VIDEO: The Fast Break: February 28
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Cavaliers don’t look title ready — Losses to the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards over the weekend has taken the shine off of things in Cleveland, where the world knows it’s championship or bust for LeBron James and company. YEs, they remain the clubhouse favorites to win the Eastern Conference title and represent in The Finals, but they don’t look title ready right now, as Michael Lee of The Vertical points out after Sunday’s LeBron-less loss to the Wizards:
The Cavaliers have way too much talent, experience and shared success to use James’ absence as even a partial excuse for a 113-99 loss to the Wizards – a team that is currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race looking in. Even if their best player – and apparently lone playmaker – decided his mind and body needed a break, the Cavaliers still had three times as many players on maximum contracts than their opponent, but none of them, Lue said, gave maximum effort.
The loss was more alarming and disturbing because it came two days after a loss to the steady-charging Toronto Raptors that led James to say, “We lack mental [strength] right now.” J.R. Smith took the critique to another level after Sunday’s loss with a very nonchalant slam of his team’s performance.
“If we lose a game like the other night to a team like Toronto and to come out here and play the way we did – you have a lack of energy – maybe we shouldn’t be in this position,” Smith said, voice barely rising above a purr. “We shouldn’t be who we are and be in these uniforms.”
The Cavaliers haven’t reached the point where they should panic but they can’t be extremely comfortable about where they stand. They were supposed to have a much easier run through the East than defending champion Golden State in the West, but they only have a two-game lead over the Raptors for the top spot in the conference while the Warriors’ lead over the 50-win San Antonio Spurs feels more vast than Steph Curry’s limitless range.
No other team in the East made the kind of offseason or midseason upgrades to pose much of a threat to James’ reign over the conference but the struggle has been real. The Cavaliers are easily the most talented team in the East, but they are among the least content. James once blamed complacency as the culprit for the team coasting at times, but the Cavaliers have been involved with a considerable amount of chaos for a team that was only two wins from an NBA championship last June despite missing two of its best players. There has been an intense pursuit of perfection that has robbed this season of the kind of fun that Cleveland’s record (41-17) should otherwise suggest.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been searching for, consistency and efficiency,” veteran forward James Jones told The Vertical. “We’re good enough, talented enough, to do things the majority of the time, to win games against the mid-tier teams. Against the good teams, we can piece together a game or two of really good basketball and look exceptional, but deep down inside we know that we aren’t hitting on all cylinders defensively, offensively. We still have some of the same issues of isolation and ball stopping and not moving bodies. For us, even though we’re having success, it’s not the fact we were winning but the way we were winning that gave us concern and you really can’t enjoy it as much when you know you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”
No. 2: Curry’s greatness at heart of skepticism about Warriors — There’s a reason that some of the men who came before Stephen Curry cannot find a way make sense of what the reigning KIA MVP is doing right now. They’ve simply never seen anything like it, nothing close actually. And that unfamiliarity with a player who can shoot as well as Curry does, and in turn dominates the floor in ways no player has before him, does not register with the likes of Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. That inability to frame Curry’s exploits is what lies at the heart of all these doubters of both Curry and the Warriors, writes Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:
The frustration is logical, though, in a historic sense:
When the old stalwarts don’t get what you’re doing … that’s when you know the revolution is well underway.
It works two ways: The criticisms from all-time greats such as Oscar Robertson highlight the vast gap between then and now and serve to motivate the Warriors to make it even greater.
“It’s starting to get a little annoying just because it’s kind of unwarranted from across the board,” Curry said late last week on the “Warriors Plus/Minus” podcast with Marcus Thompson II and me.
“When you hear kind of … obviously legends and people that respect their era and what they were able to accomplish and what they did for the game kind of come at you, it’s kind of, just, weird.”
Some of the skepticism is understandable, because Robertson and others are great figures in the game and, yes, the rules and standards are different now.
Times change, as they did from the era before Robertson to his era and so on …
Some of the carping is logical, because this Warriors team has just the one title (so far); some of it is envy for the current limelight; some is general cantankerousness.
But let’s underline the true heart of the public doubts about Curry and the Warriors coming from Robertson, Stephen Jackson — and even from Clippers coach Doc Rivers and others last offseason:
It’s about questioning Curry’s true status as a generational figure, because he’s a departure from the normal procession of bigger, faster, stronger (Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to LeBron James).
Almost every other NBA quantum leap came in the form of a physical leap forward, and Curry’s ascension isn’t tied to strength, size or speed. He’s a skinny guy who went to Davidson and was supposed to be knocked around by Jackson and Monta Ellis in his first Warriors training camp.
But Curry wasn’t. He survived, they were sent away, and now here he is, with one MVP on his mantle and No. 2 coming at the end of this season.
Curry’s greatness is about an unprecedented talent level and work ethic — no matter what Robertson says about current defense, there is no consistent way to defend a man who can casually dribble into game-winning 38-footers, as Curry did in Oklahoma City on Saturday.
This is new. This is unfathomable, unless you know Curry, unless you’ve spent a few years studying how he is altering this sport.
Curry’s status is comparable to the way Wayne Gretzky changed hockey, the way the West Coast offense and Joe Montana reset football and the way Muhammad Ali made everything before him in boxing seem outdated.
WATCH: Steph Curry with the (12 from deep) shots
No. 3: Carmelo brushes off Stoudemire’s barbs about Knicks — Amar’e Stoudemire has some interesting memories about his time in New York. There were good times and bad, plenty of ups and downs, and in hindsight, plenty of factors played into his time there alongside Carmelo Anthony. He spoke his mind when asked about his time there, with is Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden for a Sunday game. But Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony didn’t take any of it to heart and he certainly didn’t think Stoudemire was taking shots at him. Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com has more:
Asked if he feels for his former teammate Anthony for going through another tough season with the Knicks, Stoudemire hinted that Anthony needs to be better to pull the Knicks out of their mess. The Knicks (25-36) have lost 14 of their past 17 games.
“It’s tough,” Stoudemire said before the Heat beat the Knicks 98-81 on Sunday. “When you get involved in this situation, you have to take ownership of it. You have to make sure you made the right decisions for your team and teammates.
“You have to become a complete player in order to bring your team out of a rut. Everyone can’t do it. It’s not always easy.”
When asked if he has any advice for Anthony moving forward, Stoudemire mentioned how he knew at this stage of his career that he needed to surround himself with “other class A players” to chase a title.
“It’s a situation where you have options,” Stoudemire said. “If you want to win, that’s the main priority. And if physically you can’t do it as a player and make your teammates better and get them to the point they can win, then you surround yourself with a team that’s built to win.
“And for me, I knew Father Time was ticking on my clock, so I wanted to put myself in a position around other class A players, put myself in a position to at least compete for a championship.”
Stoudemire played four and a half seasons with the Knicks, and his time overlapped with former fan favorite Lin. Although he did not mention any names, Stoudemire said not every Knick was thrilled with Lin’s exploding popularity back then.
“If he stayed, it would’ve been cool,” Stoudemire said of Lin, who played one season in New York from 2011-12. “But everyone wasn’t a fan of him being the new star, so he didn’t stay long. But Jeremy was a great, great guy. Great teammate. He worked hard. He put the work in, and we’re proud of him to have his moment.
“A lot of times, you gotta enjoy someone’s success,” he continued. “And that wasn’t the case for us during that stretch. … You got to enjoy that. You got to let that player enjoy himself and cherish those moments. He was becoming a star, and I don’t think everybody was pleased with that.”
Anthony did not think Stoudemire was talking about him when it came to being less than receptive to Lin’s brief success in New York.
“Still?” Anthony asked when told that Lin came up when reporters talked to Stoudemire. “That was [four] years ago? I don’t know. I don’t have no comment about that. If [Lin] was becoming a star, we should embrace that. I don’t know. We didn’t embrace it? Was that the word?”
“S—, if that was the case then I’d be upset right now with KP [rookie fan favorite Kristaps Porzingis], if he’s talking about me. I doubt if [Stoudemire is] talking about me. I doubt that. I highly doubt that.”
No. 4: Thunder had no answer for Warriors’ death lineup — The Oklahoma City were the one team most pundits thought to be built to deal with the Golden State Warriors’ vaunted death lineup, a small-ball group that has shredded all comers this season. But in the final minutes of Saturday night’s instant classic, that lineup flummoxed the Thunder as well. Thunder coach Billy Donovan and his staff have until Thursday night (when they meet agains, on TNT) to come up with a fix for what went wrong. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman provides the details:
But lost amidst this hardwood classic was a dilemma that should concern the Thunder in the present. Curry’s impossible accuracy won it. But the Warriors got back into the game with their small-ball death lineup, which completely dictated the final 10 minutes.
With 4:37 left in regulation, Andre Iguodala subbed in for Shaun Livingston, joining Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. The Warriors were down 11. In fewer than five minutes, they forced overtime. Then in five overtime minutes, they outscored the Thunder by three.
So in a little under 10 total minutes, that nightmarish Golden State unit beat the Thunder 36-22. Curry played hero. Green was a defensive menace. The other three chipped in. But of greater consequence, the versatility of that Warriors five-man grouping forced Billy Donovan’s hand, shrinking OKC’s depth.
Breaking news: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the Thunder’s two best players. They’re always on the court in crunch time, barring a foul-out…which we’ll get to.
Beyond them, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams are the team’s third and fourth most balanced, important talents. You want both on the court in crucial moments.
Which is where the problem lies. When the Warriors slide Green to center and pepper two-way wings all over the court, they challenge you to take one off the floor or risk some uncomfortable mismatches.
After an 8-point, 3-rebound, 0-block disappearance in Oakland, Ibaka was great on Saturday night. The Thunder demolished Golden State 62-32 in rebounds and Ibaka was the key. He had a season-high 20 rebounds, along with 15 points, two blocks and countless other contested and altered shots. He played a team-high 41 minutes. His presence was required.
Which meant Adams was the odd man out. Of late, Adams has been great, providing a sturdy defensive back-line while finishing layups and dunks with more consistency. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in his 28 minutes on Saturday. But in his final 136 seconds, Adams was out of his element.
From the 4:37 mark of the fourth to the 2:21 mark, Donovan kept Adams and Ibaka in together against that small-ball unit. The Warriors quickly blasted off a 7-0 run to get back in the game. Adams was assigned Iguodala. The Warriors recognized it and attacked Adams with Curry and Iguodala in a pick-and-roll. Curry got the big man on a switch and hit the ninth of his 12 3s.
Right after, Donovan subbed in Dion Waiters for Adams, going small and ceding to the Warriors style.
Then as the game navigated through overtime, Adams sat all but nine seconds. Donovan put him in to win the tip at the start of overtime, which he did, and then pulled him at the first whistle, reinserting Waiters.
Durant fouled out 38 seconds later, a crippling blow, presenting Donovan with another choice. Go back big with Adams or stay small? He remained small, choosing Kyle Singler to replace Durant.
And this is the conundrum the Thunder faces against the Warriors. While many believe OKC’s talent could give Golden State its biggest postseason challenge, the Warriors versatile options exposes the Thunder’s roster imbalance. OKC is deep in the frontcourt but thin on the wing. The Warriors small-ball strategy can nullify frontcourt players and force you to dip deep into your bag of wings.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks missed on Joe Johnson, who chose Miami, but rebound by getting Kris Humphries off the waiver wire … Johnson, by the way, chose the Heat because of his connection with players already on the roster … A sprained right ankle will cost Danilo Gallinari all of the Nuggets’ upcoming homestand … Folks in Sacramento are celebrating Vivek Ranadive for the new arena but blaming him for the team that can’t get it right … Damian Lillard and the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers are keeping it rolling on their Eastern Conference road trip …