NBA Sitrep – The All-Star game is back! Donovan’s dunking delight and the red-hot Utah Jazz

A weekly post wrapping up all the action from around the association over the last seven days.

Defense in the All-Star game?

This was the final play of the 2018 All-Star game.

For the first time in recent memory, the All-Star game was decided by defense.

Curry was locked up by LeBron and then Durant, leading to a desperation shot from DeRozen that was released after the buzzer.

Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145, while LeBron secured his third All-Star MVP with a 29 point, 10 rebound and 8 assist master-class.

Let’s get this straight, there were still stretches of the game where defense was minimal and the offense consisted of open dunks and deep three balls.

But overall, the defense was much better, the players seemed to slightly care and the result was a genuinely entertaining game of pick-up basketball between the world’s best.

The game wasn’t short on highlights either.

This Embiid and Westbrook rivalry is the gift that keeps on giving.

He couldn’t finish the move, but this was just sick by Kyrie.

Next year televise the draft, don’t let Fergie sing the national anthem and just scrap the ridiculous pre-show snore fest.

But other than that, give us more of the same.

The All-Star game is officially back!

Donovan the Dunk King

The All-Star game may have returned to former glory, but the Dunk Contest left much to be desired.

Donovan Mitchell took out the Dunk Champ crown, which was judged by basketball legends such as Mark Wahlberg and Chris Rock.

The only thing stupider than that would be to get DJ Khaled to judge as well.

Oh wait, they did.

There were a few decent dunks here and there, but overall it was another forgettable Dunk Contest.

Dennis Smith Jr. had the best dunk of the night in my non-qualified opinion. So basically, I should be a judge as well.

Larry Nance Jr. tried to spice things up with this double-tap throw down.

Donovan’s final dunk, which according to our esteemed judges handed him the win.

Booker takes out Three-Point crown

Devin Booker took out the three-point contest, which gave the Dunk Contest a run for its money on the disappointment scale.

Booker finished with a record 28 points in the final, eclipsing the previous record of 27 held by the Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry.

The most interesting point of note from the event.

The LA rims don’t seem to love Paul George as much as he loves the city.

Spencer Dinwiddie took out the Skills Challenge, becoming the first Nets player to win something in a very long time.

Joel Embiid was knocked out before the final, but not before he bent every rule to stay alive in the competition.

https://twitter.com/barstoolsports/status/965035868154224641

Technically after three attempts at the chest pass, you are free to advance, regardless of a miss or make.

Embiid is the first contestant in the history of the Skills Challenge to actually read the rules.

He also forgot to take the tag off his shorts.

Earlier in the weekend, the World Team rolled to an easy 155-124 victory over Team USA.

Bogdan Bogdanovic was named the MVP of the game, dropping 26 points along with seven triples off the bench.

Sweet, sweet music for Jazz

Back to the real basketball, where the Jazz have rolled off eleven straight wins to race into playoff contention.

After entering January five games below .500, the Jazz have knocked over the likes of the Warriors, Raptors, Trailblazers and Spurs on the way to their current 30-28 record.

Donovan Mitchell has upped his already incredible level of play, Rudy Gobert has anchored the defense superbly and the Jazz’s role players have provided the perfect complement to Mitchell’s instant offense.

In the Jazz’s comeback win over the Spurs last week, it was the relatively unknown Royce O’Neale who shut down Kyle Anderson and then Manu Ginobili to seal the win.

Moments earlier, Derrick Favors had blocked Manu Ginobili and saved the ball to give the Jazz possession.

It’s plays and efforts like these which have pushed the Jazz back up the standings and only one and a half games out of the eighth seed.

Risers/Sliders

standings - week 6

Photo credit: ESPN

Riser

The Utah Jazz may own the league’s largest current win streak, but Houston is right behind them with their own ten game win streak. Led by CP3 and Harden, the Rockets have leapt above the Warriors and currently hold the number one seed in the West. They have also set themselves up for the second half of the season by signing free agents, Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright to their roster.

Slider

The Nets have lost seven straight games, and are just one from their last ten contests. Only one game currently separates the Nets from the likes of the Magic, Hawks, Kings and Mavericks in the win column, which will have the Cavaliers front office excited about the prospect of a high lottery pick (The Cavs will receive the Nets first-round pick, which was acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal).

Heat Check

Anthony Davis

vs. Pistons – 38 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks

vs. Lakers – 42 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks, 3 steals

A huge week for the Brow, who led the Pelicans to their third straight win and helped them cling to their playoff spot in the eighth seed. If New Orleans is to hold off the Clippers and Jazz down the stretch, Davis will need to continue to stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis.

Highlights

The pass was nice and the finish was just nasty.

Westbrook wasn’t coasting into the All-Star break.

Back-to-back huge blocks by Jimmy Butler.

https://twitter.com/barstoolsports/status/964353142505771008

Eric Bledsoe finishing with authority.

Jabari Parker putting two Hawks on a poster.

Whoopsie Watch

Dwight Howard – 0 / Orlando Rim – 1

Okafor with the thirteen-second violation!

Steve Kerr is so bored that he is now letting the players do his job.

https://twitter.com/Devin_Walker5/status/963267527643148290

NBA Sitrep – Fresh faces for Cavs, the fall of Porzingis and every other non-Cleveland trade

A weekly post wrapping up all the action from around the association over the last seven days.

Cavs hit Control-Alt-Delete

The 2018 trade deadline was seemingly quiet, so Koby Altman dialed up the phone and decided to spice things up a little.

What followed was an avalanche of trades resulting in a complete roster rebuild in the middle of February.

Only six other teams in the last ten years have dealt away six players in the same month as the trading deadline.

Cleveland became number seven and has given LeBron the pieces for what could possibly be his last title run with the Cavs.

Clarkson, Nance, Hood and Hill all made their Cavs debut against Boston today and the immediate results were promising.

The Cavs trounced the Celtics 121-99, but more impressive was the enthusiasm and energy displayed throughout the game.

George Hill had 12 points, Nance provided a spark off the bench, Hood dropped 15 and Clarkson left LeBron in raptures on the bench with his entertaining 17-point outing.

LeBron sat for the entire fourth quarter for the first time since late November in a clash against Miami.

Yes, it was only one game. But for a franchise that was limping towards the All-Star break broken and bruised, it was a much-needed dose of hope.

The after-thought trades

The Cavaliers held a monopoly over trade deadline talks, but there were numerous other deals that slipped through the cracks before the Thursday deadline.

Elfrid Payton and his hair made their way to the Suns for a 2018 second-round pick. The former first-round pick made his Phoenix debut on Sunday and finished with 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds in a loss to the Nuggets.

Emmanuel Mudiay joined Payton as another first-round point guard to find a new home before the trade deadline. Mudiay made his debut for his new club today, scoring 14 points and dishing out 10 assists for the Knicks.

https://twitter.com/theknicksblog/status/961679601238986755

Jameer Nelson joined the Pistons, who also secured James Ennis from the Grizzlies. Former Clippers Brice Johnson and Willie Reed both departed Detroit, Johnson to Memphis and Reed to the Bulls.

Dante Cunningham joined the Nets, Noah Vonleh was shipped to Chicago and Sheldon Mac joined the Hawks as we start scraping the bottom of the trade deadline barrel.

Isaiah Thomas impressed in his debut game for the Lakers, scoring 22 points, dropping six assists and four three-balls along the way.

Thomas’ former teammate, Dwayne Wade received a standing ovation from the Miami faithful as he returned to his former playground.

Who shot Bambi?

You could almost hear a pin drop inside Madison Square Garden as Porzingis lay in agony, slamming his fist into the hardwood.

https://twitter.com/TheRenderNBA/status/961048066622197761

An MRI confirmed the worst, Porzingis has torn his ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.

He was having a career year, averaging 22.7 points and an NBA-high 2.4 blocks per game for the Knicks faithful.

With their captain fallen, the Knicks slight playoff dreams seem crushed along with the hearts of their loyal fans.

Risers/Sliders

standings - week 5

Photo credit: ESPN

Riser

The Utah Jazz are flying up the standings behind a nine-game winning streak that has seen them knock off contender after contender. The Pistons, Raptors, Spurs, Pelicans and Trailblazers have all fallen to the Jazz, who also just happened to hand the Warriors a 30-point thumping. The Jazz have the second best defensive rating in the league over their nine-game winning streak and are using their defensive calling card to make a genuine late push for the playoffs.

Slider

The New York Knicks are 0-2 without Porzingis and are have slumped into a six-game losing streak. Unfortunately, the Knicks are likely to struggle for the remainder of the season with Porzingis looking on from the sidelines. It’s time to hand the keys to Frank Ntilikina and attempt to unearth another young talent to play alongside Kristaps when he returns next season.

Heat Check

Paul George

vs. Warriors – 38 points, 5 rebounds, 6 steals, 6 three-pointers made

vs. Lakers – 29 points, 9 rebounds, 5 three-pointers made

vs. Grizzlies – 33 points, 8 assist, 3 steals, 5 three-pointers made

Is Paul George the best two-way player in the NBA right now?

It’s a contentious question, but George’s recent stretch has seen him dominate teams on both ends of the floor with a ‘Kawhi’ like tenacity. Westbrook may be the OKC’s Batman, but George is the perfect Robin to challenge the Warriors in the playoffs. The Thunder have handled the Warriors comfortably in both their regular season matchups, which is largely due to George’s ability to guard every Warrior on the floor. The Thunder may still be having a roller-coaster season, but George has certainly found his groove after struggling early days.

Highlights

Dunk of the Year. Giannis is just absurd.

He actually just jumped clean over a 6-foot-6 Hardaway.

It’s been a big week for Zach LaVine, who not only led the Bulls to a win over his former team, but also did this to Jakarr Sampson.

Moments after blocking Jimmy Butlers game-winning attempt, LeBron showed him how it was done with this step-back dagger.

Now would be the time to look away Julius Randle.

Here comes the Bam!

Whoopsie Watch

Cedi Osman with the wide open …

Someone is getting the dreaded call to Mark Cubans office this week.

No chair is safe around an angry Robin Lopez.

The rise and fall of James

Basketball can be a cruel game sometimes.

James Harden burst towards the rim in trademark style as the clock wound down at the Toyota Centre. It was an innocuous play, a move that Harden pulls off so routinely that there was a hush of disbelief when the ball caromed off the rim without scratching the score-sheet. However, only seconds later the Houston faithful had all but forgotten the missed basket as Harden gingerly limped up the court.

When the dust settled, Harden was diagnosed with a Grade 2 left hamstring strain. With 57 ticks left on the clock, Harden had a firm grip on the league’s most coveted individual award. With 55 ticks, he had lost the ball, his footing and his foothold on that elusive MVP trophy.

Prior to the injury, Harden was the clear favourite for the 2018 MVP trophy. After crossing the line second in 2015 (lost to Stephen Curry) and 2017 (lost to Russell Westbrook), Harden has taken his game to the next level and was finally the frontrunner for the illustrious trophy.

He leads the league in scoring (32.2 points per game), while still dishing out just over nine assists per game (second in the league). Throw in five rebounds per contest, 1.8 steals, 45% shooting from the field with a 39% clip from three and you have a near undeniable case for MVP.

For Harden, it now comes down to his undeniable case against a harsh reality. The last ten winners of the MVP trophy have missed an average of just 2.5 games over the course of the season. The only player since 1978 to miss more than seven games and still hold the MVP trophy aloft was Allen Iverson in 2001, who played just 71 games.

Harden is slated to be re-evaluated two weeks from the injury (would likely be the 16th of January), with an immediate return seeing him miss seven games. However, many doctors believe this is an incredibly generous return schedule for a Grade 2 hamstring strain. If Harden took the more likely three weeks to recover, he would miss ten games. Suddenly the weight of history would be against him.

Enter part human, part cyborg, LeBron James.

The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are all piecing together phenomenal seasons. But if anyone was to wrestle the MVP away from Harden in 2018, LeBron would be the clear candidate.

At the age of 33, with 15 seasons, 1,316 games and over 51,000 career minutes under his belt, LeBron is arguably getting better.

Even superstars are supposed to regress at some point. You lose a step here or there, you can’t jump quite as high as you used to and you humbly hand over the baton when Father Time comes knocking on the door.

The season that LeBron is putting together quite simply beggar’s belief. Although he would want to hope that his performance yesterday (10 points on 4 of 8 shooting) against the Timberwolves was an aberration. Considering the last time he only managed 10 points in a game was in October 2007, I’d say he is fairly safe there.

TNT and NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony put it best when he said, “There’s never been a player in his 15th season who was unquestionably the best player in the league. It’s not just that [LeBron] is really good in his 15th year. He’s the best player.”

This season he is scoring at a higher rate than in his dominant Miami years, when he was supposed to be in his prime. His 27.2 points per contest is the third best in the league and his highest rate since the 2009/10 season.

He’s not only putting the ball in the basket more, but he’s doing it at a historic efficiency. As we creep towards the half-way point of the season, LeBron is having the second most efficient volume shooting season in league history. The only player to maintain a higher Effective Field Goal Percentage over an entire season, Steph Curry back in his blistering 2015/16 campaign.

LeBron is shooting 55.8% from the field, the third highest mark of his career. More impressively though, he is finishing through contact and tighter defenses with increased efficiency.

LeBron has always been able to absorb contact and finish at the rim, mainly because no-one has figured out how to stop a 250-pound freight-train with a crash course for the rim. This season, with defenders between 0 and 60 cm’s away (0-2 feet), LeBron is converting at 76% on 1.6 attempts. That’s a 3% increase from last season and a massive 15% increase from the season before.

After having his worst career free-throw shooting performance last season, LeBron has turned it around and is now having his second best career free-throw shooting campaign at 77.7%. LeBron credits much of this spike to his tweaked shooting form, which is just quietly turning his biggest weakness into another weapon in his endless scoring arsenal.

Over the off-season LeBron’s shooting elbow mysteriously swelled to the size of a tennis ball, despite X-rays finding nothing structurally amiss. LeBron was forced to tweak his shot form, which now has a noticeably higher release and to the terror of the league, a noticeably higher efficiency.

LeBron has never been a great three-point shooter. It has been one of the few knocks on his Hall of Fame career. Make LeBron a shooter and you have done the best you can was the cry in unison from coaches to their defensive troops.

This season, LeBron is shooting the three-ball at 39%, the second highest mark of his career. That’s 3% higher than the league average. He is shooting the three-ball at the same efficiency as Kevin Durant and James Harden. Kyrie Irving is shooting the long ball only 0.3% higher than him.

He is not only making more threes, but he is taking more threes. Just under 27% of his shots are coming from beyond the arc this season, the highest rate of his entire career. Beyond the numbers, LeBron’s three-ball is finally starting to pass the eye test. When LeBron casts up a three-ball now there is an expectation it’s going to rip the nylon, rather than the collective groan from years past.

LeBron has never really relied on a go-to, signature shot in the big moments. He is such a dynamic scorer he simply doesn’t need one. However, with the increase in his three-ball efficiency this is starting to change.

The step back three-pointer on the left wing. Earlier this season New York got a taste of the LeBron step back three as he sized up Kristaps Porzingis and delivered the dagger to the Knicks faithful. Seconds earlier Knicks commentator Clyde Frazier pleaded for his team to be wary of the three, “He’s going to shoot the three from there…He likes to shoot the three from this side.”

As Frazier eluded to, Porzingis was not the first victim of LeBron’s step back three.

Even the Warriors aren’t immune to LeBron’s step back.

Over the last two seasons, LeBron is shooting 13 of 25 on step-back three-pointers. That’s a clip of over 50%, much higher than his 38% efficiency from beyond the arc in entirety over the same stretch.

All this and LeBron is still averaging a career-high 9 assists per game (equal third in the league), grabbing 8.2 rebounds a contest (second best season) to go with 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.

It’s a compelling resume, especially in combination with carrying a somewhat spluttering Cavaliers to the third-best record in the East. Unlike Harden, LeBron is also yet to miss a game this season.

LeBron would have to break the age barrier to hoist his 5th MVP trophy. Just under 80% of all the league’s MVP winners have been between 24 and 30 years of age. But if anyone could deny the ticking hands of time, it would come as no surprise to be the ageless LeBron.

If he were to ascend the throne for a fifth time, he would join an elusive group of legendary greats. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the all-time record with six MVP awards, while LeBron would slot comfortably onto a pedestal with two others in second place.

One of them is the Celtics Bill Russell, and the other is slightly more likely to cause a few heated debates.

Don’t quote me, but I think he played for the Bulls.

LeBron or bust for Cavaliers?

Eerie defence chants engulfed Oracle Arena as the shot clock wound down. James faked a drive to the basket before letting it fly over Iguodala’s outstretched hand. It was the shot that James wanted, but unfortunately for Cleveland it was also the shot Golden State wanted.

James jumper would clank off the rim, as would Shumpert’s desperation circus shot. Golden State hit back with a 10-2 run in overtime to crush Cleveland and take a commanding lead in this years NBA Finals.

While Game 1 had the hallmarks of a thrilling contest, there are numerous underlying issues for the Cavaliers going forward.

The question on everyone’s minds coming into the finals was how will Golden State defend against James? How do you stop a rampaging freight train, who averaged 30.1 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the conference finals.

Golden State employed the “don’t let anyone else beat us” tactic and somehow it worked. James may have had 44 points, but Golden State effectively shackled the rest of the Cleveland line-up.

The majority of James possessions resulted in a one on one isolation plays or post ups. Golden State rotated their defenders to keep James guessing and denied him from finding his rhythm.

They dared James to shoot from mid range and the perimeter, and shoot he did. James let 38 shots fly, which was 68% of Cleveland’s total shots for the game. James made 18 of his attempts, which considering the defence is acceptable. However the effect on his teammates output was catastrophic.

The entire Cleveland outfit, minus James, managed just 21 baskets. Only three more than James made on his own. J.R. Smith and Shumpert combined for 5-19 shooting while Jones and Dellavedova failed to find the bottom of the net in their combined twenty-six minutes of game time.

Irving battled manfully and arguably outplayed Curry before succumbing to injury. While Irving was hopeful for a return to the series, scans have confirmed that he has fractured his left knee cap.

The alarm bells are ringing in Cleveland as the Aussie, Dellavedova prepares to play considerable minutes in Irving’s absence. “Delly’s” spirit and drive cannot be questioned, however in Game 1 he looked lost against Curry and this poses as a dangerous matchup for the Cavs.

When the Cavaliers offence is flowing, James is as much a facilitator as a scorer. There are not many six foot eight small forwards in the league who can pin point teammates like James can. His vision may be his most undervalued asset and has been a lethal weapon throughout the post season.

However with Golden State refusing to double team James until the last second, they are effectively taking away his ability to set teammates up. In his 46 minutes on the floor, James only managed six assists for the game. When James eventually did find a teammate, Golden State’s elite close out speed made every shot a contested one and the impact was profound.

Through the first three rounds, 32% of J.R. Smith’s, Shumpert’s and Irving’s combined 3-point attempts were contested. In Game 1 against Golden State, that figure skyrocketed to 45%.

As a result of this pressure, the trio shot a combined 1-10 from beyond the arc on contested shots. Without a hand in their face, they shot 6-12 from deep. In a game that went down to the wire, the extra effort to close out on Cleveland’s shooters was pivotal to Golden States success.

Cleveland can’t rely on James to single handily defeat the Warriors, however the Cavs offence is not the only problem. The Warriors post season slogan “Strength in Numbers” is more than just a catchphrase, it’s the backbone of the Golden State team.

Not many teams in NBA history can claim to go ten players deep, but Golden States bench is defying history every night. In Game 1 the Warriors bench outscored Cleveland’s bench 34-9 and more importantly out-rebounded them 19-6.

The Cavaliers one clear advantage is this series is on the glass. Tristian Thompson has been a revelation this post season and Mozgov is no slouch either. Add James imposing figure to the picture and Bogut is under extreme pressure to secure rebounds.

When the starting units are in the Cavs regularly get multiple looks at every possession and the Warriors look vulnerable. When the bench units are in, its an entirely different story.

Throughout history basketball experts have proclaimed that “jump shooting teams can’t win championships”. In the heat of the playoffs the fast pace, long range offense will inevitably crack under the pressure. Unfortunately for the experts, the Golden State Warriors are raining threes on their parade.

The series is by no means over, any team that features LeBron James cannot be written off. However with Irving gone for the series, the odds are stacked in the Warriors favour. If the Cavs are to find life they need James to facilitate for his teammates and throw a different look at the Warriors.

The scariest part for Cavalier fans, the Splash Brothers (Curry, Thompson) only shot 33% from deep in Game 1. Daring James to shoot may have worked for the Warriors. But if the Cavs let the Splash Brothers find rhythm, its lights outs Cleveland.