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.

Heat’s Dion Waiters: ‘I’m not coming off no bench’

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Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Dion Waiters must be more efficient.

But Waiters’ effective field-goal percentage this season (46.1) is nearly precisely his career mark (46.2). It appears last season’s career high (48.8) in a contract year was the outlier.

What if Waiters just can’t change? Could Miami bring him off the bench?

Waiters, via Tom D’Angelo of The Palm Beach Post:

“I’m a starter in this league, man, that’s who I am. We’re going to nip that in the bud right now. I’m not coming off no bench.”

This is peak Waiters, supremely confident/cocky. He’s not good enough to demand a starting spot, but here he is doing it anyway.

That make’s Spoelstra’s job trickier if he’s considering bringing Waiters off the bench. It might be the optimal basketball move, but NBA coaches must also deal with their players egos.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Waiters should come off the bench. Miami’s starting lineup – Goran Dragic, Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside – is outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. (The Heat are -3.4 per 100 overall.) That unit defends, and Waiters eases the playmaking burden on Dragic.

But if I were the Heat, I also wouldn’t take the possibility of not starting Waiters off the table. At an underwhelming 12-13, they don’t have the luxury of never experimenting – even if it might upset Waiters.

Bradley Beal: Wizards lost to Clippers after what referees described as a ‘s— rule’

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The Clippers beat the Wizards on Saturday, but not without a controversial finish.

Washington trailed 113-112 with 1.2 seconds left and inbounded the ball from the sideline to Bradley Beal, who made a shot, but after the buzzer sounded. However, the clock started early.

The sequence:

After review, officials gave the Wizards the ball in the corner with 1.1 seconds left. In a tough position with less time and on its secondary play, Washington didn’t score.

Beal, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“Excuse my language because I’m going to say verbatim what they said,” Beal said. “They said it’s kind of a ‘some s*** rule,’ it’s a freak rule. To me, it didn’t really make sense because you take a basket away. You go back and he says we get the same amount of time, but we didn’t get the same amount of time and then we get the ball in the corner. It’s kind of the tough s*** rule. I don’t understand it. I don’t get it. We ran a great play and now that you take that away, we’ve gotta set up with a different play and they get a chance to set up and change some things. Now we’ve gotta do a different play with the ball in the corner.”

Referee Bill Spooner, via the NBA:

Spooner contradicts himself here. Was the time lost 0.1 seconds or 1.1 seconds? He said both at different points. He also clearly means the game clock, not the shot clock.

Here’s the relevant example from the NBA’s casebook:

Player A1 inbounds the ball at 0.8 of the period and the game clock starts early when the timer thought the ball was deflected. Player A2 receives the ball and the game horn sounds as he immediately turns to shoot a successful basket. How is this handled?

The on-court officials will signal for replay and the Replay Center Official will determine how much time ran off the clock prior to it being legally touched. If the successful basket was released prior to 0:00, the basket will be scored and if from the ball being legally touched until it cleared the net is less than 0.8, the game clock shall be reset to that amount of time. If the ball is still in Player A1’s hands at 0:00, the field goal cannot be scored and Team A will retain possession on the sideline nearest the point of interruption and the game clock reset to the amount of lost time.

Why would the game clock be set to the amount of lost time? I can see the game clock being reduced by the amount of lost time, which seemingly happened – in error, according to Spooner – Saturday. But just setting the clock to the amount of lost time unfairly punishes the team that is already disadvantaged by the timekeeping error.

From the rule to the enforcement, this was just sloppy.

Kevin Garnett: I want to help buy out Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, not partner with him

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Kevin Garnett’s rift with the Timberwolves – specifically owner Glen Taylor – is still going strong.

Garnett, via Shlomo Sprung of Awful Announcing:

“I don’t want to be partners with Glen [Taylor], and I wouldn’t want to be partners with Glen in Minnesota,” he said. “I would love to be part of a group that buys him out and kind of removes him and go forward.”

Taylor recently said he’s not interested in selling the franchise. That could be a bargaining tactic, but at face value, Garnett isn’t getting involved anytime soon.

Garnett and Taylor could break the ice with a clearly joyous occasion, a simple number-retirement ceremony. But even that is too much for the two.

5 Up, 5 Down: Jahlil Okafor finally gets to play some basketball

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA as it stands on alternating Monday mornings.

It feels like we should be more upset about the fact that we keep getting updates on major stars and their injuries. Stephen Curry has his walking boot off. Kawhi Leonard is close to getting on an NBA floor. Gordon Hayward is on Twitch and is now wearing a teensy little ankle brace instead of a walking boot.

This somehow feels good because it’s progress, even though what it really means is stars aren’t on the floor. Maybe that doesn’t matter, especially if you’ve watched the two teams topping the conferences play.

The Boston Celtics have an MVP candidate (yet again) in Kyrie Irving, and the Houston Rockets seem unbeatable. Anyway, I’m excited for another Warriors-Cavaliers Finals.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

5 Up

Jahlil Okafor is finally a Brooklyn Net

We talked last time about how we needed to see Jahlil Okafor play a little basketball (or at least play on offense) by getting out of Philadelphia. My choice was for him to go to the Brooklyn Nets, which is exactly where he went 10 days later. Some are calling the Nets “interesting” although I think for that to be the case Jeremy Lin and his hair would still need to be bouncing down an NBA floor. I’m just hoping Brooklyn isn’t unwatchable from here on out. Let’s start with that and see where they end up.

The New York Knicks letting this dude warm up with them

Kevin Thompson is a New York Knicks superfan who got to warm up with the team and get introduced during lineups. The whole thing was part of the team’s Garden of Dreams night, which according to the Knicks is part of an experiential foundation that helps kids facing obstacles. Pretty sweet stuff.

10 minutes, six fouls

Michael Beasley once said that he basically felt he was Carmelo Anthony, that their games were similar, because they operate from the same side of the floor. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it was a great Beasley quote. This past weekend provided us with a Beasley moment, when the Knicks forward fouled out in just 10 minutes of play. The final blow was a sequence in the fourth quarter in which Beasley racked up three fouls in just 1:45 of game clock. When he had to leave due to disqualification, the crowd at Madison Square Garden gave him a standing ovation. I love the Knicks.

LeBron James is going to play for the Lakers … and the Rockets?

It’s not even 2018 and we’re already starting to talk about where LeBron James will land. It doesn’t feel likely he’ll stay in Cleveland, unless he buys the team of course. That’s probably not slated for the next year, so perhaps he will team up with Nerlens Noel and go to the Los Angeles Lakers? Or perhaps James is interested in the Houston Rockets, the team currently dismantling every other team in the West? This past summer was so crazy in the NBA, it just had to seep into the regular season. I’m all for it.

This Thunder team is a train wreck in slow motion

Real life is not NBA 2k18. That’s why you can’t just sim to the end of every Chicago Bulls game (can you imagine?) or force any trade you want. It’s also why three ball-dominant scorers playing iso ball don’t work, much to the chagrin of Oklahoma City Thunder fans. If you’re not an OKC diehard, this is probably the only thing you wanted to see outside of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony wrecking the rest of the Western Conference. It was never going to be interesting if this team got the 5 seed. Missing the playoffs is the next most interesting thing that could have happened, and frankly, perhaps the most understandable given the talent out West.

5 Down

Everyone is getting kicked out of games

Kevin Durant — long lauded as a silent assassin in the NBA — has been ejected from multiple games over the past month. He even had to be separated from DeMarcus Cousins after a recent one, which is crazy. Shaun Livingston‘s AARP card couldn’t get him immunity from an ejection. Hell, even a referee got suspended in that one. Tensions are rising in the NBA, and it feels like we all missed some memo from the league about a point of emphasis for this season saying everyone’s going to get rung on one technical foul. Are players flailing or is the league being unreasonable? I’m not sure, but tossing stars has to stop so you would think the league office will be looking into this.

Markelle Fultz is STILL out … for some reason

Markelle Fultz is fine, nothing to see here. I mean quite literally, because despite Fultz’s shoulder being A-OK, he’s still not scheduled to find an NBA floor for another three weeks. This feels like a decision the team would make under Sam Hinkie while winning single-digit games, but Hinkie is long gone and the Sixers are — gasp! — a .500 team sitting just outside the 8 seed. This still feels like some major piece of information is missing and I don’t know that we’ll hear about it save for in Fultz’s inevitable book in 20 years detailing Philly’s 8-peat championship run starting in 2020.

We’re not getting basketball in Seattle any time soon

A new memorandum of understanding was signed in the Emerald City this last week, meaning they are going to keep the ugly roof on top of Key Arena, knock down the walls, and dig a hole to the center of the earth as a means to expand the seating. Seriously, they have to dig down just to fit enough people in the arena. What this doesn’t mean is an NBA team. Los Angeles-based Oak View Group has said they will pursue both an NHL team and an NBA team, although locally in Seattle it’s known this plan puts events and NHL first. This is a bummer for NBA fans in Seattle, and for anyone trying to drive through Lower Queen Anne at any time of the day.

Everything happening with the Clippers

There’s almost too much to list here, but it’s topped by just how bad this team is. They were a .500 team when Patrick Beverley got hurt, and then Blake Griffin naturally followed. Danilo Gallinari has been on and off the court, and it’s been a quick degradation for LA after the flight of Chris Paul to Houston. DeAndre Jordan‘s contract now looms over the salary cap like a raincloud, and where he goes nobody will know. Can you tank and still keep Doc Rivers as your coach in 2017?

Marc Gasol is still a Grizzly

The Grizzlies are another mess, and disappointingly so. They were a perennial Good Team™ and both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol should have been favorites of yours to watch in the playoffs (mostly losing to the Spurs). Now, the team is in turnaround. Owner Robert Pera has been given an ultimatum from his minority owners, David Fizdale is gone, and Gasol is still starting games. It seems like there’s less heat on the team to move Gasol, but that’s how it always works in these situations when it’s not a garbage fire like Paul George last year. I expect to see Gasol moved before the trade deadline precisely because it feels like it would be super strange to see Marc Gasol not in a Grizzlies jersey. Hey, maybe to the Spurs?