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Cleveland Has a Problem of LeBron’s Making

James puts the Cavs under the microscope, Marc Gasol shuts down the Raptors, and DeMarcus Cousins does it all

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

Cleveland Needs to Work on Its Narrative

Chris Ryan: The Cavs need to get on top of this. You cannot play 32-year-old LeBron James, he of 20-year-old-Volvo-type mileage, for 45 minutes, have him deliver a triple-double, and then lose in overtime 116–112. To Sacramento. At home.

This is about risk vs. reward. Cleveland has now dropped three in a row — to the Spurs, the AD-free Pellies, and the Boogies — and now we are seeing the downside to introducing a sense of urgency. If LeBron didn’t go and start a petition to get a playmaker, and if LeBron hadn’t started F-bombing about being tired and the grind of the regular season, then this would have been just a bad January stretch for a Cavs team that has been playing a lot over the past two and a half years. But after this …

Oh, sorry, wrong tweet. After this …

… things get a little tight. Nobody brought up David Griffin until LeBron brought up David Griffin. Now a loss to the Kings signals crisis instead of mere exhaustion; Kevin Love’s name is being brought up in (albeit fantastical) rumor stories; and the great what-if of Cleveland’s season has somehow become whether the Cavs should have nabbed Raymond Felton or Michael Beasley. What the hell!?

Every single thing the Cavs do between now and the playoffs should go toward being as healthy and sharp as possible heading into a seven-game series with Golden State. The only hope they have of repeating is a happy and fresh LeBron, along with an engaged and focused supporting cast. Everything else is noise.

Boogie Needs a Playmaker, Too

Riley McAtee: DeMarcus Cousins has the highest usage rate of anyone not named Russell “I Am Going to Set This League on Fire Whether You Invite Me to the All-Star Game or Not” Westbrook. If Boogie keeps his 37.3 usage clip up through the end of the season, he’ll finish with the highest rate since Kobe Bryant in 2006 (minimum 500 possessions, and excluding Westbrook this year). And since Rudy Gay went down with an Achilles injury on January 18, he has had to do even more work for the Kings, shouldering a whopping 41.6 percent of their possessions in the past four games. On Wednesday against the Cavs, nearly every crunch-time possession went through Boogie.

Just look at the play-by-play. Here are the last 10 shots the Kings took in overtime:

Willie Cauley-Stein missed layup.

Cousins missed 3.

Cousins missed layup.

Cousins made putback.

Cousins missed hook.

Cousins made layup (assist: Arron Afflalo).

Cousins missed layup (block: Tristan Thompson).

Cousins made layup (assist: Darren Collison).

Collison made layup (assist: Matt Barnes).

Afflalo made 3 (assist: Cousins).

That’s Boogie shooting seven (!) times in a row, then getting the assist on the go-ahead 3 on a play that went through the same spot some 99 percent of Sacramento’s plays go through: Cousins on the left block. And, just for good measure, it was Boogie who took the final free throws to ice the game with 5.3 seconds left.

This is not normal. For comparison, the Cavs didn’t see any one of their players take more than four of their final 10 shots, and none of their players have a usage rate above 30. The “give the ball to Boogie on every possession” playbook is also not a strategy that has worked, historically. Cousins has been in the top five in the NBA in usage rate every year since 2013–14 — the only player to do so — and his team is a combined 107–183 (.369) over that stretch.

Though the team won on Wednesday, the Kings are losers in seven of their past 10, and are currently watching their playoff hopes slip through their fingers. And if they aren’t careful and fall out of the lottery’s top 10, the Bulls will own the franchise’s draft pick. Sacramento has shown no inclination to tank in the Vivek Ranadive era, but Boogie alone cannot will the team to the upper echelon of the NBA.

So maybe it’s Cousins’s turn to ask for a fucking playmaker.

Vince Carter Turns 40 Today

Marc Gasol Is Unguardable

Jonathan Tjarks: The Raptors’ big mistake came before their game against the Grizzlies even started. They decided to put Jonas Valanciunas on Zach Randolph, leaving Patrick Patterson on Marc Gasol. Patterson, at 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, just isn’t big enough to handle Gasol, and Gasol wasted no time taking advantage of it. On the first possession of the game, he took Patterson to the low block, backed into him a few times, and got an easy flip shot at the rim. The next time down the floor, Gasol calmly drained a catch-and-shoot 3 when Patterson got sucked into the lane on dribble penetration. After his third basket, when Gasol spun around Patterson to get an easy layup and draw an and-1, the Raptors called a timeout and changed defensive assignments.

It was too late. Gasol was rolling and he would never slow down. He scored 16 points in four minutes, draining 3s from deep behind the arc and then driving to the rim when the defense began overplaying him. Maybe my favorite play in that stretch was a shot he didn’t take: He trailed the play and caught the ball 30 feet from the basket. He held it for a second and looked at the hoop. He didn’t take the Steph Curry pull-up, but he was clearly dying to. That’s how hot Gasol was on Wednesday.

He finished the game with a career-high 42 points, going 5-of-10 from beyond the arc. He looked like a bigger and stronger Dirk Nowitzki: a 7-footer alternately stroking 3s off the dribble and burying defenders in the paint. It didn’t matter who was guarding him, whether it was Patterson, Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger, or Lucas Nogueira. Gasol had an answer for whatever big man the Raptors threw at him in the Grizzlies’ 101–99 victory.

Earlier in his career, one of the knocks on Gasol was that he wasn’t very aggressive on offense — that he’d look to pass instead of shooting, he’d fail to take advantage of a mismatch. But the current version of Marc Gasol is a straight killer. He’s averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game, and there’s no real way to guard him. He can take big guys out on the perimeter, and he can pound little guys on the block.

If an opponent puts a bad defender on Gasol to start the game like the Raptors did, they’ll be in for a long night.

R.I.P. Wayne Ellington’s Ankles

The Science of Beating James Harden

Kevin O’Connor: It made sense for the Celtics to play the numbers game against the Rockets. By the end of their 120–109 victory, the Celtics were switching all screens featuring James Harden, putting the MVP candidate into less favorable positions. This defense leads to mismatches, but anything that stops the Harden pick-and-roll rampage is preferable. The Rockets score an outrageous 1.08 points per possession when Harden shoots, passes, or draws a foul in a pick-and-roll, but when he’s in an isolation, that number drops to 0.93. It’s simple math.

“James Harden kills you in pick-and-rolls because he just gets to those guys on his hip, and then he just whips it across the court to wide-open shooters,” Brad Stevens said after the game. “So we had planned to do that late. Al [Horford] did a great job on James.” With a wide frame and quick feet, Horford forced Harden into multiple contested, off-the-dribble 3s (which he shoots at a 32.5 percent clip, per SportVU), as well as a turnover.

“I was making sure I contested every shot and making him work.” Horford said. At times, Horford deterred Harden from attacking, which played right into Boston’s hands — Harden relinquished three possessions to Trevor Ariza, who turned it over twice and botched an open layup.

In a somber Rockets locker room after the game, with most players already dressed and on the bus, Harden was asked to assess the job that Horford did. “I just missed a shot,” he responded. “I didn’t make the right play, that’s all. I go through that every single night. It doesn’t matter who’s guarding me.” Maybe he’s right, but the Celtics’ decision to switch turned out to be the right one.

Malcolm Brogdon Might Need a Name Change

Haley O’Shaugnessy: Six Sixers, none of whom are named Joel Embiid, put up double figures against the Bucks, who, despite having Greg Monroe go off for 28 points (his most since February 9 of last year), lost again, 114–109.

Milwaukee’s triumphant win Monday over the Rockets started to lose its luster during Wednesday’s first half, when the Bucks committed 13 turnovers — one off of their per-game average — and continued to diminish until the game’s last seconds, when it became apparent that no amount of Greek Freakiness could save them. They’ve now lost six of their past seven, and they fall to 13–11 at home, tied for the worst among the Eastern Conference playoff contenders.

Young teams take time to mesh, midseason slumps happen, and [enter other coach speak here]. The standings are tight in the East, and the Bucks face the Raptors, Celtics, and Jazz next. All of this is troublesome, but don’t fret about what’s going on in Milwaukee. Focus on Malcolm Brogdon performing baptisms instead.

This season, the President has posterized Dwyane Wade (3x NBA champion), Kyrie Irving (1x NBA champion), LeBron James (3x NBA champion, 4x MVP, 3x NBA Finals MVP), and now Nerlens Noel (2021 NBA champion — assuming he’s still with Philly).

Is it time we start calling him the Young Pope?

If It’s Chilly in Chicago, Don’t Blame the Weather

Juliet Litman: Dwyane Wade and LeBron James haven’t been teammates for a while now, but apparently they’re still using the same playbook. After Chicago lost to Atlanta 119–114 on Wednesday night — though the Bulls had a 10-point lead with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter — Wade and Jimmy Butler aired their frustrations to the media.

Don’t worry: Wade clarified that his problem is not with Butler. It’s just every other person on the team. While his buddy to the east is looking for one key piece to get back to the NBA Finals, Wade ostensibly wants an entirely new roster. He knows — we all know — that this is an impossibility, and the tactic here is quite familiar now. Talk to the media scrum and force action — from your GM, your owner, or even your teammates.

If it’s the latter Wade is looking for, Jerian Grant won’t fall in line so quickly.

Groundhog Day is next week, but I already know it’s going to be a long winter in Chicago.

Bill Walton Grabs the Mic

Michael Baumann: Portland’s 105–98 win over the Lakers was a bit of a mess, but in a fun way. Mason Plumlee air-balled a free throw, and Julius Randle couldn’t have botched more jams if he’d introduced botulism to a Smucker’s factory. The Blazers opened up a double-digit lead in the third quarter, but Lou Williams and Nick Young were able to shoot the Lakers back into the game in the fourth, until cooling off and shooting the Lakers back out of it.

Also on this night, the Blazers chose to honor the 40th anniversary of their 1977 NBA title, which meant that coach Terry Stotts broke out a white, red, and black checked jacket with a polka-dotted lining. It also meant that certain members of that 1976–77 team were in the building, and listen, it’s not my fault that “If Bill Walton’s in the arena, you have to give him a microphone,” is the last line of the First Amendment.

So while Dave Pasch tried furiously to interview Lionel Hollins before Walton found a working headset, Walton sauntered over and perched on Doris Burke’s armrest, wearing his own shirsey and a headband he said he got from Keith Richards, which might’ve been a joke, but I’m not sure. He could’ve said he got that scarf on the moon and I’d have believed it. Occasionally Burke and Pasch were able to nudge Walton, like a disobedient Roomba, back into talking about Dr. Jack Ramsay or his son’s fortunes as head coach of the Lakers, but most of the time they talked about the places Walton showed up shirtless in the 1970s.

And it was great. Bill Walton worship is nearly as popular nowadays as basketball itself, but it takes a remarkable personality to walk into an NBA broadcast and just hold court discussing Maurice Lucas, Bob Dylan, and the universe for an entire quarter and have everyone enjoy it. I’m not sure there’s another personality in sports who could turn a late-night showdown between two lottery teams stocked to the gills with disappointing former Sixer shooting guards and turn it into Bonnaroo.

Tourism Is Booming on Dion Waiters Island

Rodger Sherman: Dion Waiters told people to pass him the ball. He told everybody! He yelled and he screamed and he waved his arms. Some people laughed, some people played along, but most people just ignored him.

This is why he told people to pass him the ball.

That was Waiters’s second game winner in a row. On Monday, it was against the Warriors; on Wednesday, it was against the Nets in 109–106 victory. Now he even has a signature “I just hit a game winner” celebration, mimicked by his teammate Hassan Whiteside.

All things considered, Waiters is really, really good at taking basketball shots — for sure in the top .01 percent of shot-takers in the world. I’m not positive this is a talent. His ability to throw basketballs into hoops is entirely based off of his confidence that he’s really good at throwing basketballs into hoops — a confidence in Dion that was not shared by his previous superstar teammates.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook knew they were much better than Dion, and when Dion realized they didn’t believe in him, his ability shrunk. He barely even wanted the ball anymore. Then he shot 3-for-18 as the Thunder blew a 3–1 lead in last year’s Western Conference finals.

But any environment where people don’t want to pass to Dion is a bad environment for him. Now he’s on the Heat, who have Goran Dragic. In the rare scenarios in which the Heat are in a position to win a game in its final seconds, there’s no mega-talent to laugh at him or ignore him when he calls for the ball. There’s just Dion, and with nobody to doubt him, Dion’s belief in Dion flourishes.

The Heat have 36 games left, and I predict Dion Waiters will hit game winners in all 36.

Russell Westbrook Annexes New Orleans

Micah Peters: On Monday, an Anthony Davis–less Pelicans team managed to shock the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers with a 124–122 upset. New Orleans looked to carry that momentum into Wednesday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, to whom they had dropped five out of the past seven meetings. Only there wasn’t much momentum to carry, because that win over the Cavs required the stars to be in position and the moon to be in the seventh house. Jrue Holiday went off for 33 points, and Terrence Jones sectioned off the left side of the paint for a megazord iso battle with LeBron James, racking up 36. He also pinned LeBron on the backboard to seal the game. The room started spinning and I felt dizzy.

Wednesday night’s game felt like watching the Terrence Jones–drawn carriage turn back into a pumpkin. For most of the first half, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter were making long cuts to the basket, and the Pelicans defense never really collapsed on or inconvenienced anyone. Enes Kanter — who isn’t known for this sort of thing, like, at all — poked on both Omer Asik and Anthony Davis.

OKC carried a 64–45 lead into the half, but a decent third quarter and an offensive flurry from the bench in the final frame allowed New Orleans to get back within five. But that was as close as it got, and the game felt over long before it actually was.

With six minutes left in the first half, Tyreke Evans tried to go 1-on-3. He started his lithe and graceful Eurostep at the dotted line, swam a dutiful but still green Domantas Sabonis, rolled the ball out of his fingers toward the cup … and a trailing Russ swatted the shit out of it. Westbrook’s momentum carried him into the stands, where he shook his head at the home crowd. I can’t say definitively whether he actually said “not in my house,” but he sure was thinking it loudly.

Russ was not at home. Russ was on the road.

OKC 114, New Orleans 105.

Near-Perfection Is Not Nearly Enough Against Golden State

Chris Almeida: It’s really hard to beat the Warriors.

For about 43 minutes, the Charlotte Hornets did most things right. They stuck with the Warriors in the first half — despite an early burst from hometown kid Steph Curry, who scored 10 points in the game’s first seven minutes — and then pulled ahead in the third on a 19–4 run while Golden State went cold, missing 12 straight 3s. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, long a dreadful shooter, looked confident in his jump shot, and Marco Belinelli scored 14 points — half of which were earned at the line in a bizarre minutelong span which included fouls on two attempted 3s, the first of which prompted a technical-earning complaint from Klay Thompson.

The team’s valiant defensive efforts were fueled by a smattering of highlight-worthy plays, including an early Spencer Hawes chase-down block on Shaun Livingston and a third-quarter charge on Kevin Durant drawn by Kemba Walker (third in the league with 19 drawn charges on the season), which slowed the Warriors’ momentum as they started to emerge from a scoring drought.

But, even when trailing, Golden State’s versatility and athleticism can quickly turn the momentum of a game — which is what the Warriors did late in the third quarter. Durant did his best Hawes impression and blocked a Kemba Walker transition layup. Seconds later, Curry was draining a 3 on the other end of the court.

No team had a double-digit lead until a Curry 3 put the Warriors ahead by 11 with only a little over a minute remaining, but, with about five minutes left, the Warriors’ shooters had found their groove. Charlotte couldn’t keep pace, and ultimately lost 113–103.

It pays to be a superteam.