Linas Kleiza's Greek vacation has made him a new man

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Thumbnail image for Kleiza_Lithuania.jpgHe is scoring 19.1 points a game on 60.4 percent shooting, is getting to the line, has shown everyone what he is capable of on the World Stage and is the unquestioned leader of a team in the FIBA World Championships.

Kevin Durant? No, although their statistics are nearly identical.

It’s Linas Kleiza. The former Nugget and soon to be Raptor who is leading Lithuania up against the Americans on Saturday.

Kleiza was a nice backup guy for the Nuggets, but some who watched him then and now have a question: Who is this guy with the well rounded game and is putting up Durant-like numbers in Turkey?

Player development guru David Thorpe knows, and he isn’t surprised. Thorpe is the executive director of the Pro Training Center (as well as ESPN analyst) who worked with Kleiza a few years back and said he always had this in him.

“In reality what we’re seeing now is just the natural evolution of a guy asked to play the three but was only a guy allowed to shoot threes and dunk in [the Denver] system,” Thorpe said. “He was a much more fluid player than he was allowed to show.”

Denver had Carmelo Anthony and for much of Kleiza’s time Allen Iverson — they had dynamic scorers, better scorers than Kleiza. The result of that is what happened to him happens to a lot of players Thorpe said — they get put in roles that work for the team but do not show off or exploit all a player can do. There are plenty of players collecting NBA paycheck and living the NBA lifestyle in the same boat.

But Kleiza’s answer was different — he broke the mold and went to play for Olympiakos, the Greek powerhouse (along side Josh Childress, now of the Suns). There he got to both show off the variety of his game and gain confidence that he can be a leader and top scorer — he was one of the leading scorers in EuroLeague.

That is what he is bringing back to Toronto.

“I’ve always thought he was a starting level three,” Thorpe said. “He’s very explosive, very rugged and though a guy who can race the floor… He’s your classic mismatch nightmare because he’ll just pulverize smaller players with his strength but he can also hit the three.”

China struggled to find a matchup for him in the round of 16 at the World Championships. They didn’t want to wear out Yi Jianlian on him, so they went with a smaller player and Klieza just backed him down and hit little 8-footers over him. If you go bigger he is too quick and can get open on cuts and in transition, plus he can space the floor.

Team USA may be better suited than anyone to have answers for Kleiza, Thorpe said. Both Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are quick enough to stay with him on the perimeter but their strength and length will keep Kleiza from getting easy looks around the basket.

But it will not be easy, because if there is one thing Kleiza brings its toughness. He will scrap for what he wants.

Most teams that take on Toronto will face the same matchup challenges that the world has faced in recent weeks, Thorpe said. He added he thinks Kleiza could be the Raptors leading scorer next season or should at least be in the mix.

“He’s a very good three point shooter who can finish around the rim, has great hands and can take the punishment…” Thorpe said. “Not a lot of guys who can do all that.”

Pelicans’ rookie guard Bryce Dejean-Jones has died at age 23

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  Bryce Dejean-Jones #31 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives to the basket during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center on February 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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This is a sad and stunning development.

Bryce Dejean-Jones, the rookie guard of the New Orleans Pelicans, has died, the Dallas, Texas, County Coroner has confirmed to NBC Sports. Travis Hines of the Ames Tribune broke the news.

Dejean-Jones was just 23.

“It is with deep sadness that the Pelicans Organization acknowledges the sudden passing of Bryce Dejean-Jones,” the Pelicans’ organization said in a statement. “We are devastated at the loss of this young man’s life who had such a promising future ahead of him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bryce’s family during this difficult time.”

The coroner’s office would not give a cause of death, but Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports had the tragic detail.

The account of him being shot has been confirmed by multiple sources.

Dejean-Jones was undrafted out of Iowa State, he was picked up on a 10-day contract by New Orleans this season, but the rash of injuries the Pelicans suffered pushed him into a starting role for 11 games. He averaged 5.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game, and to his credit did shoot 37.5 percent from three. On Feb. 19 he took a hard fall and fractured his wrist, which eventually required surgery and ended his season. He was a guy known for attitude problems at the start of his college career at USC the UNLV, but had seemed to mature and his game had as well. He looked like someone who could stick as a reserve guard in the NBA.

Our thoughts go out to his family and friends.

LeBron James first player to reach six straight finals in 50 years

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It speaks to an incredible level of talent — talent that was honed in countless hours in the gym.

It speaks to an amazing durability.

It speaks to leadership.

LeBron James has a long resume of accomplishments — two titles, four MVPs, and he hasn’t missed an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team for a decade — but he reached one of his more impressive milestones in leading the Cavaliers past the Raptors to the NBA Finals on Friday night.

LeBron has reached six straight NBA Finals.

He’s the first player to do so in 50 years.

The last guys to do this were Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy and other members of the 1950s-60s Celtics dynasty. Nobody since has done it — not Magic, Bird, Jordan, Wilt or the rest.

Yes, it helps cement LeBron’s legacy as one of the all-time greats, but more than that it’s something we need to step back and appreciate. These were all LeBron-led teams — he has been the leader on and off the court, setting the tone. That requires incredible talent and skill on the court, plus knowing how to make those guys better not just drag them along on your coat tails. It also takes incredible physical durability. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

“There’s only one LeBron James,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team was eliminated by James and company. “He makes a difference on whatever team he plays on.”

I can feel the typing in the comment section already: “But he’s 2-4 in the Finals, Jordan was 6-0” or “But he’s done it in a weak East” or “He keeps just jumping teams to where he has the most help.” It’s all just sad. Because LeBron James is the first NBA superstar of the social media age he faces a volume of criticism that past stars did not. It’s not that LeBron hasn’t brought some criticism on himself, but there is a need to tear him down that the mythologized Jordan never dealt with. We savored Jordan at the time; LeBron has never gotten that. Jordan took 13 NBA teams to the playoffs, six made the Finals; LeBron has taken 11 and seven are in the Finals. The thing is, it’s difficult to compare across eras in the NBA:

All of this is not to say LeBron’s record is better than Jordan’s, you and your buddies can debate that while sitting on bar stools until last call, but LeBron has been on an epic run through the peak of his career the likes we haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of the game, you should appreciate that, not try to tear it down (as if Jordan’s legacy somehow needs protecting).

What LeBron has done is a stunning accomplishment. If you’re in the same sentence with the legendary Russell Celtics teams, you’re doing something right.

Warriors/Thunder Game 6: Four things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to close out series

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors react in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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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For the Thunder, it is a chance for validation and an opportunity to get the ring Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, and the rest of them) crave. For the Warriors, it is their biggest test of the last two seasons. Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City, here are four things to watch.

1) Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson need to play better for the Thunder. After a couple of series where Waiters suddenly has been reborn as a quality NBA player who is the third playmaker the Thunder need, and after Andre Roberson dropped a career playoff high of 17 points the game before, both were MIA in Game 5. Roberson was 2-of-5 shooting and had as many points as fouls (six). Waiters didn’t hit a shot all night. This was tied to the Thunder returning to the bad habits of too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking on the world and OKC not enough ball movement in the halfcourt. The Scott Brooks Thunder of the past few seasons showed up in Game 5, if the Thunder fall back to those bad habits again, they will lose again.

I expect the Thunder to treat this like their Game 7 and play much better. They will have a real sense of urgency; their defense will again be energized. The question becomes can the Warriors match it?

2) Can Andrew Bogut keep the Thunder from scoring in the paint?
In Game 5, the Thunder were 8-of-18 shooting in the restricted area, and 7-of-19 in the rest of the paint. That’s not going to get it done. A lot of that was the impact Bogut had in the paint — plus he got help, the Warriors switched pick-and-rolls more, they packed the paint more and took away driving lanes. It all worked, in part because Bogut and Draymond Green played with much better energy than in previous games. Steve Kerr said he didn’t play Bogut as many minutes in the first four games due to foul trouble, he has to trust the veteran to play through fouls in this game. The Warriors have simply been better with him on the court this series and they need close to 30 minutes from him this game.

Tied to Bogut’s play…

3) Golden State defense needs to show up on the road. As noted above, the Warriors went back to a more traditional defense in Game 5 — they started guarding Roberson (rather than having a big “guard” and ignore him to protect the paint), they switched, they stayed home in the paint, and they just trusted each other and played their system better. It was a marked improvement. However, they did it at home — now they need to do it on the road, where Green, in particular, has been more prone to mistakes and frustration.

One key here worth emphasizing is the Warriors got back to switching most pick-and-rolls — that’s what they did all season, that’s part of why the “death lineup” is so successful defensively, yet in this series they increasingly went away from it (in part because of how they guarded Roberson). Switching is part of who the Warriors are, and while it will create some mismatches teams don’t want to stray too far from their core identity.

4) Stephen Curry needs to be MVP level Curry. Draymond Green needs to be his All-NBA self.
I’m not saying the same thing about Durant and Westbrook because I have no doubt they will show up with urgency in their games Saturday night. However, Curry and Draymond have been shadows of themselves in the two previous games in Oklahoma City, and if that happens again only one team is flying back to the Bay Area postgame.

Curry finished his drives a little better in Game 5, and at moments he blew by bigs switched onto him off of picks, something we have seen far less of this series than during the season. Green played well defensively in Game 5, he hit the boards hard, but he made some head-scratching offensive decisions. If the Warriors are going to force a Game 7, those two guys have to be elite in this game. The Warriors best players must lead. It’s that simple.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.