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2018 NBA Playoffs

Larry Nance Jr. is eager to contribute for Cavaliers

In ‘roller coaster’ playoffs, forward has played double-digit minutes the past two games

CLEVELAND — They’d shared the court for less than a minute when LeBron James found Larry Nance Jr. for the first time on a simple roll to the basket that resulted in an easy dunk. By night’s end, James had perfectly set up three dunks by Nance, who didn’t miss a shot in what was clearly his best playoff performance of the season.

This was the type of game, Cleveland’s 116-86 win over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, that Nance envisioned when he arrived in Cleveland after a midseason trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. The high-flying forward had hoped to get significant playing time and a chance to shine as part of a group of talented young players who came to Cleveland to help take pressure off James and an aging Cavaliers team.

Instead, Nance during this postseason has faced uncertainty about playing time since the trade. He hopes that will change during the rest of the series — which Boston leads, 2-1 — as the Celtics have posed problems in the two wins with a willingness to physically attack James.

“This is a series where [Boston] plays a lot of bigs, and if there’s two things I fit well against it’s athleticism and playing bigs,” Nance said Sunday. “Hopefully the coaching staff sees it and deems that I get more minutes.”

A quick glance at Nance’s minutes during the playoffs and you can completely understand his description of these playoffs as a “roller coaster.” In the opening game of the first-round series against Indiana, Nance scored 10 points in his first playoff game while playing 30 minutes.

Nance, who averaged 8.9 points in 20.8 minutes with the Cavaliers during the regular season, hasn’t played more than 25 minutes since.

Nance went two games where he didn’t score in the Toronto series as Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue went with smaller lineups in the sweep. After playing four minutes in the opening game of this series against Boston, the fifth straight game in which he played six or fewer minutes, Nance has played double-digit minutes the past two games, including 21 in the Game 3 victory.

“I came in playing a lot, then faded into the background, and now I’m getting to play some more,” Nance said. “Everyone keeps telling me to stay professional, stay ready, stay in shape. It’s good to hear that and nice to see it pay off in a win.”

Nance isn’t alone in learning how to adjust, as Lue in these playoffs has avoided giving bigger roles to his new young players who might be talented but have yet to prove they can be consistent in the postseason.

Jordan Clarkson, who came over with Nance from the Lakers, has handled the change in scenery well.

“This is a learning process for me,” Clarkson said. “I’m just trying to find my place, and just trying to do my job.”

Rodney Hood, who started 79 games for Utah last season, has been unhappy with his diminished role and showed his displeasure by refusing to enter a blowout win in the final game of the conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors. He was the only Cleveland player who failed to enter the game Saturday.

You won’t hear any griping from Nance, who gets advice and daily critiques from his father, former Cavaliers great Larry Nance, and has now played alongside two of the NBA’s all-time greats (Kobe Bryant and James).

“This is a veteran team, and you can learn a lot from them,” Nance said. “To see Kyle Korver and LeBron James come in here at 15 years in the league, and a Kendrick Perkins who can’t jump over a phone book come in here and work every single day, it’s eye-opening to see and speaks to their level of professionalism.”

Nance, who was a high school star in nearby Richfield, hopes his contributions in the Game 3 win will go a long way in proving his worth and earning more minutes.

“I think we’re in a good place now,” Nance said. “LeBron doesn’t have to take 20-something shots for us to beat a good team by 30. The rest of us are nice players, and it feels good to show that.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.