavaliers have now done so for four games running following their sweep of the Hawks — something no other team has accomplished during the regular season or playoffs.

In fact, no playoff team had shot 43 percent on 3-pointers (on a minimum of 18 attempts) in four straight games.

Overall, the Cavs have improved their 3-point accuracy by 10 percent after a regular-season mark of 36.2 percent. They’ve accordingly emphasized 3-pointers by attempting 22.2 percent more of those shots in the playoffs than in the regular season.

Put another way, Cleveland has launched 6.7 more 3-point attempts per game while making 6.1 more per game. Those extra trifectas have certainly paid dividends.

The 77 triples Cleveland sank against Atlanta were easily the most in a four-game series in NBA history. The previous record was 57, set by … the Cavaliers, in their first-round triumph over Detroit.

Their dismantling of the Hawks was demoralizing for Atlanta after it thought it could compete with Cleveland thanks to a league-best defensive rating since the All-Star break. But Cleveland unlocked Atlanta’s seemingly cohesive unit in the series, shooting 50.7 percent on 3-pointers (and 46.1 percent overall) en route to a 123.0 offensive rating.

Dating back to last year, Cleveland hasn’t lost a playoff game with Kevin Love available. That’s no coincidence. Love has been the X-factor for coach Tyronn Lue’s crew, executing his role as a stretch-four to perfection. He outplayed Al Horford and Paul Millsap on the boards while also providing ample spacing on offense. The Hawks dared him to shoot, and he responded by taking nearly eight 3-pointers a game at a 44 percent clip.

Though Love has struggled to find his low-post offense, making 28.6 percent of his shots in the restricted area, it’s scarcely mattered. He’s knocked down more than half his looks on corner 3-pointers, and is keeping opponents honest on long-range launches from above the break, too.

Love is far from the only Cavalier who has ramped up his splashy shooting. J.R. Smith cemented his legacy as a Hawks nemesis, following up on his remarkable sixth-man performance in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals (18.0 points per game on 47.1 percent 3-point shooting) to average 11.0 points on 50 percent 3-point shooting in the 2016 East semis. His 50.8 percent shooting on 3-pointers in the playoffs mirrors Cleveland’s double-digit improvement from the regular season.

At their current rate of 16.8 3-pointers made per game, Cleveland should be favored to shatter Golden State’s record of 240 made triples during the 2015 postseason. Golden State set that mark in 21 games … Cleveland is on pace to surpass it in 15.

At this point, the biggest obstacle to establishing a new record might be their own dominance.

If they breeze through either the Toronto Raptors or Miami Heat before taking part in The Finals, the Cavs might not accrue enough time to make another mark in the playoff record book.

Morning shootaround — May 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Howard opens up on his personality, playing with Harden | Blazers hardly think they’re done for | DeRozan not worried about how slump may affect payday | Smith initially miffed over trade to Cavs

No. 1: Howard opens up on Harden, public perception of himself  If you didn’t stick around for the postgame show on TNT after last night’s Game 5 between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, you missed out. Sitting in for regular TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal was Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard, and he was grilled by Charles Barkley about his future, playing with James Harden and the perception the public has of him. Howard didn’t shy away from the questions or give vague answers and ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins transcribed some of best quotes from the segment:

Hall of Famer, former Rocket and current TNT analyst Charles Barkley asked Howard about being disinterested during games.

Howard gave a long response, saying it does upset him when he doesn’t win. He also discussed the difficulties of dealing with his own personality, particularly with smiling on the court.

“I’m always interested in winning,” Howard said. “But as a big, you want to feel a part of what’s going on, and you know, if I could bring the ball up the court, shoot 3s and go between the legs, do all that stuff, that’d be great. But I have to rely on my teammates in certain aspects to get the ball. Now there have been times I have been upset and I’ve taken myself out of the game in certain situations, and that’s on me.

“And I have to grow and became a better player. So I’m always interested in the game, and I’ve had the problem with smiling too much or I play too much on the floor, so when I’m not smiling and all that stuff, it looks like I’m not interested in the game. So it’s like a thin line, and I’m like, ‘Man, do I not smile? Or do I smile and have fun?’ So that’s always been a struggle for me personally.”

Barkley also asked Howard why he’s not liked by people. Howard responded by saying Barkley is the one saying nobody likes him.

“I think I was very likable in Orlando, and the way that situation ended, I think people felt as though I’m just this bad guy, I’m all about myself, I’m a diva, I’m stuck on being Dwight Howard, this famous basketball player,” Howard said. “So people say, ‘I don’t like that guy.’ And I hear that, and it really hurts me because my heart and my attitude toward the game has always been the same.

“My drive has been there, because I never will forget the day that I came in here and you [Barkley] told me I wasn’t going to be good in the NBA, and I’ll never forget the day Magic Johnson said I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA, when I was in the 10th grade. That stuff drives me every day to want to be one of the greatest players to play the game. So that part, to hear people say that, it pisses me off because that’s not who I am. I’ve never been a bad person, and it’s not that I want people to like me, because I know people are not going to always like me, but you know, if you get to know me, I’m laid-back, I love to have fun.”

Numbers preview: Cavs-Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Last season, the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and had home-court advantage in the conference finals … and got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, the Hawks won just 48 games. Expectations are lower and they’ll be in Cleveland to start the conference semifinals. But the Hawks may be better prepared to make things difficult for the Cavs this time around.

They’re certainly healthier than they were a year ago, when Thabo Sefolosha was out with a broken leg, Paul Millsap was dealing with a shoulder injury, and Kyle Korver was lost to an ankle injury in Game 2. The Hawks are also better defensively than they were last season.

Atlanta was the league’s best defensive team from Christmas to the end of the regular season. In the first round of the playoffs, they held the Boston Celtics to 12.6 points per 100 possessions under their regular-season mark. Their defense has been strong in transition and at protecting the paint, two huge keys to slowing down LeBron James and the Cavs.

But they weren’t able to do that enough in the regular season, when James averaged 27.3 points on 58 percent shooting as the Cavs swept the season series, 3-0. That’s seven straight wins against Atlanta for the Cavs, who are also healthier and better defensively than they were a year ago.

The Cavs are trying to get back to The Finals with their “Big 3” intact this time. Before they can play for that opportunity, they have to get through the Hawks, which could be a much tougher proposition than it was last year.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Cavs-Hawks, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)

First round: Beat Detroit in four games.
Pace: 88.9 (15)
OffRtg: 115.8 (2)
DefRtg: 107.4 (12)
NetRtg: +8.4 (4)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Atlanta: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Cavs playoff notes:

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Atlanta Hawks (48-34)

First round: Beat Boston in six games.
Pace: 101.1 (3)
OffRtg: 97.7 (13)
DefRtg: 91.3 (3)
NetRtg: +6.3 (5)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Hawks playoff notes:

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The matchup

Season series: Cavs won 3-0 (2-0 in Cleveland).
Nov. 21 – Cavs 109, Hawks 97
Apr. 1 – Cavs 110, Hawks 108 (OT)
Apr. 11 – Cavs 109, Hawks 94

Pace: 99.8
CLE OffRtg: 106.9 (2nd vs. ATL)
ATL OffRtg: 95.5 (21st vs. CLE)

Matchup notes:

Blogtable: State of Cavs as playoffs near?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: State of Cavs as playoffs near? | Outlook on 76ers’ future? | Your All-Rookie team picks are?



VIDEOKevin Love talks after the Cavs’ win

> The Warriors are the No. 1 seed in the West and appear to be better than they were last year. The Cavs are the No. 1 seed in the East. Are they better than they were last year?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Yes, if only because Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving appear to be fully healthy going into the playoffs. And Tyronn Lue made the right call starting Tristan Thompson at center, giving the Cavs a chance to put their most athletic and dangerous lineup on the floor together in the playoffs — which would feature Iman Shumpert (if healthy) at the three and LeBron at the four (if LeBron will do it). Will be interesting to see how Lue splits minutes at the point — Cleveland’s best defensive lineups feature Matthew Dellevadova rather than Irving. I think all the soap opera stuff that follows the Cavs during the regular season dissipates once the playoffs begin. They have a much easier path to The Finals compared with Golden State.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The Cavaliers are better for several reasons, chiefly (knock on wood) because they’re healthier than the crew that played five of six Finals games without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Love was lost in the first round against Boston, Irving was already gimpy before he went out in Game 1 against Golden State, and LeBron James was left to shoulder the load while steering along the likes of Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova on training wheels. That was valuable experience for those role players, and both Irving and Love are relatively OK and eager to create some postseason highlights of their own. Channing Frye was a nice “get” at the trade deadline as a stretch big. Having Tyronn Lue as head coach removes some tension from the sideline that apparently existed last year under David Blatt. Finally, James can hear the clock ticking – he’s been to five straight Finals, but is 2-3 in them and would love to check off the “Championship for The ‘Land” box sooner rather than later. That’s a good urgency for the Cavaliers right now.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Physically, yes. Kyrie Irving is recovered. So is Kevin Love. LeBron is LeBron. Mentally, well, that’s a whole different story. Rarely has there been a 57-win team where you have to wonder if their heads and hearts are really in it together. They have the best roster in the East. Now they just have to act like it.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: No. At least not yet. The Cavs can get there — one impressive stretch in the playoffs and the bandwagon will fill pretty quick — but the team capable of winning a championship a year ago has just as much or more to prove in 2016. The mood in the locker room sans coach David Blatt might be better, but that doesn’t mean the team that got to a Game 6 of The Finals despite being so shorthanded is better. And the mood might not be better. I’ll wait for the next foggy LeBron James tweet to let you know for sure.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comCleveland looks pretty much the same, with marginal improvements in defense and court awareness but still dragging an annoying habit of inconsistency with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the two non-LeBron players who matter most. Bottom line, though: Whether the Cavs are better or worse than they were last season after 82 games is meaningless. What matters is whether the 2016 postseason is better than the 2015 postseason.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Technically, yes. History tells us how important it is to rank in the top 10 defensively, and the Cavs rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency after ranking 20th last season. But they weren’t a very consistent defensive team, regressed on that end under Tyronn Lue, and aren’t at their best defensively when both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor. Though they’re healthier this season, they’re not any more likely to win a championship.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Cavaliers were not the No. 1 seed in the East last year, so by that standard alone they are a better team right now than they were this time last year. They are certainly going into the postseason healthy and with the working knowledge of how to manage this process as a group. LeBron James is sharpening his game at just the right time and having both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in a good groove bodes well for the Cavaliers making another deep playoff trip. All that said, I’m not sure they have any better shot at capturing the Larry O’Brien Trophy this time around. There are two Western Conference powers a clear cut above them in my eyes.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I’m not so sure the Warriors are better. They won more games this year, they’re more sure of themselves than ever and their integrity is second to none. But are they as strong defensively as last year? It’s something to watch for in the playoffs. The Cavs were playing at a higher level last year, no doubt. By Game 3 of the NBA Finals, however, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were gone. If they stay healthy this time, will their upside be higher? Undoubtedly so: They begin the playoffs with a bigger advantage in the East than the Warriors have in the West. And if the Cavs reach The Finals with LeBron, Irving and Love playing at a high level, who’s to say they can’t win?

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I don’t know. Or at least, I haven’t seen enough of this Cavs team under Tyronn Lue to come to a conclusion. Think of the way the Cavs played last year during the postseason, particularly The Finals — LeBron basically walking the ball up, using the shot clock, trying to create something. This was partly due to injuries, sure, but also because that seemed to be the Cavs’ default on the offensive end. Of late the Cavs seem to be playing with more energy and verve. Which Cavs team will we see in the postseason? that could make all the difference.

Morning shootaround — March 15


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs deny lack of composure in loss | Bogut blasts his ‘dirty’ label | Bosh surprises Heat, sits on bench vs. Nuggets | Anthony: Knicks ‘gotta do something’ this summer

No. 1: Cavs deny lack of composure in loss to Jazz — The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Salt Lake City on a roll, having won three straight on the road as they closed out a four-game West coast road swing. With news that the Jazz would be without leading scorer Gordon Hayward (plantar fasciitis) on Monday, the Cavs were seen as even bigger favorites to win. Yet Cleveland couldn’t contain Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors as Utah won 94-85 in a chippy game at times. Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com says although things got physical in Salt Lake City last night, the Cavs do not feel they lost their composure at any point:

A quick glance at the Cavs’ 94-85 loss to the Utah Jazz, and it would seem some composure issues surfaced.

To wit:

  • The Cavs were whistled for three technical fouls, including two on Channing Frye. The third was on, you guessed it, J.R. Smith.
  • Frye headbutted and took a quasi-swing at Utah’s Trey Lyles with 3:57 left in the game and the Cavs trailing by 11. Lyles probably deserved it – he elbowed Frye in the groin and, like Frye, was also tossed from the game.
  • Frye refused to address reporters afterwards.
  • LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were bickering at each other during a timeout with 10:07 left in the third quarter. Some defensive miscues allowed the Jazz to go up by nine, and Irving missed a 3-pointer. He was 3-of-12 shooting at that point.
  • The James-Irving session carried on for several seconds, and both sides had their say.
  • Irving, who shot 7-of-23 for the game, went back onto the court here for about 30 minutes of extra shooting.

When it was all over, as in, the game, the Cavs’ three-game winning streak, this four-game trip out West, and Irving’s apparent therapy session, there were mostly shrugs from the Cavs.

“I don’t look at it as a step back,” said James, who led the Cavs with 23 points and 12 rebounds. “I’ve always said we’ve still got room to improve, and this is another example of it. I don’t think it’s a step backwards.”

Of Frye’s aggression toward Lyles, James said “I loved it.” This was perhaps more interesting because Lyles, a rookie, is represented by agent Rich Paul, James’ agent. James typically doesn’t speak ill of the family.

“It’s nothing personal against Trey, it’s the game and (Frye) being able to stick up for himself,” James said. “But I love that side.”

Last season, Irving scored 34 points but registered zero assists in Cleveland’s game at Utah. That kind of box score infuriated James. On Monday, Irving tallied three assists.

“We want him to be aggressive, for sure,” James said. “We want him to read and react, and however he’s feeling, we want him to be aggressive and take his shot when he has it. I know he had a lot of great looks tonight. I know he doesn’t like his performance and he’ll be better.”

Irving said the dust-up with James was really a defensive “miscommunication between me and Mozzy (Timofey Mozgov).”

“That’s it,” Irving said. “Me and ‘Bron were talking about it.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks after the Cavs’ loss in Utah

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Morning Shootaround — Dec. 26


VIDEO: Top plays from Christmas Day games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better | James wants clarity from Cavaliers | Rockets leave coal for Spurs | Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting

No. 1: Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even the most rabid Warriors fan, who truly thinks the Warriors have underperformed this season. After all, after last night’s 89-83 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the highly anticipated NBA Finals rematch, the Warriors moved to a ridiculous 28-1 on the season, which included a 24-game winning streak. That is, it’s hard to find criticism unless you talk to the actual Warriors players themselves, as our Scott Howard-Cooper did, where you find that the Warriors believe despite all the W’s, they aren’t playing all that great and still have room to grow

“Look,” center Andrew Bogut said, “we haven’t played great the last 10 games. That’s something that we’ve addressed in this locker room.”

“I don’t think we’ve played well,” power forward Draymond Green said. “Even tonight. We did some good things, but I still don’t think we’ve played well.”

“I’m really impressed with our defense the last two games,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “Before that, our defense was struggling.”

Help is on the way, if only the Warriors can hold it together another couple weeks and avoid the all-out panic that will come if they slump all the way to, say, 75-win pace and only break the single-season record by three games as opposed to the current tracking to 79 victories. Good news is on the horizon for a change.

Coach Steve Kerr, out since the early days of training camp while recovering from the effects of two back surgeries in the offseason, is nearing a return. He stepped in for an ill Walton to run practice Tuesday, the interim to the interim, watched the Cleveland game from the coaches’ office in Oracle and plans to accompany the team on the Dallas-Houston back-to-back that begins Wednesday while Walton continues to lead. While the Warriors continue to avoid targeting a return date, the increased activity raises the possibility Kerr could be back as soon as Jan. 2 against the Nuggets in Oakland.

Forward Harrison Barnes, out the last 12 games with a sprained left ankle, was in some of the scrimmage Tuesday and Thursday participated in three-on-three drills with the team. Being listed as doubtful for Friday showed there was at least the thought he could play against the Cavaliers, so Monday against the Kings at Oracle or the two games in Texas are all possibilities.

The next week or two, depending on the actual return dates and how long Barnes will need to work back into game shape, could become an eventful time in the season of a defending champion, and that just doesn’t happen very often in early-January. Golden State will be whole again, assuming no one else gets hurt in the meantime, with Barnes an important piece as the starting small forward and also one of the triggers to the successful small-ball lineup when he moves to power forward.

It would have been impossible on opening night to imagine the Warriors would stand at 28-1 under any circumstances, let alone 28-1 with a coach younger than several players around the league and stepping in with two previous seasons as an assistant, with a concussion costing Bogut six games and Barnes’ absence. Now imagine the Warriors at 28-1 and thinking they will start to play better in the future.

“Maybe a little bit,” Bogut said.

Maybe more than a little bit.

“There’s part of it that [makes me mad] and there’s part of it that makes me very, very happy,” Green said. “I think we’ve got a lot of improving to do, and we will.”

Mad because the Warriors are not happy with how they have played lately. The happy: “Because what are we? Twenty-eight and one? You’re 28-1 and you’re not near playing well, that’s exciting. We know we know how to get to that point and we know we’ll reach that point. And when we do, I think that’s trouble because if we’re 28-1 and we’re not playing well, imagine where we are. That’s why it excites me.

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No. 2: James wants clarity from Cavaliers Meanwhile, the Warriors’ vanquished Christmas Day foe, the Cleveland Cavaliers, drop to 19-8. That’s still good enough for the lead in the Eastern Conference, but with the Cavs getting more players back from injury and healthy, including Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs have more options available than ever before. And after the loss to the Warriors, as Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon writes, LeBron James would like to see the Cavs discover a rhythm going forward

After the Cavs lost 89-83 to the defending champion Warriors on Golden State’s home court, where it’s now won 32 in a row during the regular season, dating back to last year, James repeatedly mentioned the lack of continuity the Cavs had on the court and suggested that at least some of it had to do with David Blatt‘s rotation.

“It’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm,” James said.

The lineups and the newness need some context, and what James said about them was nothing like the cool attitude he directed toward Blatt at times last season.

In fact, James didn’t name his coach specifically on Friday, but the bottom line was James called for Blatt and his staff to gain perhaps a clearer sense of who they want to play, and when, now that the entire team is healthy.

“For us to have a full unit, we’ve got to practice, we’ve got to play some games where we know what we want to do, what lineups we want to play out there,” James said.

“It’s an adjustment period, it’s not just going to happen – you plug a guy in there, plug two guys in there and it automatically happens,” he continued. “It’s going to be an adjustment period, but we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine toward February and March.”

This was just the second game this season that the Cavs had all 15 players available, due to season-long injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.

That’s not Blatt’s fault, but, it was the head coach who placed James, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson on the court to start the fourth quarter. It was the first time all season they’d all been on the court at the same time.

When Irving and Kevin Love subbed in for James and Smith with 10:06 left in the quarter, the Cavs still had a lineup that had never played together. Those are just two examples.

Richard Jefferson did not play at all against the Warriors. Mo Williams logged 4:39, and James Jones, a favorite of James, played just 1:34.

James led the Cavs with 25 points and contributed nine rebounds, but shot 10-of-26 and was a brutal 4-of-9 from the foul line. He took the blame for that, saying “I wasn’t very good, inefficient, and it trickled down to everybody else.”

The Cavs’ 83 points, 31.6 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range were season lows. Irving (13 points) shot 4-of-15 and Love (10 points, 18 rebounds) was 5-of-16. Cleveland assisted on just 12-of-30 baskets.

“For the first time, for a long period of time we had some different lineups out there,” James explained, talking about the woes on offense. “And against a championship team like this, it’s kind of hard to do that on the fly. We’re not making no excuses, we still got to be a lot better, still got to move the ball, got to share the ball, get it moving from side to side, but offensively we were all out of rhythm.

“You credit to their defense, for sure, and then the lack of detail.”

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No. 3: Rockets leave coal for Spurs While the Warriors have romped through the NBA this season, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly put in work as well, and entered yesterday’s Christmas game against the Houston Rockets with a sparkling 25-5 record. Their opponent, the Houston Rockets, have struggled to find an identity, firing a coach (Kevin McHale) and getting inconsistent play from their superstars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. But on a big stage yesterday, the Rockets turned to their defense to grind out an 88-84 win over the Spurs, and as our Fran Blinebury writes, Houston got a present from their veteran reserve guard, Jason Terry

Jason Terry is long past the days of being the shiny new toy. He has stockings that have hung from chimneys far longer than some of his teammates have hung around the planet.

So even after the Rockets had spent most of the night standing toe-to-toe and going push-to-shove with the Spurs, there came a time to seal the deal and the closer had to come out of the attic.

It wasn’t just Terry’s nine points and three steals in the last 10½ minutes of the bone-jarring 88-84 victory Friday night at the Toyota Center. It was the way he did everything. Like he owned the place.

Ever since the shocking 5-10 start to the season that got coach Kevin McHale fired, the Rockets have been trying to convince everybody, including themselves, that they’re really a very good team, capable of getting back again to the Western Conference finals.

Trouble is, since the opening tip back in October, every time the Rockets have put another stake in the ground with a signature win over the Thunder, at Dallas or sweeping a pair of duels from the Clippers, they have also put a stake or a half dozen into their own foot. A combined 0-5 record against the lowly Nuggets and Nets. A whipping in Sacramento. A comeback that came up just short in Orlando.

You don’t get to call yourself a real contender until you stop pretending to show up consistently and take the job seriously every night. Dwight Howard and James Harden talk the talk.

“The Jet” puts his arms out at his sides and takes flight on the wings of drive and emotion that have carried him into a 17th NBA season.

“That’s what I’ve prided myself on, being ready, always stepping up to the moment,” Terry said. “In big moments like tonight when my team needed me most, I want to show up and be effective.”

He buried a big 3-pointer. He hit a mid-range jumper from the wing. He stepped into the San Antonio passing lanes to snatch away three balls to get the Rockets headed in the other direction.

But now, more than being the fire-starter in a big holiday event — the first time the Rockets hosted a home Christmas Day game since moving to Houston in 1971 — Terry’s task and bigger challenge will be to instill a sense of every day urgency that goes from the locker room out onto the court. Even in too many of their wins this season, the Rockets have started games lazily and had to come scrambling back from double-digit holes. Which is why this latest so-called statement win lifts their record back to just 16-15.

Harden’s pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers were big and it’s good to know that you’ve got that arrow in your quiver, but it can’t be enough to think he’ll be able to bail you out game after game with offensive heroics. And it was Terry’s spark that ignited the flame.

Terry had been inserted into the starting lineup for the first four games after J.B. Bickerstaff took over the team. But as the team kept struggling, the interim coach began to shuffle his guards like a casino dealer until finally he turned Terry back face up in this one. In fact, the veteran has played less than 15 minutes in 11 games this season and also has six DNPs, including the previous game, which the Rockets lost at Orlando. That’s now likely to change.

“I just feel like we need him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s times where he needs the rest, obviously. But big moments in big games, he’s one of the guys that I trust the most. I trust not only that he’ll do the right thing, but I trust that he’ll perform and then I trust that he’ll carry his teammates in a positive direction.

“You can’t speak enough about him. He’s a class guy. He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s a leader. He’ll sacrifice, whatever it takes to win. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. Every since I’ve known him he’s been that way.”

***

No. 4: Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting The first 2016 All-Star voting results are in, and while there are still several more rounds to go, at least for now, Kobe Bryant has a huge lead over everyone else in the NBA, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Considering Kobe’s global appeal and previously announced retirement plans, it shouldn’t come a complete surprise that fans want to see him on the NBA’s big stage one final time. But as ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, the numbers apparently shocked at least one person: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has 719,235 votes — well ahead of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry (510,202), the next-highest vote-getter, and more than twice as many as Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (357,937).

After the Lakers’ 94-84, Christmas night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said he was more than a little surprised he had such a wide lead.

“Listen, I was making a little coffee run this morning, got some gas and decided to just go on Instagram and peruse,” he said, “and [I] saw the damn votes, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Shocked doesn’t do it justice.”

He added, “It’s exciting. What can I say? Just thankful.”

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, would be Bryant’s last, as he has announced his plans to retire after this season, his 20th in the NBA. His 17 All-Star selections are second all-time behind former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 19. Bryant, 37, is the leading scorer in NBA All-Star history (280 points).

This year marks the first time that the 6-foot-6 Bryant is being listed as a member of the frontcourt in All-Star voting. In previous years, he has been listed as a guard. The second-highest vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players is Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (349,473).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s game that Bryant deserves a spot on the All-Star team.

“A lot of people disagree with me on that. That’s fine. I have my opinion. I think Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I don’t care if he’s a starter of if they figure out a 13th spot for him. [With] what he’s done in his career, he should be on the All-Star team, and I don’t see any debate in that. You can have one, but I’m not hearing it.”

But what if someone else were left off, such as one of Rivers’ players?

“It would be awful, but Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I think they should have a special exception and put 13 guys on if that’s the case if he wasn’t in one of the top 12 as far as voting or whatever. But I just believe he should be on it. Magic [Johnson] was on, Michael [Jordan] was on with the Wizards. I think certain guys earn that right, and unfortunately for other guys who can’t make it, they have to earn that right too.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Chicago Bulls may have turned a corner with their win over the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday … Steph Curry doesn’t think he’s “hurting” basketball, regardless of what his former coach Mark Jackson says … Chris Bosh punctuated Miami’s win over New Orleans yesterday by talking trash to Anthony Davis down the stretchEvan Fournier has broken out of his slump in Orlando … You can ask him questions, but doesn’t have to answer them …

Morning shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Next man up is new normal in Cleveland | Riley says Heat not looking to trade | Howard responds with love in Houston | Shumpert truly delivers

No. 1: Next man up is new normal in Cleveland The Oklahoma City Thunder entered Cleveland having won six games in a row, but the Cavs used a strong second half run to build an insurmountable lead and win, 104-100. While Kyrie Irving has still yet to return from injury for the Cavs, LeBron James once again stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds to lead the way for the Cavs. And as our Steve Aschburner writes, it’s still early, but the Cavs look locked in:

No Kyrie Irving (recovery from knee surgery), Iman Shumpert (groin) and Mo Williams (thumb sprain) meant minutes and opportunities for others. No biggie for the Cavs, for whom short-handed is the new normal. You have to go back eight months and 44 games, to the postseason opener against Boston, for a game in which Cleveland had all its guys healthy.

“Our motto is the next man up,” said James, who now has a 16-4 personal record head-to-head (regular season or playoff) against OKC’s Kevin Durant. “There’s no excuses around here. Whoever’s in the lineup is ready to go.”

While OKC was missing the playoffs last spring, done in by Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook‘s injuries, Cleveland was busy getting resourceful. The Cavs beat the Celtics, the Bulls and the Hawks, and pushed the Warriors to six games in the Finals, by leaning on the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson like never before. James at times seemed startled by how much those role players could handle, but by doing so they toughened up and built a bond.

That was evident again Thursday. Thompson gave the Cavs repeated extra chances by grabbing 15 rebounds overall — 11 on the offensive end — to go with 12 points. Dellavedova chipped in his own double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. Veteran Richard Jefferson scored 13 points and wild card J.R. Smith was big early, both scoring and making timely defensive plays.

This essentially was the crew that pushed Golden State to an extra level of great last spring. It’s the team that, with Irving, Shumpert and Williams all due back soon, knows how to fold back in talented players because it did that over the second half of last season. It’s the biggest reason Cleveland stands alone as a legit contender from the East, while the Thunder will slug it out with two or three rivals out West.

Durant and Westbrook combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka added 23 more, but the OKC bench went from good enough in the first half to ghastly in the second. New coach Billy Donovan appeared to get caught in his rotations, asking the Thunder to survive too long with neither of its two scoring stars on the floor. Enes Kantner was a liability defensively and two-way mishap Dion Waiters reminded the sellout Q crowd why their team is better off without him.

James and the Cavs are playing chess right now relative to the Thunder’s checkers. He knows what Cleveland needs to win a title because he’s been there and done it so recently. The Thunder went to the Finals in 2012 but in this what-have-you-done-lately league, that’s old news in a rapidly changing game.

***

No. 2: Riley says Heat not looking to trade The Miami Heat are currently 15-9, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But we know team president Pat Riley is always looking to improve the roster, which could involve making a trade somewhere along the way. A recent report had center Hassan Whiteside on the trade block, and yesterday Riley spoke to the media to say he wasn’t ready to make any moves, at least not quite yet, as Manny Navarro writes in the Miami Herald:

“I can guarantee you there have been no discussions about the BS that you have read in the newspapers the last couple of days,” Riley said of rumors Whiteside could be headed to Houston or Sacramento. “I like our team and I want to see where we’re headed.”

Riley said he expects the Heat, which plays the Toronto Raptors at 8 p.m. Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena, will be “one of [the teams] that is going to be for real” when that 40-game mark is complete Jan. 15.

What does he like about this Heat team?

“Well, we’ve got great depth,” Riley said during a five-minute interview with The Miami Herald and a two local TV stations Thursday during a holiday event for veterans at the Miami VA Fisher House. “I think we have a three-tiered team which is we have a group of great veterans, mid-aged veterans, and then we have youth. We have a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of energy with our young guys.

“Probably some of our best defenders are our young players. They’re trying to get their offensive games to match their defensive games.”

He also likes the leadership that team captains Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem have brought.

“They have no idea how proud I am of them and how they conduct themselves every single night, good or bad — to the community, to the media,” Riley said. “It’s not easy. This league is not easy, and when there’s a high-expectation level, then you’ve got to deal with the consequences of winning and the consequences of losing, and I think our guys do it very well.”

He said coach Erik Spoelstra has done “an exemplary job.”

“I think he’s finding his way to the heart of his team and how they’re going to play, how he can adjust and make those adjustments,” Riley said. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, we have a team that can play big. We have a team that can play medium. And we have a team that can play small. You don’t want to get caught up in any one thing. You just want to create your own identity, which is what I think [Spoelstra is] talking about. Whether you’re big or you’re small, that’s how you’re going to play. I think we’re showing that.”

***

No. 3: Howard responds with love in Houston The Houston Rockets got off to a slow start, including firing coach Kevin McHale. Part of their inconsistent play has come from center Dwight Howard, the former All-NBA player who has suffered various injuries in recent years, and has seen his production fluctuate. But recent reports of Howard wanting out in Houston are, at least according to Howard, not true, as Jonathan Feigan writes in the Houston Chronicle:

“The one thing that I don’t want to happen is people to assume that because things are not going quite well for us that I’ve quit on the team and take away from all the positive things we have done, despite the loss, making the city feel like they’re unwanted,” Howard said on Thursday. “There’s a lot of negativity going around. I haven’t caused it. I haven’t said anything negative to anybody about this team or this situation. I’ve just been trying to find ways to make this situation better, trying to grow as a man, as a basketball player.

“You just try to laugh at it. I don’t want to go out and persecute the people that persecute me. That’s the hardest part. The first reaction is to go back at them. You just have to respond with love.”

A report at sheridanhoops.com on Tuesday cited sources saying Howard is “extremely unhappy” with his role with the Rockets and predicted he would be traded to the Miami Heat. Howard called the report “lies.”

Howard can expect to hear plenty from the Lakers fans tonight at Staples Center. He has often laughed at the taunts in Los Angeles, even singing along with chants in his first return to play the Lakers after signing with the Rockets.

“If they boo me, they boo me,” he said. “Just going to say, ‘Hey, I love you guys. If you boo me, I’m going to respond with love, just try to have a good game, not get frustrated with whatever happens on the floor. I don’t want to smile too much because then I’m (said to) not take it serious. I don’t want to not smile too much because then I’m (called) unhappy. Just going to stay positive.”

Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he has over the years talked to some players when they have been subject of trade rumors or other media reports. With Howard, Bickerstaff said they have talked often throughout the season, but did not consider that necessary with this week’s reports and that neither took them seriously.

“There’s certain guys that need to be talked to more about those situations and other guys, it doesn’t bother them. I try not to bring attention to it. If a guy does have a problem or a question and he brings it to me, then I’ll talk to him. For the most part, I try to ignore it because there’s so much noise out there.

“We’ve joked about it. We’ve laughed about it. I don’t think it needs to be addressed. I don’t know when I’ve seen him ‘extremely unhappy.’ We’ve had plenty of conversations. We’re in a good place.”

***

No. 4: Shumpert delivers One of the Cavs out with an injury last night was forward Iman Shumpert, recovering from a strained groin. Which meant Shumpert happened to be at home on Wednesday when his pregnant fiancé, Teyana Taylor, unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin writes, Shumpert ended up having to play doctor and delivered his daughter before the paramedics arrived…

The baby, Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., was born at 6:42 a.m, according to the post. Taylor nicknamed her “Junie.”

Taylor wrote that she did not realize she was in labor until she could feel her baby’s head. She said Shumpert used the cord from a pair of headphones to tie off the umbilical cord as the couple waited for the ambulance to arrive minutes later.

The birth came about three weeks before the expected due date of Jan. 16, 2016, which Shumpert previously shared on his Facebook account.

Shumpert and Taylor got engaged in November, with Shumpert proposing to her with a ruby engagement ring on the night of her baby shower.

Shumpert was ruled out of the Cavs’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night with a right groin strain. According to the Cavs, his playing status is questionable moving forward.

Before the 104-100 win over the Thunder, Cleveland coach David Blatt said Shumpert had yet to be re-evaluated by the Cavs since the team returned from Boston, because he was excused to be with his family.

“Due to the recent events, we’ve allowed Shump to do more important things,” Blatt said. “The doctor will get his hands on him, hopefully, [Thursday] evening. Then we’ll be a little bit smarter [about his status]. But he’ll be down for a few days for sure.”

Then Blatt cracked a joke about Shumpert’s surprise delivery skills.

“Dr. Shumpert now,” Blatt said. “And congratulations to Teyana, as well.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Scary moment in Cleveland last night, as LeBron James dove for a loose ball and slammed into Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, sitting courtside. She was taken away on a stretcher and, according to Cleveland.com, treated and released from a local hospitalSteve Kerr hopes to be back on the Warriors’ bench in the next “two to three weeks” … Are the Sacramento Kings interested in trading for Kevin Martin? … Mike D’Antoni was spotted in Philadelphia, presumably there to meet with the Sixers about a job as an assistant … The Milwaukee Bucks held an “informal” meeting with Carlos Boozer in Los Angeles … The Bucks also took a team bonding trip to AlcatrazThe Currys and Drake made a postgame trip to In-N-Out …

Morning shootaround — Dec. 15


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Spurs hitting their stride | Crowder wants apology from Smith | Barnes out another week

 

No. 1: Spurs blast Jazz, appear to be hitting their stride — A team boasting an 80.8 win percentage a week or so before Christmas is usually pretty impressive stuff. Yet the 21-5 San Antonio Spurs — like every other team in the league — have taken a backseat to the storylines surrounding the defending-champion Golden State Warriors’ 24-1 start to 2015-16. It’s becoming hard to deny how solid this Spurs team is, though, and last night’s 118-81 romp of the visiting Utah Jazz further illustrates that point. Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com has more:

After the San Antonio Spurs’ 118-81 blowout win Monday over the Utah Jazz, coach Gregg Popovich said his team can analyze the “same things we take from a loss.”

In this case, after San Antonio recorded its 13th victory at home, and NBA-best ninth win by 20 points or more, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the Spurs — which expressed concerns earlier in the season about the offense — seem to be finally gelling into what the brass envisioned before the start of the season.

With the 37-point win, San Antonio now owns the highest margin of victory in the NBA this season; yes, even better than the Golden State Warriors, who have played one less game. Interestingly, the Spurs captured 11 victories last season by margins of 20 points or more but are already up to nine such wins this season.

“It’s always tough to have big leads in the NBA,” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who finished with 18 points as one of five of the team’s double-figure scorers. “We have been able to keep it at that the last two games. It’s not easy to win two games like that in a row. So it shows that our concentration was good tonight.”

But perhaps one of the more significant developments over San Antonio’s past two games: LaMarcus Aldridge finding a level of comfort in the system.

Over the past two games, Aldridge has connected on a combined 11 of 19 attempts for 31 points while contributing 14 rebounds.

Those numbers aren’t gaudy by any means, but Popovich likes what he has seen. Aldridge, who started the game 5-of-7 from the floor, made all six of his free throw attempts to finish the game with 18 points.

“He did a good job of getting to his spots,” Leonard said. “He got some offensive rebounds, made some layups, got a rhythm going and made some shots.”

Popovich said earlier in the season that Aldridge was “deferring” in an attempt to fit in with the new team, but it appears those days are coming to a close.

Now, “he’s getting his rhythm,” guard Danny Green said, adding that Aldridge “is getting more comfortable playing his game, doing his own thing and just getting settled in. That’s a good sign for us at this point in the season.”

Popovich agreed.

“He had a lot of opportunities, and he took advantage of them,” Popovich said. “He’s a guy who’s getting used to this system more and more every game and feeling more and more comfortable. [He’s] not worrying about fitting in, not worrying about missing shots or anything like that. He’s just worrying about competing, and he’s doing a great job of it.”


VIDEO: San Antonio demolishes Utah to stay perfect at home

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — Nov. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: Nov. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Rush puts latest ‘wow’ in W’s | Wizards hard to please in swoon | LeBron saves day, J.R.’s D | McCollum’s audience of 1

No. 1: Rush puts latest ‘wow’ in W’s — All right, the Golden State Warriors are just messing with The Association now. Racing to their 18-0 record, the NBA’s defending champions are posting stupid numbers of superiority and seem almost to be handicapping themselves just for sport. For instance, reigning MVP Steph Curry scored 17 points in the first quarter of his team’s victory over Sacramento while taking only six shots. Draymond Green, who in previous generations might have gotten dismissed as a ” ‘tweener” and been sent packing to multiple teams as a seventh or eighth man, became the first Warriors player since Wilt Chamberlain to post consecutive triple-doubles. Golden State already has outscored opponents by 288 points in just 18 games, ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss reports, and then – even as Harrison Barnes goes out for what could be a couple weeks there’s the whole Brandon Rush thing Saturday:

So, how does a team that averages a blowout top itself? On Saturday night, joyous surprise came in the form of a quick strike Brandon Rush throwback game. He was called upon to replace Harrison Barnes (sprained ankle) in the starting lineup, to some surprise. He didn’t deliver much in the beginning but owned the third quarter like Klay Thompson in disguise. Rush scored 14 points in a 3-minute, 49-second stretch that was shocking, fun, and possibly cathartic.

Rush has a history here, having done nice work for a very different Golden State team, not entirely long ago. On the 2011-2012 Warriors, he was the rare good role player, a glue guy in a situation too shattered to matter. On Nov. 3, 2012, against the Grizzlies, a Zach Randolph shove sent Rush’s career into dormancy. He’d scored 2,639 points in his four-plus seasons before his ACL injury. In the two seasons that followed, he scored 109.

In the background, he has been a vocal part of the locker room, originator of the, “Get what you neeeeed!” catchphrase, meant to inspire work between practices. He’s a popular teammate, someone people here have been pulling for to finally reclaim what he lost. That was palpable in the frenzy of his 14-point explosion. Teammates were clearly looking for Rush, hoping to extend his moment.

After a dunk over contact, Rush was found for three consecutive 3-pointers. Then, during a timeout, interim coach Luke Walton and assistant coach Jarron Collins decided to carry the fun further, calling up “Elevator Doors” for the suddenly hot Rush.

“Elevator Doors” is a play that looks like its namesake. An offensive player runs off the ball between two screening teammates, who converge together to block his defender — the closing doors. It’s a play normally called up for the best of shooters, as it creates a 3-pointer on the move. You’ll see Curry get this play call. You’ll see Thompson get this play call. Something crazy has to happen for almost anyone else to ditch the stairs and take the lift. Since three straight 3s qualifies, Rush got the call, got the ball and … splash.

The crowd went nuts, only outdone by a Golden State bench that might have accidentally created dance moves never before invented.

***

No. 2: Wizards hard to please in swoon — All it took was a playoff sweep of the Toronto Raptors for the Washington Wizards and their fans to go all-in on the small-ball, pace-and-space style of offense so popular throughout the league. All it has taken to shake them from that embrace is four defeats, strung together last week in five nights against Indiana, Charlotte, Boston and Toronto. That shiny, new attack doesn’t look so dazzling anymore, and center Marcin Gortat sounded ready to throw it under the bus to get his old bruise buddy, Nene, alongside him again in a big-man tandem that, weeks ago, seemed prehistoric. Gortat also wasn’t happy with what he termed “negativity” in Washington’s locker room, saying: “”It’s not even fun coming here anymore.” Here is an excerpt of J.Michael’s Wizards insider report for CSNMidAtlantic.com:

“We missed some shots but it’s tough also because with the system we play, four outside one inside,” he said after 16 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday’s 84-82 loss to the Toronto Raptors. “I’m by myself over there fighting for the rebounds. Usually you got two, three guys inside the paint so it’s a little bit different without Nene being at the four.”

Nene, who started alongside Gortat as the power forward, missed Saturday because of a left calf strain. Even though his career rebounding numbers are modest (6.6), Nene tends to clear the traffic around the rim to allow Gortat to rebound.

Of course, last season Gortat wasn’t happy on the offensive end because being on the floor with Nene being there clogged the paint and caused difficulty for him, as well as John Wall on drives, to operate. The idea of moving Nene to the bench and sliding in someone who has three-point ability into that role opens the floor but usually comes at the cost of rebounding.

The Wizards are 6-8 and struggling with their identity, and minus-28 in rebounds during this four-game losing streak. Playing the old way got them to the Eastern Conference semifinals two years in a row.

Kris Humphries had started every game at power forward as his three-point shooting evolved but has only made one deep ball in the last five games. For the first time Jared Dudley, who is undersized at 6-7 and was a teammate of Gortat’s with the Phoenix Suns, started there Saturday. He had seven points and four rebounds.

“Jared is a different player. He’s giving a lot to the team. I love to play with him,” Gortat said. “But just as Jared is giving us offensively great opportunities, we’re suffering on rebounds a little bit. It is what it is.

“Coach [Randy Wittman] is still looking for the right guy at the four spot. … It’s tough. Everybody has to do more now, including me. It’s not easy.”

***

No. 3:LeBron saves day, J.R.’s D — A late-game mistake nearly torpedoed the generally good defensive work that Cleveland’s J.R. Smith turned in on Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson. But LeBron James‘ late-game heroics averted that particular disaster on a night in which the two Cavaliers – a study in contrasts in so many ways, in demeanor and drive – were their team’s best story. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com saw it as further steps in the championship contender’s progress toward the goal:

There they stood next to each other in the back corner of the Cavaliers’ locker room Saturday: one with aspirations of being known as the G.O.A.T., the other narrowly avoiding becoming the goat for the night, thanks to his ambitious friend hitting a game winner that absolved his defensive sin in the previous possession.

For James, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about his final stat line of 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists or anything too outlandish about him hitting the clincher; he has done it plenty of times before. But it was the nature of his final shot — an eight-foot, driving hook shot over the 7-foot Brook Lopez — that made it unique.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made a game winner off one of those,” James said. “I’ve made layups. I’ve made pull-ups. Obviously I’ve made step-back jumpers. I’ve probably never made one of those for a game winner. So, I might go to the skyhook next time. … Brook, he did not think in his wildest years that I was going to shoot that one.”

For Smith, unfortunately, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about his ill-advised foul on Joe Johnson’s 3-point attempt with 15.2 seconds left and the Cavs leading by three. Smith has committed mental mistakes by fouling in inappropriate situations before, be it Friday night against Charlotte on a Nicolas Batum 3 or the mountain of miscues he had late in Game 2 of the Finals. But it was his overall defensive effort — a career-high four blocks, three steals and the primary defensive assignment on Johnson to begin with — that warrants mentioning

“I know as long as I can bring that enthusiasm and toughness on the defensive end, then we will have a better chance of winning than if I’m just making shots,” Smith said. “I have to be a two-way player.”

It could be seen as troubling that Cleveland needed the double-rainbow-like performance to win a home game against a Brooklyn team that’s now 3-13. There could be legitimate points made about Cleveland’s big-man trio of Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov — making a combined $28.7 million this season — combining on the court for just 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting, 20 rebounds and six turnovers against the Nets. There certainly has been a bit of hand-wringing among team observers wondering when the on-court product would actually look as good as the Cavs’ 13-4 record is.

The flip side to that: You have developments such as Smith becoming a key cog in Cleveland’s fourth-quarter, switch-everything defensive lineups and encouraging quotes such as James crediting coach David Blatt for the “designed play.” However, Blatt passed the praise to his star player, saying, “Just the way I drew it up. … Give it to No. 23.”

Like James and Blatt’s relationship, or Smith’s commitment to something other than taking contested jump shots to James putting in so much time in practicing a specialized shot such as that running hook that he would actually feel confident enough to use it in crunch time, Cleveland’s season goals are all about growth.

***

No. 4:McCollum’s audience of 1 — When Portland shooting guard C.J. McCollum sank the first four shots he took against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Trail Blazers’ eventual home victory Saturday, he simply was following instructions. His own instructions. Turns out, McCollum – who scored 19 points in the first half and finished with 28 points as Portland won for the third time in four games – had given himself a rather demanding pep talk before the game and Jason Quick of CSNNW.com was on hand to witness it:

It was a mostly silent Moda Center when CJ McCollum took the court about two hours before Saturday’s Trail Blazers game. The music had yet to start blaring from the speakers above, and there were only a limited amount of players on the court.

It was quiet enough to hear McCollum engage in what would be an important conversation … with himself.

“Get up!” McCollum told himself as he attempted a shot.

The next shot, it was the same thing. “Get up!’’

And so it went for the next 15, 20 minutes.

“Get up!” … Swish … “Get up!” … Swish.

Nearly every shot was accompanied by a reminder to both get arc under his shot, and lift from his legs.

“Sometimes, my shot is a little flat,’’ McCollum said. “I’m shooting more of a line drive, so I just remind myself that I’ve got to get it up.’’

McCollum, who is averaging 20.4 points while shooting 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range, says he often talks to himself during shooting routines. Usually, he talks to himself in his mind during morning sessions at the team’s practice facility. Other times, he is more audible. Either way, he find the personal reminders offer “positive reinforcement.”

“We shoot so many shots that sometimes, you baby it, hold back a little bit,’’ McCollum said. “So I remind myself to get it up, let it go.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: It has taken the proverbial New York minute for the Knicks and their fans to swap out the question mark after Kristaps Porzingis‘ name with an exclamation point, and our man Lang Whitaker tells the tale of New Yorkers’ newfound 7-foot-3 source of hope and optimism … Detroit coach and basketball boss Stan Van Gundy had center Andre Drummond in his crosshairs, asking more from the big man who has given the Pistons so much this season, at least in terms of gaudy rebounding numbers. … Here’s some video of Kobe Bryant on that kid McCollum’s growth in Portland, on the young Lakers and on the inevitable march of time. … Here at HangTime HQ, we can’t remember the last time Father Time grabbed 18 rebounds in a game but we do know when San Antonio’s Tim Duncan most recently accomplished that. … The Bulls need Derrick Rose to play more like Derrick Rose, especially when trying to score, though some doubt he’ll ever quite make it back. … Did someone say back? That’s what Rockets fans wonder, while waiting for Donatas Motiejunas to come back in his recovery from back surgery. … ICYMI, this Philadelphia 76ers fan’s lament does some serious Sixers ‘splaining. … The way Brook and Robin Lopez mock-bicker and tease each other – over their cats, their personalities, you name it – you might find yourself wishing they were conjoined rather than merely identical twins.