NBA

LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers have tricked us before but they're no treat right now

Jay Asser 31/10/2017
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King of the East: LeBron James.

Full disclosure: this was pre-written and slated to run sometime before the All-Star break, but since the Cleveland Cavaliers have fallen into crisis mode several months earlier than usual, it has been updated to reflect their current state of free fall.

This Halloween, nothing has been scarier in the NBA – the general state of the world being another issue entirely – than the Cavaliers’ horrid play through seven games of the new season.

It’s admittedly early and the league’s overall start has been fraught with weirdness – injuries, head-scratching results and the Warriors looking mortal, to name a few – but it’s been difficult to downplay just how off Cleveland have looked.

It’s October, so no one should be expecting teams to be playing their best basketball, let alone ones that are favourites to reach the NBA Finals. That leeway is amplified even more when the side in question has suffered significant turnover, which certainly applies to the Cavaliers after they lost Kyrie Irving and brought in Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green.

And guess what? They still have LeBron James, who even in his 15th season and at 32 is putting up a 25-7-7 stat line in his sleep.

When you have LeBron, you have the benefit of the doubt. The pieces around him have changed over the past seven years, sometimes significantly and at other times marginally, but each one of those seasons ended with James’ team playing in the Finals.

So why are these struggles and this year any different?

Well, primarily, the Cavaliers’ current issues can’t be boiled down to effort like they could have in the past when the team had the ability to flip the proverbial switch. There are real personnel and fit issues that have somehow been exacerbated instead of improved upon through the summer’s moves.

As it turns out, Wade and Rose are not good defenders and that’s putting it lightly. J.R. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t looked like feisty on defence for some time now and Crowder, who was supposed to be a crucial 3-and-D asset, has done neither of those things all that well. Add in a couple one-way players in Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, an out-of-sorts Tristan Thompson and LeBron, who won’t exert energy on defence until April, and you have a recipe for an imbalanced squad.

Cleveland’s defensive rating of 109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks 27th in the league, doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

From lack of communication to complacency to lack of lateral quickness and everything in between, the Cavaliers’ defence has been bad in every sense of the word. And Thomas’ return, whenever that is, definitely won’t help.

Cleveland’s best hope is for Crowder and Smith to regain some of their old form on that end of the floor and be above-average wing defenders, affording the team a lineup with more two-way players than it features now.

But how many minutes they’ll be on the court is no given as coach Tyronn Lue continues to toy with lineups and rotations.

That’s the by-product of having depth that doesn’t exactly fit. It’s hard to maximise players and their value when they’re not logging consistent minutes.

Yet, despite the rough start, it’s fair to have faith in the Cavaliers turning it around, but it’s also fair to remember this isn’t the same team we’re used to.

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Boston Celtics have reason for hope in wake of Gordon Hayward injury

Jay Asser 19/10/2017
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Tough start: For Boston.

The figurative balloon that was carrying the Boston Celtics’ aspirations and floating high in the sky ahead of the new season was punctured in mere minutes of the games finally counting.

But while in the immediate aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s ghastly ankle injury it felt as if all the air had been let out, that balloon hasn’t fully popped, even if it is now harmlessly falling back down to Earth.

Make no mistake. Boston were relying heavily on Hayward to transition into a new era – one built upon the pillars of the All-Star wing and fellow newcomer Kyrie Irving. His absence, which could be for the entire season as he recovers from a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia, is as undeniably painful as it was to watch.

Yet moments like those force us to cling to any positives and have a greater perspective, as difficult as that may initially be.

And the first positive appears to be that Hayward has avoided a career-threatening injury. For as mangled as his lower leg looked – if you could stomach more than the initial glimpse – Hayward is reportedly dealing with a clean break and has avoided any ligament or blood vessel damage.

Doctors and non-doctors alike will have their own opinions as to how long that will keep him on the shelf, so it’s pointless to speculate until we hear any official word from Boston and their medical team. But even if there’s a sliver of hope that Hayward could return before the playoffs begin, as there seems to be considering the aforementioned early reports, Boston’s situation begins to look slightly less daunting.

Even if we set aside any optimism and resign ourselves to a reality in which Hayward misses the entire season, the bottom hasn’t completely fallen out for his team.

The Celtics still have Irving, who is arguably their best player, and someone who has embraced the great expectations that have been placed on his shoulders.

They also still have the perennially underrated Al Horford, who may be the most important piece of the offense due to the spacing, playmaking and overall cohesion he brings to the table.

More than anything though, Hayward’s injury creates a wealth of opportunities for the Celtics’ young foursome: Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Smart came into the season – as cliché as it sounds – in the best shape of his life after slimming down to regain quickness. His bulldog defence has never been questioned, but he’s made strides on the other end of floor. More is expected and Smart, in a contract year, won’t be lacking motivation.

Rozier, meanwhile, has steadily improved over his two years to earn more trust from coach Brad Stevens. He’s also a disruptive defender and a sneaky rebounder whose biggest room for growth comes with the ball in his hands.

The real burden left behind, however, will fall on Brown and to a lesser extent Tatum.

The pair of third overall draft picks started the opener – an impressive feat considering they’re 20 and 19, respectively, and were going up against LeBron James.

It’s been a small sample size, but both have already shown great potential for the major roles they’re likely to occupy this season.

Reaching the Eastern Conference Finals again is still an attainable goal for Boston. Their ceiling has been lowered but they have no choice but to go on. All is not lost, even if it feels like it is.

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Steph Curry, Dwight Howard and more send prayers and wishes to injured Gordon Hayward

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Hayward.

The new NBA season was less than six minutes old when disaster struck for the Boston Celtics on Tuesday in the form of a gruesome ankle injury to forward Gordon Hayward.

Hayward suffered a dislocated and broken left ankle in the Celtics’ 102-99 loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

The former Utah star, who inked a four-year, $128 million deal with the Celtics in the off-season, landed hard 5:15 into the game after a leaping cut to the basket, trying to catch an alley-oop pass from Kyrie Irving.

Players from both teams looked shocked as Hayward, his ankle turned at a sickening angle, was attended by medical staff and rushed off on a stretcher.

Irving, the former Cavaliers star who landed in Boston after a shock off-season trade request, said it was one of the worst injuries he’d ever seen.

“It’s not a great sight to see,” Irving said.

Irving’s return to Cleveland was supposed to be the story of the night.

He was booed lustily by Cavaliers fans — including when he lofted a shot over superstar LeBron James for the season’s first basket.

James said he had plenty of fond memories of playing alongside Irving, reaching three straight NBA Finals and winning a title with him in 2016.

“But once the ball went up, it was kind of back to our regularly scheduled program,” James said.

The Cavs led 54-38 at half-time and stretched the lead to 61-43 early in the third quarter.

The Celtics fought back and were up 98-95 before Kevin Love made two free throws, James followed with a layup and then assisted on Love’s three-pointer that gave Cleveland a 102-98 lead. Irving missed a driving shot and a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Cavs prevailed.

James scored 29 points with 16 rebounds and nine assists — but said he still needs to work on his fitness after missing most of the pre-season with a sprained left ankle.

He also said it would take some time before he, Love and new additions Derrick Rose and Dwayne Wade, are operating together at full capacity.

“We’ve got some things we need to figure out,” James said. “It’s a work in progress, for sure.”

The online community rushed to wish Hayward a speedy recovery. Here’s a sample of the reaction…


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