VIDEO: LeBron James on the Christmas Day matchup with Golden State
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Cavs not poking the bear — There are a few teams around the league that have challenged the Golden State Warriors with their words more than they’ve challenged them on the basketball court. And it’s clear that some bulletin board material has kept the Warriors motivated through a 27-1 start. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the first title contender that Golden State is facing this season, but they won’t provide the champs any more motivation than that. ESPN‘s Brian Windhorst writes how LeBron James and the Cavs have kept their words to a minimum in anticipation of Friday’s marquee matchup…
James has lightly touched on references to the Warriors this season as he has tried to inspire his teammates at times.
“We lost in the Finals, we didn’t win,” James said after a loss in mid-November as the Warriors were racing out to a 24-0 start. “And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are, so it shouldn’t be that way.”
But since then, James has avoided most references to the defending champions. If he has talked more about it to his team in meetings, it has stayed private. When asked how closely he watches the Warriors, as reporters probe for hints of obsession, James said he watches all games, and because he plays in the East he often watches Western teams, including the Warriors, after his team’s games are over. In other words, James is passing on offering up red meat.
In the days leading up to the trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, James and his teammates have gone full cliché when it comes to this anticipated game, even with Irving returning from his knee injury in time to make the Cavs whole again for the first time since April. The same goes for coach David Blatt.
“There’s a lot of good teams in the league,” Blatt said. “Certainly, Golden State is one of the best teams, but they’re not all we talk about. You really can’t afford spending too much time thinking about what other teams are doing in the league.”
No. 2: Bulls’ tandem not matching up — When you’re discussing the best backcourts in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls’ duo of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler has name recognition, but not much substantive evidence in a case for inclusion. Butler is one of the best two-way wings in the league, but Rose has struggled in his third season back since originally blowing out his knee. Rose has the fourth-worst effective field goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 150 shots this season and his free throw rate is at a career low. Our Steve Aschburner goes deeper into the contrast between the Bulls’ “star” tandem and the one they’re facing on Christmas…
Then there is Chicago’s Butler and Rose, who ought to be a hybrid of Golden State’s backcourt stars and OKC’s nasty pair. One’s a former MVP, the other is an All-Star. They’re both capable of initiating offense and getting hot enough to carry a team through games, even for weeks.
But the two have taken turns more than they’ve meshed. Rose established himself before Butler arrived, then slipped into the background due to injuries. Meanwhile, Butler filled the Bulls’ void, providing as one of the NBA’s best two-way wing players what they were missing from their formerly explosive point guard.
Now that they’re both in the rotation and relatively healthy, fans at United Center have seen more chafing and dysfunction than chemistry and synchronicity. Butler recently called out new bench boss Fred Hoiberg for not coaching “hard enough,” with insiders suggesting he had Rose in mind as one of those cut too much slack. Rose, meanwhile, continues to get called out by pretty much everybody in Chicago for not being the player he once was, whether the surgeries themselves or a wariness of contact are to blame.
Durant and Westbrook are the best duo these days and, arguably, the best ever. When you look at their numbers in the seasons they’ve shared — 28.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 3.7 apg for Durant, 27.3, 6.9 and 3.5 for Westbrook in their eight seasons as teammates — a pretty good case can be made that they’re as dangerous as, or more so than, West and Baylor. Those two Lakers greats put up similarly staggering numbers across 11 seasons together: West 27.8, 6.1 and 6.2 to Baylor’s 26.7, 12.4 and 4.4
No. 3: Sixers get Smith back — The first transaction of the Jerry Colangelo era in Philadelphia was the fixing of a mistake made earlier this year. On Thursday, the Sixers, desperate for help at point guard, traded two second round picks to New Orleans for Ish Smith, who Philly didn’t re-sign this summer. The Pelicans had signed Smith the day before the season started and, with their backcourt finally looking healthy, managed to turn that desperation signing into a couple of assets. Tom Moore of The Intelligencer has the story from the Sixers’ side…
It appears Jerry Colangelo has made his first moves since joining the 76ers.
The new Sixers’ chairman of basketball operations seemed to be the driving force behind trading a pair of second-round picks to the Pelicans in exchange for point guard Ish Smith, who played with the Sixers last season and is a favorite of Nerlens Noel.
To make room for Smith on the 15-man roster, the Sixers waived guard Tony Wroten.
Smith, a five-year NBA veteran, is averaging 8.9 points and 5.4 assists in 27 games with New Orleans this season. He’s fifth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.42) and joins a team ranked last in turnovers.
Smith appeared in 25 games (14 starts) as a Sixer in 2014-15, averaging 12 points and 6.1 assists for Philadelphia. The team was interested in re-signing him, but he turned down more guaranteed money from other teams before eventually agreeing to a non-guaranteed league-minimum contract with the Wizards (Washington waived him).
No. 4: Hawks looking at big picture — The Atlanta Hawks have already lost as many games between Thanksgiving and the All-Star break this season (9-5) as they did last season (36-5). They’re certainly not taking the league by storm like they did a year ago. But as our Sekou Smith writes, there’s no looking back in Atlanta and right now, the 2015-16 Hawks are beginning to find their way…
The win over Detroit marked a full circle turn for the Hawks, who couldn’t handle Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson during their surprising home loss to Stan Van Gundy’s upstart team on opening night. They handled the Pistons this time, outscoring them in the paint (56-52) and doubling them up in bench scoring (34-17), thanks in large part to Dennis Schroder’s 14 points.
“We’ve just been more consistent,” Kyle Korver said. ‘We played good in spurts in the early part of the season, quarter-to-quarter and game-by-game … but this is as close to a complete game as we’ve played in a good little while. We’re a bit more focused. We’re playing with more purpose. And we’re doing it for longer stretches.”
And yet they are still not playing with enough focus and purpose for long enough stretches to satisfy Mike Budenholzer, who insists his team still hasn’t quite put it all together.
“We’re getting closer to playing a complete game,” Budenholzer said. “I think we’re obviously getting closer to where we want to be.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Suns suspended Markieff Morris two games for Wednesday’s towel-throwing incident … Our Scott Howard-Cooper compares the Warriors to the Showtime Lakers … The final game on Friday is the final Christmas Day game for the all-time leading Christmas Day scorer … The Heat like each other … A quiet fourth quarter from Kristaps Porzingis may be a cause for concern for the Knicks … This isn’t a great time for the Bulls to be playing one of the league’s four best teams.
ICYMI: The Starters rank the top 10 plays of the season so far:
VIDEO: Top 10 2015-16 plays from The Starters