Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Raptors’

This year, James’ jumper is less necessary than reliable

OAKLAND — The comings and goings of LeBron James‘ jump shot has been a fascinating study over the course of his career.

There have been times where James has been a competent shooter. And there have been big games that he’s won with his jumper. But more often than not, the greatness of James is about how much he’s done for his team’s offense despite an inconsistent jump shot.

In 2012, James won his first championship and was named Finals MVP, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists over five games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In that series, he made just seven (18 percent) of his 38 shots from outside the paint.

A year earlier, the Dallas Mavericks successfully employed a zone defense to keep James out of the paint. In ’13 and ’14, the San Antonio Spurs generally played James soft on the perimeter to force him into being a jump-shooter as much as possible. Last year, Andre Iguodala did the same, and James shot 24-for-90 (27 percent) from outside the paint in The Finals.

This year, for James to take 90 shots against the Warriors from outside the paint at the rate he’s been shooting them thus far in the playoffs (one for every 4:05 he’s on the floor), he’d have to average 66 minutes per game over a seven-game series. As cool as it would be to see seven games that went to four or more overtimes, that’s probably not going to happen.

There was a point this season where James was the worst high-volume jump-shooter in the league. He improved from the outside after that, but still finished with his worst field goal percentage from outside the paint in nine years.

But at the same time, James was less reliant on his jump shot than ever before. In the regular season, James took just 42 percent of his shots from outside the paint, the lowest rate in his career.

20160601_james_reg_season

That trend has continued in the playoffs, where James has taken only 41 percent of his shots from outside the paint. For the first time in his career, in either the regular season or playoffs, he has taken more than half of his shots from the restricted area, where he’s long been one of the league’s best finishers.

20160601_james_playoffs

Part of that is who James is on the floor with. The Cavs have only one non-shooting big — Tristan Thompson — in their rotation, so James has been playing with either three or four shooters around him.

The breakdown: James has played 65 percent of his minutes with Thompson or Timofey Mozgov (eight total minutes) on the floor and 35 percent with four shooters.

With how he’s being complemented these days, James is often the Cavs’ offensive “center.” According to Synergy Sports play type tracking, James’ post-up possessions are down from last postseason, but his possessions as the roll man on a pick-and-roll are way up.

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey is probably still having nightmares about the play the Cavs ran several times in a row in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the conference finals. It featured James as a passer at the elbow and then as the roll man after a hand-off to Matthew Dellavedova.

James’ improved supporting cast makes the task of defending him even tougher. Not only are Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy, but the lineup the Cavs put on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters — Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, James and Channing Frye — has been near impossible to guard, in part because of how it takes advantage of James’ ability to be some sort of point guard/center hybrid.

Casey was an assistant on that Mavs team that zoned up the Heat in 2011. But during the conference finals, there was no point in going back to the tape to see what worked five years earlier. James is a different player now, and he has a different supporting cast.

“This team has far more 3-point shooters than that 2011 team did,” Casey said.

“When you have shooters like he has, he’s like a quarterback,” Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll added. “I feel if you play soft on him, you just allow him to survey the floor.”

No player throws cross-court passes like James, who has 59 assists (to seven different teammates) on 3-pointers in these playoffs, 12 more than any other player. Give him space, and he won’t use it to shoot, but rather to pick your defense apart with his passing.

But if you play tight, you run the risk of getting beat off the dribble. And if James gets into the paint, he’s either finishing at the basket or drawing help and finding a guy who’s even more open than he was before the drive.

“When he’s attacking the basket,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, “that opens up everything else for our 3-point shooters, for Tristan getting dunks, Kevin getting put-backs and layups. He’s just taking what the defense gives him.”

So, when The Finals tip off Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), the Warriors will know that the task of defending James is much tougher than it was a year ago, no matter how well he shoots from the outside.

“We have to be ready to cover a lot of the floor and 3-point shooting bigs in Frye and Love, so we can’t lose sight of them,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. “But we’ve got to try to protect the rim as well, and that’s a big challenge. Just like teams that play us with our shooting and spacing, it’s hard to cover all that court.

“Last year we generally were playing against two bigs, Mozgov and Thompson, so we were able to help more around the paint and force more jump shots. And it will be much more difficult now with Frye and Love. So our tactics will have to change a little bit.”

“It’s hard to force a guy to one thing,” Iguodala said about defending James. “You try to take him out of his comfort zones more than anything. And then it’s five guys, defensively, being on the same page, knowing where the rotations are going to be. And then communicating is probably the biggest part.”

Defense is always about all five guys. But the Cavs’ ability to put four shooters around James means that Iguodala’s teammates can’t be in the same position to help as they were last year. They need to stay closer to Cleveland’s shooters, or James will have the ball in the shooter’s pocket before they have time to recover.

“I think that’s where he’s most dangerous,” Draymond Green said. “Obviously, he can score the basketball. But he’s most dangerous as a facilitator. So we always have to be aware of that. He’ll find guys anywhere.”

James’ jumper may come and go in the next 2 1/2 weeks. But the comings and goings of James’ jumper have never mattered less.

Morning shootaround — May 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry, Warriors finish off OKC | Buss says Jackson committed to Knicks | Biyombo wants to stick with Raptors

No. 1: Curry, Warriors complete their comeback story Just days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were one mere victory away from their first Finals trip in four seasons. But the Thunder never could get win No. 4 in the Western Conference finals and fell in Game 7 last night, allowing the Golden State Warriors to become the 10th team ever in NBA history to win a series after falling behind 3-1. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical has more on how Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors etched their name in NBA lore and reached a second straight NBA Finals:

For Curry to flourish in the middle of it all Monday night at Oracle Arena – to close out a 96-88 victory with 15 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter – had been because Curry never let Klay Thompson believe the Splash Brothers no longer existed. Curry could’ve transformed one of the great individual seasons seasons ever – a unanimous MVP performance – and separated himself into a singular entity.

“Steph does not care about getting all the attention,” Draymond Green told The Vertical late Monday night. “Without Klay, there’s not that much success here. He’s always made sure that people understood: It’s about us, it’s not about me. That’s why this team is successful, because that our guy, that’s how he sees things.”

Curry needed middle relief in this series, and Thompson delivered it for him. Golden State never would’ve gotten out of Oklahoma City, out of Game 6, without Thompson’s 41 points. He was the hero. “What Klay did was [put] us on his shoulders and allow us to have this opportunity at home,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.

When the Warriors’ backcourt started together five years ago, Curry and Thompson were a true partnership. On the night Golden State traded Monta Ellis to Milwaukee, Thompson remembers Curry telling him: It’s you and me now. The Splash Brothers were born.

And as these past two years unfolded, it appeared to matter far less that Thompson had become a two-time All-Star guard – only because Curry had become a two-time MVP. This year, the term Splash Brothers had never been heard so less. And yet if that was the narrative outside the Warriors, it never became the reality within them.

Three weeks ago, Curry made his comeback from an MCL knee sprain. He had missed games in the series against the Houston Rockets and Portland, and struggled for most of Game 4 against the Trail Blazers. As it turned out, his closing performance transcended the moment: 17 points in overtime, an NBA record. Everyone swooned over Curry, only to find him swooning over someone else.

Before Curry left the podium that night, he leaned into the microphone and answered a question that no one had posed to him: Hey, what a series Klay Thompson has had for us, he told everyone. Big shots, big makes and chasing Damian Lillard everywhere on defense.

“I called him later, and told him, ‘That’s great leadership,’ ” Warriors GM Bob Myers told The Vertical on Monday night.

When the Warriors were down 3-1, Myers delivered Curry a gentle reminder. “Your body language matters,” the GM told him. “People are watching you.”

This was some scene in Oracle on Monday night, a culmination of a conference finals comeback the NBA hadn’t seen since the Boston Celtics survived the Philadelphia 76ers in 1981. The Cleveland Cavaliers are on the way for an NBA Finals rematch on Thursday night, only this time LeBron James is bringing a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Curry will need everyone on these Warriors, need them all, and that includes the full force of the Splash Brothers.

“When you’re down, like we were, the fabric of the team is easier to see,” Myers told The Vertical. “You see it when you hit some adversity. When you could splinter, and you don’t, well, that’s where you see the connectedness of the team.”

For these Golden State Warriors, it still begins and ends with Steph Curry. The Warriors had his back in these Western finals, because he’s always had theirs. In the end, the MVP stood in the middle of Oracle Arena and let the love wash over him, pounding his chest, screaming into the Bay Area night. Together, they had done it. Together, the Warriors had survived. Still standing, still champs.

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?

Cavs could trap more in Game 5


VIDEO: Inside The NBA: Raptors-Cavaliers Game 5 Preview

HANG TIME, N.J. — The last time the Toronto Raptors’ offense had to worry about rim protection was early in the second quarter of Game 3 of the conference semifinals, right before the Miami Heat lost Hassan Whiteside to a knee injury.

After that, the Heat played the following players at “center”: Udonis Haslem (35 years old and ground-bound), Amar’e Stoudemire (one of the worst defensive big men of the last 10 years), Justise Winslow (a 6-foot-7 small forward), Luol Deng (another tweener forward) and Josh McRoberts (who blocked seven shots in the regular season).

The Raptors haven’t had to worry about rim protection in the conference finals, either. Their guards have taken the ball at Cleveland Cavaliers big men Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye with little respect for their ability to block shots.

On the Raptors’ first possession of the third quarter of Game 4 on Monday, DeMar DeRozan drove right at Thompson and shot a 10-foot floater right in Thompson’s face, almost as if he wasn’t there at all. Love has been similarly invisible defensively.

But the key to the Raptors’ attacks has been the cushion that the Cleveland bigs have provided. It’s easier to put Love and Thompson on their heels when you have a running start.

So late in Game 4, the Cavs started defending pick-and-rolls differently, bringing their bigs out and trapping the Toronto guards in order to: 1. take the ball out of their hands and 2. keep them from attacking the basket with a running start.

The Raptors aren’t the Spurs or Warriors in regard to their ability to take advantage of traps and the ensuing 4-on-3 situations. And the Cavs’ first hard trap was a resounding success…

They trapped Kyle Lowry

20160525_trap1

… putting the ball in the hands of Bismack Biyombo, with a 4-on-3…

20160525_trap2

Biyombo hesitated before passing the ball to Patrick Patterson, who passed it back. Biyombo then tried to dribble his way to the basket, but the shot clock ran out before he got there.

Other Cleveland traps weren’t so successful. In fact, two of them (one and two) resulted in three-point plays from Lowry on the weak side of the floor, because the Cavs’ defense sprung leaks after the trap. And later, the Raptors started running guard/guard pick-and-rolls to get the one-on-one matchups they wanted.

Still, we can anticipate more trapping in Game 5 on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), which, at times, will put the ball in the hands of Biyombo — who’s not exactly Boris Diaw or Draymond Green when it comes to pick-and-roll playmaking — far from the basket.

The Raptors can adjust by using Patterson or James Johnson – guys who can put the ball on the floor – as screeners. Interestingly, when asked Tuesday about Jonas Valanciunas‘ possible return, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that Valanciunas might be a key to how the Raptors handle the traps.

“He’s going to be valuable for us if they’re blitzing,” Casey said, “because he’s an excellent passer and can make plays from the top of the key.”

Though it seemed like Love forgot to pack his offense for the trip to Toronto after Game 2, the bigger difference between the Cavs’ two wins and the Raptors’ two wins has been on Toronto’s end of the floor, where the Raptors scored 118 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 and 4 after scoring only 91 in Games 1 and 2.

Game 5 may depend on the Cavs’ ability to get the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan without springing a leak elsewhere. The guards’ willingness to move the ball quickly will be a key for the Raptors, who could use their three-guard lineup for more minutes. That will ensure that there’s always another ball-handler on the weak side to take advantage of the post-trap, defensive rotations.

As always, it’s about adjustments and execution.

Morning shootaround — May 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Green on 3-1 series hole: ‘It’s stunning’ | Roberson comes through in Game 4 | Will Raptors be able to keep Biyombo? | Lue expects bigger role for Frye in Game 5

No. 1: Green: ‘This is not where we expected to be’ For all the wins the Golden State Warriors amassed in the regular season — 73 of them to be exact — what they wouldn’t give to have a win or two more this morning. After suffering another drubbing at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, the Warriors are down 3-1 after last night’s 118-94 loss in Game 4. After the game, many of the Warriors were in many ways in a state of disbelief that their dream season is just one loss away from being over. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski has more on the scene in Golden State’s locker room and how this series has affected the team’s emotional center, forward Draymond Green:

These Golden State Warriors are a rollicking, rolling party bus, the loudest and surest sounds forever coming out this corner of the dressing room. For now, Draymond Green gathered himself in the stillness of the air, uncomfortable with the morose mood surrounding him. He sifted through text messages on his phone and confessed the truth over a sudden and spectacular failure in these Western Conference finals.

“It’s stunning,” Green told The Vertical. “This is not where we expected to be.”

Alone in the corner of the locker room – only the sound of showers in the distance – Green considered the circumstances of the Oklahoma City Thunder train running through these wobbly Warriors. The Warriors are down 3-1, the greatest regular season in NBA history slipping away on a lost trip to America’s dust bowl.

“Yeah, it’s pretty stunning,” Green said.

Green should’ve had Chesapeake Energy Arena livid that the NBA passed on suspending him, livid that he fed upon all the anger and channeled it into the destruction of the Thunder. All his life, Green found a way to validate his villainous basketball self, and he failed on Tuesday night.

“It’s who I am,” Green told The Vertical. “It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I’ve thrived off. It’s frustrating, because I know that’s who I always am.

“And right now, I’m not myself. I’m thinking too much, and that’s leading to all the things that I’m not supposed to be doing.

“I just … I just have to be me.”

Stephen Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

For months, the Warriors were playing for history. Seventy-three victories, the best team ever and out of nowhere, Golden State is suddenly playing for its survival.

“Right there, that’s what it is,” Green told The Vertical. “We’re the leaders of this team, and we’ve got to be better. Last year, when we were down 2-1 (to Memphis), we talked and we said, ‘Hey, you and me have got to be better.’ And right now, we both have got to be better.”

Better won’t be good enough against this Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook monolith. Better will get them run out of Oracle in Game 5, run out of the season. The Thunder have been hungrier, sharper and constructed to force the Warriors to adapt to them. The Warriors have to be historic again, have to be one of the great teams in history to fight themselves out of this trouble, out of a 3-1 hole.

Money Green nodded late Monday night in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena, and agreed with it all. In the quiet of the losing locker room, in a private moment in the deep corner, he believed this too: “If anyone can do this,” Draymond Green of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors told The Vertical, “we can.”

Morning shootaround — May 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors gear up for crucial Game 4 | Beal expects max deal this summer | Love (foot) should be OK for Game 5 | Valanciunas ready to help out in series

No. 1: Green drama least of Warriors’ concerns as Game 4 nears  The Golden State Warriors dodged a major bullet yesterday when they found out that All-Star forward Draymond Green would not be suspended for the kick he delivered to the groin of Oklahoma City Thunder Steven Adams in Game 3. All that remains now is simple — avoid their first two-game losing streak in 95 games (playoffs and regular season) in Game 4 tonight (9 ET, TNT). The San Jose Mercury News‘ Tim Kawakami has more on the vast challenge staring the Warriors in their collective faces:

Draymond Green will play Tuesday, get booed with an enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind, and somewhere in there the Warriors will try to save their season, too.

That is just about as much noise, emotion and drama as any two teams could bear, and it’s all packed into Game 4 at Chesapeake Arena.

Will somebody break under this titanic pressure? Can the Warriors use all this nervous energy to spin this series around?

Will Stephen Curry rise above everything and pluck the Warriors from danger precisely when it is most necessary?

How are they going to deal with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and an Oklahoma City group that keeps playing better and better?

“They’re a real good team,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said Monday of the Thunder.

“I think we’re facing a different animal as far as KD and Westbrook.”

What can the Warriors do? Well, in the Cleveland series, Kerr put super-sub Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for center Andrew Bogut in Game 4 and the small-ball Warriors proceeded to run the Cavaliers off the court the next three games.

I would expect that Iguodala, at the very least, will play a larger and larger role (and Harrison Barnes possibly a smaller one) as the series moves along, and Kerr wouldn’t comment when I asked if he might start Iguodala again.

But the Warriors’ “Death Lineup” was demolished by various Thunder units in Game 3, so it will take more than just a lineup switch for the Warriors.

It will take Green bouncing back from his horrible Game 3; if anybody can absorb the rage of 18,000 fans and use it as fuel, it’s Green, but this is now at an emotional apex.

It will take Klay Thompson and Livingston feeling steadier with the ball and calmer on defense.

It will take Kerr and his staff coming up with a few tweaks that help the Warriors find their offensive rhythm and make it tougher on Durant and Westbrook — without anything backfiring on the Warriors.

But mostly, I think it will take Curry, the league’s first unanimous MVP, to play like he deserved every one of those votes and more.

On Monday, a day after looking particularly off-rhythm shooting in Game 3, Curry had that serene look I’ve seen a few times before, usually right before something large is about to happen.

Curry doesn’t want to try to do too much, which was part of the problem Sunday; but he also realizes that the entire team looks to him in the toughest moments.

“Somebody’s just got to take control of the situation,” Curry said of the Game 3 unraveling. “I think individually we’re so competitive in that moment that we wanted to do something about it, we didn’t allow ourselves to work together.

“We make tough shots all the time; we might be talking about this had a couple of them gone in.”

Valanciunas to return in Game 4

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is on the active list and will make his return from an ankle injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday. He will come off the bench for the Raptors, who are looking to tie the series at two games apiece.

Valanciunas originally injured his ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 of the conference semifinals. He has missed the last seven games, with Toronto using Bismack Biyombo in the starting lineup and different combinations on the frontline behind him.

Biyombo has been a bit of a revelation and was a huge factor in the Raptors’ Game 3 victory on Saturday, grabbing 26 rebounds, blocking four shots, and helping limit the Cleveland Cavaliers to just 20 points in the paint.

Valanciunas has averaged 15.0 points (on 55 percent shooting) and 12.1 rebounds in 10 playoff games. He gives Toronto a low-post presence through which to run its offense, but it’s unclear how mobile he’ll be or if he’ll be able to match up with Cleveland’s five-out second unit when Tristan Thompson goes to the bench.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that Valanciunas’ role would be limited.

“He brings a post presence, gives them a chance to slow the game down,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “With his presence, it gives a different dynamic to their team outside of just a jump-shooting team and two guards attacking. So it’s a different look for us, but we’ll be ready for it.”

Cavs, Raptors will ‘dance’ again in Game 4

TORONTO — The home team has won all six games played between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors this season. If the Raptors can keep that trend going in Game 4 on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Eastern Conference finals will suddenly get very interesting.

Here are things to watch on either end of the floor as the Raptors try to even the series and the Cavs try to get within one win of their second straight trip to The Finals.

Toronto on offense – The value of a good screen

Bismack Biyombo was the big story in Game 3, grabbing 26 rebounds, blocking four shots, and helping limit the Cavs to just 20 points in the paint. He also scored six straight points to put the game away in the fourth quarter.

But Biyombo’s biggest offensive contribution on Saturday were his seven screen assists, five more than any other player recorded. The Raptors struggled offensively through the first two rounds and shot 41 percent in the first two games against the Cavs, who are the worst defensive team they’ve faced in the playoffs.

Toronto broke out offensively in Game 3, scoring 60 points on just 43 possessions in the first half and finishing with 99 on 85. SportVU data tells us that the Raptors set fewer ball screens in Game 3 (68) than they did in Games 1 or 2 (91, 85). But Biyombo’s screens were particularly effective.

According to SportVU, the Raptors scored 36 points (1.29 per possession) on possessions in which Biyombo set a ball screen. That’s more than they scored off Biyombo screens in Games 1 and 2 combined (33, 0.75 per possession).

Here are a couple of screens from Biyombo that allowed DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph attack Tristan Thompson off the dribble…

20160523_bb_screen1

20160523_bb_screen2

Good screening allows the offense to pick which defender they want to go at. The Raptors have three ball-handlers — DeRozan, Joseph and Kyle Lowry — who can take advantage of non-rim-protectors off the dribble and the Cavs have three non-rim-protectors — Thompson, Kevin Love and Channing Frye — on their frontline.

On Sunday, Raptors coach Dwane Casey stressed the importance of both a good screen and the ball-handler’s timing and ability to create space as the screen is being set.

“It’s really important,” Casey said. “I think especially when it’s a physical-type game where the opposing team is into the guard or into the pin-down of the guy receiving the screen. I think it’s really important, the timing, where you don’t set illegal screens or the defense doesn’t hurry you up, and it gives [the screener] an opportunity to get his body on the defender.

“It’s a dance. You’ve got to have a dance partner, is what I call it. The guy that’s receiving the screen has got to be able to dance with the guy guarding him. They’re doing a lot of top-blocking, so you’ve still got to be able to dance with him to take him to the screen and/or create the separation, one of the two. If you’re a point guard and you’re trying to come off on the pick-and-roll, your ability to get separation from the defender is just as important as that screen. So now with the defense heightened and them understanding exactly what you’re doing, it’s even more important.”

Cleveland is not a great defensive team if you pick the right spots to attack and execute with effective screens. Toronto will look to do that again in Game 4.

Cleveland on offense – LeBron with the ball

Of course, the Cavs usually don’t have to be a great defensive team, because their offense is so potent. But that offense took a step backward on Saturday, scoring just 84 points on 84 possessions (37 on 41 in the second half).

Kyrie Irving (3-for-19) and Kevin Love (1-for-9) combined to shoot 4-for-28 in Game 3 after shooting 58 percent combined in their two home games. Regression to the mean was certainly in play, but the Toronto defense deserves some credit for defending better than they did in Games 1 and 2.

Casey spoke about the pick-and-roll “dance” on the Raptors’ end of the floor, but there’s also been an interesting dance going on when LeBron James has had the ball in this series.

Early in Game 1, James posted up DeMarre Carroll on the right side of the floor…

20160519_james_post1

Biyombo was stationed on the opposite side of the lane, sticking with Thompson so that the weak-side defenders didn’t have to help off the Cavs’ shooters. And of course, James spun baseline, where there was no help, scoring two of the Cavs’ 50 points in the restricted area in Game 1.

Early in Game 2, James posted up Carroll on the right side of the floor…

20160523_lj_post_2-1

This time, Biyombo slid over to the strong side, to help at the rim…

20160523_lj_post_2-2

… and both DeRozan and Luis Scola sank down to put a body on Thompson. So James just zipped a pass to Love for an open three, with DeRozan a half second too late on his close-out.

In the second quarter of Game 3, James posted up Carroll on the right side of the floor…

20160523_lj_post_3

Biyombo was dancing back and forth, but in the paint and ready to help, with Patrick Patterson putting a body on Thompson. There’s might have been a passing lane there, but it wasn’t as wide as it was in Game 2, and the Raptors were more organized on the weak side, where both guys weren’t helping and DeRozan was in position to recover to J.R. Smith.

The result of the play? James spun baseline, Biyombo stopped him there, and he passed to Love, who forced an ugly, leaning, step-in jumper after Patterson closed out in time.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said with his other two stars struggling, the coach should have leaned more on his best player.

“I should have put the ball in LeBron’s hands a little bit more,” Lue said Sunday, “to let him create and let him draw double teams.”

While the Raptors handled that play in Game 3 better than they did in Cleveland, they didn’t see it as often. In fact, Love posted up more than James did on Saturday, when James more often had the ball on the perimeter.

The Raptors didn’t defend James the same way every time. Sometimes, Carroll was in his shirt…

20160523_lj_space_3-1

… but mostly, he wasn’t.

20160523_lj_space_3-2

And he went under screens, giving James space to shoot or act “like a quarterback” as Carroll says.

20160523_lj_space_3-3

The Raptors would obviously love to make James a jump-shooter. This year, he shot just 34.3 percent from outside the paint, his worst mark since his rookie year. And he’s 4-for-16 from outside the restricted area in this series.

James is less likely to take the bait than he has been in previous years. In these playoffs, 53 percent of his shots have come in the restricted area, up from 36 percent in playoffs past. But he will be happy to use that space to see the floor and find his teammates for open shots.

The key is the other Raptors’ ability to stay at home on the Cavs’ shooters and fight through pin-down screens being set for Smith and Irving. They did a better job of that in Game 3 and will have to continue to be sharp defensively in Game 4.

“If you back off of him, he’s going to make a good decision,” Casey said. “So we have to mix up how we want to play him, whether it’s up on him or back or sending help or not sending help. There’s not one way you can play a great player like he is.”

Morning shootaround — May 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection | Toronto’s offense gets on track | Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 | Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek

No. 1: Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection The Cleveland Cavaliers had romped through the NBA Playoffs, winning their first 10 consecutive games this postseason to take a 2-0 lead over the Raptors into Saturday night’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 in Toronto. But any hope the Cavs had of going undefeated on the road to a return trip to the NBA Finals came to an end in Canada, as the Raptors won 99-84. As our own Steve Aschburner writes, Toronto leaned not on All-Stars Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, but instead got a huge performance from back-up big man Bismack Biyombo

Near the end of the Toronto Raptors’ resilient and necessary 99-84 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Biyombo batted a rebound to a teammate to cap a memorable night for both the Raptors and himself. Then he got batted back when Cavs forward Dahntay Jones hit him in, well, a nether region that had the high-revving Raptors center dropping to his knee, then going fetal on the floor as the final seconds ticked away.

Jones said later the hit was inadvertent, just accidental contact delivered down under when he tried to do something in garbage time — box out Biyombo — that no other Cleveland player had managed through the first 47 minutes and change.

Biyombo encouraged the honchos at the league office to be the judges of that when they go to the videotape for their standard review.

What they’ll see on pretty much every other play involving Toronto’s 6-foot-9 defensive dervish is a game-defining and series-slowing performance. Biyombo set a franchise record with 26 rebounds — not just a playoff record, a Raptors all-time high — and blocked four shots.

Not only did he channel the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Dennis Rodman and Cleveland’s own Tristan Thompson, Biyombo swatted away any notions the Cavaliers, their fans or a bunch of experts around the league might have had that this would be done by Monday. Forget “fo’, fo’, fo’,” thanks to Biyombo’s “no, no, no!”

“He knows his role,” Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll said. “That’s the NBA. Everybody can’t be the Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry. You have to understand your role, your niche, and he understands it to a tee, and that’s a prime example of a true professional.”

Biyombo, 23, was reminiscent of several professionals Saturday, starting with Mutombo. Like the eight-time All-Star center who blocked 3,289 shots in 18 NBA seasons, Biyombo is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He gives up five inches to his famous countryman and NBA ambassador, is less than half his age and is 2,713 regular-season swats behind. Yet he has adopted the finger-wag that Mutombo used to such great effect on those blocks (second all-time since the league began counting them in 1973) and in that recent GEICO insurance commercial.

When did that start? “After I got the license from Mutombo,” Biyombo said. “He’s like my big brother, and I’ve had several conversations with him, especially defensively, how he was able to impact the game.” Though shorter, Biyombo has way more quick-twitch muscle going for him, getting higher off the ground than the former Georgetown star.

Then there’s Rodman, a comparison volunteered by Biyombo’s coach, Dwane Casey, when Casey wasn’t busy lobbying from the podium for a fairer shake from the officials. “He knows where the ball is coming off,” the Raptors coach said, of his guy’s Rodmanesque tendencies. “He’s an active player. He’s a guy who’s always moving, moving his feet… He understand angles.”

***

No. 2: Toronto’s offense gets on track Toronto’s Game 3 win wasn’t only about the big night from Biyombo — the Raptors also finally seemed to crack a Cleveland defense that had mostly been airtight throughout the postseason. As our own John Schuhmann writes from Toronto, the Raptors looked like the terrific offense they’d been during the regular season, in large part thanks to the performance they got from Cory Joseph

The way the Toronto Raptors played in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, you would think they were a top-five offensive team this year.

Oh yeah, they were.

You wouldn’t have known it from the Raptors’ first 16 games in these playoffs, in which they had strong offensive stretches here and there, rarely got big games from both of their All-Stars on the same night, and had scored less than a point per possession. While the other three teams still playing have scored at a rate at, near, or better than their regular-season marks, the Raptors had scored 8.6 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in going 56-26.

Their first 14 games were against very good defensive teams that needed to make things ugly to win. With their incredibly potent offense, the Cleveland Cavaliers have no such need. But the Raptors couldn’t take advantage of Cleveland’s defense beyond strong first quarters in Games 1 and 2.

In Game 3 on Saturday, it was if the Raptors’ realized that Cleveland has no rim protection and a handful of sub-par defenders in its rotation. The result was a lot more attempts at the rim than they had in either of the first two games, their second-most efficient offensive performance of the playoffs (99 points on 85 possessions) and an end to the Cavs’ 17-game winning streak in playoff games within the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors’ defense was important. After allowing 56 points in the paint in Game 1 and another 50 in Game 2, they surrendered only 20 on Saturday and were good enough on the perimeter to keep from getting hit with the Cleveland 3-point onslaught. But they took control of this game with a huge offensive first half, scoring 60 points on 43 possessions before halftime.

DeMar DeRozan had his mid-range jumper going again, but didn’t settle. Kyle Lowry hit a few 3s and got his team into early offense. And the biggest key was Cory Joseph keeping things going when Lowry got into foul trouble.

In Game 1, Joseph got a quick hook in the second quarter from Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey and played a season-low 5:21 before halftime. The back-up point guard, who was a huge key to the Raptors’ success in the regular season, had been struggling since the start of the conference semifinals.

But Saturday brought a breakthrough for Joseph, who was a plus-10 in a little less than 18 first-half minutes, never leaving the game after entering for Lowry midway through the first quarter.

“He did a much better job tonight of controlling the game,” Casey said, “running the offense, keeping things under control, not letting the defense speed him up.”

Joseph’s minutes have proven to be critical for the Raptors, who are now 7-0 in the playoffs when he’s registered a non-negative plus-minus and 2-8 when they’ve been outscored with him on the floor.

***

No. 3: Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 — The Oklahoma City Thunder threw their Western Conference Finals series against the mighty Golden State Warriors into chaos by waltzing into Oakland and winning Game 1. After the Warriors evened things by taking Game 2, the series shifts to Oklahoma City tonight for Game 3, where as our Fran Blinebury writes, Thunder forward Serge Ibaka says the Thunder need to stand strong and not let the Warriors push them around

The numbers told the story. The best rebounding team in the NBA was hammered on the backboards in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The bigger, taller, stronger Thunder were pushed around, dominated even.

“Of course, you take it personally,” OKC power forward Serge Ibaka said following Saturday’s practice. “It makes us feel like we’re soft, we’re weak, you know what I’m saying? … We have to do a better job next game and be aggressive, make sure if they’re going to score those baskets, that’s hurting them. They have to work hard to get us.

“Yes. It’s kind of weird, yes. It’s kind of weird, especially for us, playing bigs. They’re small. It’s kind of weird. But give them a lot of credit, because they’re the best team in the game. … It’s not going to be easy.”

The Thunder are 9-2 in the playoffs when they’ve out-rebounded their opponents. They were especially effective in the previous series against San Antonio by using a big lineup that kept 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-11 Enes Kanter on the court together. Adams was able to play his role as defensive stopper at one end, Kanter scored at the other and together they helped get the Thunder a bundle of second-chance points. However in the Warriors’ 118-91 runaway win in Game 2, they were the ones able to come up with 15 offensive rebounds.

“They are playing tougher than us,” Ibaka said. “You know, they were more aggressive than us, so I think that’s why. It’s more a game. We have to do a better job of starting aggressive, and just play our basketball.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan wasn’t as quick to hang the “soft” label on his team.

“I don’t know if I would necessarily fully agree with that,” he said. “They did a great job on the backboard. They were really physical. They come up with loose basketballs. They made those plays, and in Game 1 I thought we did a better job. They did a great job raising their level of play, and you’ve got to give them credit. So I think maybe Serge’s point is that when you’re getting beat like that, to loose balls or rebounds, it can certainly make you look that way.

“I feel like we need to do a better job rebounding the basketball than we did. They were quicker on loose basketballs. They came in from different angles to rebound. They kept balls alive on the glass. We got caught into some rotations a couple times where we didn’t have our block-out assignments lined up.”

***

No. 4: Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek After what seemed to be an interesting journey, Knicks president Phil Jackson has apparently settled on Jeff Hornacek as the next coach for the New York Knicks. And yesterday the Knicks’ biggest star, Carmelo Anthony, said he’s excited to get moving as a part of Hornacek’s offensive attack…

“I played against him a couple of times when he was the head coach out there in Phoenix,” Anthony said in an interview Saturday with WNBC-TV. “Everybody knows he likes to play an up-tempo pace of game, likes to get out in transition, likes to speed the game up a lot. So from that standpoint, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that.”

Anthony’s comments suggest that team president Phil Jackson has given Hornacek the freedom to tweak the triangle offense, as several reports have indicated. The Knicks ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in pace the past two seasons, when they ran the triangle. Hornacek ran a faster-paced offense with the Suns, who ranked in the top 10 in pace in each of his three seasons as coach.

Perhaps more importantly, Anthony said Saturday that he believes Hornacek gives the Knicks a chance to turn things around. The club has missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

“It sets the stage for us to do that,” Anthony said. “[It’s a] new opportunity, something new to play with, something fresh, a clean plate. So hopefully we can build off of this momentum.”

Hornacek was offered the Knicks’ job by Jackson and general manager Steve Mills earlier this week, and negotiations on a contract with the club have begun, league sources said.

Interestingly, Anthony said he didn’t share his opinion on the coaching search with Jackson before Hornacek was offered the job.

“Whatever Phil did, he did on his own,” Anthony said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Toronto coach Dwane Casey had a lot of thoughts about the officiating in not just Game 3, but the entire series against Cleveland … Former Cavs coach David Blatt says he will coach somewhere next seasonBrian Shaw is close to a deal to join Luke Walton‘s staff with the Lakers … The Houston Rockets will reportedly interview Spurs assistant James Borrego for their head coaching gig, as well as longtime assistant coach Adrian Griffin … The Nets continue adding to their staffPaul Pierce got his daughter a llama for her birthday …

Morning shootaround — May 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant silenced in third quarter | LeBron: ‘I have no idea’ what flagrant foul is on me | Report: Magic confident they can get Vogel | Ginobili to talk with Duncan, Popovich

No. 1: Warriors find way to keep Durant under wraps  In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant finished with 26 points on 10-for-30 shooting. His shooting woes were more about him just plain missing shots than anything the Golden State Warriors threw at him defensively. In Game 2 of the series last night, Durant got his points (29) and had a solid shooting night in terms of raw numbers (11-for-18), but a third quarter stretch cut off OKC’s hopes of a win. Erik Horne of The Oklahoma has more on Durant’s Game 2:

Coming off a scorching 23-point first half, Kevin Durant hoisted his first shot attempt of the third quarter. The fadeaway jumper fell, a textbook Durant stroke.

It came halfway through the quarter. The Thunder trailed by double digits. It was far too late on a night when the turnover issues of Durant vs. Warriors past came back in full force in Golden State’s 118-91 win.

Still, it was Durant’s only made shot from the field in the third: a pull-up jumper at 6:22 that was sandwiched in between Stephen Curry’spersonal 14-point barrage. Durant had only two shot attempts in the entire third quarter in which the Thunder was outscored 31-19.

Why?

“They were sending three guys and I was trying to make the right pass,” Durant said. “I was turning the ball over, playing in a crowd.”

Durant finished with eight turnovers, upping his season average against the Warriors to 6.4 per game – his most against any opponent.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it wasn’t anything new. Durant’s seen the double and triple teams the Warriors threw at him. The swarming. The sneak attacks from a help defender as his back is turned.

Donovan wants Durant to be a willing passer, but he also wants better decisions from his star … and those around him. On Durant’s pass attempt to Roberson, Durant held the ball for seconds, probing and waiting for movement before trying to laser a pass between three players.

“… so maybe I’ve just gotta shoot over three people,” Durant said in postgame.

No, but Donovan wants better decisions from not just Durant, but the players around him.

“He’s got to do a better job, and we’ve got to do a better job creating open avenues and gaps for him to either pass it or drive it when teams elect to kind of send somebody at him,” Donovan said. “When he’s up there playmaking and they’re coming at him, obviously you’ve got to make those decisions very quickly.

“So I think Kevin watching the film will have a chance to get better from it.”