NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: The LeBron referendum


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.

Watch Pelicans’ Anthony Davis drop 33 in his return to court


Anthony Davis missed a chunk of the preseason after spraining his ankle in a game against the Rockets during the league’s tour of China. He was considered questionable to return for opening night.

He came back faster than that, in time for New Orleans’ final preseason game Thursday night — and he looked good doing it. Very good.

Davis had 33 points, 13 rebounds and four assists’ in the Pelicans’ 114-111 overtime loss to Orlando. He was red hot from the start as he scored 16 points in nine minutes of the first quarter.

This is a good sign for the Pelicans, who are going to need Davis (and rookie Buddy Hield) to carry the scoring for the team to start the season as they are without Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans for an extended period.

Hawks like their new-look lineup with Howard, Schroder

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ATLANTA (AP) There was a buzz in the Hawks’ locker room after their long-awaited first look at their new starting five together.

Clearly, Atlanta’s new big man has generated big expectations for the season.

The Hawks’ final home preseason game on Tuesday night provided the first chance for forward Paul Milsap, who has made three straight All-Star teams, to play beside center Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Milsap was brought along slowly following a non-surgical procedure before training camp to reduce swelling in his right knee before making his first start in Atlanta’s 96-89 preseason win over New Orleans.

Seeing Howard and Milsap finally playing together boosted small forward Kent Bazemore‘s enthusiasm for the season.

“The ball moves really well for us,” Bazemore said. “Paul and Dwight have really good chemistry and they’re going to be passing the ball a lot to each other … so they looked really good tonight.”

Howard signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal in July, giving Atlanta the legitimate center it lacked through much of the Al Horford era.

Horford, now with Boston, was a big reason the Hawks reeled off nine straight playoff seasons, but even he said he wasn’t a true NBA center. No one has ever said that about Howard, whose defensive rebounds and blocked shots have coach Mike Budenholzer thinking about fast-break opportunities.

Howard, entering his 13th NBA season, is still only 30. He sees his move to his hometown as a fresh start and an opportunity to repair his reputation following eight seasons with Orlando, one with the Lakers and the last three with Houston.

“I really want to show the Hawks fans how dedicated I am to winning,” Howard said. “I think a lot of people have probably got it twisted with the things that have happened in my past but I’m very dedicated to this sport, very dedicated to myself and winning and being whatever I can be for this team.”

Here are some other things to know about the Hawks:

NEW POINT: The other new piece in Atlanta’s lineup is point guard Dennis Schroder, who moves up after playing behind Jeff Teague for three years. Bazemore said Schroder, like Howard, boosts the Hawks’ defense. “Defensively he’s a stud and that’s where it starts,” Bazemore said. “We’ve got one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the league at point guard. It’s just a pleasure playing with him and the grit he brings every night. It’s huge for us.”

JACK NOT READY: Schroder’s backup to open the season will be rookie Malcolm Delaney, because veteran Jarrett Jack is still recovering from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right knee last season with the Nets. Delaney, from Virginia Tech, has played in Europe for five years. Budenholzer said Delaney “is not your typical rookie” and could be headed for more than a short-term role as Schroder’s backup. “I just feel very good about the way he has progressed and fit in with the group,” the coach said.

KORVER’S ROLE: Kyle Korver, 35, likely will open the season as the starting shooting guard, but for how long? The 3-point specialist saw his scoring average fall from 12.1 in 2014-15 to 9.2 last season. The Hawks could bring Korver off the bench if they opt for a bigger lineup with Bazemore at shooting guard and rookie Taurean Prince (6-8, 220) or Thabo Sefolosha (6-7, 220) at small forward.

FOR OPENERS: The Hawks open at home against Washington on Thursday. After trying a later 8 p.m. tipoff for most home games last season, most night games will start at 7:30 p.m. this season.

THE TRY FOR 10: The nine straight playoff seasons is the longest in franchise history and the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks set a franchise record with 60 wins in 2014-15, when they made their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. They fell back to 48 wins last season.

In the East, it’s the Cavs and then everyone else – again

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The Cleveland Cavaliers know what it feels like to enter the season as Eastern Conference favorites.

They begin this one with an entirely unfamiliar label – defending champions.

The rest of the East has spent the last six years unsuccessfully trying to unseat LeBron James from the throne. Whether he has been in Cleveland or Miami, James has led his team to the NBA Finals every year since 2011. But his crowning achievement came last season, when his Cavaliers captured the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years by defeating the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

Now the Cavaliers are wearing an even bigger target on their backs.

“It’s the same mindset: Let’s win a championship,” James said. “We just want to be able to put ourselves in position to do that. We have the ability, we have the personnel, but we have to work now. We can’t expect for it to happen just like we didn’t expect for it to happen last year. We put the time into it.”

The Boston Celtics finally found a star in Al Horford to team with a lunch pail group that has overachieved under coach Brad Stevens. The Toronto Raptors are back for more after falling to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals and Chicago and New York brought in aging stars in a desperate attempt to change the balance of power in the league’s weaker conference.

James’ reply: Bring it on.

“We can’t be entitled to anything we’ve got to go out and get it and work for it,” he said. “We’re a team that’s very driven and we look forward to all the challenges the season holds.”

A look at the East:


1. Cleveland – Championship hangover? No one expects that with the Cavs. There is one certainty in the NBA: LeBron will make it to the finals.

2. Boston – Horford and Stevens appear to be the perfect match.

3. Toronto – Keep doubting the Raptors. Kyle Lowry wants you to. Should be nip and tuck with the Celtics all season.

4. Washington – Here’s where it starts to get dicey. Wiz are betting Scott Brooks will be able to push the buttons Randy Wittman couldn’t.

5. Atlanta – The Hawks took a step back last season, then swapped Horford for Dwight Howard. Things could go either way in Hotlanta this season.

6. Charlotte – Mostly stood pat this summer after a surprising sixth-place finish last year. A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sure could make a difference.

7. Detroit – Would have picked them higher, but Reggie Jackson‘s injury is a concern.

8. Indiana – Pacers swapped out the underrated George Hill for Jeff Teague, traded Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan and brought in Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson to funk things up.


9. Chicago – Dwyane Wade‘s homecoming is a great story. But the severe lack of shooting figures to hold the Bulls back.

10. Miami – With Wade and Chris Bosh gone, it’s rebuilding time. Don’t expect Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to be down long, though.

11. New York – Manhattan is all excited about the star power that Phil Jackson brought in. The reality is Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have not been completely healthy for years.

12. Milwaukee – Khris Middleton‘s injury is a killer that prompted scrambling for wing help. The Greek Freak at point guard, thought? That will be appointment viewing.


13. Orlando – Vogel landed with the Magic and he has all kinds of defensive weapons at his disposal. That will be essential because scoring may be difficult to come by.

14. Philadelphia – You have to be kidding us with the Ben Simmons injury. Hey, at least Joel Embiid is healthy. Please keep it that way.

15. Brooklyn – Move over Philly, there’s a new basement dweller in the East! Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are well thought of, but it’s going to take time to get this thing turned around.


LEBRON’S LEGACY: The last time James did not appear in the NBA Finals was 2010 when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Celtics. James’ Cavaliers were eliminated in the East semifinals by the Celtics, and he signed with the Heat that summer.

WALL AND BEAL: Much has been made of the chemistry, or lack thereof, in Washington’s backcourt. If John Wall and Bradley Beal are on the same page, the Wizards are dangerous. If they can’t find a way to harmonize, Washington could plummet down the standings.

NEW FACES: Brooks in Washington, McMillan in Indiana, Vogel in Orlando, Atkinson in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in New York start their first seasons as coaches after a summer of upheaval in the conference.

SCHRODER TIME: The Hawks traded Teague to Indiana to open the door for Schroder’s slashing game. He’s been waiting for this chance, and his ability to run the team, play defense and knock down the occasional jumper will be critical to Atlanta’s chances.

ROOKIE WATCH: Only three of the top nine picks in the draft went to teams in the East. Youngsters to keep an eye on include Jaylen Brown in Boston, Jakob Poeltl for Toronto, Thon Maker in Milwaukee and Denzel Valentine in Chicago.

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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Wade, Rondo bring intrigue if not title hopes to Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) No matter how this season plays out, this much is clear about the Chicago Bulls: They’re worth watching.

They jettisoned one hometown superstar and welcomed another when they traded former MVP Derrick Rose and signed three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade.

They also handed the keys to an All-Star guard in Jimmy Butler who called out his coach last season. And on top of that, they added mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix.

Coming off a flat season that ended with them missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Bulls at least spiced things up in the offseason. Now, it’s time to see if interesting also means better.

“I love the vibe of this group,” Hoiberg said. “I love the competitiveness of this group.”

The Bulls clearly had to do something after a year that began with high expectations ended with a 42-40 record, a fractured locker room and all sorts of questions about team leadership.

Gone is Chicago native Rose – derailed by injuries after leading the Bulls to heights they hadn’t reached since the Michael Jordan Era – after being dealt to New York for center Robin Lopez and guard Jerian Grant. So is Joakim Noah, who signed with Knicks not long after the big trade. Pau Gasol went to San Antonio as a free agent.

Wade shocked Miami when he chose to come home to Chicago and accept a two-year deal worth about $47 million.

Here are some things to look for this season from the Bulls, who open at home against Boston on Oct. 27:


The Bulls thought Hoiberg’s fast-paced tempo and soft-spoken style were just what the team needed when he was hired. They just didn’t think the learning curve would be as steep as it was. Hoiberg got called out by Butler last season for not coaching the team hard enough. The system and the roster did not mesh.

So does Year 2 bring a better Hoiberg?

Executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said he expects it. So does Hoiberg, who came to the Bulls after a successful five-year run at Iowa State.

But is this the right roster for him? After all, Wade and Rondo are both in their 30s. And if the Bulls struggle, who takes the fall?


Who knows what might have happened had Wade signed with the Bulls six years ago rather than form a superstar triumvirate with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami? But he’s here now, coming off a strong season and being counted on at age 34 to set the tone for the Bulls’ younger players. The 12-time All-Star has been doing just that, speaking up in practice and meetings.


It’s been a steep climb for Butler from low first-round draft pick to bench warmer to two-time All-Star with an Olympic gold medal. But his success hasn’t translated to team success. Butler’s first All-Star season ended with Tom Thibodeau’s firing. Last year, the Bulls dropped into the lottery. And while Wade and Rondo have said the Bulls are Butler’s team, it’s not clear exactly how far he can lead them.

“I can learn from (Wade and Rondo), the winning culture they’ve built,” Butler said. “I’m excited because there’s so much growth I can handle in that aspect of the game. You look at what Wade has done for his career, a future Hall of Famer. I think that I can model the way I do things around him.’


While the Bulls added scoring punch and the reigning assists-per-game leader in Wade and Rondo, they still lack a starting guard who can consistently hit from long range. That was a problem last season with Rose and Butler, who moves to small forward.

Spacing could be a problem when Rondo, Wade and Butler are on the court together, though the Bulls do have solid shooters in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Gasol’s departure also creates a scoring hole in the paint.


Rondo is coming off a resurgent season with Sacramento that saw him average 11.9 points and a league-leading 11.7 assists. It was the fourth time he averaged a double-double in a season and the first for him since the 2012-13 season. The four-time All-Star has clashed with coaches, most notably Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, and his relationship with Hoiberg could be one to watch.