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.

Report: Sweet-shooting 7-footer Lauri Markkanen leaving Arizona for NBA draft

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Lauri Markkanen is 7-foot and made 42% of his 3-pointers this season.

That combination alone will have NBA teams drooling, and the Arizona freshman will capitalize.

Evan Daniels of Scout:

Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen is declaring for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent, multiple sources told Scout.

Markkanen seems pretty certain to get picked in the lottery, likely in the top 10.

Calling him a good shooter for his height undersells him. It’s not just he shoots so efficiently from deep, it’s that he can generate 3-pointers in so many ways — pick-and-pops, spot-ups, off off-ball screens and even running pick-and-rolls himself. Having the height to shoot over defenders is his most noticeable asset, but don’t undersell his mobility.

Markkanen also finishes well at the rim and offensively rebounds at extremely impressive clip for someone who spends so much time on the perimeter. Those interior skills instill belief he will eventually become a suitable defender.

There are a couple red flags. He’s old for a freshman, turning 20 before the draft. He leaves plenty to be desired defensively, especially due to his lack of strength.

But his size and shooting are tantalizing. That’s plenty for now.

Dwyane Wade wowed by jumping, around-the-back alley-oop pass in McDonald’s All-American Game (video)

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Watch for Collin Sexton in the 2018 NBA draft.

In the meantime, the Alabama commit had all eyes — include Dwyane Wade‘s — on him with this pass in the McDonald’s All-American Game last night.

Carmelo Anthony on shrinking role with Knicks: ‘I see the writing on the wall… I’m at peace with that’

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Carmelo Anthony scored just nine points on 12 shots in the Knicks loss to the Heat last night — well below his season averages of 22 points on 19 shots per game.

Anthony, via Ian Begley of ESPN:

“I see the writing on the wall. I see what it is,” Anthony said late Wednesday night. “I see what they’re trying to do, and it’s just me accepting that. That’s what puts me at peace. Just knowing and understanding how things work. I’m at peace with that.”

Is Anthony talking about just the Knicks’ final dozen games of this season, when they’re clearly interesting in testing less-proven players? Or is he referring to his entire tenure in New York?

Anthony has said he’d consider waiving his no-trade clause if the Knicks want to rebuild, and they’ll reportedly try again to trade him this offseason. Perhaps, this is Anthony indicating he’s warming up to the idea of allowing a trade.

Anthony’s and Kristaps Porzingis‘ timelines are barely compatible, if at all. It’d make sense for the Knicks to go in a different direction.

Could Anthony be at peace with that?

Dwight Howard’s offensive rebounding defies convention

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Hawks president/coach Mike Budenholzer has the authority to set the Hawks’ priorities.

“Organizationally, fundamentally,” Budenholzer said, “transition D is more important than anything.”

Dwight Howard challenges that daily.

Howard has already built a Hall of Fame résumé:

  • Eight-time All-NBA center, including five-time first teamer
  • Three-time Defensive Player of the Year
  • Five-time rebounding champ

But the big man is doing something he’s never done before: Grab 15.2% of available offensive rebounds.

And he’s doing it at age 31 in a league that has increasingly deemphasized offensive rebounding. The NBA will set a record this season for lowest offensive-rebounding percentage for the fourth straight year.

Teams have just figured getting back on defense trumps crashing the offensive glass, the strategy emanating most prominently from the Spurs. Budenholzer, a former San Antonio assistant coach, brought the plan straight to Atlanta. The Hawks ranked 28th, last and last in offensive-rebounding in his first three seasons — in part for philosophical reasons, in part because they’ve lacked the personnel to do better. They’ve also been a below-average defensive-rebounding team each season under Budenholzer.

Then Howard signed and forced Budenholzer to adjust.

Atlanta has become an above-average offensive-rebounding team and far better with Howard on the court – a helpful crutch with ace 3-point shooters Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague traded. The Hawks are ceding more transition opportunities, though they remain very good at defending those.

It’s an obvious tradeoff, says Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons coach who coached Howard with the Magic sees the center in the rare class of players who deserve full autonomy to chase offensive rebounds.

“You don’t limit those guys,” Van Gundy said.

Howard has made the most of his freedom to chase rebounds. His 15.2 offensive-rebounding percentage ranks second to only Kenneth Faried among qualified players.

And, again, Howard is 31. Offensive rebounding tends to be a young man’s game.

Here’s top 10 in offensive rebounding this season, plotted by age:

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Player Team Age Offensive-rebounding percentage
Kenneth Faried DEN 27 16.1
Dwight Howard ATL 31 15.4
Andre Drummond DET 23 15.2
JaVale McGee GSW 29 15
Tarik Black LAL 25 14.8
Tristan Thompson CLE 25 14
Rudy Gobert UTA 24 13.9
Enes Kanter OKC 24 13.9
Kyle O'Quinn NYK 26 13.9
Willy Hernangomez NYK 22 13.8

Howard’s previous career-high offensive-rebounding percentage was 13.8.

The only other players to set career-high offensive-rebounding rates north of 15% after their age-30 season: Dennis Rodman (20.8% at age 33 with the 1994-95 Spurs) and Alan Henderson (15.6% at age 32 with the 2004-05 Mavericks). Both Rodman (Cooke County Junior College and Southeastern Oklahoma State) and Henderson (Indiana) played four years of college basketball, giving them less wear and tear on their bodies and fewer opportunities to post career highs at a young age.

Howard jumped to the NBA straight from high school.

Yet, he’s having a resurgent year in his 13th season. How is he doing it?

“One, I’m not super old,” Howard said earlier this season. “Two, my body feels great. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff to take care of my body.”

Known for eating legendary amounts of candy earlier in his career, perhaps Howard has made a breakthrough. His defensive-rebounding percentage (31.8) is the second-best of his career and ranks fourth in the NBA. That has helped him anchor the league’s fourth-best defense.

Howard has been subject to widespread criticism, and last season with the Rockets was a low point. This year, Howard has recommitted to the basics: Rebounding, defending, scoring inside.

“He’s got a big personality, but I think we all knew that,” Budenholzer said. “But it’s all in the right place. He wants good things, and I’ve really enjoyed coaching him.”

So much so that Budenholzer has compromised a core basketball tenet for Howard.

And it has proved a worthwhile decision.