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.

Cavaliers keep re-watching their Game 7 victory over the Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a three-point basket against the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers’ win over the Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals was an all-timer.

LeBron James bringing a championship to title-starved Cleveland, the Cavs topping the 73-win defending champions who’d built a 3-1 lead, Kyrie Irving‘s shot, Kevin Love‘s defensive stand – the game had it all.

The Cavaliers obviously enjoyed it. And enjoyed it, and enjoyed it and…

LeBron James, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

“I’ve seen it a few times,” James said. “It was on NBA TV throughout the summer. I watch it from a fan’s perspective. I see what we could’ve done better, but I also watch it for enjoyment, to see those three zeros on the clock.”

Irving, via Windhorst:

“I was rewatching the games and talking to my teammates about it, sending them snapchats of me watching,” Irving said. “I got chills. My stomach was dropping knowing the ball is going in but knowing exactly, emotionally how I felt at the time. It still gets me excited thinking about it. It’s such a huge moment for not only Cleveland but our team, our families, our friends.”

Iman Shumpert, via Windhorst:

“I’ve watched it over and over,” Iman Shumpert said. “Oh, it was enjoyable.”

At some point, the Cavs have to refocus on the upcoming season. Maybe they already have.

But I’m not going to tell them to stop reliving Game 7. It was a big deal. Enjoy it.

This can even be healthy if it motivates them to chase that euphoric feeling again.

And if it just distracts them from their goal of repeating? There are worse things – like being stuck on a Game 7 loss.

Report: Rockets give Gary Payton II fully guaranteed salary

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Gary Payton II #0 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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The Rockets scooped up undrafted point guard Gary Payton II shortly after the draft ended.

How did they do it?

Fully guaranteeing his deal, according to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders.

I rated Payton a borderline first-rounder coming out of Oregon State, but he went undrafted. Perhaps, the league just deemed him unworthy. Or maybe the teams that liked him most weren’t positioned to draft him. Or maybe teams opted for lesser players in the second round who were willing to spend a year overseas or in the D-League.

Houston guaranteeing his deal certainly points to a robust market for the point guard. It could also indicate the Rockets plan to keep him into the regular season.

Payton gives the Rockets 15 players with guaranteed salaries plus restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas, who has an outstanding qualifying offer and seems likely to return. There’s no obvious candidate for Houston to waive to reach the regular-season roster limit of 15 – and it could be Payton. This could just be a (more expensive than usual) way of getting Payton onto the Rockets’ D-League affiliate. They won’t be the only team to eat a guaranteed salary this season.

With James Harden (yup), Patrick Beverley, Pablo Prigioni and Tyler Ennis at point guard, Houston doesn’t have a pressing need for Payton. But Ennis, who has accomplished little in two NBA seasons, should be on notice. That Houston values Payton so highly could mean Ennis is the odd man out. Both players, and everyone else, will have the preseason to prove themselves.

Payton, son of the former SuperSonics guard, has major defensive potential. Running an NBA offense will be a tall order, but he has enough raw skills to offer intrigue on that end. He’ll need his defense to buy him time.

Report: Chris Bosh fires agent

MIAMI, FL - MAY 09:  Chris Bosh #1  of the Miami Heat looks on during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Arena on May 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Who does Chris Bosh have in his corner as he tries to play following a third blood-clot issue?

Not the Heat, who say they’re no longer working toward his return.

Not his longtime agent, Henry Thomas of CAA.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Bosh is in the midst of the the biggest quandary of his career. He needs a trusted advisor at his side.

But that might not be enough.

Bosh still has $75,868,170 guaranteed over the final three years of his contract. If he doesn’t play by Feb. 9 and the Heat waive him, they can exclude his salary from cap and luxury-tax calculations (while still paying him) IF a doctor agreed upon by the league and players union says Bosh can no longer safely play.

Bosh would be a free agent in that scenario, but would anyone want him? How much would Bosh resent missing a partial season before that? How much would he sacrifice in a buyout to become a free agent sooner? What if the jointly selected doctor says Bosh can return? What do Miami and Bosh do then?

These are difficult questions, and Bosh needs someone to help him navigate the minefield that lies ahead.

Why did David West choose to come off bench for Warriors? Kevin Durant.

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 21:  David West #30 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts after scoring during the first half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 21, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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If you’re desperately searching for the flaws that will undo the Golden State Warriors, depth has to be the main argument. In order to get Kevin Durant under the cap Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Brandon Rush, and Marreese Speights had to be sacrificed.

However, they added a couple of veterans to fill in the gaps. Zaza Pachulia will be at the five, trying to be a poor man’s Bogut, is going to get the most attention.

But the Warriors also snapped up David West, who had gone to be part of the Spurs veteran bench last season and now is chasing a ring with the Warriors. How did that come about? Via the San Antonio Express-News.

“(The Warriors) reached out once we lost to OKC, maybe that night,” West told reporters at Golden State’s media day. “My agent was like, ‘If you’re interested in continuing to play, Golden State wants you.’ He was obviously talking to a few guys and to the coach during the process. Then, when Kevin Durant reached out, he told me he wanted me to come join, so it was a no-brainer.”

I have zero problem with a veteran player like West taking a pay cut and chasing a ring — we as fans can’t say “today’s players care more about money/friends than winning” then turn around and hammer the guy who puts winning first. That sounds like a Trump debate tactic.

Plus, West is going to get some run-up front with Golden State. He’s still solid — he is a physical defender, sets a good screen, and if you don’t stick with him on the pop West will destroy you from the midrange. He’s not his vintage self, but he’s still a guy a championship-caliber team can lean on.

And the Warriors will.