No. 1: LeBron questions Cavs' toughness as playoffs near -- The Cleveland Cavaliers have been at the forefront of the Eastern Conference standings all season long. That's as true today as it was months ago, but after last night's loss to the Denver Nuggets, Cleveland's lead on the Boston Celtics for No. 1 is down to one game. After the loss, LeBron James didn't hold back on his assessment of his squad, writes Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
With the clock inside of six minutes left in the first half, the Nuggets ran a pick-and-roll in which Cavs 6-3 guard Deron Williams switched onto screener Mason Plumlee, who is 6-11.
Denver naturally fed the ball into Plumlee, who backed Williams down all the way to the basket, but missed.
As was the case all night in the Nuggets' 126-113 win over Cleveland, the Cavs' defense had broken down by this point, so no one was really guarding the 6-9 Juancho Hernangomez when he rebounded Plumlee's miss and dunked.
But on both plays -- the Plumlee backdown and the Hernangomez finish -- LeBron James stood on the left block, keep an eye on his man in the corner and watching the Nuggets head to the rim. Not once did he move to help.
"It ain't about a group, it's about individuals," James said. "We've got to be more, just do more. It ain't about no group. You can't preach toughness, you've got to have it."
What James was saying in the above quote -- because he's made the same point before -- is Cleveland's issue on defense was not about helping teammates or communicating. It was about failing to take the one-on-one challenge.
Twice in the second half James bodied up Denver's big men. Nikola Jokic backed into James and scored, but James met the challenge. He also held his ground against Plumlee, forcing him to give the ball up out of the post.
"I had opportunities where I could have been better," James said. "Um, one thing about it, I always bring toughness to the game, I know that. That's for sure."
Coach Tyronn Lue pointed to a play with 3:10 in the third quarter, when Jameer Nelson knocked Kyrie Irving over while Irving was trying to dribble up the court.
Nelson was called for a common foul and Lue was incensed, and was slapped with a technical for arguing all the way down the court. In that particular moment, Lue said he was furious because Nelson should've been at least considered for a flagrant, but there was something else that stood out to him.
"A team's up 40 points and they're just playing physical and hard," Lue said. "We're down 40 and we got guys just walking away and doing whatever."
"When you get beat like this, I mean, (Denver is) a good team they played hard, they run a lot of good stuff," Lue said. "But they're still a team that's fighting for the eighth spot. We're the No. 1 team in the East. We gotta play better and we understand that. We got our butts kicked today, and it starts today. We gotta be better."
But what was clear is Lue (and James) believe the problem on defense was the players not really wanting to play it.
"Coaches we gotta be better, but players they gotta be better too," Lue said. "They gotta be tougher. Gotta be more urgency, and it comes from all of us. They got 3-point shots, they got points in the paint, they got offensive rebounds. They got whatever they wanted. And we gotta be better than that.
"It starts with the coaches but the players gotta look at themselves in the mirror too. They gotta be more physical, they gotta bring a physical presence and they've got to take pride in guarding their man."
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No. 2: Report: Warriors optimistic Durant will return before season's end -- Since they lost star forward Kevin Durant to a sprained MCL and tibial bone bruise on Feb. 28, the Golden State Warriors are 7-5. That mark is buoyed by the Warriors' current five-game win streak and the rising play of Stephen Curry. All along, Golden State had held out hope Durant would mend and get a few games in before the 2017 playoffs begin. According to Chris Haynes and Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Durant seems to be on track for just that:
The Golden State Warriors aren't scheduled to formally update the status of Kevin Durant's left knee until next week, but there is cautious optimism within the organization that Durant -- should he maintain his current recovery arc -- will be able to return to the court before the end of the regular season, according to league sources.
While noting that Durant is roughly at the halfway stage of his recovery period, sources told ESPN.com that the Warriors are encouraged by the progress Durant has made in the 22 days since he suffered a sprained MCL and tibial bone bruise in his left knee on Feb. 28.
Hours before Golden State's victory Tuesday night in Dallas, Durant completed his first on-court workout that involved shots on the move as well as some running. Durant watched the Warriors' comprehensive wins Monday and Tuesday in Oklahoma City and Dallas from the bench during his first road trip with the team.
An official update from the Warriors on Durant's progress is expected mid-to-late next week. Of prime importance now, sources said, is how Durant responds to the increased intensity of his rehab work.
Durant looked pretty comfortable shooting jumpers before the Mavericks game. didn't see him doing anything more explosive than this, though. pic.twitter.com/E51raIkkeY— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) March 21, 2017
At the time Durant suffered the injuries, Golden State announced that he would be "out of action indefinitely" but added that "it has not been ruled out that he could play again before the end of the regular season." Sources close to the situation reiterated this week that the Warriors hope Durant progresses enough to get in some game action during the final week of the regular season so he doesn't have to jump into postseason play cold.
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No. 3: Bucks cap off road trip on high note -- A week or so ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were squarely in the midst of the mash-up of teams fighting for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. Thanks to last night's 117-98 romp against the Sacramento Kings, though, the Bucks are squarely in the No. 6 seed and seemingly in control of their playoff destiny. Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel has more:
Milwaukee (36-35) went 4-2 on a journey that began 10 days ago in Memphis. The Bucks lost by 20 points to the Grizzlies but bounced back to beat both the Clippers and Lakers in Los Angeles. Following a 117-92 loss at Golden State on Saturday, the Bucks beat Portland and the Kings on back-to-back nights.
"Our maturity showed," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "The trip didn't start well. We won two in Los Angeles and had a tough one at Golden State. But the guys stuck together."
Greg Monroe had 15 points for the Bucks on Wednesday, while Mirza Teletovic and Khris Middleton had 13 points each and Malcolm Brogdon had 12. Milwaukee made 16 of 35 3-point attempts, including 8 of 12 in a 44-point second quarter.
"We talked about our defense being our offense," Kidd said. "To end the trip in sixth shows we're playing pretty good basketball at the right time."
The victory put the Bucks above .500 for the first time since Jan. 15.
Milwaukee struggled near the midpoint of the season, losing 12 of 14. But the Bucks have a 14-5 record since Feb. 10.
Milwaukee is sixth because of the tiebreaker it holds with Indiana (36-35) and leads eighth-place Miami (35-36) by one game. Indiana lost at Boston on Wednesday and Miami was idle.
Chicago and Detroit are both 34-38 and in ninth and 10th, respectively, trailing the Bucks by 2 1/2 games. The Bulls routed the Pistons, 117-95, on Wednesday at the United Center.
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No. 4: Van Gundy unhappy with Pistons' effort -- The Detroit Pistons' showing in the 2016 playoffs -- a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers -- nonetheless gave them hope they'd take a step forward in 2016-17. Yet that hasn't been the case all season and as the season winds down, Detroit is on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Coach Stan Van Gundy's lineup change before last night's 117-95 loss in Chicago hasn't changed the Pistons' outlook much, writes Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:
In Ish Smith's mind, there isn't any controversy.
He signed with Detroit Pistons last off-season to back up Reggie Jackson at point guard.
And despite his promotion to the starting lineup before Wednesday night's listless 117-95 loss to the Chicago Bulls, that’s how he still views the situation.
“From Day 1, I came here to back up Reggie,” Smith told the Free Press in the United Center visitor’s locker room. “I’m gonna play my role, play my game. I don’t pay attention to (the outside noise).
“I know I’ve been in the predicament where people have killed me and I’ve been on the opposite end so I support my guy, I support my team.
“He’s gotta be good, I gotta be good, we all gotta be good.”
No one was good Wednesday for the Pistons and even Smith’s start wasn’t enough to help a sinking ship taking on too much water.
Smith was hindered by foul trouble and finished with nine points and seven assists in 26 minutes. Jackson came off the bench and finished six points and four assists.
But it didn’t matter who was point guard with the Pistons’ imitation of drill cones on defense.
“I think it gets in your head a little bit (when you don’t make shots),” Jackson said. “But you have to have a short-term memory. Same thing I said last game – we need to shoot our shots. We have to be confident.”
It’s obvious Jackson’s confidence has cratered.
Lineups with Smith have outperformed Jackson’s most of the season since Jackson returned after missing the first 21 games with left knee tendinitis.
And with the team’s playoff chances slipping away, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy told both players of the lineup change Wednesday morning.
“I believe I’m a starter in this league, I definitely do, but at the same time, I’m a ball player,” Jackson said. “As long as I’m on the court, I’m going to enjoy playing ball and enjoying going out there and competing all I can to help my team win.”
Van Gundy was non-committal on if he would stick with Smith in the starting lineup.
“Man, it’s not just one position,” Van Gundy said. “We’re just not playing. It was just bad all the way around.”
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