Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (March 27) -- Kyrie Irving faces new test as season wanes

Plus, Patrick Beverley sounds off on resting stars, the Clippers endure a frantic weekend and more Staff

No. 1: Kyrie Irving’s new defensive responsibility — Kyrie Irving is a world class scorer, one of the best on the planet. But the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar has never been accused of being anything other than a pedestrian defender. And that complicates things for a Cavaliers team trying to change the emphasis for Irving on the defensive side. The experiment of Irving taking on a more significant defensive role is one of several issues the Cavaliers are dealing with heading into tonight’s showdown against the Spurs in San Antonio (8 ET, TNT). And as Chris Fedor of highlights, the early returns are not promising:

Tyronn Lue’s recent starting lineup change has given Kyrie Irving a substantial new responsibility: defending the point guard.

This might seem like an obvious assignment given Irving’s position, but over the last few months, while J.R. Smith recovered from a thumb injury, DeAndre Liggins or Iman Shumpert took that challenge, an attempt to cut off “the head of the snake.” It was also part of a big-picture plan to keep Irving from getting worn down in the regular season, keep him from having to fight through a plethora of on-ball screens.

With J.R. Smith back in the starting lineup, a move Lue made prior to Wednesday’s loss against the Denver Nuggets — the defeat that led to both Lue and LeBron James questioning the team’s toughness — Irving is back to defending on the ball.

“It’s a lot of pressure to have him be one of our scorers and then having to guard the best player on the other team,” Lue said. “It’s tough, but it’s part of the NBA. Every night he’s going to have a tough matchup, along with those (other point guards). They’ve got a tough matchup when they have to guard him so just have to step up and do it.”

The results haven’t been encouraging.

On Friday night, Hornets point guard Kemba Walker shredded Cleveland’s feeble defense. He blew past Irving and others, either getting into the paint repeatedly or creating enough space to pour in jumpers from the outside. He tallied 28 points on 10-of-20 from the field, including 5-of-10 from 3-point range. He also added five assists, as Charlotte outscored the Cavaliers by 12 points with Walker on the floor.

John Wall became the latest to exploit Irving’s defensive deficiencies Saturday night, leading an assault in which Irving has so often been on the other end.

A blur on the court, Wall scored a team-high 37 points on 14-of-21 from the field, including 2-of-2 from beyond the arc. With a determined look in his eye early, out to avenge Washington’s recent overtime loss against the champs, Wall attacked relentlessly. He scored 18 points in the first quarter, making all eight of his shot attempts, as the Wizards scored 40 points, the most the Cavs have sacrificed in the first period all season.

“Last time we played, Brad (Beal) got it going so we started out being very aggressive on his pick-and-rolls and John was coming off and he started off with a midrange jump shot in transition and when he gets a good feel, he starts pushing it every time and an even better feel, he starts hitting 3-point shots,” Irving said. “When he starts playing like that at a high level, he’s tough to maintain and he showed signs of that. Going forward, we’ll be better prepared.”

The last two point guards to face the Cavs have combined for 65 points on 24-of-41 (58 percent) shooting.

Lue spoke about having a secret plan to fix the defense, but even admitted he’s not confident things will change. Irving will be a big part of that.

With Smith in the starting lineup, Irving needs to be much better at the point of attack. Lue said putting Smith on the point guard is “not something we like to do.” That puts the pressure on Irving. Given his reputation as a subpar defender, he will be in the opponent’s crosshairs.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Irving said. “Offensively and defensively, it’s the same mindset. Our rules that we stick to with whatever point guard that we’re playing against, we just got to stick to our defensive gameplan if those guys are making shots and we go into a blitz action and try to stop them a little bit. But when they’re hitting outside shots, hitting their midrange shots, they’re tough to contain. On the flipside, I still got to stay aggressive offensively and get my teammates involved.”

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No. 2: Beverley: Resting players ‘a disgrace’ to NBA — Count Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley among those who refuse to give into the new school notion that it’s okay to rest players. Beverley, a bit of a throwback in words and deeds during his career, insists that the strategy of resting players is a “disgrace” to the NBA, as Tim MacMahon of explains:

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

Precautionary resting of players has become a hot-button issue recently, in part due to the Golden State Warriorsand Cleveland Cavaliers opting to rest stars for nationally televised Saturday night games. Commissioner Adam Silver responded by sending a memo to the league’s owners, urging them to be involved in the decision-making process regarding precautionary resting, calling it “an extremely significant issue for the league” that impacts “perception of our game.”

The Rockets have not followed the trend of resting their key players. MVP candidate James Harden and veteran forward Trevor Ariza, who both rank among the NBA’s top 10 in minutes played, have not missed a game this season.

Harden is dealing with a sore wrist, which he had wrapped in tape as he left the Toyota Center on Sunday evening. Asked if he planned to rest or play if he’s able, Harden simply smiled.

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No. 3: Celtics catch Cavaliers but prioritize improvement over standing — Don’t let anyone tell you that the Boston Celtics catching the Cleveland Cavaliers at the top of the Eastern Conference standings isn’t a huge deal, even if it’s only a temporary circumstance. The Celtics have been grinding away for a while now in that regard. But as big a deal as it might be in some circles, the Celtics are focused on the bigger picture, according to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:

The Celtics moved into a virtual tie with Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last night, and that term is quite appropriate.

Virtually no one in the Celtic dressing room cares much about it. Some of the C’s were talking earlier in the week about going after the Cavaliers, but now as the postseason comes into sharper view, more important matters have emerged.

The 112-108 victory over Miami improved the North End quintet to 48-26. But because the Celts have played two more games than the Cavaliers and are just a .500 team in said outings, the math still has them four one-hundredths behind the LeBron Jameses, .653 to .649.

But, hey, if you look in the GB column, there is a dash next to Boston. The C’s are no games behind the Cavs. They are in a first-place tie. So, yee-hah, right?

Well, not exactly.

The dry dress shirt Brad Stevens wore to his postgame press conference was not because he had changed after being doused with a bucket of ice.

So there was no big celebration?

“Nope,” said Marcus Smart.

No cutting down the nets?


No throwing water on anybody?

“Nope,” said a smart Marcus. “Another game.”

Even Isaiah Thomas — who lives for this kind of stuff, who admits he looks at the standings each day — realizes seeding is not as important as getting the Celtics in the proper groove with eight games left until the real ones begin.

“No, nobody talks about that,” said Thomas of catching Cleveland. “Hopefully we can secure that spot and be No. 1, but we’ve just got to control what we can control and take it game by game. We can’t really worry about what Cleveland’s doing and what other teams are doing. We control our own destiny at this point.”

If we’re looking at this through any prism of reality, unless the Celtics improve, the most that earning the top seed will get them is an extra home date of revenue.

And while it’s always nice to have intermediate goals, even newcomers understand that there are different standards in these parts.

Al Horford laughed when asked about the postgame party.

“Hey, we’re the Celtics, man,” he said. “C’mon. You know better than that.”

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No. 4: Clippers’ weekend ends with stunning loss — The LA Clippers did a lot to help their case for the No. 4 seed and home court in the first round by beating the Utah Jazz on Saturday. Then, they turned around and reversed whatever good will came from that win with a 98-97 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday that featured the Clippers blowing an 18-point lead. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times has more:

In what had to be considered a stunning collapse, these up-and-down Clippers took another step in the wrong direction by blowing an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter that took them down the path of an ignominious 98-97 loss to the going-nowhere Sacramento Kings.

After Chris Paul was unable to deliver his team from their evil ways when he missed a 21-foot jumper with 1.2 seconds left at Staples Center, the crumble had been completed and the Clippers were left trying to explain an inexplicable defeat so late in the season with so much at stake.

“It’s a bad loss. It’s probably the worst one in the regular season in my career, probably,” said Paul, who had 17 points and nine assists. “Yeah, that’s tough. That was a bad one. That’s a bad loss. Yeah.”

“These games should mean so much more to us than to them. Nothing against them. But just being out of the playoff picture… We have something to play for,” Blake Griffin, who had 17 points, said about the loss to the Kings. “And tonight it looked like it was the opposite, the other way around in that last little bit… It’s over now. Can’t do much about it now except try to move on.”

When Willie Cauley-Stein scored on a putback for a 98-97 Kings lead with 3.2 seconds left, the Clippers called a timeout.

Paul had one last opportunity to save the Clippers from their own disgrace, but he couldn’t deliver.

After missing the shot, Paul dropped to court as the ball bounced away, having to be picked up by his teammates, all of them dejectedly walking back to the locker room with their heads down.

“I caught it and was ready to shoot,” Paul said. “It felt good. I haven’t seen it again. But I’ll take that shot any day of the week.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The New Orleans Pelicans refuse to give up on that No. 8 playoff spot in the Western Conference standings, just ask the Denver Nuggets … The Hawks have had an uncanny amount of bad luck pile up as they continue to struggle down the stretch of this season … Russell Westbrook won the statistical battle against James Harden but couldn’t get the win that mattered most in Sunday’s MVP race showdown … Struggling? The Golden State Warriors have provided seven straight items to the contrary … The LA Clippers’ collapse against the Sacramento Kings was unbelievable, even for the Clippers … It took a while, 51 days to be exact, but the Portland Trail Blazers finally have their hands on a playoff spot this morning …