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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.

Kevin Durant leads USA to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Kevin Durant scored 19 points, Klay Thompson added 17 and the U.S. basketball team rolled to a second straight blowout exhibition victory, 106-57 over China on Sunday night.

DeMar DeRozan scored 13 points in his hometown, and DeMarcus Cousins had 12 points and seven rebounds in another impressive performance to open the Americans’ pre-Olympic tour. While they’re still learning their teammates’ tendencies and solidifying player rotations, the newly assembled U.S. team looked remarkably cohesive for long stretches against an overmatched opponent with no current NBA players.

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan scored 12 points and led a strong defensive effort with three blocks for the Americans, who held the Chinese to 30.9 percent shooting.

After opening their showcase tour by trouncing Argentina in Las Vegas on Friday night, the U.S. team posted another rout at a packed Staples Center.

The Americans haven’t lost a game since the 2006 world championships. They’re 47-1 in exhibitions since NBA stars took over the roster in 1992, going undefeated since 2004.

Anthony was the only holdover in the Americans’ starting lineup from Las Vegas. Krzyzewski put Paul George in with Anthony, Jordan, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, whose family watched from courtside.

Jordan got the exhibition off to a rousing start with a blocked shot on China’s first possession and an alley-oop dunk on the other end for the Americans’ first points.

Both teams had early shooting struggles, but the Americans took charge with impressive speed late in the first quarter.

Durant, one of the two returning American gold medalists from London, heard boos from the LA crowd during pregame introductions. He quickly found his outside stroke with 14 points and four assists in the first half, and Cousins overpowered the Chinese down low for 12 first-half points on the way to a 55-29 halftime lead.

The Chinese team’s most recognizable name to North Americans is Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks’ choice with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He spent five seasons with four NBA teams before heading back to the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

Yi led the Chinese with 18 points. Zhou Qi, the 7-foot-2 center drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round last month, scored two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Exciting guard Zhao Jiwei scored 14 points.

The teams meet again Tuesday in Oakland, where Durant will play in front of his new home fans for the first time since defecting from Oklahoma City to the Golden State Warriors earlier this month.

They’ll also meet Aug. 6 in the opening game of Olympic competition in Brazil.

No. 39 pick David Michineau not joining Clippers this season

TREVISO, ITALY - JUNE 12:   David Michineau in action during Adidas Eurocamp Day Three at La Ghirada sports center on June 12, 2016 in Treviso, Italy.  (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images for Adidas)
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images for Adidas
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Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers said he expected all three of his 2016 draft picks to join the team this season.

The Clippers signed No. 25 pick Brice Johnson and No. 40 pick Diamond Stone.

But No. 39 pick David Michineau will remain in France.

Eurobasket:

Hyeres-Toulon Var Basket (ProA) inked 22-year old point guard David Michineau (191-94). He has played for the last two years at ES Chalon-Sur-Saone in the ProA.

Michineau is a 6-foot-4 point guard with some intriguing physical sills, but he’s not ready to run an NBA offense. Plus, the Clippers already re-signed Austin Rivers and signed Raymond Felton to back up Chris Paul.

The Clippers have one roster spot left. They’re better off using that on a veteran who can help now than Michineau.

DeMarre Carroll: Jae Crowder’s Raptors criticism due to playoff naïveté

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Celtics forward Jae Crowder — between criticizing Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and Al Horford considering the Wizards — took aim at the Raptors.

“Toronto is not a team we’re worried about,” Crowder said.

Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll, via CSN New England:

“It’s a comment from a person who hasn’t really been in the playoffs that much. That’s how I reacted to that type of comment. When you haven’t been on that level and you don’t understand what it takes to get to that level. Myself going to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, I understand what it takes,”Carroll said on SportsNet.ca. “It’s a comment from a guy who hasn’t been on that level, who hasn’t played on that level. It sounds like a young comment.”

“We’ll let Jae Crowder do all the talking,” Carroll said. “We’ll just fly under the radar and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Carroll is right. Crowder has never won a playoff series — though I’m not sure advancing in the postseason will make him any less brash.

Carroll’s credentials here also aren’t impeccable. He helped the Hawks in 2015 and Raptors in 2016 make relatively uninspiring runs to the Eastern Conference finals.

Still, that’s more than Crowder has accomplished. If Carroll wants to use that experience to shoot back at Crowder, more power to him.

For what it’s worth, I’ll take the Celtics over the Raptors next season — though Toronto is close enough that Boston shouldn’t look past its neighbor to the north.

Luis Scola to carry Argentina’s flag in Olympic opening ceremony

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Luis Scola #4 of Argentina brings the ball up the court against the United States during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Pau Gasol carried Spain’s flag and Yi Jianlian carried China’s flag for the 2012 Olympics.

The NBA will once again be prominently represented in the opening ceremony this year — with new Net Luis Scola.

Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press:

Argentina is back in the Olympics, and this time Scola isn’t just leading the basketball team.

He’s leading the whole delegation.

The veteran forward will carry the flag in the opening ceremony

Scola will team with Manu Ginobili to try stopping Argentina’s Olympic slide — gold in 2004, bronze in 2008, fourth in 2012.