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NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron

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The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.

Lakers’ Julius Randle out 14 days after receiving stitches on right hand

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 06:  Julius Randle #30 of the the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles upcourt during a basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on April 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Lakers forward Julius Randle has suffered a minor setback in his summer workouts. The team announced he received stitches on his right hand and will be sidelined for two weeks.

Lakers forward Julius Randle suffered a laceration to his right hand (webbing between middle and ring fingers) yesterday while practicing. He received seven stitches and will be re-evaluated in approximately 14 days.

That sounds painful, but the timing works out such that the two weeks will be up and he’ll have plenty of time to get back into things before training camp kicks off the last week of September.

Evan Fournier “hated” being left off the French national team

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 11:  Evan Fournier #10 of the Orlando Magic sets up the offense during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Amway Center on November 11, 2015 in Orlando, 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 Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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One of the most surprising developments of the summer came when Evan Fournier, coming off an excellent year with the Magic, was left off the French national team that went to Rio to compete in the Olympics. Fournier himself doesn’t have a good answer for why he wasn’t included, according to an interview with the French magazine L’Equipe (translation via EuroHoops.net).

“I hated not being in the Olympic Games,” he said. “I had suspected that I won’t make the cut a week before I was informed about it. I was reading interviews where only Rudy (Gobert) was mentioned among the players who didn’t play in the OQT but would go to Rio. In the end, I received a voicemail by Vincent Collet that briefly explained the reasons I was left out.”

Fournier said he didn’t have much communication with the national team, except for when head coach Vincent Collet asked him for tickets to a Magic game.

“The only time I’ve heard from the Federation this year was during a visit from Patrick Beesley (French NT technical director) in Orlando where he told me the dates of the qualifying tournament and Olympics. He didn’t tell me ‘If you do not come in Manila, then you do not come in Rio’. The second time was from an sms by Vincent Collet. It was our only contact outside competitions in the last three years. He was asking me for tickets to a game for his friends. I never closed the door to the French national team but these events sent me a clear message. That i’m not in the project. It’s that simple and it hurts.”

It’s a little bizarre that Fournier, at 23 years old and one of the better basketball players from France, isn’t on the team and a clear reason hasn’t been given. But it sounds like that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Jamal Crawford rocks Seattle pro-am defender with fake behind-the-back dribble (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  Jamal Crawford #11 of the Los Angeles Clippers reacts to a foul called on his team in a 108-98 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Seattle pro-am always produces great highlights.

Here’s another.

Jamal Crawford pretends to go behind his back with his dribble, leaving his defender off balance and whining about a carry. In a pro-am. However you can try to preserve your dignity, I guess.

51 Q: Tom Thibodeau can coach, is he ready to run a franchise?

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 12: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls yells to his players in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Five in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena on May 12, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bulls 106-101. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves were probably not going to get Tom Thibodeau without the promise of organizational control. After his contentious relationship with the Bulls’ front office led to his exit after five seasons in Chicago, he took a year-long sabbatical from coaching and observed how other organizations run their operations from both a coaching and a front-office standpoint. He was in high demand as a coaching free agent and could essentially name his price, and if he wanted personnel control too, he could have it. That’s what ended up happening in Minnesota, and Thibodeau will be the latest test case in whether the two-in-one model works. Thibodeau’s coaching ability is indisputable. How he’ll fare as an executive is a different question entirely.

The Timberwolves had a solid offseason after a rumored draft-night trade for Jimmy Butler fell apart. Given Thibodeau’s history of stubbornness and intractability, it was a valid fear that he’d take the same approach to roster-building as his former mentor Doc Rivers has in Los Angeles, simply bringing back all of his old mainstays from the Bulls days. With Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Kirk Hinrich on the market, the opportunity was there to get the band back together, spending too much money in the process and hindering the development of maybe the most promising young core in the NBA in the name of more wins in the short term.

But Thibodeau didn’t do that. Instead, he and GM Scott Layden plugged some holes with value deals. Getting Cold Aldrich for three years at $22 million gives them a more than serviceable backup center, and they landed Brandon Rush on a one-year deal for $3.5 million to provide some outside shooting. They didn’t do anything to sacrifice long-term flexibility and didn’t sign anyone that will get in the way of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine getting plenty of playing time.

The idea of a coach making personnel decisions is a dicey one for several reasons, not least of which being that it’s harder to have the emotional detachment to trade a player if you see them every day in practice. But the Chicago team Thibodeau inherited in 2010 was a readymade contender that needed a coaching upgrade. This Minnesota team isn’t there yet, and even his ability to get more wins than expected out of any roster he’s given won’t make them truly competitive in the upper echelon of the Western Conference playoff picture, at least not yet. So far, his moves reflect an understanding of that reality.

The first big roster decision Thibodeau will have to make during the season will be the point guard situation. Thibodeau loves Kris Dunn, whom he drafted at No. 5 overall in June, and Dunn provides shooting that Ricky Rubio does not. If Dunn takes the starting spot in training camp, Thibodeau will have to look long and hard at moving Rubio. Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad could also wind up on the block, depending on how the rotation shakes out, and how Thibodeau fares at getting a return on his trades will be worth monitoring.

With that said, it’s pretty hard to screw up a core that includes Wiggins and Towns, and Thibodeau seems to know what he has in those two. As long as he can put complementary pieces around them and keep their development up to pace on the court, this experiment should prove to be a success.