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NBA Finals: Cavs-Dubs should deliver after lackluster playoffs

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NBA Finals: Cavs-Dubs should deliver after lackluster playoffs

Let’s be honest, the NBA Playoffs have failed to deliver the excitement we all expected back in April. Outside of the San Antonio-Clippers & Clippers-Houston matchups, most of the series have been one-sided, with the top two seeds advancing to each conference finals.

Atlanta won 60 games during the regular season to finish with the best record in the East, but like many of us predicted the Hawks’ jump-shooting offense was no match for LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sure, the Hawks were weakened by injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver early in the series, but that’s still no excuse for getting swept by a Cleveland team that was playing without Kevin Love, and only had a limited Kyrie Irving for two games.

The story wasn’t much better out West, with Stephen Curry and the Warriors dominating Houston in five games. Curry suffered a head contusion after a scary fall in Game 4, and his fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson suffered a concussion after taking a knee to the head from Trevor Ariza in Game 5. Fortunately, both players had over a week to recuperate, so we should see the Warriors at full strength in the Finals.

So, which team has the edge? Golden State steamrolled through the regular season with an NBA-best 67 wins, while Cleveland had to go through a feeling-out period with James, Irving and Love playing together for the first time under rookie head coach David Blatt. The Cavs started out 19-20, but finished strong to earn the No. 2 seed in the East. A season-ending injury to Love in Round 1 of the playoffs against Boston could have derailed Cleveland’s title hopes, but they bounced back to beat the Bulls in six and then sweep Atlanta, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of Knicks’ castoffs, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.

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The key for Golden State in the Finals will be finding a way to keep James from getting into the paint to score on his own or kick the ball out to wide open 3-point shooters. Smith has been on his best behavior and burying the triple during these playoffs, including 47 percent from beyond the arc against Atlanta, and outside of James, he’ll be the main focus of the Warriors’ defense in this series.

Golden State is known for its offensive firepower under Steve Kerr and top assistant Alvin Gentry, who was recently hired as the new head coach in New Orleans. But the Warriors are also among the league’s top ranked defensive teams, and they’ll be able to throw a series of long-armed, active defenders at LeBron in Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. Big Ten fans know all about Green’s defensive tenacity and leadership skills from his days at Michigan State, and he finished second to the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler for Most Improved Player honors while being voted to the All-Defensive first team this past season. Barnes is extremely quick with good leaping ability, while Iguodala is a known commodity as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and is coming off a great performance against James Harden in the Conference Finals, helping to force him into 12 turnovers in the decisive Game 5.

Outside of James’ playmaking ability and brute strength, and the 3-point shooting of Smith, Shumpert and Irving, the Warriors biggest concern defensively will be keeping Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov off the offensive boards. Thompson was a terror on the boards against the Bulls and Hawks, and he’s averaging four offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs. His size and relentless energy could pose problems for a Golden State team that’s lacking in size behind starting center Andrew Bogut.

The Warriors will get frontcourt reserve Marreese Speights back from a calf injury for the Finals, and his size and outside shooting ability should be a nice addition to Kerr’s bench. But keeping Bogut out of foul trouble will be important to Golden State’s success in the series, since he’s been one of the best rim protectors so far in the playoffs.

From the Cavs’ perspective, they’ll have to find the best defensive matchups against the Splash Brothers. It will be next impossible for James to guard Thompson or Curry for 40-plus minutes, while also initiating the offense and being the primary scorer. James seems almost super-human when it comes to his strength and endurance, but he is in his 12th season in the league and has shown more signs of fatigue in these playoffs than we’ve seen in the past.

Chicago area native Shumpert will probably be asked to chase Curry around multiple screens, with Irving drawing Barnes and James on Thompson. But as mentioned, James won’t be asked to guard Thompson for the entire game, and the Cavs might have a tough time hiding Irving on the defensive end, especially when Smith is in the game.

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Cleveland has to figure Curry and Thompson are good for about 45 points in every game, and make sure none of the Warriors supporting players have big scoring nights. The Cavs are saying Irving still isn’t fully recovered from the foot and knee injuries that slowed him in the previous two series, but I get the sense there might be some serious sand-bagging going on, and Irving will be back to his All-Star form for the Finals.

Most of the national experts are predicting a Golden State win based on the Cavs’ injury situation and the way the Warriors dominated a much stronger conference. But Cleveland’s defense has been operating at an exceptionally high level in these playoffs, and you can never underestimate the ability of the world’s best player to find a way to carry his team to four more victories.

After all the mismatches we’ve seen earlier in these playoffs, basketball fans should be entertained by a fast-paced, entertaining Finals.

I’m going to call it Golden State in 7, thanks to the Warriors’ 3-point shooting, superior depth and underrated defense. And that would mean Steve Kerr can start sizing up rings for a second hand after winning five as a player with the Bulls and Spurs.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”