Breaking Down Brooklyn Nets Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

The small forward spot is becoming an increasingly perplexing position in today’s NBA, especially when it pertains to the Brooklyn Nets.

Some small forwards bring the ball up. Others play in the paint. Then there are the three-point launchers who eat and sleep out on the perimeter.

The 3 has really become a wild card in terms of lineup configurations.

Last season, the Nets played small ball after starting center Brook Lopez went out for the year with a broken foot 17 games in.

After that, Kevin Garnett shared center duties with Mason Plumlee, Paul Pierce jumped to power forward, Joe Johnson slid down to small forward and Shaun Livingston joined Deron Williams in the backcourt.

But that was under Jason Kidd, who fled Brooklyn for the Milwaukee Bucks after just one year. Things will be different under new coach Lionel Hollins, who talked to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News about what he expects from his team:

I wasn’t trying to watch what they did because it’s really not the same team and what I want to do is different from what they did in the past. So, it wasn’t like I was trying to figure out what they did (last season). And I had a vision of what this team could look like with the personnel we have.

We’re trying to develop a foundation of what we’re going to be defensively, and what we’re trying to be offensively. It’s all the same. It’s not like I have some special magic that I’m trying to get them to do. You create a mentality, you create a culture of being aggressive and being tough.

Bondy noted back on September 27th that Hollins had already locked in on four starters: Williams, Johnson, Garnett and Lopez.

Johnson, who had played shooting guard for 12 years before last season, could see minutes at both the 2 and the 3 under Hollins.

Outside of Iso Joe, the Nets are looking at a SF rotation that could include rookie Bojan Bogdanovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Sergey Karasev.

Now, all those guys aren’t going to play (we’re looking at you, Sergey). And the ones that do aren’t going to exclusively line up at the 3—for example, AK-47 and Teletovic are likely to see a good chunk of minutes at power forward.

Let’s put the Nets’ small forward position under a microscope and really dig in, shall we?

 

Grading Last Year’s SF Performance

Basketball-Reference.com listed Johnson as a shooting guard last year. So did ESPN.

Well…he was, wasn’t he? Yes and no.

As mentioned before, Johnson took Pierce’s place at forward, but still handled the ball a fair amount and took the most shots on the team by a large margin—the next closest was D-Will, who was 302 shots behind JJ’s 1,018 attempts.

Johnson, as he’s always been, was a stud in 2013-14. The 33-year-old scored a team-high 15.8 points per game on 45.4 percent shooting while earning his seventh career All-Star nod. He also led the team in three-point shooting with an average of 40.1 from beyond the arc.

Playing a different position didn’t faze Johnson. Here’s what he told ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo on September 30: “I’ll never complain. I’m a basketball player, so whatever offense you wanna run, I’m capable of running it or adjusting to it. Whether you want me to be more of a catch-and-shoot guy or you want me to be more off-the-dribble, post-up, whatever you want me to do, I can do it.”

After Johnson came Anderson. If Johnson is a designer clothing brand, Anderson is Old Navy—while Double-A is far from glamorous, the 32-year-old veteran is a gritty defender who can knock down an occasional jumper if left open.

Anderson started 26 games for Brooklyn and contributed 7.2 points and 2.2 boards in about 23 minutes a game last year.

Johnson and Anderson were the team’s primary small forwards, with Teletovic mixing in some time at the 3 while mostly lining up as a power forward. In his second NBA season, the sharp-shooting Teletovic gave the Nets 8.6 points a night while hitting 41.8 percent of his attempts.

Finally, there was Kirilenko, whose decision to come to Brooklyn resulted in an investigation. Last summer, the Russian signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal with owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s Nets after opting out of a $10.2 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The NBA cleared the two parties of any wrongdoing, though. Just goes to show you that players will do anything to get out of Minnesota.

AK-47 was hurt for much of the year, dealing with some back spasms that just would not let up. He played just 45 games and averaged the worst scoring, rebounding, steals and block numbers of his 10-year career.

Kirilenko is in for a significantly bigger role with the Nets this season, though. If he can stay healthy, he’ll bounce back into the spark-plug utility player that he’s been his entire career.

Grade: B+

 

Will Bogdanovic start?

Hollins is presumably going to commit to a fifth starter in the very near future, given that the season is rapidly approaching.

Bogdanovic, Anderson and Kirilenko have run with the starters in the preseason, though AK-47 suffered a back injury that sidelined him after the second day of training camp.

The rookie from Croatia has started the for the Nets the entire preseason, including their most recent game, which was an experimental 44-minute exhibition against the Boston Celtics. He played a team-high 28 minutes on October 19.

All signs point to Bogdanovic earning a starting role.

Johnson is a significantly better ball-handler than the 25-year-old, so Bogdanovic would presumably line up as a small forward.

“I think he’s got great size, he’s also got great speed and quickness,” Hollins said of the overseas star, per Mazzeo. “He can shoot the ball, but also put the ball on the floor. He can post up. I’m looking for players. Players that have multiple skills and are not just one-dimensional.”

There’s certainly expected to be a learning curve, though. Here’s an excerpt from my recent piece that focused on the importance of Kirilenko early in the year:

In addition to the differences in court dimensions and ball texture, the rookie will be thrust into a new world of frequent traveling and a rigorous, physically grueling 82-game season.

In the meantime, Kirilenko’s play will become so much more important. Alan Anderson is the team’s only other legitimate option at the 3.

Kirilenko won’t necessarily fade as Bogdanovic, who will likely play some shooting guard and some small forward, progresses. He’ll still be an important piece of the Nets throughout the whole season.

The strong, 6’8″ Bogdanovic has looked capable of holding his own on the defensive end thus far, which would be the only area in which he’d lose points to Anderson.

If Kirilenko can stay healthy throughout the whole year—and steady the ship when the rookie’s ride gets bumpy—the Nets are going to be pretty deep at small forward, especially with Anderson working his way into the rotation.

 

Looking Ahead to 2014-15

Hollins is going to have a ton of options in how he handles the small forward rotation this season. If Bogdanovic starts with Johnson at SG, the veteran coach can substitute Kirilenko, Anderson or even Teletovic, depending on the situation.

The coach is determined to establish concrete roles for his players this season, something that Kidd struggled to do in his first year on the sidelines.

Here’s Newsday’s Roderick Boone with more:

In dealing with rookie coach Jason Kidd last season, some players clearly were frustrated by the lack of clarity regarding their role, which became more apparent during these first few days of training camp with Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko mentioning how they were unsure where they fit in Kidd’s scheme.

That doesn’t appear to be an issue under Hollins, who continues to lay the groundwork, getting a feel for his team so he can deliver an edict on precisely what he wants from each of them.

“I think that’s something coach talked about today,” Deron Williams said, “was kind of we haven’t talked about roles specifically this year. But they’ll be defined at some point during the preseason. I think that’s what this time is about, is finding out chemistry and what team we’re going to be like, what guys like to do.”

Obstacles are going to emerge throughout the year. It’s inevitable. Injuries, slumps, controversies, transactions—it’s going to happen.

But that’s out of Hollins’ control. Each player will have a role in Brooklyn, a niche carved out specifically for his own self. And that will provide the team with stability through the turmoil.

For Johnson, it’s likely to be scoring isolation. For Bogdanovic, it’ll be knocking down shots from the outside and providing instant offense. Kirilenko will be a spark plug and a safety net, a guy who’s reliable and can defend. Anderson will serve as a hard-nosed, scrappy defender.

All of Brooklyn’s options are versatile guys who can play different positions and bring a unique ability to the court.

The Nets are going to be just fine at small forward.

 

All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

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Breaking Down the Twitter Buzz Surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Preseason

The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers were always going to be a buzz-generating team, and the preseason proved this to be correct. Everyone imaginable took to Twitter and other social media to talk about the various storylines of this Cavaliers squad.

 

Injuries

The only aspect holding the Cavs back—and I mean from owning the preseason—has been injuries. The new Big Three has only played together in a scrimmage and some of the Tel Aviv game.

Point guard Kyrie Irving has missed games with a foot injury while newly acquired forward Kevin Love has missed time with a neck injury.

LeBron James has missed some time so that he can rest, and even the mascot missed some games recently.

It is important to note that these injuries aren’t serious and that the Cavs are committed to resting players when they pick up little knocks. This rest and caution will figure to work in the Cavs’ favor though it does limit their ability to build chemistry.

 

Defense

Defensive commitment and ability have been the biggest question marks for the Cavs, as offensive firepower is a given. The Cavs were a middle-of-the-road defensive team last year, ranking 16th in points allowed and 17th in opponent field-goal percentage.

They added James, who can defend any position and any player better than most, but they also added Love, who has a reputation for lacking defensive acumen. 

The biggest factor for the defensive ability of this team will be effort. When it wants to be good on defense, it can be. Shear athleticism and effort could make this team good enough on defense to win a title.

 

Excitement

Even in the preseason, this team has had no shortage of excitement.

Though their time together has been limited, the plays between Irving and James have produced spectacular results.

Love, in limited playing time, has shown his ability to fill it up, scoring an average of 19 points in games in which he played 20 minutes or more.

The preseason has given us a small sample size of what I believe we will see all season from this team. The excitement and highlight plays will certainly be there in abundance.

But so will stretches of lackluster defense.

This team also, like many other contenders, will not be able to succeed if health becomes a concern.

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Breaking Down What Makes James Harden an Elite Offensive Player

James Harden of the Houston Rockets may be the most intriguing case study in the NBA. He’s easily one of the five most gifted offensive players in the league, yet all anyone talks about anymore is his defense. So, for this article, we’re not going to talk about those flaws. We’re going to discuss what makes Harden such a special player.

He’s able to score, he’s able do so efficiently and he involves his teammates while doing so. Those three things make him an elite offensive player. And by elite, I don’t just mean among his contemporaries. Harden is not just good—he’s historically good.

In his two years with Houston, he has averaged 25.7 points on a .609 true shooting percentage, adding 6.0 assists while doing so. Per Basketball-Reference.com, only three other players have had a season where they met those standards: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and LeBron James.

If advanced stats are more your thing, during both of his years in Houston, Harden had a usage percentage over 27, an assist percentage above 25 and a true shooting percentage over 60, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Only three other players have accomplished that feat twice: Jordan, Bird and James.

I don’t mean to overstate things here, but Jordan, Bird and James make up a pretty elite trio. He is not on their historical level yet, but what he’s accomplished suggests he could be.

So what makes Harden so special? The answer might surprise you: It’s his brain. Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland writes:

James Harden is one of the smartest on-court players in the NBA. Perhaps more than anyone else, he understands the rules of the game and has engineered an approach to scoring that takes full advantage of these rules.

It may not always be pretty (although sometimes it is), but it is almost always productive. Between his Eurostep and his incredible ability to get fouled, Harden might be a referee’s nightmare, but he’s also one of the best scorers in the league.

Based on his understanding of the game, there are three things in particular Harden does to build his impressive offensive resume: shoot from the right spots on the floor, draws fouls and find open teammates when he’s double-teamed.

 

Shooting From the Right Spots

Probably the most important factor in scoring efficiently isn’t whether you make the shots; it’s where you take them from. If you shoot closer to the rim, you are more likely to make them. If you take them from three, they are going to count for more. Ergo, the restricted area and behind the three-point line are the target areas.

Harden’s shot chart, available at NBA.com/STATS, shows how his shots are distributed.

Notice how the concentration is in those two critical high-efficiency areas.

Last year, there were 22 players who attempted at least 400 threes and 47 who took at least 300 shots inside the restricted area. There were only five players who did both. Here they are with a glossary [1] to explain the headers:

You might notice that these are some of the most effective scorers in the league. That’s not a coincidence. 

 

Drawing Fouls

Another area of the court where players can boost their efficiency is from the free-throw stripe. If Harden were a sketch artist, he could make a living just drawing fouls.

One of the better new analysis tools is “free-throw rate,” which shows how often a player draws a foul. This is devised from dividing the field-goal attempts by the free-throw attempts.

There’s a hitch to that, though, as some players are fouled intentionally because they are more efficient from the field than from the stripe. In those cases, the defense feels it has an advantage in fouling, so they do. [2]

However, if we add the free-throw percentage to the free-throw rate, it gives us “free-throw rating.” That gives us a good feel for who not only gets to the line but also who takes advantage of getting there.

Not surprisingly, Harden and Durant top this list. Kevin Love is seventh. Those are the only three on both lists.

When you combine these two things—shooting form the efficient places on the court and shooting well from the stripe—you get an efficient scorer. True shooting percentage adjusts for three-pointers and free throws.

Five players averaged 25 points: James, Harden, Durant, Love and Carmelo Anthony. Three of them had a true shooting percentage over .600: James, Durant and Harden. When you combine that degree of volume and efficiency, you get MVPs.

What’s more remarkable is that, according to 82games.com, he was just called for just 32 offensive fouls. His 665 free-throw attempts suggest he was fouled well over 320 times (which would incur 640-ish free throws). In other words, he draws about 10 fouls for every offensive foul.

Call it flopping. Call it star treatment. Call it words I can’t use on Bleacher Report. But Harden calls them points. And that’s a big part of why he’s such an effective scorer.

 

Passing the Ball

The last thing Harden does that makes him an elite offensive player is pass prudently. He’s not an elite passer on the level of Chris Paul. He’s not always looking to create points for his teammates. But he is smart enough to pass out of a double-team rather than force up a bad shot.

Taking efficient shots is one way to bolster your shooting percentages. Not taking stupid ones is another. This might seem obvious, but without getting critical of anyone in particular, let’s just say there are some noteworthy scorers in the NBA who haven’t learned this lesson.

Basketball is not diving or gymnastics; you don’t get extra points for degree of difficulty. It’s better to find the open teammate than to force a bad shot. Case in point:

And that’s not just an isolated case. When I worked with Adam Fromal to develop passer rating, one thing we looked at is which players raised their teammate’s field-goal percentage the most when they passed them the ball. We called that field-goal percentage impact.

Among non-point guards, Harden had the fifth-largest impact (behind Joakim Noah, Nicolas Batum, Durant and James), raising his teammates’ field-goal percentage 3.62 percentage points.

Only two of those players, Durant and James, were also their team’s leading scorer.

Statistically, Harden establishes over and over that he is in the same company as Durant and James on offense.

 

***

There are three players who are among the best at all three of these areas: Harden, James and Durant. Two of them have won five of the last six MVPs. It’s not entirely unreasonable that Harden could have one of those in his future.

He’s not perfect on offense. He has too many passing turnovers (135 last year). He pressed too hard in last year’s postseason when he should have been trusting his teammates. I’m not trying to hide from that.

But remember, he just turned 25. These things (and defense) are lessons that players normally don’t learn until they’re in the second half of their 20s.

People say Harden has an old-man’s game. In the deliberate way he moves with the ball, that’s true. But in terms of where he shoots from, he’s much more of a modern-age man. And in terms of actual age, he’s a very young man.

If Harden’s game matures, he could blend those things together and become one of the most special players in history. He’s already posting numbers that are historically rare. When you consider that he’s already playing at such a high level and how much room he has to grow, it’s a scary combination.

 

 

[1] RAFG = Restricted Area Field Goal; RAFGA = Restricted Area Field-Goal Attempt; %ATT = Percent of Total Field Goal Attempts from efficient areas or (RAFGA+3PA)/FGA; EFG%EA = Effective Field-Goal Percentage on Attempts from Efficient Areas

[2] This is usually a bad strategy. In order for it to be effective, a player would have to have a higher field-goal percentage than free-throw percentage, otherwise, on average, you’re giving away points. 

 

Stats for this article come from Basketball-Reference.com, 82games.com, and NBA.com/STATS.

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Mavericks down LeBron, Cavaliers 108-102 (Yahoo Sports)

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 17: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers passes to a teammate from under the basket against Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks at The Quicken Loans Arena on October 17, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Cavaliers coach David Blatt figured the best way to handle his first loss was with a joke.


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Burke has 22 and Jazz down Blazers 109-105 (Yahoo Sports)

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 9: Wesley Matthews #2 of the Portland Trail Blazers drives to the basket against the Utah Jazz on October 9, 2014 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Trey Burke had 22 points and seven assists, and the Utah Jazz beat Portland 109-105 Thursday night for their second straight preseason victory over the Trail Blazers.


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Jazz’s Gordon Hayward Throws Down Huge Dunk in Preseason Game vs. Trail Blazers

There are a handful of NBA players you expect to throw down huge slam dunks during a game.

Utah Jazz wing Gordon Hayward is not one of them.

During Thursday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Hayward threw down this exciting dunk after driving to the rim, finishing with authority.

[Gfycat]

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Allen’s agent shoots down Cavs rumors (Yahoo Sports)

Miami Heat guard Ray Allen (34) gestures during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

CLEVELAND (AP) — The agent for free-agent shooting guard Ray Allen says his client has not decided whether to continue his NBA career.


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Paul Pierce, Joakim Noah Nearly Throw Down In Preseason Matchup (Video)

It’s only October, but Paul Pierce and Joakim Noah are playing like it’s late spring. The two veterans have been involved in numerous battles throughout their careers, and they almost came to blows in Monday night’s preseason game between Noah’s Chicago Bulls and Pierce’s Washington Wizards. After a few shoves to the chest from both sides, Pierce poked Noah in the forehead causing him to come after him. Noah was restrained by Bulls head coach, Tom Thibodeau, as Pierce got into a boxing stance to fight. It’s easy to rail on NBA stars for being highly paid and lazy sometimes, but Pierce and Noah definitely don’t fit into that mold as evidenced by the intensity they’re bringing onto the court in early October. Thumbnail photo via Twitter/@CSNChicagoFiled under: Andre Khatchaturian, NBA, Top Stories

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Breaking Down Miami Heat’s Power Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

There’s one thing we know for certain about the 2014-15 Miami Heat: They’re going to be a lot worse at power forward.

Last season, Miami had the luxury of trotting out the best player on God’s green earth at the 4. As you may have read, this is not an advantage Erik Spoelstra and company will have available to them any longer.

It goes without saying, but it bears repeating: LeBron James was a wrecking ball for the Heat. A freak. A monster. A dynamo. One of the greatest players in league history at his absolute zenith—the apex of his considerable powers.

There wasn’t a single component of the game he didn’t excel at. His package of skills was terrifying and unprecedented: the most efficient volume scorer in the sport who’s also a tremendous distributor, plus a canny rebounder and—when motivated—one of the game’s most disruptive defenders.

His game was amorphous. He was a Swiss army knife who could provide the Heat precisely the thing they needed every night out, whatever that thing was. There wasn’t, and isn’t, anyone else like him.

So Miami didn’t just get great play at the power forward position last season: It got, arguably, better play at the 4 than any team has received in decades, maybe ever. At best, this season will mark a substantial step backward.

(Brief aside: While it’s inarguable that James was tremendous for Miami, there is something of a running debate over what position he played. I fall squarely on the side of power forward. While Shane Battier spent more time banging with opposing PFs than LeBron on defense, the case for “LeBron James: 4” is a strong one. His final two seasons in Miami, offensively, he had an inordinate number of touches in the low post. And, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s position tracking tool, James played power forward for 82 percent of his minutes in 2012-13 and 2013-14—figures that jumped to 92 percent and 87 percent, respectively, in the postseason.)

 

Replacing LeBron

Miami landed James’ replacement before he left by signing Josh McRoberts away from the Charlotte Hornets—nee Bobcats—with a four-year, $23 million deal. Pat Riley initially came to terms with the 6’10”, 240-pound McRoberts with the notion that he would be part of his appeal to keep James in South Beach. A super-stretchy 4 to take advantage of the spacing LeBron’s gravitation influence on opposing defenders creates.

Though LeBron ultimately had other plans, this was an assignment McBob appeared well-equipped to handle. In his breakout 2013-14 season, he hit a career-high 105 of his 291 three-point attempts. ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) broke down the power forward’s game after he came to terms with Miami:

Under Charlotte coach Steve Clifford last season, McRoberts reinvented himself as a shooting and passing big man who leveraged his athleticism at the rim on both sides of the floor. Ever since he was a McDonald’s All American and a Duke prodigy, McRoberts‘ versatility tantalized NBA scouts, but he never quite put it together until last season, when he became a key part of the Bobcats’ surprising 43-39 season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus, McRoberts was an above-average player on both ends last season, checking in at 4.1 WAR, which is in the same range as Nene (4.3), Boris Diaw (4.8) and Patrick Patterson (3.6).

Haberstroh went on to compare McRoberts to San Antonio’s Boris Diaw and suggest that Miami would deploy him similarly—basically, as a versatile big who facilitates in the passing game and does a little bit of everything.

His abilities as a distributor are especially valuable. Last season, he made a strong case as the best passing big man in basketball. From the post, he averaged 4.1 assists a night—against just 1.1 turnovers. According to ESPN.com, this translated into an assist ratio of 32.7, the 14th best figure in the NBA and tops among forwards and centers.

Though he was, again, initially signed to fill a reserve role, McRoberts will start for Miami in 2014-15 and seems a sure bet to take the lion’s share of the minutes at PF. Behind him, there isn’t much else: If injury or ineffectiveness keep him out of the lineup, the Heat are in big trouble.

Udonis Haslem is entering his age-34 season and coming off a year where he posted lows in most categories and, according to Basketball-Reference.com, put up the second worst win shares per 48 minutes of his career. Shawne Williams, who has an Iversonian career field-goal percentage of 40.3, rounds out the bench.

So, suffice it to say, the Heat need McRoberts to be his best self.

Granted, even this best self is limited. McRoberts is an imperfect player—which is why he’s available for $5.6 million a season.

His most glaring deficiency is his work on the glass. In 2013-14, he averaged just 5.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, a staggeringly low figure for a frontcourt player. This is especially problematic given Miami’s pre-existing rebounding issues. According to ESPN.com, the Heat finished 27th in the NBA in rebounding rate last season.

Also of concern is the toe surgery the forward had this offseason, the recovery from which will keep him out until the season opener.

“I’ve needed surgery for a couple years,” McRoberts told the Sun Sentinel’s Shandel Richardson (h/t CBSsports.com). “We kind of figured out last year before the season started. I knew right when the playoffs ended, so it was something I had planned for.”

“I’m just kind of easing back into things,” McRoberts added. “It takes time to recover from something like this. I’m just trying not to overdo it.”

Likewise, it will surely take the Heat time to recover from the loss of LeBron James. But wounds heal. Hopefully sooner rather than later. 

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Blatt wins emotional game, Cavaliers down Maccabi (Yahoo Sports)

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 5: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers calls out to his teammates in the game against the Maccabi Tel Aviv at The Quicken Loans Arena on October 16, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

CLEVELAND (AP) — David Blatt likened his first NBA exhibition game to a one-on-one matchup in the backyard.


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