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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.

Watch LeBron James’ 23 points during Game 5 win over Toronto

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A good rule of thumb: If LeBron James is getting few breakaway dunks, the other team is in trouble.

Enter the Toronto Raptors, who got to watch a dunking clinic by LeBron as he had multiple breakaways during the Cavaliers’ 38-point win on Wednesday night. LeBron played well, and the Cavaliers got a balanced attack from their stars — 25 points from Kevin Love, 23 each from LeBron and Kyrie Irving.

Watch LeBron’s night above. Toronto needs to find a way to keep him from having another game like this Friday.

Kyle Lowry’s face when he sees Game 5 box score sums up Raptors’ night

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors looks on in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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After a beatdown at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 — a loss where he was just 5-of-12 shooting, a loss that has the Raptors on the brink of playoff elimination — Kyle Lowry did what he had to do and went in front of the media to answer questions and try to explain that loss.

But really, his face when he walked into the interview room and saw the box score summed up the Raptors night perfectly.

When you get your report card and you have to explain to your parents why you failed all of your classes.

A video posted by Sports Videos (@houseofhighlights) on

Lowry and the Raptors need to turn it around and win at home Friday night to keep their playoff dream alive another day.

Heat players past, present throw support behind David Fizdale heading to Memphis

David Fizdale
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The Memphis Grizzlies have found their man — Miami Heat assistant coach David Fizdale has been offered the head coaching job in Memphis. He’s a smart coach who earned the trust of elite players and was a key part of the staff that helped Miami to a couple of rings.

It’s a good hire. Don’t just take my word for it, check out what a couple Heat players from that era had to say.

Mario Chalmers had a first-hand view — he was traded from Miami to Memphis in the middle of last season. The point guard who went the other way in that deal, Beno Udrih, also helped push the deal along.

Fizdale is going to be a popular hire with the players. That said, if the Grizzlies can’t keep Mike Conley in free agency the team is going to have struggles this season, regardless of who coaches them.

Watch Kevin Love drop 25 points on Toronto

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Before Game 5, Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue told Kevin Love just to stay aggressive. Channing Frye told him the same thing.

Love took that advice to heart. From the opening tip of Game 5, Love was attacking — backing down the overmatched Luis Scola and knocking down threes. Love had 12 points in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 25, helping spark an easy, 38-point Cavaliers win in Game 5.

Now, can Love do this on the road in Game 6?