For LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s been a wild nine days.
It was just last Sunday that James was limping to the locker room with cramps in a toss-up game with the Indiana Pacers in Cleveland – a game that could have possibly served as the final one in his second tenure with the Cavaliers. Had Cleveland lost that game, the chances of him returning seemed remote at best.
But then Cleveland won that game, surviving the hardest first-round series of James’s illustrious career. Up next were the Toronto Raptors, the East’s top seed and winners of a franchise-record 59 games this season.
After getting drummed out of the playoffs the past two seasons by James and the Cavaliers, though, a meeting with Toronto was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Now, after Monday night’s demolition of the Raptors in Cleveland to complete a second straight four-game sweep of Toronto in the postseason, the Cavaliers are back in the Eastern Conference finals for a fourth straight season.
And, as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s Joe Vardon noted, that caused James to mention something he hasn’t been talking about much recently: actually winning a championship this season.
LeBron just mentioned competing for a championship. Can’t remember the last time that happened— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) May 8, 2018
It’s been a truly insane season in Cleveland, going back to the decision not to retain David Griffin as the team’s chief executive last summer, which was followed by Kyrie Irving’s trade demand and the move to ship him to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.
The Cavaliers then had an up-and-down regular season, going through multiple incarnations in the same season after playing well without Thomas early, then struggling mightily after he returned in January, then blowing the team up by shipping out Crowder, Thomas, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade in trades at February’s trade deadline to completely remake the roster.
Now, though, Cleveland appears to be clicking at the right time. After health issues for both Kevin Love and George Hill against the Pacers, they both looked terrific against the Raptors. Cleveland’s starting lineup – James, Love, Hill, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver – can score with anyone in the league, including Golden State and Houston, when it gets hot. Tristan Thompson has suddenly become a factor again after struggling all season.
Now Cleveland will almost certainly face Boston for a second straight year in the Eastern Conference finals. But without Irving and Gordon Hayward, it’s hard to see the Celtics putting up much of a fight – regardless of how successful their season has been.
That will get James and the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight time (and an eighth straight for James overall). Only nine days ago, that seemed like a far more difficult task than anyone had anticipated it would be.
But then Cleveland tore through Toronto, including James’ game-winner to close out the series in Game 3 (yes, I know the series lasted four games, but it was obvious to everyone watching that it ended when James made that shot). Now, with likely five days to rest before the Eastern Conference finals begin, James is feeling confident again.
That’s bad news for Boston. It’s also good news for Cleveland. Suddenly, the idea of James sticking around isn’t so far-fetched.
Neither is, at least in James’s mind, competing for a championship.
LeBron James was in a jovial mood – and understandably so – after the Cleveland Cavaliers completed a four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for a fourth straight season.
He praised the Raptors for their impressive season, including a franchise-record 59 wins. He also praised rookie forward OG Anunoby, who gave James trouble throughout the series.
But then James had this to say about this year’s star-studded rookie class:
“You look at this year’s rookie class,” he said, before trailing off.
Then, after a beat or two: “It’s probably the best since 2003.”
Predictably, both he and the reporters in the interview room in Cleveland all then burst out laughing. That year, of course, was when James – along with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others, including David West and Kyle Korver, were drafted.
They are the first team to reach the conference finals.
Cleveland decimated Toronto, winning, 128-93, to reach the Eastern Conference finals for a fourth straight year. In doing so, the Cavaliers eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs for a third straight season – potentially leading to significant changes in Toronto.
That’s to be discussed at a later date, though. Today it’s about the Cavaliers’ continued dominance, and LeBron James continuing to be the league’s singular force despite this being the 15th year of his NBA career.
Cleveland went on a 12-0 run to end the first half and never looked back. The Cavaliers were on fire, shooting 59 percent overall, 46.2 percent (12 for 26) from three, and getting 19 points off 13 Toronto turnovers. All five starters for the Cavaliers had a plus-minus of at least plus-22, led by Kevin Love, who had 23 points and six rebounds, registering a plus-31.
James had 29 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists, while J.R. Smith had 15 points and didn’t miss a shot, as all five starters for Cleveland combined to go 37-for-54 from the field.
Jonas Valanciunas was the only player on the Raptors who showed up, as he had 18 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. Kyle Lowry had five points and 10 assists and shot just 2-for-7 from the field, while DeMar DeRozan – who was ejected at the end of the third quarter for a flagrant-two foul on Jordan Clarkson to prevent him from making a fastbreak layup, had 13 points in 33 minutes.
In a fitting end to this series, and this season, for the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan has been ejected for a flagrant-two foul at the end of the third quarter.
DeRozan tried to stop Jordan Clarkson on a fastbreak and whacked him in the face in an attempt to block his shot. After a review, DeRozan was assessed with a flagrant-two, and an automatic ejection.
It would’ve been one thing if a star like DeRozan was ejected in a game that was competitive. This game, though, is not competitive.
Instead, Cleveland leads 100-72 after three quarters. And it’s all over but the crying in Toronto.
A 12-0 Cleveland run to end the first half of Game 4 just about has this series locked up for the Cavaliers.
Toronto didn’t score over the final 3:03 of the first half, a stretch that saw the Raptors go from down four to down 63-47 at halftime.
Get the brooms ready. This one is all but over.
LeBron James had 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists. J.R. Smith hasn’t missed a shot, and has 15 points. Cleveland is shooting 61.9 percent overall, and 50 percent (6-for-12) from three. The Cavaliers’ starters besides James are shooting 70 percent, and just have three turnovers as a team.
Toronto has played well offensively, shooting 51.3 percent. But the Raptors have seven turnovers that have become 10 Cavaliers points. Jonas Valanciunas is leading Toronto with 10 points off the bench, but a strange decision to play Lucas Nogueira by Coach Dwane Casey helped contribute to that run to end the first half.
It also may help contribute to Casey’s time in Toronto coming to an end with a loss in Game 4.
It made sense to have Jonas Valanciunas match up with Tristan Thompson, as opposed to Kevin Love, for two reasons. The first was Valanciunas can’t keep up with Love on the perimeter when the all-star forward is cooking, like he has been the last two games. The other is that Thompson has wreaked havoc on the boards when he’s been in the game against smaller lineups.
So Raptors Coach Dwane Casey has Valanciunas coming off the bench here in Game 4. And he’s helped power Toronto back into this game.
Valanciunas already has 10 points, a rebound and two blocks in nine minutes off the bench for Toronto, which trails Cleveland by five midway through the second quarter.
It was going to be difficult for the Raptors to make their way back into this series against the Cavaliers from down 3-0.
The first quarter of Game 4 has only underscored the task in front of them.
Cleveland leads 30-26 after the first quarter. That’s bad enough for Toronto. But it’s how the Cavaliers are leading that should really give Raptors fans pause.
It wasn’t because LeBron James put up huge numbers. He had two points and three assists in just under 11 minutes. Instead, it was because the rest of the Cavaliers went crazy.
Here are the combined numbers for the Cavaliers besides LeBron James in the first quarter: 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting overall, including 3 for 4 from three-point range. Not bad.
It’s also exactly what Toronto didn’t need to happen.
J.R. Smith went a perfect 5 for 5 – including 2 for 2 from three – to lead Cleveland, while DeMar DeRozan had seven points to lead Toronto.
An under-discussed part of Cleveland’s turnaround the past few games has been George Hill’s return from a back injury that kept him out for a large chunk of the Cavaliers’ first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
Hill came back for Game 7, played the final 19 minutes of that game and has played this entire series, and the Cavs are now working on a four-game winning streak with him on the court.
Here’s an example of some of what Hill – the only player besides LeBron James reliably in the rotation for Cleveland who is able to create off the dribble – has been able to do for Cleveland, which leads early in the first quarter.
The Toronto Raptors, facing elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, are trying another lineup change.
After Serge Ibaka was benched to start Game 3, he now is starting Game 4 in place of Jonas Valanciunas. The move makes sense, given Ibaka is Toronto’s best option to guard Kevin Love – who has torched Toronto in each of the past two games.
Meanwhile, after being benched for the final 14 minutes of Toronto’s dramatic Game 3 loss to Cleveland, how will DeMar DeRozan respond? For a team that’s won so much with DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Coach Dwane Casey, this could be the end of an era with a loss.
With Toronto trailing 3-0 in the series, we should know early on how invested the Raptors will be in this one.
Thanks to a terrific performance from newly christened starter T.J. McConnell, the Sixers emerged from Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Celtics with a 103-92 victory – Philadelphia’s first in the series – to keep their season alive.
McConnell had a career-high 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting to go with seven rebounds and five assists, as his introduction into the starting lineup helped spur an inspired performance by the Sixers, who now will head to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday.
“One of our coaches said to me just hit singles,” said McConnell, who had 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists, on his televised walkoff interview after the game. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to let the game come to me, and my teammates put me in great positions, so all credit to them.”
After spending much of the series standing around and watching Joel Embiid shoot, the Sixers looked different in this one. Dario Saric led the team in shots and finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Ben Simmons had 19 points, 13 rebounds and five assists and Embiid had 15 points and 13 rebounds.
All five starters took at least 10 shots for Philadelphia, and the Sixers still managed to win despite shooting 7 for 26 from three-point range.
“It just shows when you take some thing away, we’re mature enough to do something else,” McConnell said.
Even with a flurry of Philadelphia turnovers late, the Sixers only had 10 – and which only became three Boston points. The Celtics, meanwhile, had 15 that turned into 16 points for the Sixers.
Boston was led by 20 points from Jayson Tatum, but struggled to get anything going consistently offensively and wasn’t as connected defensively as they had been in stifling the Sixers through the first three games.
Still, there’s a lot of work left to be done for Philadelphia to become the first team out of more than 100 to come back from down 3-0 to win a playoff series.
“We have nothing to lose,” McConnell said. “We’re playing our hearts out, and trying to be that one team.”
A fun moment during Sixers-Celtics: Joel Embiid telling Marcus Morris he’s in his head, while Morris signals to Embiid what the score in the series is Celtics 3, Sixers 0.
There is no love lost between these two teams. And with two of the best young cores in the NBA on their respective rosters, this should just be the beginning of a renewal of one of the most legendary NBA rivalries.
There has been a lot of talk about the officiating in this game – as usually happens when Tony Brothers or Scott Foster are crewing a game, let alone when they are doing a game together.
But while the foul shot disparity is at six in favor of Philadelphia early in the fourth quarter and the foul disparity is 21 for Boston and 13 for Philadelphia, the real difference in this game thus far is that the Celtics had 14 turnovers that have become 16 points for the Sixers, while Philadelphia has five turnovers that have become just one point for Boston.
That 15-point margin looms large, considering the Celtics trail by 16 early in the fourth.
It turns out starting T.J. McConnell has gone better than Brett Brown could’ve dreamed.
McConnell has been outstanding for the Sixers in Game 4, and has 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting as Philadelphia has taken a 62-54 lead in the third quarter. More importantly, McConnell being on the court has led to the Sixers having a more balanced attack.
Instead of having Joel Embiid take shot after shot while everyone stands around, so far in Game 4 the offensive distribution is far more balanced. Embiid and Dario Saric, who leads all scorers with 14 points, each have 10 shots, while Ben Simmons has 12, J.J. Redick has nine and McConnell seven.
That balance has helped the Sixers build this lead. And McConnell’s play has been instrumental in it happening.
Foul trouble is piling up for the Celtics. Jayson Tatum has three fouls; so too does Marcus Morris. Meanwhile, three players – Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Semi Ojeleye – have two fouls. Backup point guard Shane Larkin, meanwhile, is questionable to return with an injured shoulder after being hit with a hard screen by Joel Embiid earlier in this game.
That means every guard and wing player in Boston’s rotation other than starting point guard Terry Rozier is either injured or in foul trouble, which could become a factor later in the game.
Meanwhile, Marcus Smart just had Ben Simmons fall on his arm and hurt his right shoulder, and just had to check out of the game. Embiid had a collision with Aron Baynes earlier in the game that had him grimacing on the bench.
All of this will be stuff to watch as the game progresses.
A third foul for Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum will open the door for Philadelphia to make a run – just as the Sixers did in Game 3.
So far, though, Boston has been able to build a 33-27 lead midway through the second quarter behind getting to the line time and again (9-for-11, compared to 2-for-3 for Philadelphia) as both teams currently are shooting below 35 percent.
Tatum and Marcus Smart are tied for the scoring lead for the Celtics with seven points each, while J.J. Redick has seven for the Sixers.
Robert Covington has been given another chance by Brett Brown – and it’s not going well.
Covington, who was benched in favor of T.J. McConnell for what could be the final game of Philadelphia’s season, already has two fouls and has missed both shots he’s taken in a rough six-minute stint that saw Philadelphia be outscored by five points with him on the court.
Outside of Game 2, Covington has been a disaster at both ends in this series. His start to Game 4 doesn’t look inspire confidence that’s about to change.
Jayson Tatum has picked up two quick fouls in the game’s opening minutes for a second straight game. But once again, Celtics Coach Brad Stevens is showing an unusual amount of trust in his rookie forward by leaving him in the game despite foul trouble.
Tatum is unusually poised for a rookie and has earned the right to stay in the game in these kinds of situations. It’s just the latest example of why the Celtics have outstripped expectations in these playoffs.
With their season on the line, the 76ers chose to take a gamble and change their starting lineup for Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Celtics.
Coach Brett Brown removed Robert Covington from the starting lineup and replaced him with backup point guard T.J. McConnell. Covington has struggled in the series, going a combined 0 for 14 from the field – including 0 for 9 from three – in losses in Games 1 and 3. But he did play well in Game 2 (22 points and nine rebounds while shooting 8 for 15 overall and 4 for 7 from three).
McConnell has played well, and is a nice backup point guard, but can’t provide the same impact at either end Covington can when he’s playing well. But we’ll see if Brown gives Covington another chance in this game, or if he’s been banished to the end of the bench.
Through the first three games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers have been proven to have a glaring weakness: the lack of a perimeter player who can create his own shot.
Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell, Marco Belinelli — all of them are unable to isolate and score themselves on a consistent basis. That’s a weakness Celtics Coach Brad Stevens has taken advantage of, as he’s had his defense allow Joel Embiid — the one player who can create his own shot — to go one-on-one against Al Horford in the paint time and again, and not allow Philadelphia’s other players to get going.
All the while, the player the Sixers thought would be able to make those kinds of plays — Markelle Fultz — has watched from the bench, having been benched since early in the first round against the Miami Heat. It is the latest example of what might have been had Fultz’s rookie season gone differently.
Count me among those who think Fultz is going to wind up being all right. After returning late in the season, his speed with the ball was eye-popping, and he was able to snake his way into defenses even with obvious issues with his shot remaining. With an entire offseason to get his mechanics and his confidence in order, the hope is that he’ll be able to get back to being the player who was the near-consensus top pick in last year’s NBA draft. And it’s understandable why Sixers Coach Brett Brown has avoided going back to Fultz — McConnell has played well, and Fultz made some bad turnovers, not to mention teams could take even more advantage of his shooting issues than they have been with Simmons.
But one can’t help but watch these Sixers, and how this series is playing out, and wonder what could have been if Fultz had been right this season. And if Philadelphia’s season does end tonight with a loss to the Celtics in Game 4 of this series, expect perimeter shot creation to be something General Manager Bryan Colangelo focuses on finding this summer.
He’ll undoubtedly be hoping part of that solution is getting Fultz back in the mix.
The Detroit Pistons have parted ways with Stan Van Gundy, giving the NBA one front office opening and a third coaching job to fill.
Van Gundy’s status has been in limbo for the past three weeks, as he and owner Tom Gores held multiple meetings before it was ultimately determined that Van Gundy, who was given the dual roles of coach and president of basketball operations, wouldn’t return for the final year of his contract in a meeting Monday afternoon.
Upon arriving in Detroit, Gores told Van Gundy he could not do a complete teardown of the roster in the style of the Philadelphia 76ers. So Van Gundy did not, and tried to bring the Pistons back to the playoffs without ever bottoming out. He succeeded in 2016, but injuries to Reggie Jackson the past two years prevented Detroit from repeating that feat — and led Van Gundy to depart.
Now it is assumed that Arn Tellem, the longtime NBA super agent who has been running Detroit’s business operations, will have a large say in who replaces Van Gundy both as head coach and as the head of basketball operations. The Pistons should have a team that will be in the playoffs next season, but has salary cap obligations stretching over the next two years because of long-term deals for Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. Detroit also doesn’t have its first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, having sent it to the Los Angeles Clippers to acquire Griffin in February.
- Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers (BOS leads 3-0), 6 p.m., TNT
- Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers (CLE leads 3-0), 8:30 p.m., TNT
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