Yesterday, ESPN NBA analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Jalen Rose discussed the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals with media on a conference call.
ESPN will exclusively televise the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Finals: the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Toronto Raptors. The series is scheduled to begin tonight, Tuesday, May 17, at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
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Q. We can loosely say that the remaining all four coaches left were point guards, with the exception of Chris Paul, the four point guards left in the tournament are pretty much the four best in the league. Do you see a correlation as to why these teams are so successful and do you think those points are an extension of their coaches?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I’ve never thought about it. It’s an interesting theory to float. I think more guards go into coaching, it seems like, and get opportunities as head coaches. I think other than that, I can’t really explain — I can’t explain it.
But great players like are left like Curry and Westbrook and Lowry and Kyrie Irving, they help you coach well, I’ll tell you that. But a lot of this comes down to roster makeup and then the coaches getting the best out of the roster that they can. Not sure it’s just a small — it’s a guard thing, but you know, it’s an interesting theory.
Q. The Cavaliers are obviously coming off a series in which they hit a record number of three-pointers. They found a good small ball lineup with the five and even have Mozgov, should they need to go super big. With that in mind, do you guys think Cleveland, at least in terms of style of play, is the most versatile team left in the playoffs, and if not, could you tell me who is and why?
JALEN ROSE: It’s hard for me to argue against the Golden State Warriors not being the most versatile, so I’ll have to give them the nod on that.
But I do think Cleveland is second. Obviously when you have LeBron James, he makes everyone around him better. And Coach will tell you, when guys are playing to their base, that opens up the rest of their game. So while LeBron James is one of the all-time great scorers, he’s leading the team in assists. Kyrie Irving, one of the game’s best finishers and isolation players, leading the team in scoring. And Kevin Love, who has been the rebounding champion, is leading the team in boards.
So now that allows all of them to settle in and play the rest of their games. I think the addition of Channing Frye, also, has been a huge get for them, because now you can surround the three-point line with four shooters to go with J.R. Smith and allow Kyrie and/or LeBron, who basically have been unstoppable getting to the basket, penetrate for themselves and/or kick to others. And as you see, it created nightmares for Detroit, as well as Atlanta.
And it also kind of exposes, when you’re able to play small ball — and Golden State really took advantage of it the most with their depth lineup, is fours and fives can’t consistently give you most-up offense enough to punish a small ball lineup. So now sometimes teams are forced to try to play small to match what teams are doing like the Cavs.
Q. Cleveland.com posted a story today about the closeness of the Cavaliers team. I’m paraphrasing a LeBron quote, but he essentially told the media they were wrong and the Cavaliers team has been close all season, despite the controversies. As a coach, how important do you feel that general closeness of the team is to making the Finals run and coming home with the Larry O’Brien trophy?
VAN GUNDY: I think usually what happens is in many times, we wait to see the result, and then we talk about the chemistry after the fact as a reason why a team won or lost. I don’t think people usually predict chemistry as a team is going through the season.
Listen, chemistry I think is important to playing very well. I think talent is more important. I think winning brings chemistry, while losing divides teams usually. And so Cleveland has won spec tactically the last two years, so I would expect their chemistry to be high because despite I think you said maybe — you used the word adversity, they really haven’t played in any adversity. All they have had is smooth sailing.
Last year they made it to the finals with a hurt team. This year, they have had the best record in the east from the get-go. They have played exceptionally well and they have swept the two first series. So winning breeds great chemistry, they have got it, and they are playing exceptional basketball.
Q. On the matchups of the series, do you guys see any advantages for the Raptors or anything that they could take advantage of from a matchup standpoint, in what seems like kind of a lopsided series?
VAN GUNDY: I think they have one advantage, and I think it’s a big one in Game 1 in that they have played normal NBA basketball the last — in the playoffs. They have been playing games close together. They have been playing a lot. Whereas, Cleveland, because of their sweeps, has had a lot of time off, and there’s no doubt that impacts rhythm.
So for Game 1, I think Toronto has that one advantage, and for them, just like Detroit came out and played a good first game at Cleveland, as did Atlanta, this is their best chance, I believe, to win on the road in the first two games.
ROSE: Unfortunately for the Raptors, who are without Valanciunas, if you lined up players by position, you probably would pick the Cavs performer over the Raptors performer, depending on if you want DeRozan taking 20 shots or J.R. Smith taking ten threes.
But one of the things, if I’m Toronto, I’m trying to do, since they have legitimate size on the perimeter with Lowry, DeRozan and Carroll, is force Kyrie to guard his position and see if Kyle Lowry can continue his hot streak of how he’s been playing the last couple of games, take advantage of him on the offensive end and/or try to get him in foul trouble and possibly force him out of the game. He is the Cavs’ leading scorer so far throughout the playoffs and their second-best playmaker behind LeBron.
Q. What was your take, I think you’ve spoken to it, just on the Cavaliers decision to dismiss David Blatt and hire Tyronn, and if it has changed at all since they made the move. Do you feel any differently than you did when the decision was made?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I think David Blatt did an outstanding job and he’s an outstanding coach. I thought it was unfortunate when they let him go; that so many people took that opportunity to try to run him and his coaching abilities down with the use of unnamed sources.
I think Tyronn Lue, who I had the privilege of coaching in Houston for a little bit, has done a really good job. I think they were 30-11 when they let David go. They continued to play well in the regular season. They swept the first two rounds. Last year with an injured squad, they came up two wins short.
We’ll have to wait and see, certainly they are a prohibitive favorite to get back to the finals, and we’ll see if they can win it all. If they win it all, then you have to credit David Griffin with a good decision. If they don’t, then they still have to live with their decision but they didn’t accomplish any more than they did with David Blatt.
So just like anybody in this business, you’re judged by the results you get. Tyronn Lue has done a great job, he’s gotten great results. David Blatt got great results and the Cavaliers are playing exceptional basketball.
ROSE: David Blatt was in a position of coaching LeBron James. So it becomes about the destination where we can’t appreciate the journey; it’s championship or bust.
So Lebron James record, first-round series, 11-0; Conference Semifinals, 8-3; Conference Finals, 6-1; and to Jeff’s point, NBA Finals, 2-4. So this is why Griffin wanted to make the move. They are going to be judged by the results at that point whether it was a good decision or not.
Q. I wanted to ask you about, I know you’re not big on talking about your coaching tree or anything like that, certainly some of the guys associated with you have had some success, Steve in Charlotte, Mike Malone, and of course Tom getting the job in Minnesota. Wonder if you could just express whether you — sort of the level of pride that you feel in seeing the success of those guys, and also, they all come from your sort of defensive-minded sort of mind-set and I wonder, in a league where there’s so much offense, if it is heartening to you to see that defense still has such a place.
VAN GUNDY: Well, first of all, I don’t know if you would call guys who are better coaches than me my tree. I just happened to be around their greatness. So I’m not sure about that.
I think what Tom and Steve, in particular, because I was only with Mike just a short time. Like what they have done, is they have achieved great balance at both ends of the floor. I think this year Charlotte was a Top-10 offensive and defensive team. Tom achieved that, as well, in Chicago. So that’s really hard to do.
So I’ve really enjoyed watching their teams play. They are incredibly well prepared. You watch their teams play with great passion and poise and purpose, and it’s just a real thrill for me to be able to see guys who helped me so much, taught me so much, succeed at the highest level, and that’s why I’m really happy for Tom with the Minnesota job. I think he and Scott Layden together will do a fantastic job there, both running the team and also coaching the team.
And Steve Clifford, I meet him at Syracuse basketball camp back when we were both coming out of college, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to watch him knock it out of the park every time he gets an opportunity.
Q. Just with Tom taking that job, what’s your outlook with all the young talent that they have?
VAN GUNDY: Well, I think they obviously have good, young players. Karl-Anthony Towns is certainly what I would look at as the foundation piece, and a guy who, you know, you would expect to be a multi-year all-star, and to me, just off year one, and you don’t want to skip steps. As the great Gregg Popovich says, you don’t want to skip steps. But he has the looks of this is a Hall of Fame-type talent.
Now last year, they had great health amongst their top players, and you hope that continues because durability is such a factor. While they have good, young — great young players, in some cases and good quality in other places, I think they are going to really benefit from Tom’s approach.
As we all know, he’s a serious-minded coach with serious goals, and anyone who has serious aspirations really enjoys playing for him. And that’s why I think they are going to really improve. I would not be surprised if they made the playoffs next year.
I think they have got some building blocks in place for long-term success, and it will be very interesting what the lottery brings. And also any changes he and Scott decide on, personnel-wise, maybe they try to trade some things for a veteran, for a guy who is already proven to have all-star qualifications.
So I’m really interested to watch what happens in Minnesota because their owner, Glen Taylor, is as fine a man as you’re going to find in ownership and I hope he finds success, and I think he will with the great hire of Tom and Scott.
Q. With some of the coaching changes we’ve seen of some very successful coaches in the past 12-13 months, and then obviously more recently, is it different in the profession? Are coaches given less support? Is it making it a more difficult job to be successful?
VAN GUNDY: You know, that’s an interesting question, because I really don’t know. Unless you’re involved in those situations, it’s really hard to know what type of support you’re getting.
I do know, just by watching, that the patience of organizations is at an all-time low, and I also think the over-estimation of the rosters is at an all-time low, as well — or an all-time high, I should say.
It’s interesting, like these kids who are coming out for the draft, 60 of them think they are going to be first-round picks, and there’s only a finite amount of spots. The same with the 16 playoff spots. Everybody says, other than Philly, and maybe a couple other teams, that they expect to be in the playoffs.
Well, right there, it creates discontent when you over-estimate your roster. And then the first person you blame is the easiest out, which is to say, it’s the coach’s fault. It’s a tough time for coaches right now, and I feel for them.
ROSE: I’m with Coach on — I think the number is 12, teams that started last season with a head coach that will now have a different one going into next year.
I think that’s why you’re seeing more situations that are trying to line themselves up where ownership, front office and coach are aligned.
So therefore, what you see on the floor, now is a product of all of them thinking and having a vision versus scrapping that vision after training camp, after a month, after half a season, after one season.
And the second part of that is, it somewhat gives players an out, because it makes players, especially guys that haven’t accomplished a lot in the league, think, oh, this coach didn’t like me so he’s not giving me the shots, the minutes, the opportunity. But I probably have an opportunity because of my potential where I got picked that I can outlast him.
So that dynamic has made a cosmic shift into the game. Coaches used to be viewed and should be viewed as authoritative figures, not like partners, not like friends. It’s okay for you not to get along with your coach, just like you don’t get along with your parents every day. So I think that dynamic has to also take a shift from the player standpoint.
Q. With Jonas Valanciunas out and the Raptors seeming very short-handed this upcoming series against the Cavaliers, who outside of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, do you think is going to have that consistent and good series for them to really give the Cavs their best chance?
ROSE: I’ll go with DeMarre Carroll. This is why he was signed to a big contract in the off-season, played against LeBron James coincidentally last year in the playoffs. He found his offense in game 7. He played well in the first two games and he struggled to have a wrist injury, didn’t play so well in the middle games.
So he has to be a guy that cannot only defend LeBron but make his open shots, be a threat on the offensive end to take a lot of pressure off their backcourt, because you’re not going to make Biyombo into a post-up scorer. So he’s going to bring you the energy, and you saw how he got his points off hustle plays, off drop passes, off lobs, off offensive rebounds, that’s what he’s going to do.
And obviously Patrick Patterson is going to make some open threes but he’s not necessarily going to be a threat posting up. I think Carroll is going to be the guy we really need to play above even what we saw during the regular season.
VAN GUNDY: For me, I think I like Patrick Patterson. He probably struggled shooting the three. But he’ll be the secondary defender, I would believe, on LeBron James. So he’s going to have be more productive offensively, and at the same time, be out on the floor a lot so that they have enough defensive bodies that they can play against James.
And then Cory Joseph, to me, has to play well because you’re going to see I think in this series, particularly when they put that fifth shooter on the floor in Channing Frye, or they put James at the four, there will be times where it’s going to be Joseph, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan on the floor; at the same time, going to have to do a good job on Kyrie.
Q. If you could speak on the coaching acumen of both coaches in the Eastern Finals, you don’t often hear, other than maybe Doc Rivers and others, talking about how black coaches impact on the game and on the broadcast, so if you could speak on both of those two men and how you feel they will matchup strategy-wise in this year’s playoffs.
VAN GUNDY: I think if Dwane Casey was coaching a team in the States that overachieved like the Raptors did by winning 56 games, and now getting to the Conference Championship, he would be generating headlines, because I think the way he had this team progress throughout his time in Toronto, has been one of the great untold stories in the NBA over that period of time.
He has a marginally-talented team that he has melded into the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. He’s done it while having his contract — he’s going to be approaching free agency at the end of the year, I hope he’s supported in Toronto, because he’s done a miraculous job there.
And as Ty Lue, having taken over in the middle of the season myself, it is hard. And he has done as good a job as I’ve ever seen with handling the change in responsibilities, and also in the poise that he has kept as he’s navigated tough situations and he’s done a very good job in leading his team and has them playing as we can see exceptional basketball.
ROSE: I’ll take the player’s point for both coaches. For Dwane Casey, I appreciate how he’s allowed his team to continue to play to its identity, even when players are struggling. Sometimes the way DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry not owned played in last year’s playoffs when they got swept, but the way they started off this year’s playoffs, there was a period of time where they had the worst field goal percentages for starting the backcourt in 20 years. So for DeMar DeRozan, the goal was to continue to stay aggressive. Even in Game 7, he took 17 shots in the first half.
For Kyle Lowry, people forget early in the series after a loss, he was in the arena at 1:00 in the morning trying to put shots up, trying to find his confidence, trying to figure out how he was going to be able to turn it around.
So for those two guys, and then inserting Biyombo after Valanciunas got injured, and we saw how he played in the close-out game. I thought he did a really good job with those moves and making those guys play as well as they can.
For Cleveland, I appreciate him finding a way to get Kevin Love more involved without force0feeding him the ball. That’s the worst thing you can do when you are trying to integrate a third scorer to your offense, is we’re going to come down and try to force feed it to him. The way they have allowed him to ease himself into the offense and become a knock-down shooter in the playoffs, in particular, I think that was a key.
And then getting J.R. Smith, who is a knock down shooter, one of the best ones in the game, to actually commit himself on the defensive end.
Q. I wanted to ask both of you guys, when you look at the playoff series, this season in particular, do you feel the style of play has prominently changed? There used to be a time the playoffs were just going back to half-court basketball and that kind of thing. Do you think now with this three-point shooting and the pace, do you think these series has kind of been reflective of that style of play? Do you think that’s something that’s going to be here for here on out even with the playoffs, even with this style of high scoring, obviously, but the three-point shooting and not so much emphasis on half court offenses and that kind of thing.
VAN GUNDY: I think that the Eastern Conference matchup we just witnessed, Miami and Toronto, was far different than the series that we witnessed out West. I think out West, Golden State is at a different level and a different style than anybody else. The way they have accumulated passers and shooters and guys of interchangeable size so that they are dominant defensively, too. That roster flexibility, Bob Myers doesn’t get nearly the credit that he deserves as their general manager with putting that team together. He’s done a phenomenal job. And Oklahoma City is big and versatile, as well, so they are different.
In the Eastern Conference, Cleveland has that otherworldly talent, when you see him put up huge numbers. Some of the other Eastern Conference teams, if they tried to play like that, take the shots that maybe Golden State takes, they would not be as efficient as they have playing a little more moderate tempo with the number of passes before they get into their shots.
But the three-point shooting, as far as being a weapon and one that you have to use and the numbers, that’s not going to change.
ROSE: And a lot of that, to piggyback off of Coach, is a function of your best player.
So for the Warriors, if in my opinion you have the greatest shooter I’ve seen off the dribble that can make 402 three-point shots, and then his backcourt made — beat him in this year’s three-point contest, then you’re going to be a three-point shooting team, and so you surround the talent as such. And Draymond Green being probably, besides LeBron James, the most unique forward productivity-wise in the game, and KD obviously got to be in that conversation, because not only does he make threes and defend fives at 6-7, but he also leads the team in rebounds and assists.
For the Cavs and playing in the East, you want to surround LeBron James with shooters because while he is a point forward, a lot of times he really plays a point power forward or a power guard, as I like to say. So whether he’s going between three and four and he still has the ball in his hands, and he had a poor three-point shooting year, the only way you can get him to the basket is to give him some room. So you want to surround him with that type of shooting.
As Coach mentioned, OKC is a lot different because they have players, in particular, Kanter, you want to get him a couple of touches around the basket because he’s a really good finisher; and Russell Westbrook, you want him driving the ball because he’s not a really efficient three-point shooter. KD is the only real knock-down shooter for OKC. So I just think it’s a function of who your best players are for the good teams.
For the bad teams, a lot of that is just trying to copy the style right now of the Golden State Warriors. I appreciate how the Spurs reinvented themselves over. They were a four round one team, and then you look at their roster, Kawhi, LaMarcus, Tim, Boris, all can really post up. So that’s what they started to do this year. Just they didn’t have enough three-point shooting to create balance.
Q. What do you feel like is each team’s best lineup going into the Conference Final?
VAN GUNDY: The good teams, it’s not one lineup; it’s the whole roster and the ability to play different lineups, and that’s what Cleveland has. They have a guy who played great last year for them in the playoffs, Mozgov, is out of the rotation. That’s how deep they are.
So they can play five out, they can play four out, one in. They can play James at power forward or small forward as Jalen was just alluding to. They can play Dellavedova with Kyrie Irving, or he can just back him up. It’s the versatility, not the any one lineup.
Unfortunately for Toronto, they don’t have the same type of depth. So to me, their starting unit is by far their best unit, and that unit is going to have to play a lot and play very well.
ROSE: Pretty much like Coach mentioned, the Cavs have so much versatility. I mean, look at their backcourt. If you want to stop, you can try to play Iman if he’s going to make threes; J.R. Smith, one of the knock-down shooters in the game; and obviously you have Kyrie playing really well at pick-and-roll and a great finisher at the hoop and can get going with the best of them.
Then you have so many forwards. We know about LeBron James attributes and Kevin Love can play in and play out and still rebound his position. Channing Frye is a knock-down three-point shooter, and then Tristan Thompson is going to do all of the dirty work and/or guard five that are post-up bigs, which he won’t necessarily have to face unless Valanciunas comes back.
They have a lot of flexibility with their roster and they are really deep, and like Coach mentioned, the Raptors best lineup would — and Cory Joseph is going to be a finisher, but it all depends who is playing the worst up front that will be out of the lineup. But I do anticipate late in the games, Cory Joseph handling the ball and/or defending so Kyle Lowry, in particular, doesn’t have to.
Q. If you are Coach Casey, what are one or two you’re asking Carroll to come with every night, whether it’s defending LeBron to the point where the Raptors don’t have to help so he can dish to three-point shooters, hitting timely threes; what are things you’re asking him that you can count on with this series?
VAN GUNDY: I think the two things you just mentioned is you’ve got to limit as much as you can James getting into the paint off the dribble. So his pick-and-roll defense and his individual one-on-one defense, both in the post and on the perimeter, is going to have to be good. Because we all know, when James gets deep in the paint, it’s either going to be a lay-up, which he converts at a high rate, free throws, or wide open threes.
Defensively, he’s got an enormous challenge ahead of him, and offensively, play to your strengths, and his strength is, he can move without the ball, so try to find a lay-up here or there or off cuts, and then knock down your open threes like he did in Game 7. If he can do that, if he can give them double-figure points and he can keep LeBron James from having double-figure free-flow attempts and double-figure assists, then he will have done his job as well as possible.
Q. Earlier you mentioned a little bit briefly about Kyrie, having to play defense on Kyle Lowry. With him shooting the three ball very good right now, how much does it really impact the Cavs if he’s not in the game to score and to have his usual impact?
ROSE: Well, they have so much depth at the position, Kyle Lowry you could defend with Dellavedova, Shumpert, J.R. Smith can get some minutes on him.
So I just think with the starting lineup, probably want to put J.R. Smith on DeRozan, LeBron on Carroll, so that’s going to be the matchup from the top. But if Kyle Lowry starts to have his way, they are so interchangeable in their backcourt, I think they can figure out a way to make it work in Kyrie’s favor, but also, you’ve still got to defend Kyrie. And he’s playing terrific, not only shooting the ball from three, but creating for himself and creating for others. So it’s going to be a really good matchup.
Media contact: Gianina Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org (@Gianina_ESPN)