Shootaround (Feb. 28) -- Many challenges loom in March for Cleveland Cavaliers
Plus, why Kevin Durant never considered the Wizards in free agency, DeMar DeRozan's sizzling play of late and more
No. 1: Challenging March awaits Cavs — After a 7-8 run in January, the Cleveland Cavaliers more than bounced back in February, finishing with an NBA-best 9-2 mark. As they round into the final full month of the season, the Cavs have a tough schedule and some new faces (Deron Williams and, potentially, Andrew Bogut) to work into the fold as they gear up to defend their 2016 NBA title. Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com spells out more of what lies ahead for Cleveland:
Cleveland’s 117.4 points per game set a franchise record for scoring average in a month. The Cavs averaged 117.2 ppg in October, 1979 (the NBA played more of its games in October back then — Cleveland, for instance, played 11).
At 41-17, the Cavs own a 4.0-game lead over Boston in the East with 24 to play.
“February is over, huh? Yeah, that sucks,” James said. “It’s been a great month for our team. We just played good basketball. We got back to Cavalier basketball and to our DNA, so it definitely helped a lot.”
The Cavs went 7-8 in January. They simplified their defensive schemes and obviously cranked it up offensively. They added Derrick Williams on Feb. 9, and in seven games he’s immediately turned himself into a rotation player coach Tyronn Lue might very well use in the playoffs.
Williams has scored in double figures in four of his seven games and is shooting .568 from the field. He often guards the opponent’s backup point guard, but can play on the wing and in the post.
Kyle Korver, acquired in January, shot .589 from 3-point range (43-of-73) in February and averaged 15.5 points.
And on the second-to-last day of February (which was Monday), Cleveland brought in another free agent named “D-Will,” former five-time All-Star Deron Williams. He’ll make his Cavs debut on March 1 in Boston, which is Wednesday.
Let’s talk about March.
From a scheduling perspective, it’s the Cavs’ worst month. They play 12 of 17 on the road, starting (have we mentioned this?) in Boston, against the team chasing them for first in the East.
Lue has already said he will rest James and Kyrie Irving in March — not the whole month, mind you, but periodically — to make sure they’re legs are fresh for the playoffs.
From March 17-30, they’ll play six of seven on the road, including another cross-country trip that opens in Los Angeles (flying there from Cleveland, of course) and finishes in Charlotte. They’ll play the Celtics, Hawks, Clippers, Spurs, Bulls, and Rockets (all playoff teams right now), as well as the Pistons, Heat and Nuggets (playoff possibilities) away from The Q.
March is also a month of integration for this team. Deron Williams has yet to play a game. The Cavs could add Andrew Bogut in the next few days. If not him, then they’ll likely sign another big man. Whoever it is (unless it’s Anderson Varejao) will have to learn new teammates.
J.R. Smith hasn’t played since Dec. 20. He’s coming back in a couple weeks. Kevin Love had knee surgery on Valentine’s Day. He’s targeted a return toward the end of the month.
When the month ends, the Cavs should finally be whole. Tired of airplanes by then? Surely.
But their roster will be better than it was when they won the 2016 Finals, and certainly better than it was when James ripped it for being “top heavy” on Jan. 23.
“It’s good,” James said. “The main thing that I’ve said from the beginning is our process and our health. If we can get healthy at the right time, get some games under our belt it’s going to help us in the postseason, but right now we’re in a good rhythm and we just want to continue that.”
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No. 2: Durant explains why he didn’t pick Wizards in free agency — Just about two or so years ago, one of the storylines in the NBA was whether or not Kevin Durant, a Washington, D.C. native, would entertain the idea signing with the Washington Wizards in free agency. To be sure, it was a long shot at best and as we all know now, he left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors last summer. In an story written by The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps and Adam Kilgore, Durant spells out why a homecoming was never in the cards for him:
When LeBron James returned home to Cleveland in free agency during the summer of 2014, the decision kindled in Washington fans — and perhaps even Wizards officials — the “KD2DC” movement, and with it the fantasy of Durant making a similar move. But those thoughts quickly dissipated. Six teams met with Durant in the first few days of July to pitch him on the prospects of joining them in free agency. The Wizards weren’t among them.
When Durant plays at Verizon Center on Tuesday night as a Golden State Warrior, with an enormous tattoo spelling “Maryland” still inked across his shoulders, it will evoke two of the forces that shaped his life and colored his choice: an abiding love and appreciation for where he grew up, and an ardent need to expand himself beyond it.
“I don’t want to open up anything in the past, but I really just didn’t want to play at home,” Durant said. “It was nothing about the fans. Being at home, I was so happy with that part of my life — playing at home, being in front of friends, hanging with friends and family every day. That was a part of my life that has come and gone.
“I was like, I’m trying to build a second part of my life as a man living in a different part of the country, just trying to do different things. I did everything I was supposed to do in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, I felt. Now it’s time to do something new. I didn’t want to come back. That’s just my thought process behind it. It had nothing to do with basketball, the fans, the city.
“It was just like, ‘All right, that part of my life I’ve conquered already. What’s next?’”
Durant, in ways literal and figurative, is further from home than ever before. He makes fewer return trips, spending more time in Los Angeles and Miami in summers. He used to play in the American Southwest; now, he lives in the Bay Area. When James went back to Cleveland, it put the idea in Durant’s head — but only for a moment. So, too, did the idea of playing in front of his grandmother — though that, too, drifted quickly when he realized she would never allow him to do something his heart wasn’t fully committed to.
“I thought about what it might be like,” Durant said. “I thought about it. But it made LeBron’s situation different because he got drafted there. So it was like he was home already, so he knew what it was like. It wasn’t like it was his first time going back. For me, I never played at home. I didn’t know what it would be. I know every time I go back it’s pretty hectic, and I just wanted to focus on basketball and not have to worry about a lot of stuff that comes with being at home.
“It’s always good going back, but I would rather play in a different city.”
Durant left his hometown to become a man, but the past is still part of him. He does not visit as often as he once did, but when he does, he often experiences a reminder of the dreams he once had, that he really has made it. He stays in Crystal City, near a Metro stop in Virginia.
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No. 3: Warriors make up for Curry’s off night — Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors’ nightly barrage of 3-pointers is something NBA fans have taken as a given over the last few seasons. However, last night in Philadelphia, both he and the Warriors were more than just a little off from deep. Thanks to the Warriors’ depth and talent, though, they escaped with a 119-108 win that was closer than it looks, writes Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle:
On the first night of a five-city, eight-day trip, head coach Steve Kerr would have preferred to rest his best players far more. No game plan, of course, could account for Curry enduring the worst long-range shooting performance of his career.
For just the third time in 211 games, he didn’t make a three-pointer. Curry’s 0-fot-11 showing from distance tied the NBA record shared by Utah’s Trey Burke and Boston’s Antoine Walker for three-point misses without a make.
As Curry labored where he normally thrives, Durant (27 points, eight rebounds), Klay Thompson (21 points), Draymond Green (14 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, five steals) and Zaza Pachulia (season-high 16 points) helped carry the load. The 76ers tired down the stretch and were beaten for the third time in four games. Golden State withstood a 6-for-29 showing from deep by hitting 33 of 39 foul shots.
Golden State entered intermission nursing a 59-56 lead, having missed 15 of 16 three-point tries. It was a stunning development for a team that arrived here third in the league with a 38.9 percent clip beyond the arc.
Typically content to set screens and find the open teammate, Pachulia scored nine points in the first six minutes of the third quarter. The Warriors rattled off seven quick points out of a timeout midway through that period to create distance.
“I thought we played a really good game, but we just couldn’t make a shot,” Kerr said. “For the most part, we played a solid game, a poised game.”
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No. 4: DeRozan carries Raptors once again — The Toronto Raptors got a hearty dose of bad news yesterday as they announced star point guard Kyle Lowry needs surgery to remove loose bodies from his right wrist. The hope is Lowry will be back in time for the playoffs, but for the time being, the heavy lifting falls on the Raptors’ other All-Star guard, DeMar DeRozan. He was at his best once again last night, delivering the go-ahead bucket with 1.9 seconds left as Toronto held off the Knicks in New York. As Doug Smith of the Toronto Star writes, DeRozan has more of a burden than ever now:
On a night when he lost his all-star back-court running mate for the foreseeable future, DeRozan bailed out the Toronto Raptors again, scoring his team’s final 12 points, including a textbook DeRozan game-winner with 1.9 seconds left in a 92-91 win over the New York Knicks.
Everyone in Madison Square Garden — the Raptors, the Knicks, the fans, the coaches, the refs, the concessionaires — knew DeRozan was likely to do and he did it.
He calmly dribbled a couple of times, turned his back on a helpless Derrick Rose, backed him down another step or two, and hit the same shot he’s hit thousands of times in his life.
DeRozan’s heroics capped off an emotional day for a team that’s now won four straight to move back into third place in the Eastern Conference. They awoke to news that all-star point guard Kyle Lowry is going to be out for weeks after he has wrist surgery Tuesday, and then played like they were feeling sorry for themselves. They got down by as much as 17 points to a totally underwhelming Knicks roster, missing Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah, and looked all the world like Toronto would sleepwalk to a loss.
But a bolt of energy from a never-before-seen back-court of Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet infused the Raptors with some energy.
DeRozan has now scored 113 points in the three games that Lowry has missed. He had a career-high 43 Friday against Boston, 33 Sunday in a win over Portland and Monday night’s gem.
All this while knowing he needs to become a facilitator as much as a scorer.
“I think more of being conscious of me using my abilities,” DeRozan said. “I can score and cause more attention on myself, but I have to be a better playmaker out of that. As long as I do that and guys go out there and make things better for us, it makes my job a lot easier.”
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No. 5: Report: Knicks may pursue Holiday in free agency — Roster change was afoot in New York yesterday as the Knicks waived backup point guard Brandon Jennings, added youngster Chasson Randle and lost center Joakim Noah for the season to knee surgery. As New York’s faint playoff hopes flicker, it has an eye toward next season and one potential roster move may involve pursuing New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday once he hits free agency this summer. Ian Begley of ESPN.com has more:
The Knicks also cleared Jennings’ $6 million cap hold off their books, which gives them at least $5 million more to spend in free agency this summer. If the club ends up moving on from Derrick Rose, it will have at least $24 million in cap space. That should be enough to put New York in the running for a top lead guard.
Whether the Knicks can attract top talent is a question for another day. But they’ll certainly try.
One player to keep an eye on? New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday. League sources familiar with the matter say that some in the Knicks organization view Holiday as a target in free agency this summer. Team president Phil Jackson expressed interest in trading for Holiday earlier in his tenure, so the Knicks’ current interest in him makes sense. Holiday will likely have plenty of suitors, though.
What’s more, Jackson hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in free agency since he took over the Knicks in March 2013. He reportedly wanted to trade Anthony — his biggest acquisition in the summer of 2014 — earlier this month. He traded his biggest signing from the summer of 2015 — Robin Lopez — for Rose, whom he tried to trade last week. His biggest signing in 2016 — Joakim Noah — will likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
The Knicks are hopeful that Noah can return at some point later this season, but what’s the point? According to ESPN’s NBA Basketball Power Index, the Knicks had a 1.2 percent chance of making the playoffs before their defeat on Monday.
Yes, this seems like another lost year for Jackson, which won’t be a selling point for free agents this summer.
The Knicks also won’t be able to sell players on Jackson’s track record as an executive. Thus far, his presidency has been meandering and messy; if Jackson engineers another rebuild, it will be the second major roster overhaul of his presidency. A defining characteristic of his tenure has been player turnover; the Knicks have had at least seven new players on each roster during Jackson’s tenure.
Besides drafting Porzingis and Hernangomez, holding on to New York’s first-round picks and a few other signings, Jackson hasn’t done much to inspire confidence. He’s under contract for at least another two seasons, so he will probably get another chance to rebuild the roster this summer. He’ll have plenty of cap space to work with, along with a first-round draft pick.
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The NBA says Dwight Howard shouldn’t have been kicked out of last night’s game … Jose Calderon is expected to sign with the Golden State Warriors today once he clears waivers … Actor/comedian Kevin Hart rang the pregame bell before last night’s Warriors-Sixers game in Philly … Seth Curry is making a name for himself with the Dallas Mavericks … Last night’s comeback win may have been a big one for the Indiana Pacers’ growth this season … Willie Cauley-Stein is playing more in Sacramento. Now he just needs to be more consistent … Count Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau among the many admirers of rookie Buddy Hield’s game … Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is gushing about center Hassan Whiteside’s play of late …