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David Richard/USA Today Sports

One timeout was all that separated the Cleveland Cavaliers from potentially, vitally making this a series. We were so close. We were as close to Heaven as we’ll ever be. But JR Smith had other ideas.

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NBA.com

Somewhere between Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in Game 5 and their dubious, NBA playoff-record streak of 27 consecutive missed three-pointers[1] in the second half of Game 7, the Houston Rockets lost the best chance any team was going to have of felling the Golden State Warriors. It was foolish for any of us to doubt them – not that all of us did, mind you, but some did – and now, the team which stands to define a generation sits four wins away from its second straight title and third championship in four years.

The proposition was always thus: beat the Warriors, a team with four current All-Stars, five probably Hall of Famers and a wealth of role players to fill in the gaps, four times in seven tries. Even after the Rockets won 65 games, grabbing the top seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, it was never a real possibility that Golden State would lose until and unless such a catastrophe actually happened.

After going down 3-2 and entering halftime of both Games 6 and 7 down by double-digits, Golden State calmly and mechanically worked its way back, outscoring Houston 64-25[2] and 58-38 over each game’s second half, respectively. As always, the Warriors were able to turn to all of their other stars if one didn’t shine so brightly. That didn’t turn out to be a problem.

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Image result for mutineers of the bounty

The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, 29 April 1789 –  Robert Dodd (1790)

You remember the switch, don’t you? Consider it flipped. Riding a fully-engaged LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers ripped the doors off the Toronto Raptors in Game 4 on Monday night, completing another sweep against a team which hasn’t beaten them in the playoffs since 2016. In a rather pedestrian[1] performance, James chipped in a mere 29 points to go along with 11 assists and eight rebounds. It was certainly his worst game of the series, and the Cavs won by 35.

It took a surprising seven-game first round series against the Indiana Pacers to really light a fire under him, but since the candle’s been burning, he has been his typical forceful self. What finally clicked against the Raptors wasn’t just LeBron riding the high of his clutch Pacers series form. Instead, as LeBron was great, so, too, were his teammates. Better late than never.

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Photo by moi

The switch exists. I’m telling you right now because, for the second time in my life, I was lucky enough to see the man at the helm in person, and at 33 years young, he was as commanding of attention as he was in command of the game, and when he needed to, LeBron James turned the volume all the way up and told your parents to mind their Ps and Qs. Last Sunday, in Brooklyn, I saw the switch in action.

It isn’t that he isn’t great all the time – he is, and he has been for the overwhelming majority of his breathlessly Hall of Fame career – but to watch him have to be, with his still-gelling team nervously jetting and firing around him in an effort to show that yes, we’re good enough, please stay, adds another layer to an almost unquantifiable NBA experience.

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Photo courtesy SLAM Online/IG: @atibaphoto

“I am Toronto.”

With these three words, and a reported $139 million, Compton native and All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan took his seat at the table of the NBA’s leader in latitude, the modern king of the midrange having found comfort in an uneasy Eastern Conference all the more unsettled by the various fluctuations that the summer of 2016 carried with it. DeRozan’s empathy for the frozen North made for great newspaper fodder, but it did not alleviate the worry that fans of his team, the Toronto Raptors, had at the time concerning their franchise’s future.

As has become the standard, that relief would arrive the following summer, when All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry inked his own $100 million deal to stay in Canada. Along with DeRozan, Lowry represents Toronto’s best chance at viability in an Eastern Conference long dominated by LeBron James’ regular season malaise giving way to humdrum playoff dominance. By seizing control of the #1 seed in the East, along with several high-profile wins, including those against Houston, Cleveland and a back-to-back drubbing of dark horse Process favorites the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto has edged its way into something like favorability, edged on by a modernistic offense and an ability to rise to the occasion.

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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Well well well. Here we are again. After a four-month period that felt like several millennia, the NBA regular season begins tonight with two games featuring four of this season’s expected biggest draws: at 8 p.m. Eastern, the new-look Boston Celtics face the relatively old-look Cleveland Cavaliers, and following that, the Chris Paul-James Harden era begins as the Houston Rockets take on the current proprietors of the universe, the Golden State Warriors.

The question isn’t “Did you miss it?”; it’s how much you missed it, and in an age in which every single day is a testament to human will, the slightest reprieve can provide the biggest impact. If everything is bad, fine, but there is some reason to believe the smallest hints of light can fight back all this darkness. Best of luck to all of these teams, except for the Warriors, whose organization’s luck[1] is such that two of its four (!) All-Stars could sustain injuries, and the team would still be favored. 2017 is such a crushing time. Unless you’re a borderline Eastern Conference playoff team, which everybody is. Congratulations: we’re all borderline Eastern Conference playoff teams.

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