With backs against the wall, Cavs now need LeBron's best


With backs against the wall, Cavs now need LeBron's best

LeBron James sat in the far corner of the visitor's locker room Friday night, wrapped in ice, draped in towels, and holding court with his teammates.

Surrounded by James at their respective lockers were Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, three members of the Cavaliers' core who have embraced expanded roles in the recent days and weeks. The conversation, of which James did most of the talking, between teammates fluctuated between laughs and seemingly thorough analysis of the Game 3 that had ended just minutes earlier on a miraculous Derrick Rose 3-pointer.

Such a scenario - James instilling his wisdom on teammates - is far from uncommon, but given the circumstances of the Cavaliers facing a 2-1 deficit with a banged up core, the onus has been put on the game's best player both to perform at his highest level and get the most out of a group that hasn't yet been tested in this fashion.

On the surface James' performance in Friday night's 99-96 loss was some serious heavy lifting. In 44 minutes he scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 14 assists. Those 14 assists translated into 34 points, meaning James had a hand in 61 of Cleveland's 96 points.

[RELATED: Rose reaches new peak with game-winner]

Still, as if often the case in defeat, his blemishes took center stage. With Kyrie Irving nursing a sore foot, James was asked to handle the ball more and responded with seven turnovers. His jump shot failed him once again - he was 3-for-15 outside the painted area - and he missed a point-blank layup that would have given the Cavs a one-point lead in the game's final minute. For all James does, when his team loses the spotlight will always focus on what he didn't do.

"We have to be better," James said before narrowing his answer. "I have to be better."

Though they trail the series heading into Sunday's Game 4, the Cavaliers appear to have made the right adjustments around James to set themselves up for success. James hasn't played much on the interior as the second big man since Game 1 - with the later stages of Game 3 being an exception, when both teams went with a small-ball lineup - Tristan Thompson has arguably been the Cavs' second best player since entering the starting lineup in Game 2, and Matthew Dellavedova has proven to be more than capable on the second unit. J.R. Smith's return from a two-game suspension gave Cleveland additional depth in the backcourt, and the Cavs found their optimal closing lineup of Irving/Shumpert/Smith/James/Thompson despite Friday's loss.

But with Kevin Love already sidelined and Irving attempting to fight through pain that, with one aggravation, turns him into simply a "decoy," the already-thin Cavaliers can make all the right adjustments and still not have enough if James isn't in prime form. Against a Bulls team touting two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, a league MVP with optimal confidence in Derrick Rose and a feisty Joakim Noah doing all the intangibles, adjustments won't mean anything unless is James is playing at his best.

[RELATED: Cavs' chances could hinge on Irving's injured foot]

The two-time champion still hasn't shot better than 50 percent from the field in any playoff game this season, and he's shooting just 39 percent from the field in three games against the Bulls. He made one of his seven 3-point attempts Friday night while having to work for every bucket against Jimmy Butler, who has been able to focus more of his attention to guarding James than scoring with Rose catching fire in Games 1 and 3.

And yet with Love on the sideline, Irving a non-factor after aggravating his injury and James shooting 32 percent from the field the Cavaliers were 3 seconds away from forcing overtime. Contributions from Dellavedova and Smith off the bench, Thompson's work on the glass and timely 3-point shooting had Cleveland in position to steal Game 3 on a night in which they should have been blown out. That spoke volumes to James.

"We just kept fighting, and that’s what I love about this team," he said. "We just kept fighting and gave ourselves a chance at the end."

The biggest storyline surrounding the Cavaliers entering the playoffs was their lack of postseason experience. Irving, Love and Thompson all were making their second-season debuts, while Shumpert, Smith and Mozgov had never gone into a postseason with a target on their backs. None of those players had ever faced a deficit in a hostile environment like the one they'll face on Sunday, needing a win in Game 4 to avoid a 3-1 deficit heading back to Cleveland.

[RELATED: Cavaliers 'got to live with' Rose's game-winner]

The good news for James is that he's been in this position before, and he's thrived in it. Thirteen times a James-led team has trailed in a playoff series with the following game on the road. A young James began his career 0-5 in such games. But starting in 2010, the year he made his first trip to the Finals, he's 7-1 on the road when trailing in a series. And in those most recent eight games, James has averaged an eye-popping 33.4 points on 56 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in nearly 43 minutes per game. One of the game's smartest players knows when his back's against the wall, and he has the ability to take over a game when necessary.

That time is now. But more than just his own readiness, he has the confidence in the rest of his group to answer the call Sunday.

"I already know how we’re going to respond: the same way we did in Game 2 [a 15-point Cavs win]. Will that result in a win? We don’t know. But I don’t have any doubt of how we will play on Sunday," James said confidently. "We’re going to give ourselves a chance."

That chance will begin, and end, with James.

What to watch for: Bulls host Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors

USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls host Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors

The Bulls welcome the Raptors, currently on a three-game losing streak, to the United Center on Monday. It is the second game in as many nights for each team. The matchup tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago; unitl then, here's what to watch for:

Raptors last five (2-3)

  • Dec. 8 — L at 76ers: 110-104

  • Dec. 5 — L vs. Rockets: 119-109

  • Dec. 3 — L vs. Heat: 121-110 (OT)

  • Dec. 1 — W vs. Jazz: 130-110

  • Nov. 29 — W at Magic: 90-83

Storyline(s) for each team

Both of these teams enter tonight on the back-end of back-to-backs — the Raptors got essentially trounced by the 76ers (they didn’t pull to within single digits until the game’s final two minutes) in Philadelphia Sunday night, and are riding a three-game losing streak into Chicago, overall. It’s a slight reality check for a team that began its first post-Kawhi Leonard campaign 15-4, but all three defeats came against good-to-great teams. There’s no real reason to believe that, tonight, Toronto can’t put forth a performance similar to the 108-84 drubbing they handed the Bulls at the United Center on Oct. 26 (a game in which the Bulls’ leading scorer was Wendell Carter Jr. with 12 points). 

The Bulls are coming off a gut-wrenching overtime loss to the Heat that left some reasons for optimism, but ultimately stung as much as the defeats that preceded it (perhaps even more so). Neither Otto Porter Jr. nor Chandler Hutchison appear any closer to returning, and the team’s best players remain hot-and-cold on a night-to-night basis. The Bulls have demonstrated an ability to compete with teams of this quality, but a win tonight remains a tough proposition.

Player to watch: Pascal Siakam

Even in limiting Jimmy Butler to 3-for-14 shooting on Sunday, his game-high 21 free throw attempts and the gravity he attracted down the stretch (which freed up Tyler Herro to get going) were a reminder that the Bulls still sorely miss their big wings in Porter and Hutchison.

Want another reminder? Enter: Pascal Siakam. In the absence of Leonard, Siakam is currently making the leap of all leaps, averaging 24.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on 46/36.5/81.6 shooting splits. He’s bumped his volume substantially (20.1 field goal and 6.2 3-point attempts per game) and taken on an increased number of pull-ups and drives, at the expense of catch-and-shoots (i.e. he’s creating his own offense).


Though he’s slightly cooled off over the Raptors’ aforementioned losing streak (38.9% shooting in his last three games), a trip to Chicago could represent a get-right game for the Raptors’ best player. The forward combination of him and OG Anunoby also presents difficult defensive matchups for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, given that the Bulls will probably continue to roll with a three-guard starting lineup.

Matchup to watch: Transition (and everything that comes with it)

The Raptors are a high-octane group that plays with breakneck pace. They shoot the second-highest percentage on 3-pointers in the NBA (38.7%) on the seventh-most attempts per game (36.5), rank eighth in the NBA in steals per game (Bulls are first) and relish the opportunity to get out on the break.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors convert live rebounds into transition opportunities at the second-highest clip in the NBA (36%, trailing only the Bucks). The Bulls (32.4%) are sixth in that category, though the Raptors score on said possessions with greater efficiency. The Raptors (sixth) and Bulls (seventh) also rank among the league’s best in percentage of steals converted into transition possessions. We know this will be an up-and-down affair — what remains to be seen is which team can win the rebounding and turnover battles, and thus afford themselves more opportunities to get out, run and dictate the flow of the game.

The Raptors wore the Bulls down in most of these areas the last time these two matched up, out-rebounding the Bulls 65-56 and winning the transition points battle 25-7 (each team had nine steals) on Oct. 26. Even potentially without Fred VanVleet (who left Toronto’s Sunday night game with a knee injury), Toronto has the personnel to win this matchup again, between elite ball-pusher and outlet-passer Kyle Lowry, the fast, rangy and physical Siakam/Anunoby duo and ancillary sparkplugs like Normal Powell and Terence Davis. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka won’t make the Bulls’ lives easy on the glass, either.

Trends to watch

  • It’s only a four-game sample size, but Lauri Markkanen is averaging 19.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on 50.9% shooting (13.3 attempts) and 43.2% from three (9.2 attempts) in the month of December. Even that stretch has had its ups and downs, but it’s worth monitoring if he’s able to continue his generally positive upward trend against a big, physical and talented Raptors frontcourt.

  • Coby White played all but eight seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime in Miami on Sunday, closing over Tomas Satoransky. He shot 2-for-5 (both makes on 3-pointers) in those minutes, dishing out three assists and also committing two turnovers. Still, he looked like he belonged out there. Boylen has gone back-and-forth on rolling with the starters versus the ‘hot-hand’ down the stretch, but White certainly benefits from a developmental perspective from that type of increased responsibility. 

  • Kyle Lowry returned from a thumb injury that cost him about a month on Dec. 3, and in the three games since his return, he’s played 41, 42 and 38 minutes, respectively. So much for easing back in. With VanVleet likely out, his workload probably won’t lighten in this one, except in the event of a blowout (certainly plausible). Lowry’s a great player, but he’s shooting 35% since returning, including a 2-for-18 shooting night in his first game back.

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NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14-game win streak

USA Today

NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14-game win streak

With the NBA season hitting the quarter pole, it’s a good time to check in on how the MVP race is shaping up.

After blowing a two games to none lead against Toronto in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo vowed to come back better than ever this season, and he’s done exactly that, improving his averages in points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.

The one knock on Antetokounmpo had been his lack of a consistent outside shot, and while he’s still only shooting 31.6% from beyond the arc, he’s made at least three shots from long distance in three of his last seven games.

The Bucks are currently riding a 14 game winning streak after blowing out a very good Clippers’ team at Fiserv Forum last Friday. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers even joked about the result, saying, “It was Giannis’ 25th birthday, and we searched all over the city to find a gift, and we couldn’t find one, so we gave him this one. That’s all I can come up with because we were awful.”

Antetokounmpo still has to prove he can get the Bucks to the Finals, but through the first 23 games, he’s clearly the favorite to win his 2nd straight MVP award.

LeBron James’ Lakers are actually a half game ahead of the Bucks for the NBA’s best record at the start of the new week. James leads the NBA in assists, something that hasn’t been done by a player who doesn’t play the guard position since Wilt Chamberlain. James would rank 2nd on my MVP rankings at the quarter pole.

I wrote about Luka Doncic in last week’s power rankings, and after averaging a triple double in November and leading the Mavericks to an unexpected strong start in the West, Luka would be number three, followed by NBA scoring leader James Harden and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.

Now on to this week’s rankings. Check them out here.