Cavaliers

Cavaliers’ blueprint to beating the Celtics

The Cavaliers are down 0-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. With Game 3 looming, the Cavaliers have some adjustments to make if they want to secure LeBron’s eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Game 1 ended in a veritable blowout, as the Celtics won by 25 points. Game 2 was not much better, as Boston put together another double-digit victory.

As history has taught us, going down 0-3 is a virtual death sentence. Teams that have accrued a 3-0 lead are 131-0 in the history of the NBA playoffs. In only three cases have the teams in the three-game hole forced a Game 7.

Those stats make this Game 3 a must-win for Cleveland. Here is how LeBron and company can potentially right their ship and get back into the series.

Someone help LeBron

In Game 1’s 108-83 drubbing, four Cavaliers scored in double digits. The Celtics somehow held The King to only 15 points, leaving Kevin Love to outscore him by two points. Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood added 11 and 10 points respectively.

While all evidence points to the opposite, James is only human. It is absolutely going to take more of an effort from the supporting cast to beat the supremely well-coached Celtics. Especially if LeBron has an off game.

In Game 2, only three Cavaliers scored in double digits. LeBron had a 42-point triple-double performance. Kevin Love added a respectable 22 points, and Korver fulfilled his duties by putting up 11 points.

Cavaliers

LeBron drives to the hoop against Aron Baynes. (Photo by Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports)

Outside of every performance mentioned above, every other Cavalier has failed to put up more than eight points in this series. That simply is not going to get it done, even against this banged up Celtics roster.

It’s hard to tell which is more egregious; the fact that Cleveland cannot muster enough offense to win when James scores 42, or that they cannot pick up any kind of slack when he scores under 20.

J.R. Smith has only scored a total of 4 points against Boston. Tristan Thompson has only been good for eight points in each game. The trade deadline acquisitions of Nance, Jr., Clarkson, Hood and Hill have put up a combined 31 points in both games put together. Clarkson did not even see the floor in Game 2.

LeBron James can propel the Cavaliers to victory, but he cannot do everything alone. It is simply not too much to ask for just a little help from the rest of the team. The one upside is, though, if the Cavaliers make it to (or win) the NBA Finals, this postseason performance will only further immortalize James.

Tyronn Lue

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has the unenviable task of going against the best coach in the NBA. Usually, the word “arguably” precedes a statement like that, but with the evidence mounting, it seems almost disingenuous to qualify his status as “arguable.”

Stevens has done more with this banged up roster than most NBA coaches could have done with a full-strength Celtics team. As such, they find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals, up 2-0, without their two best players.

Enough cannot be said about what Stevens can do. But what can be said is what Lue can do against him.

Giving LeBron the ball and seeing what happens can work early in games, and late in games. But James cannot try and iso his way to a win against this team, while all of the other Cavaliers wait outside the three-point line just in case he passes the ball.

Cavaliers

Lue coaches LeBron mid-game. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Lue needs to trust his guards in Hill, Smith and Hood. Primarily because that is probably the last thing Stevens (and any NBA coach, player or fan, really) expects the Cavaliers to do. Plays need to be drawn up for Thompson and Love. LeBron moves well without the ball, too, so let him make cuts to the basket.

All in all, the offense needs to change, because the Celtics’ defense is still as good in the playoffs as it was in the regular season. Most importantly though, Stevens knows he cannot stop LeBron, so attempting to limit him and smothering the rest of the roster is his only option.

If Lue dips into his coaching bag, though, he may be able to take Boston’s players by surprise. Even if he probably will not ever be able to catch their coach off guard.

Three-and-D

Of the teams remaining in the playoffs, Boston has the highest three-point percentage at 35.8 percent. They also are besting the Cavaliers in defensive rebounds, blocks and steals per game.

It is well-known that the Cavaliers were in the bottom five in defense all season, and their lackluster effort has carried into the playoffs. Also lacking is their three-point game. They sit at 33.6 percent from distance, which is third-worst ahead of Golden State.

Taking and making threes while LeBron puts on a show in the lane has been Cleveland’s identity throughout their three straight trips to the finals. This goes back to Tyronn Lue, but more plays need to be run to get shooters open. They seem to be last-ditch efforts when someone meets LeBron in the lane, forcing him to pass.

If the Cavaliers can get J.R. Smith going, while leaning on Korver and Love until he’s white-hot, then they can shoot Boston out of the gym. This will be because of the sheer volume of the shots they are taking and making. Boston will almost certainly not attempt to match them.

The defense is the real problem. It is often said that the best offense is a good defense. But Cleveland needs to try and flip that old adage if they want to win the series.

Cavaliers

Marcus Smart and J.R. Smith got into a shoving match in Game 2. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Cleveland’s defensive talent is just simply not there. The players are not defensively-minded, and, even if they are playing well on that end of the court, the Cavs cannot expect it to show up consistently.

Adding on, and defensive work the Cavaliers can do will almost certainly be canceled out by Stevens’ defense over the course of 48 minutes.

Steals and points off turnovers are where LeBron and the Cavs can do some damage to the Celtics. With their carousel of players at the point guard spot, the Celtics can be prone to turnovers if Hill or Hood can overwhelm them. With their pace of play, the Cavaliers can also push the ball up the court quickly and turn those into points.

Cleveland’s offense needs to defend them, though, as stated earlier, and throughout this article. The blueprint to beating Boston is simple: Score and keep scoring.

Featured image by Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

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Celtics Cavaliers preview

Eastern Conference finals: Celtics vs. Cavaliers preview

It was nearly a month ago that NBA fans were predicting a Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers Eastern Conference finals. The Raptors were supposed to be a legit No. 1 seed and put their postseason struggles behind them. The 76ers were coming in hot with the longest winning streak in franchise history.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were too inconsistent and struggling defensively. The Boston Celtics were too banged up. There was not much of a chance either of these teams were getting past the first round.

Well, here we are. The Cavaliers and Celtics will be facing each other in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight season, defying all odds and proving that the regular season is meaningless when talking about the playoffs. LeBron James has continued his postseason dominance, and Brad Stevens is making his case as the NBA’s top coach.

Here is a look at both teams as they prepare to face off for a shot at the NBA Finals.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs have had a very interesting postseason to say the least. After surviving a series against the Indiana Pacers that went to Game 7, they swept the No. 1 seed Toronto Raptors.

What changed for the Cavs? LeBron James got some help. In the Indiana series, James averaged 34.4 points per game with the second highest average being 11.4. In the Toronto series, James averaged 34, but Kevin Love averaged 20.5, and Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Jeff Green each averaged over 12.

Celtics Cavaliers preview

(Photo by Getty Images)

Indiana was a tougher matchup defensively for the Cavs. They held the Cavs to 94.9 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting. They were much more physical than Toronto, and Lance Stephenson was doing everything he could to get in the Cavs’ heads. In the end, James proved why he is the league’s best player, and a nice boost from Tristan Thompson and George Hill in Game 7 helped push the Cavs to the semifinals.

Toronto was no match for Cleveland. For the third straight season, the Cavs eliminated the Raptors’ in the playoffs. The Cavs swept the Raptors and averaged 14.1 more points per game than them in the process.

Overall, Cleveland is averaging 103.5 points per game and allowing 102. The offense is not quite where it was at in the regular season, but the defense has really improved. The Cavs held Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to just 34.6 points per game combined.

Most importantly, LeBron James is dominating the postseason once again. Overall, James is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, nine assists, 1.5 steals and a block per game. He is shooting 55.3 percent from the field and nailed two buzzer beaters in the Toronto series.

The matchup against Toronto really helped the Cavs come together as a team and figure things out. However, despite missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, beating the Celtics will be no easy task.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics were doomed from the start of the season when Hayward went down with an injury in the season opener against the Cavs. Their chances of postseason success were shattered when Irving went down with an injury in early April.

At least, that was what was supposed to happen. Players like Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum have really stepped up for the team in the absence of their stars.

Celtics Cavaliers preview

(Photo by Stuart Cahill)

Like the Cavs, the Celtics struggled in their first-round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and company took the No. 2 seed in the East to seven games. Home-court advantage proved to be a key factor as the home team won each game in the series.

Boston advanced to face the 76ers, who were hot coming in, but still inexperienced. To the surprise of many, Boston beat Philly in five games. The biggest key for Boston was shutting down rookie sensation Ben Simmons. Simmons was held to just 14.4 points per game and turned the ball over 24 times, which was by far more than anyone else in the series.

Tatum, who has also made noise as a rookie, led Boston in scoring in the series with 23.6 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting. Rozier contributed 19 points and 7.2 rebounds. Jaylen Brown added 15.3 points and five rebounds, and Boston’s lone All-Star, Al Horford, contributed 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in the series.

Overall, the Celtics are averaging 104.1 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting and allowing 102.5. They will be making their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. A starting lineup that features Tatum, Brown, Horford, Rozier and Aron Baynes will not scare too many people.

However, you have to look at who is leading this team. The only explanation for how Boston has made it this far is Brad Stevens. Stevens has been making his case not just for Coach of the Year, but also for why he may be the NBA’s best coach. Not many coaches could get this far without their two best players.

Analysis

This will be the third time in the last four years that the Cavaliers and Celtics have met in the playoffs. It is a matchup most predicted at the start of the regular season, but not at the start of the postseason given the circumstances of both teams.

Really, there is not much that separates these teams statistically. Boston averages 3.9 more rebounds per game, 0.6 more points, 1.5 more assists, 0.3 more steals, 0.9 more blocks and 0.9 percent more shooting from three. The Cavs shoot 2.1 percent higher from the field, turn the ball over 0.2 times less, force 0.2 more turnovers and allow 0.5 points per game less.

The Cavs have more star power, although Kevin Love has struggled overall this postseason. He is averaging just 14.7 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting, but is still contributing 10.1 rebounds and shooting 38.5 percent from three.

However, the Celtics appear to be more balanced. Boston has six players averaging at least 10 points per game this postseason compared to just four on Cleveland. None of those six players on the Celtics really struggled offensively in the first round like the players on the Cavs. However, Indiana played much tougher defense than Milwaukee at the same time.

Prediction

This matchup is closer than people might think. Ultimately, it is going to depend on which version of the Cavs shows up this series.

Cleveland will be the toughest defense Boston has faced this postseason, while Boston will be in the middle of the pack for Cleveland. Boston was able to fluster a young player like Ben Simmons in the semifinals, but it is going to be tougher to do that against a veteran team like the Cavs.

Boston has home-court advantage for this series, but there is a three-day break between Game 2 and 3. An older team like Cleveland could really benefit from this break. If Cleveland can take one game in Boston, they can return to Cleveland fully charged and potentially jump ahead 3-1 when returning to Boston for Game 5.

Prediction: Cleveland in six

 

Featured image by Michael Dwyer/AP

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0-3

Inside the NBA’s 0-3 conundrum

The NBA playoffs have already yielded one sweep in the first round. Two more semifinals series are on the verge of ending in just four games.

It is well known that the NBA is the only one of the three major American sports which feature playoff series that has never seen an 0-3 comeback. The NHL and MLB have both had this unlikely event happen at least once.

Most intriguing is that this kind of comeback seems more likely in the NBA than either the NHL or MLB. The NHL relies on physicality, goal scoring and goalie play, one of which can usually stay consistent to complete a series win. The MLB, as any sports fan will tell you, is impossible to predict on a game-to-game basis. Momentum plays a huge roll and the team in the 0-3 hole has a massive task robbing the opposing team of it. On top of that, pitching and hitting needs to be near flawless for four games straight.

In the NBA, however, teams can flat-out go cold from the floor. A defense can be exploited, and shots falling can rattle even the best teams. As Brad Stevens of the Celtics has proven, a solid game plan can defeat better talent.

Here, we will take a look at the teams that are currently up 3-0, how they got there, and what the road to history looks like for the teams trying to claw out of that hole.

History

In the history of the NBA playoffs, teams up three games to none are 129-0 in their series.

0-3

Antonio McDyess and P.J. Brown meet at the rim during the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (Photo by Getty Images)

In those 129 series, only nine of them have seen the team down 0-3 get to a Game 6. Of those nine series, only three of them have gone to a Game 7. The most recent example is the 2007 Bulls-Pistons semifinal round when the Bulls forced a Game 6 after going down 0-3. The last forced Game 7 was back in 2003 when Portland came back against the Dallas Mavericks. Portland eventually lost by 12 points in the winner-take-all matchup.

Teams winning series after being down three games to one is much more common. In fact, in the 2016 NBA playoffs, it happened twice. The Golden State Warriors came back on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, that same Golden State team blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So where is the disconnect? Why is it so hard to win four NBA games in a row?

Common sense would say fatigue.

Of the three series that have gone to Game 7 after a team went up 3-0, the average margin of defeat in that Game 7 has been eight points. That stat suggests the losing team had enough to give to keep it close, but had spent enough to lose the hustle battle.

As stated earlier, game plans can beat talent. So playing a single team seven times in a row can allow either team to cancel out certain strategies. It is likely that this would come into play in a winner-take-all game more so than the games leading up to it.

Simply put, a lot of factors go into winning four games in a row. Defense, the ability to make shots, hustle plays and coaching. Coming back from an 0-3 deficit is not an impossibility, and the NBA will eventually see this kind of come back. It just simply has not happened yet.

0-3 Teams

In the semifinal round, both the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers are up on their opponents 3-0.

Boston, without its two best players, has bested the younger Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. All but written off, regardless of their second seed, this injured Boston team has proved NBA pundits wrong at every turn. In my series preview, I even picked the Sixers to win in six games.

0-3

Dario Saric after the Celtics lost Game 3 in overtime. (Photo by Getty Images)

In a postgame interview on Saturday night, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN alleged that Brett Brown has lost the 76ers all three of these games. The latest mistake being unable to run a play in overtime that did not involve Joel Embiid being near the top of the key. On the inbound play, down by one, the Sixers had the ball stolen by Al Horford, which demanded free throws be taken to increase the Celtics’ cushion to three points.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are up by three games on the best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors. This is due to the ageless LeBron James, and some remedying of problems that plagued the Cavs in their seven-game series against Indiana.

James has scored 26, 43 and 38 points in the first three games respectively. This includes another incredible buzzer beater in Game 3. The Raptors have a reputation of falling apart against these Cavaliers, as they have lost to Cleveland in the last two NBA playoffs.

While the Cavs can become a steamroller during the playoffs, this Raptors team is definitely stronger than past iterations. They have a great bench, two legitimate stars and two great role players. While the Raptors lifted their Game 1 woes during their series against the Wizards, it seems like Cleveland may really be their kryptonite.

Road to Game 7

While a series win is obviously the goal, first these teams will have to reach Game 7. According to history, only 2.3 percent of teams down 0-3 have reached that point. Then, they have to win that game, which no one ever has.

For the 76ers, the road starts with finding better plays in late game situations. Embiid may be their best player, but he is not their only solid option. Belinelli was clutch in Game 3, with a buzzer-beating shot to send the game to overtime. His 3-pointer to try to tie the game in the closing seconds of overtime was almost good, too. Ben Simmons is struggling, and he is a terrible shooter anyway. But he does not need to be inbounding the ball on the final play. He should be cutting to the hoop or ready to pass.

The 76ers also blew a 22 point lead in Game 2. So saying that the Sixers need to build a lead is not enough. Their foot needs to stay on the gas, and they need to forgo the early shot clock jumpers that built them the lead. The Celtics are too well coached to be out of any individual game. Both teams play great defense, but Philly’s offense has been their Achilles’ Heel.

0-3

Valanciunas goes to the floor during the Raptors’ Game 2 meltdown against the Cavaliers. (Photo by Nathan Dennette/Canadian Press via AP)

If they can find a way to stop their own bleeding and get out of their own way, they can make a comeback. As far as Game 7 goes, the Celtics will be formidable, as Brad Stevens’ game plan will almost assuredly be better than Brett Brown’s. But the Sixers have the raw talent necessary to maybe surprise everyone.

Speaking of getting out of their own way, the Raptors have to have some serious conversations with themselves about their identity if they don’t want to get swept out of this second round.

As the East’s top seed the Raptors were supposed to be the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. As it stands now, it seems as if history is doomed to repeat itself. The last two years have seen Toronto be a stepping stone on Cleveland’s path towards the NBA Finals. Shockingly down 0-3, they must not only erase their own history but make NBA history in the process.

The key is to stop LeBron James. This is possibly the toughest thing any team in the NBA could be asked to do, but it is truly the only way. James is currently averaging 34.8 points per game in the entire playoffs and 35.7 points in the series. DeRozan was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3 due to lack of production, which cannot happen again, because Lowry and DeRozan need to be the ones to stop that bleeding.

Kevin Love is averaging 13.9 points per game, as Cleveland’s second best scoring option. If Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas can play up to their potential, that would cancel out Cleveland’s small, but important, safety valve. Past that, VanVleet, Anunoby and the rest of the role players just need to contribute consistently on both ends of the court.

The formula is deceptively simple for Toronto to find their way to Game 7. If that should come to pass, then they will have to get past elimination-game LeBron, who is, somehow, even better than the LeBron they have been seeing the past three games.

Summary

In conclusion, these will probably not be the series where the NBA finally sees an 0-3 comeback. It will eventually happen, just as a 16 seed upsetting a number one seed finally happened in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but the two teams that find themselves up 3-0 are too talented and driven to lose to their opponents.

Toronto may be able to force a Game 6, as they will pull out all the stops to halt LeBron’s historic performances, but James, as he always does, will eventually get the best of them.

Philadelphia is showing its youth. The coaching is simply not good, Simmons is playing horribly and teams cannot win against a Stevens-led team with just a center and some backup wing players. The injured Celtics will continue to defy all expectations and knock them out. As far as forcing a Game 5 or 6, the 76ers may be able to pull out a close one, but do not count on it.

Featured image by Getty Images

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playoffs

Raptors vs. Cavaliers series preview (after Game 1)

The NBA playoffs feature some great second-round matchups. But perhaps more exciting than any of them is this Eastern Conference Semifinal round featuring Toronto and Cleveland.

The Toronto Raptors finally own the East’s number one seed, while fourth-seeded Cleveland needed all seven games to get past the Indiana Pacers. 2018 marks the third year in a row that these two teams have met in the playoffs.

According to sources from Sports Betting Dime, Raptors are the favorite to win (-260) against the Cavaliers (+220).

The regular season and roster point towards the Raptors. The recent history favors the Cavaliers. Here is The Game Haus’ analysis after a closely contested Game 1.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs’ up and down season carries over into the playoffs and continues to give Cleveland fans everywhere palpitations.

Coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the scrappy Indiana Pacers, the Cavaliers now face the top team in the Eastern Conference. No easy task, but Cleveland has clawed its way past the Raptors in the past two NBA playoffs.

After Sunday’s Game 7 win over Indiana, LeBron James said he was tired and, “ready to go home.” This may be the very first time in James’ quest for eight straight finals appearances where he has admitted fatigue.

playoffs

LeBron James recorded his 21st playoff triple-double in Game 1. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

It makes sense, though, considering all four wins in the first round series came by only 14 points combined. If that does not paint a picture of a hard-fought series, nothing does. Add on that James had the entire roster on his back through all seven games, even rabid LeBron haters would say he deserved the rest.

Through eight games, LeBron is averaging 33.4 points, 8.4 assists and 10.1 rebounds. He has climbed to number two in the all-time playoff triple-doubles, with 21. This includes a triple-double in yesterday’s Game 1 overtime win.

Those 33.4 points per game are good for first among all playoff scorers. To put into perspective just how much The King is willing his team to victory, the next closest Cleveland player is Kevin Love at number 62.

With Game 1 decided by just one point in overtime, it is clear that the Cavaliers will have their hands full yet again. LeBron must keep scoring in bunches, and Kevin Love cannot keep disappearing if they want four NBA Finals in a row. Taking James out of the game is nigh impossible, but Cleveland struggles when he gets no help. Getting players not named LeBron should be their focus from here on out, because The King will get his.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto may have more to prove than any other team in the playoffs. They are a perennially good team, but have never advanced past the Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history. With this core, a fantastic bench and great coaching, it seems like this should be their year.

In their seven games, their All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Lowry are scoring at a clip of 26 and 17.3 points per game, respectively. The team is scoring 109.6 points per game, which is fifth among playoff teams. Their defense is allowing 108 points per game to opponents, which is good for sixth best.

Their previous series against the Raptors came in six games. The first round series was full of double-digit wins for both sides. It seems as if when a team gives the Raptors trouble, they really give them trouble. That has been the story of the Raptors and Cavaliers history of late.

playoffs

Valanciunas and Lowry after missing several potential game-winning shots in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

As previously mentioned, the Cavs have ousted Toronto during the previous two playoffs. This time, though, the Raptors clearly have the superior roster and the better regular season record.

But their old ways reared their head again. “The North” blew a 10 point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

The Cavaliers have beaten Toronto in nine of their last 11 playoff matchups. It seems as if LeBron is truly their kryptonite. Their path to victory narrows with every shot he makes. The game plan for them, here should not be to take him out of the game. It should be making sure that the rest of the Cavaliers’ roster continues to play as poorly as they have been during these playoffs.

A one-point overtime loss in game one after having and missing eight second-chance opportunities in the last five minutes is debilitating, to say the least. But if they are going to advance further in these playoffs, it is poetic that they must go through the Cavs.

All in all, Toronto needs to be confident in the fact that their roster is better, and try to forget Game 1 and the past two years. This Cavaliers team is vulnerable, and coach Dwane Casey needs to exploit their weak spots.

Preview and Predictions

Although it seems like the Raptors should be the ones worrying, it really should be the Cavaliers’ lack of production that will be the focal point of this series.

The bench matchups here are what Toronto can win, and win big. Cleveland uses so many different lineups because they are unsure what will work on a nightly basis. Toronto does not have that problem. Their bench is one of the best in the NBA and they can absolutely dominate these haphazard Cavs lineups.

Since they are playing the best player in the league, DeRozan and Lowry will both have to show up every night. One needs to cancel out LeBron’s points, while the other pads the lead.

Serge Ibaka will win his matchup against Love if he can deny him the ball. Love tends to fade into the background if he does not get going early enough. Tristan Thompson is mired in off-court controversy, but he is playing some great basketball. If this trend continues, he can overshadow a clearly superior center in Valanciunas.

A prediction here is hard because so many things come into play. Including and especially recent history. Toronto has to do everything in their power to put the Cavaliers away early. Cleveland panics when down too much and takes ill-advised shots. If the Cavs can keep it close, though, it is very much LeBron time, which will probably win them the game.

If this series goes the distance, the Cavaliers will probably walk away victorious. However, faith needs to be put in the Raptors that they want to shake off the “chokers” label they have amassed through the years.

Raptors in six

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Game 7

Playoff teams most likely to win a Game 7

“The two best words in sports,” is the cliche often used to describe a Game 7.

A winner-take-all game is always exciting. Whether it is in the first round of the playoffs, or for the championship. Whether a person considers themselves a casual or rabid sports fan, it always feels like must-watch TV. A moment that will allow you to say “I was there when…”

With the NBA playoffs heating up, and the games getting more and more important as teams climb the ladder towards the NBA Finals, it is time to take a look at the teams most likely to win those games.

Here are the teams with the rosters most suited to win a Game 7, if a series should come down to it.

Golden State Warriors

Saying the Warriors can win one game is a little like saying that the sky is blue. But for sake of the argument, let’s look at their credentials.

As the dynasty has taken shape, the Warriors have only had to play two seven game series. Back to back, no less. Both series were infamous in their own ways.

The first was in the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, before Kevin Durant switched sides. The second was the NBA Finals, as the best regular season team of all time fell to LeBron and the Cavaliers in Game 7.

The difference here is the aforementioned Kevin Durant acquisition. The Cavaliers proved to be too much for the Warriors in Oakland in 2016, but Golden State “only” had two prolific scorers back then, not three.

Game 7

Draymond Green drives to the hoop against Manu Ginobili during Tuesday’s Game 5 win. (Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Stephen Curry is slated for a return in the second round, assuming the Warriors finish off San Antonio. With him, Durant, Thompson, Green and their fantastic bench, it is going to take a fantastic team to take them to seven games, let alone win the series.

It seems as if the Warriors and the Rockets are on a collision course for Western Conference dominance. If that happens, then a potential Game 7 would take place in Houston, as the Rockets had the best record in the NBA. Against any other team, a Game 7 would be in Oakland.

Golden State, though, had the same record at home and on the road during the regular season, at 29-12. Obviously, the Warriors would like to play in front of their own fans, but a road game does not necessarily put the team at a disadvantage.

The Warriors can beat any given team, and have. With a fully healthy squad and the multitudes of playoff experience, betting against them in a winner-take-all game might be a fool’s errand.

Houston Rockets

Speaking of the Rockets, it is hard to deny that their offensive capabilities can overtake any team on any given night.

There is one obvious and pressing question facing Houston, however. Can they shrug off the idea that they are chokers, or that they lay down when the playoffs roll around?

Game 7

Paul and Harden celebrate during a game against the Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

This is clearly a different Rockets team than we have seen in the past. The efficiency and shooting is off the charts, and they play legitimate defense. Chris Paul and James Harden have ditched their ball-hogging ways in favor of pacing and rhythm. Their three point shooting is historic, but does not hamstring their mid-range or low-post games.

The problem, though, is that if a team is going to commit to the jump shot, then they have to fall to stand a chance. Any and every team can go cold on a given night, and it will be especially memorable and demoralizing if that happens in a Game 7.

Houston’s home record is three games better than their road record (34-7 versus 31-10). That is good news, considering they will probably have home court advantage, regardless of their opponent.

The key to winning a Game 7 for Houston is to bury the opposing team early. As the Timberwolves have been well aware during their series with the Rockets, no lead is a comfortable one. When almost every player on the floor can score in bunches, problems arise for opposing defenses.

Riding their shooting abilities and continuing to play their brand of fast-paced basketball on both ends on the floor is their bread and butter. If the Rockets find themselves in a Game 7 situation, their opposing team will be preaching that every other statistic and record is irrelevant, and that anything can happen in a one game series.

That should not be Houston’s approach. The Rockets would need to go into that game remembering that they are the number one overall seed for a reason.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is also on a quest to shake off some preconceived notions about their playoff performances. For the first time in franchise playoff history, the Raptors won a Game 1. So far, so good, but this team still has some proving of itself to do.

Not unlike the Rockets, the Raptors also seem to be different this year than in years past. In 2016, they lost in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, they were swept in the second round. Both series losses were to the Cavaliers, as they made their way to the NBA Finals.

Since 1996, the Raptors have played just two seven game series. The most recent was in 2016, as they beat the Pacers in Game 7 to earn their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game 7

DeRozan hangs on the rim after a dunk. (Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

This is a much, different team, though. DeRozan and Lowry are a dangerous backcourt duo when they are both on, and the role players have never been this good. Between those two and Valanciunas, Ibaka, and one of the most productive benches in the NBA, it seems as if Toronto can take on any team in the league at their best.

Coach Dwane Casey has balanced star power with fundamentals as well as any coach in the league, including Steve Kerr. Toronto rode that game plan to the East’s best record, and a chance to disprove doubters once and for all.

Toronto is much better at home than on the road. Considering they are the East’s number one seed, that should work out just fine. Unless they face a Game 7 matchup if they are able to reach the NBA Finals. At 25-16, their road record is a full nine games worse than their home record. Considering the Raptors’ rabid fanbase, that is not very surprising.

Much has been made of Lowry’s postseason struggles, and DeRozan’s feast or famine performances. But the fantastic bench and great defense can mask those issues in a single game. Sometimes, bench performance can be the difference in those games. Although, stars playing to their fullest potential is always the goal.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Here, it would probably be sufficient to write the words “LeBron James” and be done with it. But, while he is the heart and soul of the team, he is not the only player on the floor.

Cleveland’s struggles this year have largely been the focal point of the entire season. At the end of the day, though, this team can win close games.

Game 7

James embraces Love after their Game 7 NBA Finals win. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

J.R. Smith is a spotty shooter. Kevin Love essentially disappears if the team does not feed him the ball enough. Nance, Jr., Hood, and Green are all good complimentary pieces, but tend to shrivel under the spotlight. At any point, though, everyone just mentioned could play second fiddle to LeBron’s heroics. If they are all on, then teams are going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with the Cavaliers.

Lest we forget, the LeBron-led Cavs dethroned the Warriors in that historic Game 7. James also won a Game 7 against the Spurs in 2013. He is, without much argument, the best player in the world, and he can take over games at will.

Nothing would will James to a victory like a championship-or-bust one game series.

Tyronn Lue and the Cavs have beaten the best regular season team in NBA history in a Game 7. And while this iteration is much different, and not without its glaring issues, if the Cavaliers find themselves in this position again, it is hard to bet against The King.

Featured image by Ravell Call/Deseret News

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Cavaliers Pacers preview

Cavaliers vs. Pacers series preview

The NBA playoffs begin today with many intriguing matchups. With many surprise teams and players this season, it seems possible that the NBA Finals will not be between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors for a fourth straight season.

One of those surprising teams is the Indiana Pacers, who had their best year since the 2013-14 season. They are led by one of the league’s most surprising players, Victor Oladipo, who will most likely win the NBA’s Most Improve Player Award.

The Cavs dealt with a lot of drama this season, but it appears they are ready to go after finishing the season 11-3. LeBron James will look to remain undefeated in the first round of the playoffs.

Both these teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season, with the Cavs coming out on top in a sweep. Let’s take a look at how both of these teams matchup this season.

Regular season summary

Cavaliers

A lot of people have been freaking out about the Cavs this season, even though they only lost one more game this season than last season.

One of the main differences from last season to this season is that the conference got better. The Toronto Raptors finished at the top, followed by the Boston Celtics and most surprisingly, the Philadelphia 76ers. After a loss to the Pacers on March 13, the Sixers were sitting at 36-30. However, a franchise record of 16 straight wins, including one over Cleveland, pushed them ahead of the Cavs to the third seed.

The second difference with the Cavs from last season to this season is defense. The defense ranked 20th last season, which isn’t that impressive, but it was better than its 26th ranking this season.

Teams shoot 47.4 percent from the field against the Cavs, which is the third highest in the NBA, and 36.8 percent from three, which is the ninth highest. They also finished just 24th in steals, 28th in blocks and 27th in forced turnovers. Most recently, the Cavs have allowed 110 and 109 to the Knicks, 132 to the 76ers and 115 to Washington. That is not the kind of defense you want to bring to the playoffs.

What helped the Cavs get by this season was their fifth-ranked offense, which averaged 110.9 points per game. They are also one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA as they shoot 37.2 percent from deep, good for sixth in the league. They share the ball fairly well too, ranking 12th in assists.

Cavaliers Pacers preview

James has never lost a first-round series in the playoffs. (Photo by David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

What also gives Cavs fans hope is the fact their team has the league’s best player, LeBron James. James averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game while shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three. Keep in mind that James is 33 years old and in his 15th season. This is also the first time in his career he has played all 82 games and he led the NBA in minutes played, so he has to be feeling pretty good going into this postseason. Oh, and James is 12-0 in the first round of the playoffs.

James has a very nice supporting cast around him as well. Kevin Love has been his main sidekick this season, averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while shooting 41.5 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green and Rodney Hood have also averaged over 10 points per game each. Clarkson and Hood were acquired before the trade deadline along with George Hill and Larry Nance Jr., who have also performed well with the Cavs.

The Cavs’ bench was very productive, finishing sixth in points per game, third in field goal percentage and second in 3-point percentage. Even if the bench struggles, James has proven in the playoffs that he can put the team on his back.

No one questions the Cavs offense. It is the defense that has held them back this season. They will need to improve defensively if they want to make another Finals run.

Pacers

Who would have thought we would be seeing the Pacers in the playoffs? After they traded away Paul George, it seemed the Pacers were tanking and going to rebuild mode.

However, the Pacers won six more games than they did last season to earn the fifth seed in the East. Indiana has now made the playoffs three straight seasons and seven times in the last eight seasons.

The player the Pacers got in return for George, Victor Oladipo, has been the main reason for success on the team. Oladipo is averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game, all career highs. He also shot 47.7 from the field and 37.1 percent from the 3-point line, also both career highs.

Cavaliers Pacers preview

Oladipo has been the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. (Photo by Getty Images)

As a team, Indiana was average offensively, finishing in the middle of the pack with 105.6 points per game. However, they were very efficient, shooting 47.2 percent from the field, good for sixth in the league. They also shoot well from three, finishing eighth in the league at 36.9 percent. They know how to take care of the ball too as they have the fifth fewest turnovers in the league.

One area they could improve on offensively is sharing the ball. They ranked 23rd in assists. Making extra passes to get better shots would be helpful, but they already shoot the ball pretty efficiently as is.

Unlike the Cavs, the Pacers play pretty good defense. They ranked ninth in opponent points, fifth in opponent 3-point percentage, third in steals and third in forced turnovers. They are also very good at turning those turnovers into points as they rank second in points off turnovers.

Surrounding Oladipo is Myles Turner, Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis. All of those guys average over 10 points per game. Turner was also third in the NBA in blocks per game at 1.82. 

The bench has not contributed as many points as they rank 22nd in the league in that category. But that is mostly because the Pacers’ starters play the seventh most minutes in the league. The bench, like the team overall, has been efficient shooting the ball though, finishing eighth in field goal percentage.

The Pacers are a pretty balanced team. They are efficient on offense and play great team defense. The defense is going to have its hands full though as it will be taking on some of the NBA’s top offenses if they keep advancing. It might help them out offensively to move the ball around a bit more too.

Breakdown and predictions

Breakdown

Offensively, the Cavs got the Pacers beat. The Cavs finished ahead in all the main offensive categories and have the league’s best offensive player in James. The Cavs’ bench also has the edge on the Pacers’ bench.

Neither team rebounds the ball very well, so that will be something to keep an eye on. However, Indiana averaged a bit more offensive rebounds and second-chance points than Cleveland in the regular season. If they are going to keep up with Cleveland’s offense, they will need to make every offensive opportunity count.

The Pacers do have the Cavs beaten defensively. If the Pacers want any chance of winning this series, they must stop either James or the Cavs from shooting threes. They will also need to put their ability to steal the ball and score on turnovers to good use.

Cleveland has a bit more star power on their roster than Indiana too, as well as the league’s best player. James averaged 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game against Indiana this season. In the first-round series between the Cavs and Pacers last season, James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks per game. It is safe to say Indiana will not be stopping James in this series.

Prediction

Indiana may have gone 3-1 against the Cavs in the regular season, but everybody knows the regular season is meaningless in the playoffs.

It is also very tough to bet against LeBron James in the playoffs. James’ career averages in the playoffs are 28.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.9 assists and is also 12-0 in the first round.

Indiana lacks star power other than Oladipo. Despite the Cavs’ defensive struggles, the offense should be good enough to get out of the first round. Indiana will most likely be exiting in the first round for a third straight season until they can bring more stars to town. However, Indiana’s defense is good enough to steal one game and avoid a sweep like last season.

Cavaliers in five

 

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finals

Why each Eastern Conference team can and can’t win the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals have seen the same two teams duke it out for supremacy three years in a row. With legitimate threats to both reigning conference champions on both sides, the landscape of the playoffs already seems different.

Every playoff team has the same goal entering spring basketball, the legitimacy of each team’s claim to the throne has to be weighed because they all do have a shot at the title, however long or short it may seem.

Here are the reasons each Eastern Conference team can and cannot win the 2018 NBA Finals.

No. 8 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee has a young core centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo that has the ability to take teams by surprise. Their offense relies heavily on slashing to the basket, which translates to an extremely high field goal percentage.

Antetokounmpo is a certified superstar in the making, and he has the ability to put the team on his back if the jump shots aren’t falling. The other side of that particular coin involves the shooting talent around him being able to bail him out if he is, somehow, guarded successfully.

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Antetokounmpo is the focal point of Milwaukee’s offense and title contention hopes. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/AFP Photo)

What will hold them back from title aspirations is their defense. For every impressive offensive stat, there is a disappointing defensive one.

Their opponents are shooting almost 47 percent from the floor, and 37.1 percent from three-point range. Couple that with the lack of bench depth and inexperience, and the playoffs will be a tough hill to climb.

No. 7 Seed – Washington Wizards

The Wizards are perennial playoff contenders with a very talented roster. John Wall and Bradley Beal make up an impressive backcourt combination, and Marcin Gortat has the rebounding and put back abilities to make things interesting. The wing players, while prone to underachieving, also have high ceilings when they play well.

They are well-coached by Scott Brooks and, hopefully, entering the playoffs at full strength. The Wizards could be a dark horse betting candidates to make a deep playoff run. With enough confidence and momentum behind them, it is not out of the realm of possibility for Washington to compete for a title.

There has been turmoil in the locker room, however. John Wall is just now returning to basketball activities, so the Wizards’ best player will have significant rust to shake off.

That is not a good thing, considering they have to shoot themselves out of deficits more often than they would like. This is due to the same kinds of issues that Milwaukee has had to deal with. Impressive offense is only impressive if a team can keep themselves above water defensively.

No. 6 Seed – Miami Heat

Erik Spoelstra is proving four straight trips to the NBA Finals had more to do with him than NBA fans like to think. Many attribute those accolades solely to having James, Wade and Bosh leading the way.

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Erik Spoelstra and Goran Dragic are big reasons the Heat are back in the playoffs. (Photo by Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

This young team, though is rising above expectations sooner than expected. Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo are an excellent frontcourt tandem. The Heat are finding their identity in the paint and riding the shooting of Wayne Ellington and experience of Dwayne Wade back to a playoff berth. Spoelstra has clearly found out the right way to utilize these talents.

Young teams can give more experienced teams fits in the playoffs with their athleticism and timing. Miami also has the third-highest scoring bench in the league at 39.6 points per game. Add that to Spoelstra’s overachieving, and they could be a team to watch out for in the relatively weak Eastern Conference. Like the Wizards, the Heat can ride momentum all the way to finals contention.

Shy of Ellington, though, shooters are hard to come by in Miami. They rely on a post-heavy offense, which doesn’t necessarily hold up as well in a seven-game series as it does in an 82-game season.

Their defense is good, sporting the fifth-best opponents’ field goal percentage in the league. But they will be playing against some of the best and most dedicated jump-shooting teams in the league. If their looks start falling, that spells doom for Miami.

No. 5 Seed – Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo will undoubtedly win Most Improved Player this year, after showing the league what he’s made of after the Thunder traded him away in the Paul George deal. His points per game average this year is up six points. He is also collecting more assists and rebounds than he ever has.

Oladipo is the secret sauce to a Pacers finals run. He and Myles Turner have put Indiana on their backs this year, and few have been able to contain both of them at the same time. If teams do manage a strategy to keep them both in check, they will have to do it over a series of games, which is no easy task. If these two players can keep digging into their bags, then the Pacers are a team no one would truly want to face.

Again, though, the problem here is lackluster defense. At 18th in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage, the Pacers simply let their opponents score too much. Their three-point shooting abilities are good, but almost all of the teams above them in the standings are in the Eastern Conference.

The bench does not give the Pacers many minutes, at less than 17 per game. They are in the bottom five in that category and the bottom ten in bench scoring. So Oladipo and Turner truly have to carry the team if they want to be playing in June.

There is simply too much that can go wrong to call them a true NBA Finals contender. But given Indiana’s identity over the course of the season, that is probably exactly how they like it.

No. 4 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have taken the NBA by surprise this season. A trip to the NBA Finals would cap off “The Process” and prove the brutal teardown and rebuild to be worth it.

Philadelphia is inundated with youth. Ben Simmons is one of two potential Rookie of the Year candidates and continues to dish out triple-doubles. Markelle Fultz is, surprisingly, playing this season, and if he can figure out his shot, it only creates another weapon. Robert Covington and J.J. Reddick are veteran leaders that seem to be drawing off the energy of the young core.

And then there is Joel Embiid.

While currently out due to surgery on an orbital fracture, he has been giving teams trouble all season. Both on and off the court. The trash talk is already legendary, and he has the play to back it up. Embiid averages a double-double at 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. We have even seen him step outside the arc when the opportunity presents itself.

finals

Embiid could miss some playoff games after undergoing surgery for an orbital fracture. (Photo by Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

If he can get back in time for a second-round series, this team could legitimately take over. They have been too much for opponents all season, and there is no reason to think that will stop when the playoffs start.

The young squad will be fired up and eager to prove themselves. With their inside-out offense and some of the best defense in the league, they are a legitimate title contender, because they match up well with any team. Including and especially the two favored to be in the Western Conference Finals.

Ironically, though, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness.

Youth means inexperience. Inexperience means being able to be taken advantage of. Meeting a veteran team like the Cavaliers, who know what it is like to play for and win a title, could be their undoing.

It cannot go without being said that the cockiness of this team is some of the most outspoken in recent memory. Philadelphia knows it is good, which might create a glare that makes them look past other opponents.

Either way, “The Process” will officially undergo its first test on April 14.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

The rollercoaster that has been the Cavs’ regular season is finally coming to an end.

After blowing up their roster before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers are sitting pretty as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. As we know, seeding is little more than a formality, as far as LeBron James is concerned.

The new-look Cavs are more youthful, better defensively, and seem less complacent than the pre-trades roster. Their NBA Finals hopes are renewed again after finally finding a formula that works after a multitude of injuries and locker room finger-pointing.

Do not kid yourself, though. The Cavaliers are coasting on reputation more than anything. They have been in the past three NBA Finals, thanks in large part to having the best player in the world on their team. They are the (wine and) gold standard of the Eastern Conference until further notice.

Intimidation will play a factor here, and so will their offense that can adjust to any opponent. Lue’s offense works in such a way that it, if a team’s defense takes something away, the Cavs can simply move on to another facet of their game with just as much success.

With Nance Jr. and LeBron James holding down the paint, and shooters to stretch the floor, defense still will not matter much to Cleveland, as they can go point-for-point with the very best teams out there, even on dysfunctional nights.

This particular Cavaliers iteration, though, is still relatively new. Jordan Clarkson has not quite figured it all out, and George Hill is showing his age next to the ageless wonder, LeBron James.

The problem, also, with playing no defense, is that shots do have to fall. Sure, the Cavaliers can make them, but as everyone knows, sometimes the ball just does not go in. If Cleveland has a couple of bad shooting nights, they will get blown out due to lack of defensive commitment.

Unlike the past three years, Cleveland has to prove themselves and play to their highest level to reach the NBA Finals. Then, after three hard-fought series wins, they will have to face the best of the other conference.

No easy task.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

Boston has the best coach in the NBA. That is enough of a reason why they can win the Larry O’Brien trophy, but let us explore some more anyway.

Brad Stevens has the ability to make something out of nothing. The Celtics, right now, are a team with unbelievably bad injury luck at the worst time, and they are still winning.

That is due to the incredible bench play and next-man-up strategy that the Celtics employ. Their offense is weak, but their defense is the best in the league. The system is flawless, and almost every team in the league would fall victim to it at least once in a seven-game series.

Owning an opponents’ field goal percentage under 44 percent is no joke. Boston ranks tenth-best in turnover ratio, and the rebounding is just as impressive. Surprisingly, even though their offense can be a bit anemic, they are second best in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent.

It defies logic, but even without Irving, Brown, Smart and Hayward, this team has steadfastly held the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. And they are only going to get healthier from here. If anyone can beat Golden State at its own defensive game, or hold the fast-paced Rockets offense in check, it is the Celtics.

They can, and just might win the whole thing.

But before one gets too high on Stevens’ ability to will his team to victory, it is important to remember that their returning players will, like Wall, have severe rust to shake off.

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The Celtics could be without Irving for the first round of the playoffs. (Photo by Brian Babineau/Getty Images)

Irving is coming off of a knee surgery, and his game hinges on his quick legs, handles, and iso scoring ability. That will not be easy to return to during his first minutes on the floor. Smart cannot return until May if Boston is still playing. And there is no telling who might go down in the meantime, with the Celtics’ luck as of late.

The key to a title for Boston is its defense. So, if a team can somehow figure out how to get the better of it for four games, then it is a wrap for this team. They do not have the firepower necessary to go shot-for-shot with some of the offensively-minded teams in the NBA like the Cavaliers can.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

Toronto owns a top-five offense and a top-five defense. They have the probable coach of the year, in Dwane Casey. They have DeRozan, who is only getting better. Lowry and Ibaka are still reliable, and they have the deepest bench in the entire NBA.

Opposing teams have to pick their poison with the Raptors, and even then, still might not get what they chose. They can beat you with their smothering team defense, or their ability to match points on the outside or the inside.

Toronto owns the best record in the East for a reason. They also own a massive home court advantage, and as the locked-in, one seed will keep it throughout the playoffs. This more driven and focused Raptors team will be a legitimate force in the playoffs, and it is almost assured that a number two or three seeded teams will have to be the ones to take them out if they do not reach the finals.

As far as winning it all goes, this might the only team that can beat the Houston Rockets by locking down their shooters. The communication on the floor is excellent, and the Rockets only go as their three-point shooting does. The Raptors perimeter defense not only can win them the title but can do it in less than seven games.

Unlike Cleveland, however, Toronto’s reputation is working heavily against them.

The Raptors have fizzled out in various rounds of the playoffs for years, and they will need to get that monkey off of their backs, both with their play and with their overall mental position. Toronto has, perhaps, more to prove than any other Eastern Conference team in the playoffs, regardless of owning the top seed.

They will still have to earn any respect they feel they deserve, which will either fuel them to a title or be what burns them yet again.

 

Check back here on Saturday for the reasons each Western Conference team can and cannot win the NBA Finals! 

Featured image courtesy of NBA.com

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defense

Ranking the defense of every Eastern Conference playoff team

Defense wins championships. We’ve all heard it ad nauseum. The exception to this rule, however, might be the NBA.

In the past five years, the NBA has become a veritable 82 game three-point shooting contest. In last years’ finals, the Cavaliers scored 86 points in a single half. Against a vaunted Golden State defense, no less. They also broke the record for most threes in an NBA Finals game (24), which was set by the Warriors just one game earlier.

That’s just one singular example of how much the NBA has shifted in the past decade. Regardless of the shooting sprees, though, defense hasn’t completely gone by the wayside.

In the 2017-2018 season, we’ve seen teams such as the Jazz, Celtics and Raptors embrace their defensive identity. This is due to coaching and a true recognition of playing to their own strengths. All three of these teams have ridden their defense to playoff berths (or a potential playoff berth in Utah’s case).

So which teams can buck the current trends and disrupt their opponent with a potent defense? And which teams are better off shooting their way to the NBA Finals? Here, we’ll rank each Eastern Conference team by their defense, based on opponents’ points per game, blocks, steals and points generated off of turnovers.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

During their three straight trips to the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s defense has never been the driving force. This has all come to a head this season, as they rank third-worst in the league according to their defensive rating.

When looking at their stats individually, they seem like they should place Cleveland in the middle of the pack. The Cavs block 0.3 shots less than opponents per game, they rank only 0.6 steals worse than opposing teams, and surrender only 0.3 defensive rebounds more than they pull in. They’re even positive in their points for/points against split by 0.5 points.

defense

Kevin Love tries to contest a shot against Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge. (Photo by Mark Sobhani/NBAE/Getty Images)

The problem is, when you put all of these middle-of-the-road stats together, they translate to an underachieving defense. If you’re an optimist, you could at least see consistency in their defense to offense, but mediocrity does not get a team far in the playoffs.

The statistics here paint a picture of a team who has had to fight for almost every win they have. Better defensive teams blow out their opponents more often, leading to rest for their stars. It seems as if the Cavaliers are going to have to heavily lean on their offensive capabilities to make it back to the finals.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

According to NBA.com, the Bucks currently stand at 17th in the defensive rankings. They are allowing 106.2 points per game and scoring 105.9 points.

This hasn’t hurt their record too much, though. The Bucks currently sit at 39-35, five games ahead of Detroit for the eighth seed in the East.

A team without a legitimate identity past “give the ball to Antetokounmpo,” the Bucks are fortunate to be in the spot they’re in. Their paint game will give some jump shooting teams fits, but they seem to rely on their offense too much.

Milwaukee’s defense gives up 13.0 second-chance points per game, which is in the bottom ten. They also give up 46.6 points in the paint per game, good for ninth-worst. That last stat is especially odd considering their offensive post game is in the top 10, but it doesn’t always necessarily translate to the other end of the floor.

The Bucks’ block and steal numbers are decent, but they will have to step up the closeout pressure in the playoffs if they hope to pull off an upset.

6. Washington Wizards

The Wizards are known for their offense, led by Bradley Beal in the absence of John Wall. Their defensive rating, however, sits at 106.1, which is good for a place in the top half of the league.

Their worst defensive stat is the number of second chance points given up per game. It makes sense, given their guard-heavy style of play. To that end, the Wizards give up 45.6 points in the paint every night. They are also in the bottom 10 when it comes to blocks per game.

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Bradley Beal gets a hand up against Dwyane Wade. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Washington thrives on their ability to steal the ball and turn it into points. At 7.9 steals, their per game average is 10th best in the league. Creating more scoring opportunities for their fast-paced offense is paramount to the team’s success.

Steals alone won’t allow them to take a series, but if they can focus on their frontcourt play, the Wizards can definitely catch some Eastern Conference teams off guard.

5. Indiana Pacers

Indiana’s winning record and surprisingly good season are thanks in part to some serviceable defense.

They give up almost 2.0 less than they score every night, and their steals and blocks are in the plus column as well. The biggest discrepancy here is the block numbers, as they dish out one less than they receive. The 44.7 paint points given up per game are in the exact middle of the road.

The real advantage the Pacers have, though is their ability to turn turnovers into points. They are fifth best in the league, with 14.9 points off of turnovers. Considering their steals sit at 8.8 per game, that is just shy of a 60% success rate.

Much like the Wizards, the Pacers will have to rely on their quick hands to steal a series away from a favored team. But with a potent offensive attack with a very balanced defense, Indiana will be a tough out when April rolls around.

4. Miami Heat

Another surprising playoff contender, Miami’s young core has come into their own during the 2018 season. With a defensive rating solidly in the top 10, playing Miami has been more of a chore than was expected.

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Bam Adebayo forces Stephen Curry to pass the ball. (Photo by David Santiago/Miami Herald)

A great paint defense has been the key this year. Hassan Whiteside continues to come along nicely, and Bam Adebayo has created a one-two punch that makes easy buckets hard to come by. At 5.2 blocks per game, the team clearly has a defense-first mentality.

Their field goal percentage versus their opponents’ is pretty even, including a plus 0.2 percentage on three-point field goal percentage. The total rebounds and steals also sit narrowly in the plus column.

The real hurdle for the Heat will be keeping their big men on the floor. At 19.3 personal fouls per game, Miami allows 3.3 more free throw attempts than they take. In playoff games, those three points could very well be the difference between winning and losing a game. Discipline on the defensive end will be the name of the game for this young core in their search for a series win.

3. Toronto Raptors

Currently holders of the East’s top seed, and with all the talk of their defense-to-offense balance, one might expect the Raptors to hold a higher spot here. But, according to the defensive ranking, Toronto actually sits at sixth overall, and third in the East.

However surprising it may be, the Raptors are no slouch on that end of the floor.

They tower over their opponents, scoring 8.1 more points per game than their opponents, which is easily the highest on this list so far. They are positive in almost every defensive category. They own 1.2 more blocks per game over opposing teams, 0.7 steals, and have a 2.2% percent advantage in field goals made. Add in their fourth-best opponents’ points off of turnover rankings, and this is team causes problems.

Their biggest struggles come in the paint, like most of today’s NBA teams. A seemingly-paltry bottom half ranking in opponents’ points in the paint and a bottom five ranking in opponents’ second chance buckets are the problems for this team. Paint struggles have broken past playoff teams.

This doesn’t quite spell disaster for the Raptors, though. As previously discussed, jump shots have become the order of every game. It’s going to take some serious game-planning to truly expose these Raptors’ paint struggles to the tune of a win. Doing it four times out of seven is a much taller order.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

A surprising team to occupy this spot, the 76ers’ defense has led this shockingly young team to a playoff berth.

The opposite of most teams on this list, their paint defense is where this team thrives. This is thanks in part to Joel Embiid’s season-long coming out party. Accounting for 11.1 rebounds and almost two blocks per game, the team lives and dies by the center’s play.

Philly gives up just 41.8 points in the paint per game, which is third-best in the NBA. This translates to only 12.4-second chance points every game, good for a spot in the top half of the league. Add that to a 3.3 field goal made disadvantage to the 76ers’ opponents, and you have a formidable defense to deal with, regardless of shooting woes.

The only Achilles heel here is their miserable reputation of giving opponents points off of turnovers. Their opponents score 19.0 points per game off of Philadelphia turnovers, which is the worst in the NBA.

That is not encouraging, considering some teams will have to rely on their steals as their only form of defense. If the 76ers allow a bucket almost every time that happens, then they can kiss any shot of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals goodbye, regardless of their great play in the paint.

That will be the real litmus test of this young team. If they can stop that bleeding, then they have a chance to shake things up in the East.

1. Boston Celtics

The Celtics are not only the top team in the Eastern Conference but the best team in the entire NBA according to the defensive ratings.

Regardless of their woeful injury report, Boston, led by one of the top minds in the NBA in Brad Stevens, has a true defensive identity.

The Celts are solidly in the top 10 in opponents’ points in the paint, and opponents’ second-chance points. Their steals are even with their opponents, and their blocks are just 0.2 ahead of opposing teams.

defense

Injured star Kyrie Irving steals the ball from Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Matt West)

According to the field goal percentages against them, it’s clear this team contests almost every shot that goes up. They are in the plus column in three-point percentage, two-point field goal percentage, and total field goal percentage.

The most surprising stat is the fact that they only score 4.0 more points than opposing teams. But stats, however helpful, can be misleading when it comes to defense. The team play on the defensive end is completely apparent when watching this team play. They may play close games, but defense often comes out on top in those contests.

When the team gets healthy and gels in the playoffs, this defense could be the deciding factor in more than a couple of games. While their scoring isn’t much to write home about, stopping other teams from scoring can be just as productive.

Featured image by Nathan Denette/Associated Press

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injury

Playoff contenders’ injury roundup

Injury woes are piling up in the NBA. That’s a given near the end of an 82-game season.

This year, though, the teams bearing the brunt of the misfortune are those expected to be solidly in contention for the NBA title. None of these teams are expected to miss the playoffs because of the absences, but these storylines are put under a magnifying glass as they prepare to play their most meaningful basketball.

Almost every playoff team is missing some pieces, but here is a roundup of the injuries that could hamstring contenders with their eyes on hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Boston Celtics

Kyrie Irving

Irving is currently listed as Day-to-Day, and has missed the last two games due to a knee injury. He broke his kneecap during the 2015 NBA Finals, which still appears to be giving him trouble. Celtics GM, Danny Ainge, has said that Kyrie will probably have some minor surgery in the offseason to “clean up” lingering issues, but that he will be ready for the playoffs.

Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart had surgery on a torn ligament in his thumb on Friday. The most optimistic projections have him returning in six weeks, making a playoff return possible. It is possible, however, that his season could be over if any complications arise.

Jaylen Brown

Brown suffered a concussion during March 8th’s game against the Timberwolves. Brad Stevens commented on his status Friday, saying, “his headache was resolved.” He will be reevaluated next week, but the Celtics are keeping him out of the lineup, as per the NBA’s concussion protocol.

Gordon Hayward

injury

Gordon Hayward suffered a fractured ankle during the first game of the season. (Photo by Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

After breaking his ankle in the first quarter of the season, Hayward refuses to rule out a return this season. Brad Stevens, however, was adamant that he would not see the floor, in an attempt to protect his future. We know that players want to play, so it’s not totally shocking that Hayward says he can return, but the smart money is on him not playing another minute this season. Furthering that sentiment, Danny Ainge reported that Gordon had a “setback” in his rehab about a month ago. He did state that the small forward is back on track. Hayward’s return has been the story that just won’t die this season, so fans will have to wait and see how risky the Celtics are willing to be.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Rodney Hood

Hood is listed as day-to-day with a back injury. He did play 18 minutes in the Cavaliers’ loss against the Trailblazers on Friday. It does not seem as if the injury will continue to sideline the shooting guard, but the team will keep an eye on it going forward.

injury

Kevin Love injured his hand against the Pistons on Jan. 30. (Photo by Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Kevin Love

Still recovering from a broken left hand, Love has been out of the lineup since January 30. According to sources close to the team, he is aiming for a return on March 23rd, against the Suns. Considering the original prediction was every bit of two full months, it seems as if Love’s injury is healing ahead of schedule. He has not yet played with the Cavs’ revamped roster.

Kyle Korver

The Cavaliers’ veteran sharpshooter did not play in Saturday’s game against the Bulls. The team is chalking the absence up to a “personal matter,” although the specifics have not been released. It’s unclear how long Korver will be out of the rotation, but he should return soon.

Golden State Warriors

Kevin Durant

Durant underwent an MRI on Friday that revealed a rib fracture. He will be out for at least two weeks. Apparently, this injury dates all the way back to March 11th’s game against the Timberwolves. As Durant drove to the rim against Karl-Anthony Towns, he felt the injury happen. Not seeking medical attention, though, the injury became inflamed as Durant kept playing. The timeline here should stay right at two weeks if everything goes according to plan.

Stephen Curry

Curry tweaked an already oft-injured ankle while accidentally stepping on teammate Zaza Pachulia’s ankle on March 2. He has missed the Warriors’ last four games, and will likely miss four more. He is scheduled for a reevaluation on March 20, but the team believes he will remain out of the lineup until April.

Klay Thompson

The third Warriors All-Star to appear on the injury report, Thompson has a fractured thumb. Already missing two games, he won’t be assessed again until March 22. When the injury was announced, Golden State expected him to miss at least seven games. There is no timetable for his return, but he should be ready for the playoffs.

injury

Omri Casspi rolled his ankle Friday against the Kings. (Photo by Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Omri Casspi

During Friday’s game against the lowly Sacramento Kings, backup forward Omri Casspi rolled his ankle after making a shot in the second quarter. He did not play on Saturday against the Suns, but there is no information on how serious the injury is. Considering Durant is also sidelined, this presents problems for Golden State’s front court depth.

Houston Rockets

Ryan Anderson

Anderson has not played since February 25 while dealing with a hip injury. He returned to minimal action Saturday against the Pelicans, but expect the Rockets to play it safe with the 29-year-old forward. Considering the Rockets’ early-season injury woes, they will want to minimize the risk of their roster being thinned out going into the playoffs.

Clint Capela

Although he has not missed time because of it, Capela is nursing a sore thumb. Such an integral part of the Rockets’ lineup will be watched carefully, but sitting him out of the lineup is unlikely unless he aggravates the injury.

Toronto Raptors

Norman Powell

Bench forward Norman Powell has sat out Toronto’s last two games due to a tweaked ankle. He is currently day-to-day, and the Raptors will continue to play it safe, as they have already clinched a playoff spot and are on an 11-game win streak.

Kyle Lowry

The official reason for Lowry’s absence in Toronto’s win against the Mavericks was rest, due to  back-to-back contests. Considering Lowry’s injury history however, this is something to watch in the future. In part because other integral pieces of the Raptors’ rotation have not missed time due to rest.

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Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Love, DeRozan and the conversation we should all be having

One in six. 44.7 million. 18.3 percent. That’s how many people age 18 or older live with some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Almost every adult in this country knows six other people. There is virtually no chance that you don’t know someone who fights one of these battles. Please think about that for a moment. Take the time to count out six people in your life who mean something to you.

Have any of those six people ever come forward and told you that they experience some sort of day-to-day struggle against, maybe, an anxiety or depression-related disorder?

If your answer was yes, then that’s not a problem at all. It’s not hard to be a good friend to someone who lives with a mental health issue. Simply check in often. Listen when they speak to you about it. More importantly, listen when they don’t wish to speak about it.

If your answer was no, then you are now privy to extremely disturbing information. Many people with mental illnesses choose silence over assistance. They would like to believe that they are nobody’s problem to be solved; no one’s burden to bear.

Or maybe you count yourself within the ranks of those who have to live life followed by this particular shadow. I do. So do some of the smartest and most successful people I’ve ever met.

It’s not discriminatory. Mental illness, regardless of “severity,” affects people of every race, religion, social status and tax bracket.

Just ask Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan.

Opening up

Love and DeRozan will make a combined $155,577,000 by the end of the 2019-20 NBA season. They’re provided with free travel, hotel accommodations, meals, training facilities, clothes and shoes. They both have lucrative sponsorship deals. On top of that, they’ll both get a share of the $20 million bonus that’s divided up between every player that participates in the NBA playoffs.

That money didn’t stop Kevin Love from having a full-blown panic attack during the third quarter of a game against the Hawks on Nov. 5. It didn’t keep DeRozan from tweeting a rather telling song lyric.

In an interview with The Star, published on Feb 25, DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression. In it, he says, “We all got feelings… all of that. Sometimes… it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

DeRozan has said he’s “amazed” by the amount of support he’s gotten after speaking about his depression. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Most telling was the short statement in which the 28-year-old speaks on the roller coaster that life with depression can be. He says that he has “various nights,” alleging that any given day could hold myriad emotions and states of mind. He said his life has always been that way.

Just nine days later, Kevin Love published an article with The Players’ Tribune called “Everyone Is Going Through Something.” The story chronicles his own previously repressed conflicts with his own mental health.

He reflects on unlearning a playbook of behaviors taught to most men and boys that caused him to ignore any previous signs that he might need some support. Instead, over 29 years, he substituted healthy coping mechanisms with often-adopted strategy of “manning up.”

We are all human

It’s easy to see athletes as real-life superheroes. Seeing the kind of athleticism they exhibit night in and night out can cause the public to paint them as something they’re not: mythical creatures who were put on this Earth to entertain us in a modern-day gladiator arena.

It’s what causes people like Laura Ingraham to tell LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” As if being an athlete somehow bars you from having opinions and ideas about the world you live in.

I’ll admit that I’ve been part of that problem. It’s hard not to when you watch Aaron Rodgers execute three Hail-Mary touchdowns in the same calendar year, or when you see Michael Jordan dunk from the free-throw line. The incredible feats we see on any given night are almost laughably impossible.

But once they shed their uniforms and step away from the flashing lights, they’re just people.

That was the common thread through both Love and DeRozan’s stories. The idea that everyone is vulnerable and nobody is immune to this kind of problem.

Panic

The most eye-opening part of Kevin Love’s article was his detailed description of his panic attack. After a timeout in the third quarter, Love knew he was not physically able to re-enter the game, but couldn’t quite get a grasp on what was happening. He retreated to the Cavaliers’ locker room knowing something wasn’t right.

I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, ‘You’re about to die.’ I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe. (Kevin Love, “Everyone Is Going Through Something)

Anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows the exact feeling he is talking about. It’s a frightening experience that is hard to put into words. To someone who may not know what a panic attack looks or feels like, it may seem silly or overdramatic. But allow me to give you my thoughts on this particular passage.

I’m someone who has not only dealt with this kind of thing before, but who writes for a living and has extensive creative writing education as a part of my college degree. With that being said, I have never in my life thought of anything that quite explains a panic attack as well as “looking for something I couldn’t find.” That is exactly what it feels like. A sense of indescribable hopelessness and fear, as if nothing is going to be alright ever again.

He may be 6-foot-10 and carry double-double career average, but in that moment, he probably felt the same way so many of us have: paralyzed, small, weak and scared.

Idolization

Knowing how we put athletes on a literal and figurative pedestal, it must have been unspeakably hard to come forward like DeRozan and Love have. Their stories have been met with support from fans and players alike, but showing vulnerability like this isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody. So, try to imagine what it must have been like unveiling these things when the eyes of the world are upon them.

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Kevin Love opens up about his recent struggles with his mental health. (Photo by Brad Rempel)

Men, women, boys and girls look up to them. They dream of achieving the invincibility and everlasting admiration of being a professional athlete. The idea that even one of these people would perceive some sort of weakness of character for coming forward with this personal information must have been hard to cope with.

But, as DeRozan said in his admission of his battle with depression, “we’re all human.” All the credit in the world goes to them for showing the individuals who look up to athletes that no battle needs to be fought alone.

NBPA action

In a Feb. 19 interview with SB Nation, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts spoke on NBA players’ mental wellness.

“We’ve been naive — I’m being kind when I say naive — in thinking that we didn’t have to address and make sure that we were giving as much attention to our players’ mental wellness, as we were their physical.” (Michele Roberts via SB Nation)

This quote and interview were before the DeRozan article was made public. That suggests, perhaps, this is more pressing of an issue than can be expressed by just two players coming forward.

Roberts went on to say that development of a mental health program is in its “early stages,” and that the NBPA has only made one hire. But work is being done and progress is being made in regards to tending to mental wellness.

She wants the program to be funded by the players’ union and NBA teams, yet have it operated separately from both. She cites potential concerns regarding players not utilizing the resource because they are afraid that information would affect their standing within the team.

Confidentiality would be paramount to the program, which speaks to the larger stigma surrounding the topic of mental health. Especially in the hyper-masculine world of professional men’s basketball.

Significance in sports

The mental health conversation in this country needs to continue to grow and change. If over 18 percent of the American adult population experiences something, we need to talk about it.

The problem is, so many mental health issues can be ignored, ill-defined, or even misdiagnosed. I’m not an expert, but it seems as if conversation and openness about what ails someone is the best place to start.

That’s why these two coming forward could signal a paradigm shift. Public figures seen as folk heroes by many, telling the world that even they are not exempt from these feelings can, should and has garnered attention.

Love and DeRozan are not the first athletes to admit to these kinds of problems though.

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Kelly Oubre Jr. of the Washington Wizards was the third NBA player in two weeks to come forward with mental wellness problems. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Picabo Street, Ricky Williams, Joey Votto, Mike Tyson and many others have documented struggles with depression. Ken Griffey, Jr. took over 250 aspirin tablets during a suicide attempt in 1988. Rick Rypien, a Vancouver Canucks and Manitoba Moose center, succeeded in a suicide attempt in 2011. Kelly Oubre Jr. followed Love and DeRozan’s lead, just hours after Love’s article was published, opening up about his struggles on NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards Tipoff Podcast.

Significance in culture

It’s hard to know how to frame all of that information. Maybe it does actually provide hope that these conversations can become more normal. But, it could also just be more info to sweep under the rug, so we can pretend it’s not happening.

These kinds of talks that we have with ourselves and others are uncomfortable. They are oppressive, difficult and complicated. What’s worse is that when depression is getting the best of you, you may not want to talk about it. When it’s not, you probably don’t want to bring yourself down by hashing it out.

Athletes, movie stars, musicians and politicians can all help steer us in the right direction when it comes to opening up. This is where “normal” people come into play.

When people in the public eye use their platform to talk about a cause that is important to them, it’s not just so they can hear themselves speak. It’s almost always because they want it discussed by the masses. They want to open up a dialogue.

Leonardo DiCaprio uses his platform to raise awareness about climate change. The main talking point at this year’s Academy Awards was putting an end to sexual assault. But all of this means nothing unless it affects the public in a way that causes conversation and change.

Love and DeRozan are not discussing their mental health because they want you to feel bad for them. That would be completely futile, because they are multi-millionaires living their dream of being professional basketball players.

They are opening up to change the way we talk about these issues. I can’t speak to their exact intentions, but my gut tells me they want people, who are in similar situations, to know that they’re not alone.

Conclusion

You’ll notice that not once in this article have I used the words “suffer from.” It’s a common phrase to put in front of mental health terminology. In my opinion, though, it’s overused and inaccurate.

People who experience some sort of mental health defect should not be told what they do and do not “suffer from.” They are not in some perpetual state of suffering. They are simply people who live their lives carrying some extra weight.

Living is an obligation. Suffering is a choice.

To those of you who know what it’s like to deal with some of these issues, or to those of you who act as an ally to them, please always remember this: Our struggles do not define us. However internalized or externalized our problems may be, they are just a part of us. Not our whole, but simply a piece of an intricate puzzle that makes us the people we are.

Sports are universal and eternal. They have a way of capturing our hearts and imaginations, just like the best movie you’ve ever seen, or your favorite album. That is why I choose to believe that these stories will resonate. Because if our “superheroes” can tell us that they aren’t perfect, then maybe we can all start to accept ourselves and others as such.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit this link which features only a small number of the wide range of resources that are available.

 

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