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.

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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Did Russell Westbrook get mad at Steven Adams for not taking potential triple-double-clinching shot? (video)

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Russell Westbrook chases triple-doubles.

That hardly makes him unique. He’s just close enough to the feat more often than other players, so he chases them more often.

But he still chases them.

Late in the Thunder’s 108-91 win over the Warriors last night, Westbrook was heading toward his final line of 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. His teammates shot off his passes on three of Oklahoma City’s final four possessions before he took a seat (including one assist). The exception came when he passed to Steven Adams, who passed rather than shoot – clearly upsetting Westbrook.

Was Westbrook mad because he missed his chance at a triple-double? Maybe.

Was Westbrook mad because Adams passed as the shot clock neared expiration? Maybe.

It could be both!

Watch Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry on Golden State’s bench. They clearly found something funny.

Report: Teams are calling Clippers about DeAndre Jordan trades

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Injuries have ravaged the Clippers. They started the season 4-0 have been without three starters from opening night: Milos Teodosic (plantar fascia injury, he is still in a walking boot), Danilo Gallinari (strained left glute), and now point guard Patrick Beverley is out for the season after microfracture surgery on his knee.

All this has led to the Clippers losing nine in a row before beating the Hawks Friday night. All the weight of the offense has fallen on Blake Griffin‘s shoulders, and while he’s been good most of the game in the fourth quarter his numbers have plummeted, and the Clippers have stumbled.

It’s left the Clippers with a couple of hard questions.

Do they need a coaching change? There was a sense from sources around the league that Rivers is already on his way out — he was stripped of GM/president powers over the summer — and what kept him around was the couple of seasons at $10 million a year on his contract. That’s a lot of money for an owner to eat, even Steve Ballmer, but the time may be coming as a way to shake up the team.

The other, what to do with DeAndre Jordan? They could not work out a contract extension with him (Jordan was acting as his own agent), and one of the league’s top traditional centers is a free agent next summer, but new head basketball guy Lawrence Frank said they want Jordan to be a “Clipper for life.” Does Jordan want to be a Clipper for life? Do the Clippers really want him back, and if so at what price? Does a Clipper franchise trying to get approvals for a new arena in Inglewood want to rebuild now, because it does not help that process? If it’s time to move on and rebuild, do they need to trade him now?

Teams are calling about Jordan, reports Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post.

DeAndre Jordan, who can become a free agent after the season, has been coming up in trade conversations, with multiple teams talking potential trades. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank said last month that Jordan will be a “Clipper for life,” muddled matters, as does the limited number of teams who need a center and the size of Jordan’s contract ($22.6 million).

Jordan is an All-NBA center, a defensive force in the paint who sets a strong pick, rolls hard to the rim, can finish with the best of them, and is averaging 10.4 points (scoring and attempts are down without Chris Paul feeding him) and 13.4 rebounds a game. Jordan knows who he is and plays within himself.

It’s not hard to imagine how he could help teams such as Cleveland, Washington, Milwaukee, and a host of others. The question is what would teams be willing to give up to get him — they have to send back salary to match, but will not want to give up assets that help them win now. The Clippers will be looking for good young players and picks back in the package, which makes it hard for a team such as Cleveland to put together a package.

But before they discuss trade scenarios, the Clippers need to figure out what they want to do. Life has come at them fast this season and led to a lot of big-picture questions that Frank and Ballmer need to answer.

Lonzo Ball finishes one-handed alley-oop on Willie Cauley-Stein (video)

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So much attention is paid to Lonzo Ball‘s father, jumper and passes. Those are the major storylines for the Lakers rookie.

But he has such a diverse skill set, and this is absolutely part of it. Ball is a savvy off-ball cutter in the halfcourt with the athleticism to get above the rim and finish alley-oops.

But finish them over 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who was tracking the play (though slightly late)? That’s an eye-opener, even in the Kings’ 113-102 win.