Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Oct. 14) -- Cleveland Cavaliers defend The Land after Kyrie Irving's remarks

NBA.com staff reports

This morning’s headlines:

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Cavs defend The Land to Irving’s remarks: Well, the lead-up to the anticipated Cavs-Celtics tipoff was fueled by one of the main principals when Kyrie Irving recently mentioned how he upgraded cities in terms of sports. Most people would agree with that; Boston is rich in history and championships and also has hockey, while Cleveland is, well, not on the same radar. Of course, folks in Cleveland were rubbed raw anyway. Dave McMenamin of ESPN spoke to Cavs coach Tyronne Lue and Dwyane Wade — neither of whom are actually from Cleveland — to get the response:

Lue was asked if he felt like Irving’s comments were fanning the flames between the Cavs and Celtics leading up to their highly anticipated matchup on opening night next week.

“I don’t know,” Lue said. “He can do what he wants to do. But we know in Cleveland, we have a great sports town in Cleveland. A great city, fans behind the teams 100 percent, so I’m happy to be here.”

Irving’s observations were aimed at more than just the sports scene in the two cities.

“A lot of different cultures, food and people. You get it all, especially in Boston,” Irving said, per the Globe. “You would go to Cleveland, and it would be at nighttime and things would be going on, but you just see a vast difference in terms of what the Midwest is — Cleveland — and what Boston is. Boston, I’m driving in and [thinking], ‘I’m really playing in a real, live sports city?’ And a great city.”

Boston, once a tortured fan base similar to Cleveland, has experienced a renaissance over the past two decades, capturing 10 pro sports championships since 2001. The Cavs won the first championship in Cleveland in 52 years by beating the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals thanks in large part to Irving’s go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute of Game 7.

New Cavs guard Dwyane Wade — who, like Irving, played for only one NBA franchise his entire career before leaving the Miami Heat for the Chicago Bulls last summer — can appreciate that transition and gave Irving the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ve always tried not to be too, me personally, oversensitive to what I read or what somebody says because I wasn’t there when they said it,” Wade told ESPN. “Because you just don’t know. Boston is a big sports town. It has the history there. And I think that’s one thing, if you want to read the quote, they have an amazing amount of sports history and all the championships from football to baseball to all four sports. I think, depending on how you want to take it. If you’re Cleveland and the way they were left, you read it one way. If you’re a sports fan somewhere else, you read it another way. So it just depends on how someone wants to take the quote when someone says it. Unless you were there and you heard it and saw his facial reaction and know how he really meant it. That’s how I look at things.”

However, Wade continued to say that he is careful with what he says so as not to alienate himself or come off as ungrateful.

“My thing has always been — even in Miami — first of all, you never know where you’re going to be, what’s going to happen, where you’re going to end up, who you’re going to be teammates with,” Wade said. “You just never know those things, so I never want to leave a place and talk s— about a place. Because when you were there, it was great, and then you leave, it’s terrible? It’s just like players. Fans celebrate players when they’re there, and then they leave, and it’s the worst thing. That’s not me. That’s not how I do things. I’m appreciative of what people have done for me, what organizations have done for me, and I hope they’re appreciative of whatever I can bring or whatever I’ve done — on and off the court. So, it doesn’t always go that way, but that’s the way I try to make it when I can control it.”

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Who is OKC’s crunch guy?: Now that Russell Westbrook has his help, the next task if to find out how to use it when the game is on the line. A comfortable understanding must develop between Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom are fond of having the ball when it counts. Royce Young of ESPN took a look at the Thunder’s good problem to have:

Westbrook owned clutch time last season, building an MVP campaign largely on late-game heroics. Westbrook attempted 184 of the Thunder’s 303 clutch-time shots (last five minutes, margin within five) last season. His usage rate was 62.3. If it was close, or the Thunder had a big shot to take, the ball was Russell Westbrook’s, full stop.

With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony now his teammates, that appears likely to change.

“Carmelo’s been a closeout guy the places he’s been, the same thing with Paul. But any time you have a team you have to do it by finding the open man,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Clearly for us last year, somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else, it was Russell. But obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here, I think it’s about making the right play and right decision.”

As comfortable as Westbrook was in that role last season, and as much as he relished it, it was an adjustment. His first eight seasons he spent largely deferring to Kevin Durant in clutch time.

Westbrook had his moments, of course, but so much of the Thunder’s well-documented crunch-time issues under former coach Scott Brooks stemmed from a lack of creativity or innovation. The Thunder wanted to force-feed the ball to Durant, even at the expense of reducing Westbrook to nothing more than a point guard who needed to dribble the ball past half court in under eight seconds and make one pass.

That was for myriad reasons, including Durant’s insistence in having the ball in those moments. During the 2015-16 season, Westbrook’s clutch-time usage rate was 37.6 (Durant’s was 40.2). Westbrook attempted 108 shots (Durant attempted 114).

Enter George and Anthony, who come from situations where they were accustomed to having the ball in big spots. Last season Anthony took 91 of the Knicks’ 310 clutch-time shots and posted a usage rate of 35.2. George took 105 of the Pacers’ 263 clutch attempts, with a usage rate of 41.2. It was George, following a 109-108 Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers last postseason, expressing frustration about CJ Miles taking the potential game winner instead of him.

“I talked to CJ about it,” George said after the game. “In situations like that, I gotta get the last shot. I was asking for it. CJ took it upon himself.”

That was then, with Miles and Myles Turner. This is now, with the reigning MVP and a future Hall of Famer.

“All three of us are comfortable with whoever has that shot,” George said a couple of weeks ago. “… I trust Russ, I trust Carmelo, that they are going to do whatever is best for the team. I trust they are going to knock that shot down. Really I have no concern when it comes to that. I know with those guys, they are going to give us a chance to win. That’s ultimately what we want.”

Westbrook had universal freedom to operate in crunch time last season, especially in those final shot moments. It was complete clarity. There was no tug-of-war with Durant, no second-guessing by Monday Morning Point Guards. Westbrook’s head was clear in the clutch, and he excelled. He averaged 60 points per 36 minutes in clutch time.

Think that usage rate in clutch time was high? It went to 81.0 in a one-possession game with 30 seconds or less left. He took 28 of the Thunder’s 36 shots in that situation. Make it a one-possession game with less than 10 seconds left, and Westbrook took 18 of the Thunder’s 23 shots.

Second in the league? Anthony, who took 13 of the Knicks’ 26 shots. (George took four of the Pacers’ 10.)

“Whoever’s open. It’s simple,” Anthony said. “We’ll run the play, and whoever gets open will take the shot. It’s not like I’m coming and saying, ‘I want the last shot,’ or Russ is saying he wants the last shot, or Paul. Whoever’s open will take the shot. We all feel comfortable in those situations and those moments, so no need for any one of us to demand it at that point.”

All three are dynamic isolation players, a staple of clutch moments. Westbrook was second in the league last season in points in isos with 486. Anthony was fourth with 386 and George was ninth with 282.

Privately, the three Thunder stars have already made it a point to emphasize the collective desire to do what’s best for the group. They might be coming from situations and experiences different than this one, but their goal is the same.

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McHale doubles down on Harden: Former Rockets coach and current Turner analyst Kevin McHale didn’t shy away from remarks made a week ago when he didn’t think James Harden was a leader. After Harden volleyed with a strong reply and calling McHale “a clown,” McHale addressed that Friday night during TNT’s telecast. McHale’s view on Harden was spot on; he didn’t question Harden’s stardom, just remarked that Harden’s personality isn’t to challenge teammates verbally when times get tough. Chris Paul, on the other hand, fits the bill, says McHale:

“Calling me names is not going to change my opinion as to what I saw when I was there,” McHale said Friday on TNT. “It’s hard to have credibility if you don’t play defense.”

McHale remained complimentary of Harden’s basketball skills while explaining what he considers to be leadership.

“[Harden] is a hell of a basketball player, he really is,” McHale said.

“And to James’ credit, I will say this: He organizes guys in the summer. He does a lot of stuff. He does a lot of those things. When I was talking more about leadership is … it’s a tie game at half. It’s a playoff game, or you’re playing another team that’s tough and rumble, and they’re going to get after you. And all of a sudden, with four minutes to go in the third, you’re down nine. They’re getting every loose ball, they’re getting every rebound, they’re doing all this stuff. It’s not about skill at that point. It’s about will. I gotta impose my will on you. James at that point gets a little bit … that’s not his personality. Chris Paul, in turn, will get in your face, go nose to nose with you, say, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ and I think that’s what you need. Draymond Green does a great job, whenever you need a spark. He’s out there going jawing with somebody.”

Houston acquired Paul during the offseason, and McHale has praised the move due to Paul’s leadership abilities.

“Chris Paul will have that leadership at those times where [Harden] gets a little bit introverted, a little bit quiet,” McHale said Friday. “You saw the game with the Spurs, he gets to the point where he’s just passive. And Chris Paul’s not like that.”

McHale coached Harden for three-plus seasons in Houston.

“He’s a clown, honestly,” Harden said after the Rockets’ open practice Saturday, following McHale’s initial comments. “I did anything and everything he asked me to do. I’ve tried to lead this team every day since I stepped foot here in Houston. To go on air and just downplay my name, when honestly he’s never taught me anything to be a leader. …

“But I’ve done a great job. The organization, my coaches, you can ask any of those guys how I’ve worked extremely hard every single day to better [myself], obviously as a basketball player, but be a leader as well. To go on air and downplay my name like that, it just shows his character. I usually don’t go back and forth on social media with anybody or with interviews, but I’m going to stand up for myself, and there it is. But you just don’t go and do that. It shows what type of person he is.”

McHale was fired in November 2015 despite being only 11 games into a four-year, $12 million contract given to the coach in the wake of the Rockets’ trip to the Western Conference finals the previous season. Harden believes that bitterness about the firing played a significant role in McHale criticizing him.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Monday deadline is approaching for contract extensions for players on their rookie deals. A few have cashed in, notably Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, but the next wave might have to wait. On the fence are two in Orlando, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton … Same goes for Jusuf Nurkic in Portland; the Blazers obviously want to keep the center who gave life to the team last spring, but there apparently is an impasse … The Bulls, likewise, appear to take a wait and see approach with Zach LaVine regarding a contract; first things first, he has to mend. So far, so good … Tobias Harris is tired of changing teams. He doesn’t want the Pistons to trade him … Dante Exum is out with injury but rookie Donovan Mitchell, like he did in summer league, looks ready for rotational minutes … Do the Nuggets have enough tough guys to compete with the West elites?

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