NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: The LeBron referendum

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James_solo.jpgUsually when a sportswriter makes the statement “Game X is the most important game of Player X’s career” it belies a rather pathetic lack of imagination and a pandering to traditional cliched writing. Every playoff game is the most important one, because every one could end up defining his career. What do people remember more, Hakeem Olajuwon’s performances in the Finals, or his domination of David Robinson? That’s what can happen. You have to approach every game like that, because these things aren’t scripted.

So please understand the gravity of the situation when I say that Game 6 in Boston of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals is the most important game of LeBron James’ career.

The once-and-future-King may never reach his throne if he were to fail tonight to carry his top-seeded Cavaliers to a win. James, as you may have heard in about a billion ways and we told you the other night, had a performance that puts a blemish on his ridiculously brilliant career, one which threatens to submarine his entire legacy if Boston closes out at home as any Finals contender would do.

James’ performance has been shredded from coast to coast. We’re not talking “oh, hey, bad time to have a bad game” territory. We’re talking “maybe this guy just doesn’t have the will of a champion, because he had zero effort” land. It has brought about what may be the most staggering repudiation of a player’s status as the pre-eminent Greatest Player of Our Time. James faces a mark against his permanent record that would be akin in the job marketplace to “once set fire to his boss’ office while engaging in inappropriate behavior with the cleaning lady on the boss’ desk.” That’s what “doesn’t have the will to be great” means in the NBA for a player of his status.

One thing that’s been occurring to me over the past two days, along with how ridiculous it is that people are questioning whether he is the best player in the NBA* , is that James has never needed the drive to succeed. He just has. Since he was probably 13, he’s been a phenom. A legend. He was the best player on the court, until he arrived in the NBA, and then he was probably second or third at worst, and then only for a few seasons. He made the Finals at age 22. He was the MVP at 24. He’s averaged 49.9 wins per season since entering the league. He has had the full weight of Nike behind him since the beginning. He has been the crown jewel of the league arguably for the last four seasons. He’s never been faced with a situation where he was legitimately challenged to the degree he is now, never faced with so much pressure to be the difference between a win and a loss.

This isn’t to say that this should be all on him. Every great player has had great players step up to provide support when the shots aren’t falling. And the Cavs have never, not with all their trades, not with all their time to do do, have never brought in a true number two option for James. They thought it would be Antawn Jamison, but Jamison has ran into a matchup nightmare in the Celtics. It’s just not every game you have to check Kevin Garnett who suddenly feels 30 again. Shaquille O’Neal brought 21 points on 11 shots in Game 5, but it was largely irrelevant. And Mo Williams? Do we really even need to bring him up?

So tonight James is on his own. 1 on 5. And if he wants to live up to the expectations that have been built for him, or that he has built for himself (depending on who you talk to), he’s going to have to put it all on his shoulders.

Or elbow, as it were.

And by playing, by not sitting out, by not opting for surgery, if indeed he needs it as the rumors continue to suggest, he has opened himself for this. The elbow will not be accepted as an excuse. It will not be considered brave that he tried to play through a severe injury. It will be only that he shrunk in the biggest moments. His Game 5 in 2007 will be a footnote. His Finals appearance will be overshadowed by the valley of nothingness his past two years. And with the very real possibility of him relocating to another franchise in the next two months, this may be his last shot at a championship for a few seasons.

This is how quickly things can change. This is how fast you can go from the best player, on the best team, headed to a championship, to a weak-willed self-entitled player that lacks the killer drive.

The truth, of course, lies in the middle. But that doesn’t lower the expectations on him for his career, for his season, for tonight.

If anyone can rise up in this situation, well, it’s probably Kobe Bryant. But it’s also Dwyane Wade. And Paul Pierce. And Steve Nash. And LeBron James. He can do this.The Celtics are gameplanning for him, but it does not mean they can stop him. When he chose to in Game 5, he drove, he collected fouls. Were he to execute as he is capable of, he could simply foul out the entire Celtics’ frontcourt. But he has to accept the hit, and he has to commit to the drive.

Maybe the jumpshot will return. Maybe the two days of rest will be enough for the elbow. Maybe the constant hammering by the media will motivate him to be what he needs to be. Or maybe the shots will just drop.  But this is not a situation where James can rely on the favorable fortune that has been bestowed on him throughout the last 15 years of his life. Tonight, he cannot be a passive recipient of fate.

Tonight, he has to be the whirlwind instrument of it.

*Does anyone remember how brilliant he was in the regular season? I recognize the importance of the playoffs, but those games did count, and without them, you don’t make the postseason.

51Q: Can Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson get blood from a stone in Brooklyn?

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 20:  Rondae Hollis-Jefferson #24 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after a foul is called against him during the second half at TD Garden on November 20, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Can Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson get blood from a stone in Brooklyn?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

For Sean Marks, the new GM of the Brooklyn Nets, the first steps last February was to buy out Andrea Bargnani and waive Joe Johnson, then sign D-League guard Sean Kilpatrick in a quest for undervalued talent.

No team in all the NBA is in a worse rebuilding situation than the Brooklyn Nets. In their owner-pushed quest to open a new building with a splash a few years back, the Nets traded young players and control of their draft picks for expensive players on the back ends of their careers (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Johnson). When that fell apart as everyone could see it would, the Nets were left without the tools for a quick rebuild. They don’t control their own first-round pick until 2019.

This is a long, slow journey of 1,000 miles.

The question today is: Can Marks and his new coach Kenny Atkinson squeeze more wins out of this team while making that journey? The Nets won just 21 games last season.

They should win a few more this season — 25? 28? — and they should be more competitive. Certainly, they will be more entertaining. However, real change is going to take time. And patience — we’re looking at you, Mikhail Prokhorov.

The Nets have one good young player who should be part of the future core: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He needs to become more confident with his jumper, but he is a long, athletic wing who can get to the rim on one end and defend on the other. He should thrive in a more uptempo Atkinson system. If he can stay healthy this season and take a step forward (as expected of second-year players), the Nets get a little better.

Then the Nets have some solid veterans around him. Brook Lopez is still one of the better offensive centers in the NBA, and while the trade waters were tested (and will be again), Lopez remains a Net.

Marks added veteran point guard Jeremy Lin to the mix — Atkinson was an assistant coach to Mike D’Antoni in New York during the Linsanity era, and he knows how to get the most out of him. The Nets brought other vets on the roster such as Luis Scola, Greivis Vasquez, and Randy Foye. Trevor Booker is still on the roster. There is rookie Caris LeVert to develop.

All of this should make the Nets considerably more entertaining (they were the hardest team in the NBA to watch last season) a little better. They should win a few more games. The issues keeping them from making any real leap begin with this was the second worst defensive team in the NBA last season and adding guys like Lin, Vasquez, and Scola to the roster is not going to improve that end. Add to that the fact this team has no true alpha players, plus a lack of depth, they have a lot of fringe players trying to establish themselves (which makes cohesion on the court difficult), they have almost no home court advantage, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the short term.

But Marks and Atkinson know it’s not about the short term.

Hopefully, ownership understands that as well, stays back, and lets the men do their jobs. Find some young talent, trade for what they can, and develop it. Progress will be incremental for years.

Marks has made a lot of good moves as GM, but no quick fixes are coming to Brooklyn. They don’t even have enough picks to trust the process. Progress is going to be incremental.

Marks and Atkinson may get a drop or two of blood from the stone — if you consider five more wins some blood — but don’t expect miracles.

Expect a long journey — and Marks to keep them walking on the right path. Which is all that can be reasonably asked.

Report: Pelicans aggressively seeking ‘one of the higher level free agent guards left’

Norris Cole, Deron Williams
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The Pelicans will reportedly work out Lance Stephenson, and whether or not they’re serious about him, they seem serious about somebody at his position.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

I’m not sure who qualifies as “‘one of the higher level free agent guards left” other than J.R. Smith, who seems extremely likely to return to the Cavaliers. (The Pelicans don’t have cap space to pursue Smith, anyway.)

Norris Cole, whom New Orleans already renounced? Mario Chalmers coming off a torn Achilles? Kevin Martin who did little with the Spurs? Kirk Hinrich who’s over the hill? Andre Miller who’s five years older?

Making this harder to decipher: The Pelicans have 15 players with guaranteed salaries, most of whom signed this offseason. How will they make room for an additional guard on their regular-season roster, which is capped at 15 players? They don’t have money or roster spot to lure a quality guard, even if you grade quality on a curve for who’s left unsigned.

Does this signal another shoe to drop in New Orleans?

Former Magic player Keith Appling charged with four more felonies after third arrest in four months

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Former Orlando Magic and Michigan State player Keith Appling was arrested for the third time in four months.

The latest arrest brings four new felony charges.

Elisha Anderson of the Detroit Free Press:

The new charges Appling faces are carrying a concealed weapon, resisting and obstructing police, third-degree fleeing and eluding and felony firearm.

Detroit police stopped Appling, 24, on a traffic violation Sunday while he was driving in the area of 7 Mile and Russell about 9:15 p.m, prosecutors said in a news release. A police officer reached in the car to get his identification and Appling is accused of driving off while the officer’s hand was still in the window.

Authorities say Appling threw a Gucci bag from his car. Police found the bag, which had Appling’s name on it and handgun inside, near the area of the initial stop.

Appling was a fringe NBA player. It’s a shame his basketball career probably won’t work out, because he sounds like a really bad criminal.

Tossing your gun in a personalized Gucci bag? Really?

Rutgers uses NBA incomes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams to pitch recruits

AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 24:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics goes up for a shot over Richard Hamilton #32 of the Detroit Pistons in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2008 at the Palace at Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  The Celtics won 94-80.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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College men’s basketball teams earn vast revenue on the backs of players while conspiring to pay those players no more than a scholarship and some expenses. In lieu of the market dictating player salaries, that revenue is funneled to administrators and coaches – like Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, who earns $1.6 million per year.

But the money in basketball is real, and college players want a taste. So, many coaches try to sell players that they’ll prepare them for the NBA, where they can make millions.

Which led to this Rutgers tweet featuring former Connecticut players Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Andre Drummond and former Pittsburgh player Steven Adams:

The heck?

Rutgers’ only NBA players in the last two decades were Hamady N’Diaye and Quincy Douby. So, the Scarlet Knights got creative.

An assistant on Pikiell’s staff was an assistant at UConn when Allen and Hamilton played there. Another was an assistant when Drummond was a Huskie. Yet another was a Pitt assistant during Adams’ time.

Just when I thought college teams couldn’t get any cheaper when it comes to their players, here comes Rutgers using its barely earned currency in recruiting.

Connecticut took notice:

Here’s an idea: Instead of squabbling over who deserves credit for getting players paid later, use some of that revenue to pay players now.

(hat tip: Mark Sandritter of SB Nation)