Posts Tagged ‘Steve Aschburner’

Love facing another referendum on his role, ‘fit,’ if Cavs pushed to Game 7?

Either Kevin Love has one of the most fragile psyches in the NBA, particularly among those with All-Star caliber gifts, or media coverage of his slump in the middle of the Eastern Conference finals is more about their timing than his.

Love played badly in Games 3 and 4 against the Raptors in Toronto Saturday and Monday, then fired back with an outstanding Game 5 in the Cavaliers’ home rout to take a 3-2 lead into Game 6 Friday night back at Air Canada Centre (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Love went from 13 total points on 5-for-23 shooting on the Raptors’ court to 25 points with 8-for-10 accuracy at Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday. He was the Cavs’ focal point early, as he routinely has been this season in their attempts to get him going early. And this time, as it had frequently during Cleveland’s 10-0 start to the playoffs, it worked.

Afterward, though, so much of the focus was put on Love’s personal ordeal and pep talks he got from teammates and from coach Tyronn Lue in the two days prior to Game 5. Fellow stretch-big man Channing Frye was helpful, Love mentioned to reporters. Lue, too, helped boost Love’s spirits and focus. Meanwhile LeBron James, the team’s leader, spoke from experience about the tough times a talented player endures when he feels he might be letting his crew down.

“It’s very difficult and you feel like you’re by yourself,” James said from the postgame podium. “I’ve been there before, when you’re a big part of a puzzle and things just don’t go the way you either dreamed about or the way you thought it was going to be. You feel like you’re by yourself for 24 or 48 hours or however long the case may be. To see him come out the way he did [in Game 5], just aggressive [in the low post] … we continued to go to him.”

But this is about Love, the same fellow who spoke frequently through the playoffs’ first month about a conversation he’d had with Lue in late March. The same fellow whose confidence and trust were buoyed when Lue was promoted to replace David Blatt as Cavs coach. Now he needed an intervention of sorts in the 48 hours between Game 4 and Game 5?

Draymond Green had two nightmarish games for Golden State in the West finals and created an outrageous distraction with his kick to Steven Adams‘ groin, yet none of the Warriors was questioning Green’s status in their pecking order. Love does the same – no groin kick, but forgettable performances – and it’s time for another referendum on his fit and long-term viability in Cleveland?

Maybe more that the networks and national media are just now paying attention.

Veteran Cleveland forward Richard Jefferson, as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal, saw folks reaching for a storyline at Love’s expense.

“He doesn’t have anything to make up for. No disrespect to anybody here, but that all a bunch of media B.S., if you ask me,” Jefferson said in the hallway at Quicken Loans Arena. “The guy had a bad game. We’d won 10 straight. He can have a bad game. Was he the only one who didn’t shoot the ball well? No. Was he the only person that might have struggled a little bit defensively? It looked like [Raptors point guard] Kyle Lowry had 30-something points.

“As a group it was never him, it was never one individual. That was who was going to be the fall guy in the media’s eyes. We didn’t view it that way. Yes, we wanted him to play better, we all did. But he didn’t need to prove anything to us. He’d had eight double-doubles in the first 10 games. We were a little taken aback that everyone thought it was his fault.”

Love pitched in 12 points in the first quarter – going 4 for 4 from the field and 2 for 2 from 3-point range. His first shot was an 8-foot turnaround hook, his second a 26-foot 3-pointer. He added a 14-foot fade, two free throws and another 3, then finished the quarter with two blocks of Cory Joseph in the final two seconds.

“He’s an offensive force down low,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We’ve done a good job on him the entire series. He gets it going, and we’ve got to meet his force with our force and do a better job of one-on-one defense with him in the low post and not just look at him out on the 3-point line.”

If Love performs poorly in Game 6 Friday and Cleveland loses, will it just be about a basketball failing? Or will the onus be on him again, to the point he’ll need a booster shot of motivational chatter for Game 7 Sunday?

A better question might be: How will the media folks get their psychotherapist couches through U.S./Canada customs in time to do their jobs?

Blogtable: Your advice for Tim Duncan?

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: Smartest coaching move of offseason? | Your advice for Tim Duncan? |
More pressure on Lakers or Sixers in Draft?


> You’re Tim Duncan’s closest friend, his confidant. When he asks for advice regarding next season, what do you tell him?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: I tell him it’s time. Could he squeeze one more year out of those knees? Maybe. Could the Spurs make one last stand next season and make one more Finals? Perhaps. But what would the point be? You’re on the shortest of short lists of greatest big men to ever play the game. After Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who’s definitely ahead of you? You have five rings, and you led one of the greatest comebacks from the emotional dead in league history, after blowing that 3-2 lead to Miami in the 2013 Finals. They will write books about how your team rallied from that devastating loss to crush the Heat in The Finals rematch a year later. You are (were) the key man in a dynasty that has spanned almost two decades of excellence. Your kids love you; you can do anything you want in San Antonio the rest of your days, in the relative anonymity you crave.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The biggest thing I would tell Tim Duncan is, think five years out from now: do you want to share the stage at the Hall of Fame with all the Kobe Bryant hoopla? Given Duncan’s near-reclusiveness, relative to Bryant’s love of the spotlight, maybe that’s the simplest way for the San Antonio legend to slip into Springfield with little more than a “thank you” as his acceptance speech. As far as basketball-related advice, the show biz ethos of “Always leave ’em wanting more” applies only if you plan to keep doing what you’re doing and hope to attract future audiences. With athletes, I’d advise sticking around a year too long rather than leaving a year too soon, because once you go, you’re pretty much gone. If Duncan still enjoys the life, he can contribute plenty to the Spurs off the court and still have some moments on it.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: After all these years, I am long past the point of telling players when and how to retire or play on. It is a very personal, very different set of factors for each individual. If Tim Duncan still gets joy out of playing the game and is comfortable going forward as more of a mentor than an on-court force, I’m all for it. If he wants to quietly fade away, I’m for that too.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: “Follow your gut.” That’s obvious. “If you feel like you want to keep going, do it. If this feels like the right time to get off the ride, do it.” Most of all, though, I make sure he takes all 2015-16 into consideration, not just the bad ending. So many people are focusing on the playoff struggles as a sign that it is time to retire, but Duncan played at a high level in the regular season. He can still be an important part of a championship contender. I saw months and months of a guy who was anything but breaking down.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: “Timmy, you’ve done everything in this league. Your place in history is secure. You don’t need the money, I’m assuming. There’s nothing to prove. Do you really want to spend another season as a glorified ornament, kept in the freezer for 82 games until the post-season, with no guarantee you won’t struggle as you did this spring? Aren’t your standards higher than that? If so, then retire as only you can — quietly, with a one-sentence press release next month, while wearing flip-flops and shorts.”

John Schuhmann, NBA.comI would tell him that, after 19 years, nobody knows better than he does what it takes to get through an NBA season, the work that goes into it, and the rewards that come out of it. It’s a personal decision, one for only Duncan to make. Though he’s not the player he was in years past, the Spurs would still benefit from having him, his basketball IQ, and his leadership around.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: “Big fella, how do you feel, physically and emotionally? You need to take stock of these things and sit back and take your time making a decision on what to do next. If anyone that’s played this game has earned that right, it’s you. As the backbone of the Spurs’ organization, you have always put the franchise and the team first. But this one time, I need you to think about Timmy and what will satisfy you at this late stage of your career. If you think you have more to give, go for it. If not, you don’t owe anyone another second of your time. In the end, do you!”

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com I’m telling him, “If you have any doubt, then keep playing.” But in the end, aren’t the doctors going to provide the crucial opinion here? Duncan’s knee may be making the decision for him.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogAm I also a robot? Kidding! No, if Tim came to me and asked me for my advice, I’d ask just one question: Do you still enjoy it? Because at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. It’s not even a question of productivity, because Duncan can surely still get you a couple of points and rebounds a game. I think it’s more about whether Duncan has the desire to drag himself to the gym every day and break a sweat every day, or if he’d rather take a break and just sit around and play video games and read comic books and work on his cars and wear oversized work shirts. The camaraderie and being part of a team is the stuff almost other player has trouble walking away from. That’s the part guys genuinely like and miss when they’re finished. And despite his singular greatness on the floor, I don’t think Tim is all that different from anyone else in that regard.

Blogtable: Lakers or Sixers under more pressure in Draft?

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: Smartest coaching move of offseason? | Your advice for Tim Duncan? |
More pressure on Lakers or Sixers in Draft?


> Who’s under the most pressure to nail it on Draft night, the Sixers or the Lakers?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: The Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers aren’t what they used to be, but they still have a whole bunch of banners in Staples Center. They were lousy the last two years, but that was all about Kobe Bryant, and everyone knew it. Philly has spent the past three years conducting a referendum on exactly how much you can push a fan base before alienating large chunks of it forever. (I always suspected the “trust the Process” folk were more vocal minority than the status quo; people who didn’t like what the Sixers were doing simply didn’t use the product — they didn’t watch on TV and they didn’t show up at the arena. Hard to measure people who aren’t doing something.) So the 76ers’ new regime needs to hit the ground running, and take someone who’ll be ready to play — and play well — on opening night.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The Los Angeles Lakers. What the Sixers have on their hands is going to require some untangling for most of next season and the expectations remain low. Los Angeles didn’t nail it, exactly, last June with D’Angelo Russell and the crowd at Staples Center is way less patient than most NBA fan bases.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com The Philadelphia 76ers are under more pressure for several reasons. First, they have the No. 1 pick, so they can make the bigger error. The Lakers are in the “Kevin Durant position” of sitting back and taking whichever player of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram falls to them. Second, after three years of intentionally failing miserably and alienating the fan base, they need to hit a home run and and show that the suffering was worth it. Third, the Lakers are still the Lakers and, now that Kobe Bryant is retired, helping free agents are far more likely to be lured to L.A than Philly.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com The Philadelphia 76ers. Not that L.A. officials ever get actual reduced pressure, but Philly is the one that has to make the call at the top of the draft. The Lakers will take whoever the 76ers do not. Plus, it’s the first time on the clock for Bryan Colangelo as the new head of basketball operations. This is a particular proving ground for him.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Well, since the Philadelphia 76ers have the No. 1 pick, the burden is completely on them. Draft night has worked out the best possible way for the Lakers, who really have no decision to make. They’ll just take either Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons, whomever the Sixers drop in their lap at No. 2, and thus be spared any second-guessing.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Philadelphia 76ers, for multiple reasons. The Sixers are the team that needs to choose between the top two guys. They’re the team that has sacrificed the most to be where they are. They’re the team that didn’t have a Hall-of-Famer around this season to keep their fanbase engaged. And they’re less of a free agent destination, making the Draft more important.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Philadelphia 76ers have the ultimate pressure with that No. 1 pick, because they set the tone for the remainder of the Draft. Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram? That choice provides built-in pressures that every choice that comes at the top of every Draft. That said, the Lakers cannot afford to pull the fast one they did last season, choosing D’Angelo Russell instead of Jahlil Okafor, neither of whom had a chance to unseat Karl-Anthony Towns (the unanimous Kia Rookie of the Year). There’s plenty of pressure on both the Sixers and Lakers to get it right, more importantly it’s important that whatever choices are made, the Sixers and Lakers have to move heaven and earth to make sure the players they draft are developed into the starts their talents suggest they could be.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com The Los Angeles Lakers have to get this right for all kinds of reasons. They hope to go many years before drafting here again, so they have to score a great player either in the draft or with a trade. Jimmy Buss supposedly needs to be back in contention if he wants to remain in charge of the roster. Plus they need to win more games in order to devalue the pick that will be forwarded to Philadelphia in 2017. Having said all of that, however, the choice may not be difficult – if this really is a two-player draft, then the Lakers will be waiting to catch either Simmons or Ingram.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Oh, the Los Angeles Lakers. Last year they passed on Kristaps Porzingis to take D’Angelo Russell, and even though it’s only been one season, that choice already looks questionable. This year the choice between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram may not be entirely up to them, but they really need to nail it because they still owe a first round pick to the Sixers that will vest eventually. For the Sixers, despite the change in management and desire to put the pedal down on the rebuild, they’ve got a lot of assets to indulge in the next few seasons even if they don’t get it right this year. In Los Angeles, expectations already exist for the Lakers, even if they aren’t all that realistic.

Blogtable: Smartest coaching move of the offseason so far?

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: Smartest coaching move of offseason? | Your advice for Tim Duncan? |
More pressure on Lakers or Sixers in Draft?


> What has been the smartest coaching move (so far) this offseason?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Orlando hiring Frank Vogel to replace Scott Skiles. Bringing Skiles in always seemed odd, and his decision to walk had the optics of disaster for the Magic’s highest-ups, who pushed for his return. Fortunately, Vogel became available, and he’ll be a much better fit for the team’s young core. Whatever you think of Elfrid Payton, the Magic’s basketball people think a lot of him and want him to succeed, so he should have a coach who believes in him and can get the most out of him. Vogel should be able to do that, as well as find ways to maximize the Magic’s youth and length to raise its defensive profile.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comEach of the interviewees and candidates who turned down the Sacramento job? The hierarchy there, both formal and unofficial, should trouble any solid basketball professional, in my view. But let’s not dwell on the negative. I’ll go with Tom Thibodeau’s hiring in Minnesota. He was the best available candidate landing in the best situation as far as talent base and a willingness to (finally) make significant changes. He has the authority in his dual role to make the necessary changes and he’s already made a few in the front office. The Timberwolves are on their way up and Thibs will end up doing Flip Saunders‘ legacy proud.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comThere’s a lot to like. Luke Walton has the smarts, the championship experience as player and coach as well as the Laker bloodlines to make his hiring the right move. Frank Vogel should be the guy who finally gets the Magic shifted out of neutral. But I’m going with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota as exactly the right prescription to get the young talent of the Timberwolves howling on defense and taking the first steps to become a long-time force in the Western Conference.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Jazz and Quin Snyder doing an extension. I don’t think many others will make the same choice, and there are other good moves to pick, but Snyder-Utah is such a good fit. His background of working with veterans and developing prospects has already come through, and I sure would have liked the Jazz’s chances to be in the playoffs if they were anywhere close to healthy. This is a team obviously heading in a good direction. Snyder is one of the reasons.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Tom Thibodeau took a year off after getting booted from the Chicago Bulls, rather than jump at the first offer. In hindsight, this was the best offseason move. He waited for the best opening this season, and now gets the luxury of coaching a young and intriguing Timberwolves team that’s on the way up and also serving as GM. On paper anyway, it appears to be a solid match, especially if Thibodeau learned from the mistakes he made in Chicago.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThere were also big upgrades in New York and L.A., but it’s hard not to like the addition of Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota the most. The Wolves have a group of young talented players that’s ready to take the next step and can play great defense with the right direction. The offense will come, but if Thibodeau can take them from the bottom five to above average in defensive efficiency, they can be a playoff team next year.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The smartest coaching move, by far, is the Los Angeles Lakers adding Brian Shaw to the staff to assist Luke Walton. No one knows the importance of a top flight assistant head coach like Walton does, having served in that role for reigning NBA Coach of the Year Steve Kerr this season. Shaw would have been a fine coaching candidate himself, but lands in the perfect spot with a franchise he knows inside and out after years of experiences in The Finals as both an ex-Lakers player and assistant coach (under Phil Jackson). For an organization that hasn’t earned praise for much recently, this is one of the better moves they’ve made.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comMany of them — Tom Thibodeau to Minnesota, Scott Brooks to Washington, Frank Vogel to Orlando and Nate McMillan’s elevation with Indiana — make a lot of sense. One that was not so obvious was the contract extension for third-year coach Quin Snyder, which speaks to Utah’s investment in the longterm. The Jazz, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, appreciate the direction of their steadily-improving young team and with Snyder they’re looking to build a program that can last.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: The move that keeps coming to mind for me is the Magic grabbing Frank Vogel. They really lucked into him, in a lot of ways, with Scott Skiles surprising everyone by stepping down, and Larry Bird removing Vogel in Indy despite what seemed like Bird not really wanting to part ways. Vogel took a young Pacers team a few years ago and made them a legitimate challenger to the Heat’s Big Three, and came up with a defensive scheme that made Roy Hibbert an All-Star. In many ways, it’s thanks to Vogel that we still talk about “verticality.” Now Vogel has a roster he can shape and mold to play any style he wants.

Blogtable: Which teams will win in the conference finals?

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: Key player in West finals? | Key player in East finals? |
Which teams will reach The Finals?


> Your prediction for the Western Conference finals and the Eastern Conference finals? Who will win and why?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Warriors in seven. This is going to be one great series, with star power coming out of its pores. It’s taken a long time, but OKC finally got strong play from its supporting cast in toppling San Antonio, and the thought here is that guys like Steven Adams, Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter should be able to continue that stretch against the Warriors, who enter the series banged up. If Andrew Bogut‘s adductor is an issue throughout the series, OKC’s size will have an even greater impact. The reasons for sticking with GSW are these: 1) Klay Thompson does as good a job as anyone I’ve seen guarding Russell Westbrook. He doesn’t stop him, of course, but he makes it as hard as possible, not allowing Russ to break him down off the dribble. 2) Haven’t seen anyone slow down the Lineup of Death all season, and I don’t see the Thunder having the solution to it, either. 3) One team has the MVP, who makes shots no one else would even contemplate taking, and makes them. The other doesn’t. Fin.

In the East, it’s Cavaliers in six. So glad for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who faced down their playoff demons from past years (and the Indiana series in this year’s first round) to take their team somewhere it’s never been. But it ends against a Cleveland team that just has too many players clicking on too many cylinders. Yes, the Raps won the regular season series. But that Cavs team is buried somewhere near the old Richfield Coliseum. This one has been hyper-hot behind the three-point line, and even if that cools off a bit, Cleveland’s found chemistry that it lacked for long stretches of the regular season. A healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have made a huge difference, and LeBron James has gotten a week’s rest. Too many weapons, too much motivation to return to The Finals.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comI’m already on record in our series preview as picking Cleveland in 5. The Cavaliers’ 3-point tsunami, even if it’s not quite what it was against Atlanta, still is going to be too much for Toronto, which has trouble scoring even against less potent opponents.

Out West, give me Golden State in 6. Greater depth, the Warriors’ counters to OKC’s bigs and the defending champs’ gang tactics against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will decide this one. Then we get a repeat – but entirely different version – of last year’s Finals matchup.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comThe Cavaliers in five in the East. Let’s not underestimate the job coach Tyronn Lue has done in getting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to feel comfortable within themselves and with each other. The Cavs went to The Finals a year ago despite slogging through injuries and battling self-doubt. Now they’re healthy, confident and have added the 3-ball to their arsenal. They’re ready and capable to get back to June and finish the job.

The Warriors in six in the West. The Thunder are now playing with tremendous confidence that borders on cockiness. They’ve been getting solid contributions up and down the roster. That’s enough to make the series interesting. But the Warriors are still the best team in basketball, won the regular season series 3-0 and are on a mission to show all the critics of last year’s championship what they’ve been missing about depth and drive.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comWarriors in 6. I could see it going 7. The Thunder will not go quietly, but Golden State beats opponents from too many directions. The Dubs’ health is obviously a big factor.

Cavaliers in 5. This is the Cleveland team a lot of people thought possible all season but has not spotted until recently.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comIn the West, I’m going with the Warriors in a seven-game classic. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should enjoy a tremendous series, and their support help was a bit better than expected through two rounds of the playoffs. And yet: Golden State is a better defensive team, makes fewer mistakes, has Steph Curry and too many additional weapons that will ultimately wear down OKC in a long series.

In the East, folks are sleeping on the Raptors, who are battle tested after a pair of punishing series against the formidable Pacers and Heat, which they survived even after losing Jonas Valenciunas for good. Therefore, I suspect they’ll push the Cavs to four games.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Raptors needed seven games to beat the offensive anemic Indiana Pacers and the score-in-the-paint-or-don’t-score-at-all Miami Heat. The Cavs are more potent than both of those teams combined, but I’ll give Toronto a game because Game 7 on Sunday was the best they’ve looked in the postseason. Cavs in 5.

The Thunder have two of the most dangerous offensive players in the world and can slow down the Warriors by beating them up on the glass. But Golden State has the defenders to make Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook work hard for their buckets, as well as the league’s No. 1 offense, which never goes stagnant. Warriors in 5.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’ve gone with the Warriors all season and will not change my mind now, even with the Thunder looking like they are capable of beating anyone they face right now. The Warriors won 73 games for a reason. Golden State will need six games to finish off the Thunder and get back to The Finals for a chance to repeat.

Cleveland has been resting nicely after two sweeps in their first two playoff series. If they play half as well as they did against the Pistons and Hawks, they advance without much of a scare. I’m sure the Cavs would love to make it three straight sweeps, but the Raptors win one up North as the Cavaliers win it in five.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comThe Cavaliers in 5. They’re at at full strength and playing their best basketball of the season.

In the West I’m going to with the Warriors in seven games, because for two years they’ve been the NBA’s most competitive team. Golden State was the hungriest contender in the league all season, which is an amazing achievement for the defending champs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are talented enough to prevail, but can they summon the intensity and focus necessary to upset Golden State? I’m not saying they can’t; I’m just pointing out that no one has done so for a long time.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogCleveland will win in 4. They are focused and playing so well right now, and Toronto will be tired and are still dealing with injuries.

On the other side of the country, as I predicted on last week’s Hang Time Podcast, I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will win in seven games. I know, my Twitter mentions are going to go crazy, but the Thunder are white hot right now, and Westbrook and Durant are playing at the peak of their powers. Every year, some team gets hot in the postseason. And right now it’s the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Blogtable: Key player to watch in Western Conference finals?

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: Key player in West finals? | Key player in East finals? |
Which teams will reach The Finals?


> A key player in the Western Conference Finals – a player who needs to come up big — in order for his team to advance to the NBA Finals?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Andre Roberson. No secret the Warriors will likely put Steph Curry on him on defense to give the MVP an “easy” assignment and let him rest, saving energy for the other end of the floor, while Klay Thompson takes on Russell Westbrook. Roberson’s offensive output in Game 6 against the Spurs — 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting, along with seven rebounds and solid defense against Kawhi Leonard (23 shots to score 22 points) — was key in OKC’s series-ending rout. Roberson shouldn’t be expected to be a go-to guy every night, but anything he can do to make Curry move and expend energy will help the Thunder in the long run.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Sounds like we’re looking for someone from the underdog team, so I’ll go with Enes Kanter for Oklahoma City. I voted for Kanter as my Kia Sixth Man choice and that’s the guy the Thunder needs against Golden State, coming onto the floor (and staying out there) to wreak havoc with his scoring and work on the offensive glass. The Warriors aren’t a bigs-friendly foe, which makes the challenge even greater.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I’m going to assume here that Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will all be big and all have their shining moments. So I’m going to reach off the marquee and say that OKC’s Steven Adams must repeat his solid performance at both ends of the floor and step into the spotlight against the Spurs. The Warriors will play small to try to take him out of the game. But if Adams can catch the ball at the rim as he did in the last round, he can punish Golden State and together with fellow big man Enes Kanter could make this series, very, very interesting.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Enes Kanter. I might have picked him anyway, but now, with Andrew Bogut hurting and questionable for Game 1, OKC especially needs to exploit its size advantage inside. If the Thunder can hurt the Warriors on the boards, a possibility, it could take minutes away from Golden State’s small-ball Death Lineup. Maybe not — Bogut’s health could prompt Steve Kerr to go small sooner and more often. If sixth man Kanter can make the Warriors pay with his offense and rebounding, and not get exploited too much on defense, that would be an important step in the OKC upset bid.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: OKC needs something every game from Enes Adams. Or is it Steven Kanter? You get the idea. The big man combo of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams is the ace card for the Thunder. The center position is where they have the decided edge over the Warriors. Sure, the Warriors will combat by going small ball, but why should OKC play them at their game? Golden State is bringing a limping Andrew Bogut and, while Festus Ezeli had moments throughout the playoffs, he’s not as skilled as Kanter/Adams. Kanter came up big in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks and Adams was the same in the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. You sense a pattern, where both might loom large this round?

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Thunder starting lineup was the best high-usage lineup in the league and was a plus-23 in 32 minutes against the Warriors this season. But Billy Donovan was hesitant to use it late in games, because Andre Roberson‘s inability to shoot made it easier for opponents to defend OKC’s offense. If Roberson can make a few shots (like he did in Game 6 vs. San Antonio) and make the Warriors respect him somewhat on the perimeter (or via off-ball cuts), Donovan won’t have to use Dion Waiters as much, the Thunder will play more minutes with their best lineup on the floor, and they’ll have a better chance of upsetting the champs.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: There are so many obvious names to choose from, but we always expect the stars to rise to the magnitude of the moment. My pick, though, is the two-man big man tandem of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter for the Thunder. They showed up in a major way as the Thunder eliminated the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals and will need to do the same if the Thunder have any chance of upsetting the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder’s ability to go big and force the issue on the inside on both ends could be the winning difference, if they are indeed to spring that upset.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Russell Westbrook is going to be crucial at both ends, beginning with his defense against Steph Curry and/or Klay Thompson. Can he neutralize them to some extent? And can he attack efficiently enough to occupy the Warriors’ defense and enable Durant and others to score from the perimeter? OKC’s hopes of creating an upset will revolve around Westbrook’s aggressive leadership.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: There are some obvious answers to this question – Russell Westbrook, for one – but I’m going to give you a deep cut here: The guy who I think the Thunder could really use a strong series from is Dion Waiters. For so long the Thunder have tried to find an off-guard to pair with Westbrook, particularly in fourth quarters – from Derek Fisher to trading for Randy Foye this season. Waiters was really good against the Spurs, understanding his role offensively and playing tough defense. The Warriors have the best backcourt in the NBA. The Thunder are going to have to at least attempt to slow them down.

Blogtable: Key player to watch in Eastern Conference finals?

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: Key player in West finals? | Key player in East finals? |
Which teams will reach The Finals?


> A key player in the Eastern Conference Finals – a player who needs to come up big — in order for his team to advance to the NBA Finals?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Bismack Biyombo. The Raptors’ backup center was a catalyst in Toronto’s clincher Sunday, and he’ll have to do the same for seven games if Toronto is to have a chance at pulling off the upset against Cleveland. The Cavs’ playoff lineup with Channing Frye at center has been one of the most lethal in the postseason, with an offensive rating of 127.2 AND a defensive rating of 88.1, per NBA.com/stats. The Raptors have to have a counter to match up against it, and it turns out that they do — with Biyombo, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph. That quintet’s defensive rating is even better than Cleveland’s, at 87.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Biyombo’s 17-point, 16-rebound effort Sunday has to be the norm against the Cavs.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Not sure the Raptors can count on this, but if Terrence Ross can have two or three of his mindlessly hot scoring nights, Toronto’s ability to generate points improves dramatically. Ross scored 20 or more four times in 73 appearances, but I’m calling for him to get 20 at least three times if the Raptors are going to push their series to six or seven games.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comA year after he had an rather uncomfortable season trying to fit into the Cavaliers picture and then missed virtually all of the playoffs, Kevin Love has been a steady force through the first two rounds and if he keeps it up makes Cleveland quite capable of winning it all.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comLeBron James. Not exactly an X Factor, but let’s face it. He is the perfect fit for the answer: If LeBron comes up big, his team advances. He can singularly dominate a series as a player no opponent can counter, someone who can initiate the offense as a point guard and pound the boards like a power forward-center.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love should be enough to send Toronto home in four. But for insurance’s sake, it’ll be less wear on those three if Channing Frye can continue pulling weight on Cleveland’s amazing 3-point surge. The goal for the Cavs is to win this series quickly and safely — remember, Love and Irving were injured last spring — and efficiently, saving gas for the NBA Finals.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Cavs don’t need J.R. Smith to continue to shoot 50 percent from 3-point range to get back to The Finals, but Smith is the ultimate wild card. Cleveland swept through the first two rounds on the strength of its 3-point shooting and Smith (31-for-61) was a big part of that. He’s been given license to shoot (as 61 of his 69 shots have come from beyond the arc), and a free-shooting Smith probably scares both coaching staffs. LeBron James makes him a better shooter and 45 of those 61 threes have been off the pass, but regression from Smith (either with shot selection or success rate) would make this series more interesting.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Two words I honestly never thought I’d utter or write in response to this question: Bismack Biyombo. I know, it sounds crazy. But with Jonas Valanciunas on the mend and the rebounding machine that is Tristan Thompson eager to show off for the local (Cleveland) and hometown (he’s from Toronto) fans, the Raptors will need someone to match his energy, effort and relentless hustle on the boards. After seeing the impact Biyombo had against the Miami Heat in the conference finals, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he steps up against the Cavaliers.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: LeBron James is the reason Cleveland will continue to dominate the Eastern bracket. The Cavs’ goal should be to finish off this series ASAP in order to send LeBron onto the NBA Finals on fresh legs, because they’re going to need 40 minutes or more per game from him against Golden State or OKC. This conference final is all about preparing Cleveland to win the NBA Finals.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Well, Cleveland is going to win this series, so instead of saying the obvious like LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, how about let’s go with Kevin Love? He seems to have found his fit with the Cavs as they’ve gone smaller, and this will be the deepest he’s ever played in his postseason career. I’m curious to see if Love can continue stretching the floor like he did against the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Durant picks up ambulance assist

A review in the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., seemed to be in order with a news report that Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant provided a helpful emergency escort to an ambulance mired in rush-hour traffic.

According to News9.com in OKC, the Thunder star helped paramedics from the Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) reach their destination more quickly by pulling in behind the ambulance and turning on his exoticar’s flashers.

“We were stuck in traffic, so pretty much cars surrounding us all over,” EMSA paramedic Peter Radford said. “All of a sudden, I see a silver Ferrari or a silver sports car pull in behind us.”

Before Radford knew it, the lanes of traffic started clearing.

“I see this Ferrari has it’s flashers on,” he said. “It’s actually making way for us to get through and navigate all the traffic.”

The paramedics were finally making their way to the emergency.

“Once we actually get through all the traffic, this silver Ferrari comes over to the side and waves to my partner,” Radford said. “And my partner goes ‘Do you have any idea who that is?’ And of course I’m clueless. ‘That’s Kevin Durant.’ “

But behind them? And with traffic already at a standstill, the last thing authorities might want is some sports celebrity to increase the gawker quotient exponentially.

No matter. Radford told the local news outlet that, because his crew made it to the first emergency call on time, they also were available and able to complete a second call promptly. The second one, he said, involved a girl who had traveled to OKC for cancer treatment.

Durant aw-shucked it when asked about the real-life drama by reporters. If anything, it sounded as if he started out intending to use the ambulance as a blocking back, opening traffic and driving in its wake in a manner upon which some law enforcement frowns.

“I saw the ambulance from behind me, and it was kind of slow in front of me, and I moved over. I said, ‘I’m just going to follow the ambulance so I can get through traffic real quick,’ ” Durant said. “So I moved over. I can’t take full credit for that.”

However critical Durant’s help was in the episode or embellished his role, for folks who hope the Thunder’s superstar free agent-to-be decides to stick in OKC, crafting a little Batman/Gotham City reputation can’t be a bad thing.

Lue lauds LeBron’s lighter load, potentially snubbing old Heat mates

If they could, the web site designers here at Hang Time HQ would put this item in a dashed-line box, suitable for clipping and saving, to be brought out or tacked to a bulletin board if Miami and Cleveland happen to meet for the Eastern Conference championship.

(Actually, the dashed line would be easy enough, but no one here wants to deal with the liability of so many readers trying to actually clip and save digitized content on their monitor screen.)

So skip the line and savor the quotes. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, depending how you spin it, seemed perhaps to slight a couple members of the Heat Saturday when he told reporters that LeBron James, for the first time, has the help he needs in the playoffs, such that less (scoring points, for instance) is turning out to be more for Cleveland. The Cavs have two sweeps under their belt and have been waiting a whole week to learn the identity of their next opponent.

Many might quibble and suggest that playing alongside Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other two in the Heat’s Big Three, qualifies as more than enough help.

Lue talked about the lighter workload his team’s star is lugging this spring and Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com was there to chronicle it:

“LeBron is letting the game come to him,” Lue said after practice Saturday. “When he wants to be aggressive and he sees fit to be aggressive when the teams have a good run or whatever they may have, then he just takes over the game … And with Kyrie (Irving) and Kevin (Love) playing at a high level, he can take a lot of mileage off of his body, reduce his (usage) rate and just kind of seeing and figuring out the flow of the game.”

James has a career postseason scoring average of 28 points per game in 11 trips to the playoffs. He is averaging a career low 23.5 points in this postseason thus far and doesn’t even lead the Cavs in scoring, as Irving is averaging 24.4 points through the first two rounds.

Despite the fact that James played with two likely future Hall of Famers in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh during in his time in Miami, Lue said he believes the four-time MVP has never been afforded such help around him during a playoff run.

“I don’t think he’s been in this position before where he can just sit back and see the flow of the game, see where he has to take over the game and it’s been great for him,” said Lue. “I mean, to average 23 points or 24 points and sweep both series is big for us because now our other guys are stepping up, they’re playing well and we know LeBron always can play well.”

Lue sounded as if he was assessing James at this particular stage of his career and the way he’s made it a priority to serve Irving’s and Love’s games. With Miami, most of the expectations still were on James – the Mt. Rushmoriest of the Heat’s three stars – to produce titles in his prime, with Wade and Bosh figuring out their places around him.

McMenamin goes on to note that, compared to a year ago when Irving and Love were hurt and ultimately sidelined in the postseason, James is playing much more efficiently this time. He felt he had to be a volume shooter last year and was, averaging 27.2 field goal attempts to get his 30.1 points in the playoffs. This time around, James is averaging 19.1 shots. Both his minutes and his usage rate in the Cavs’ attack are down.

Miami, of course, had enough to focus on Sunday to not get caught up in parsing Lue’s comments. But given the click-bait generated last week when James wondered about the definition of “valuable” when news came of Steph Curry‘s second MVP award, and his expressed opinion that Portland Terry Stotts should have won Coach of the Year – the implication being that Golden State’s Steve Kerr should not have – it seems only fair to play the same game with the Cavs coach.

Clip-and-save might not work. But there’s always print-and-save.

Morning shootaround — May 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Another Game 7, as Raptors define themselves | Was Pacers’ answer sitting right there? | Adams: No formula for Durant, Westbook | Ginobili weighs old love vs. new life

No. 1:  Another Game 7, as Raptors define themselves — Growing pains. Notice that it’s a plural noun. Adolescence of any sort would be a lot easier if it were singular, a one-and-done experience or rite of passage that got you quickly from Point A to Point Done. But real life rarely works that way and neither does the maturation of an NBA playoff team, as the Toronto Raptors are finding out. Toronto, as it tries to go toward something special in the Eastern Conference, has faced a gauntlet of tests and pressures. From the expectations that accompany home-court advantage for a No. 2 seed to getting pushed to seven games in the first round, from the frustrations of a franchise that historically has left its fans wanting to now, again, feeling the burden of a Game 7 (3:30 ET, ABC) that could define everything the Raptors have done since October. Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star looks at the Raptors’ advancement, more internally than merely through the East bracket:

The Toronto Raptors and Wade’s Miami Heat will play Game 7 Sunday afternoon, and the winner gets to keep playing under the lights. Let’s be honest, for Toronto, the playoffs have been a fine agony, punctuated by the exhilaration of escape.

Two more Game 1 losses, because the Raptors almost always lose Game 1. So many missed shots, bad shots, empty shots. Kyle Lowry’s elbow, Kyle Lowry’s head, Jonas Valanciunas’s ankle, DeMar DeRozan’s thumb, DeMarre Carroll’s wrist. A Game 7 win that seemed comfortable, then nearly slid into the lake, then didn’t. And another Game 7, with the pieces dented or missing.

These are the Raptors. The franchise, in its best moments, has tended towards anxiety. The Raptors have never seemed born for this.

But these are the franchise’s best moments, or near enough. It can be hard to remember that when they get drilled off the dribble in Game 6. There was Vince Carter’s graduation day, and then there were 14 years that ended with 49 empty-calorie wins and a fourth humiliating game in Washington last season, and there is this.

At the trade deadline Masai Ujiri could have traded the top-10 pick he has in the draft, plus pieces, and brought back a rental — Ryan Anderson from New Orleans, maybe. Instead he stood still. That day Ujiri said, “you play with that in your mind a little bit, but I just don’t think we’re there yet, as a team, as a ball club. We’ve got some good momentum coming in here, but we’re a good team in the East, and we want to keep plugging along and figure out the playoffs.”

He wanted them to prove what they are worth, and while that picture is still muddled in places, here they are. Before Game 5, with Valanciunas sidelined, Lowry said that if he and DeRozan got going, “I think we’d have an opportunity to do something special. We’re not playing well and I think we still have an opportunity to do something special. And that’s the scary thing.” Lowry was asked how he would define something special.

“Finals,” he said. He didn’t have to, but he did.

“I already had this conversation with Kyle on numerous nights the last couple weeks — we can’t never get down, or let the media, or people discourage us in any type of way on the way we’ve been playing,” said DeRozan, before the Raptors won Game 5. “As long as we have the opportunity to put on these shoes and this jersey and go out there and play, we still have an opportunity to go as far as it goes. And that’s to get somewhere this franchise has never been to, to play for the world championship. That’s six (wins) away. And that’s the type of motivation, whatever we need to believe in ourself, we’re right there.

“And we can’t say, OK, we got this close, we can get even closer next year. We got to take advantage. I tell everybody, we might never get this opportunity again.”

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