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.

Former President George H.W. Bush says he’s more concerned with Rockets beating Timberwolves than his own health issues

AP Photo/Rick Bowmen
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Former President George H.W. Bush is hospitalized with an infection.

Spokesman Jim McGrath:

The Rockets, up 3-1, play the Timberwolves in Game 5 tonight.

Warriors players upset with team’s handling of media member taking security manager’s jacket

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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After the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Spurs, Draymond Green was asked about video of a jacket incident. Green:

Obviously it’s unfortunate. I think, you know, what it boils down to it, it’s a jacket but I think it’s more so the principle. You’re in your own space and you want to return your jacket, and all of us do and so I think it’s more so the principle than the actual thing.
Like, you know, if I got a dollar sitting here, it’s a dollar, but it’s my dollar. I wouldn’t expect nobody to take it. That’s an unfortunate situation. We got a great front office and great media PR staff that will figure it all out.

Green was talking about a video of KGO-TV sports anchor Mike Shumann.

Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

Shumann, the former 49ers receiver who has been with KGO since 1994, was in San Antonio last week to provide coverage of the Warriors-Spurs playoff series. He was captured on video after practice last Thursday bending over, picking up a jacket, folding it and walking out of AT&T Center. The jacket, it was later, confirmed, belonged to Warriors security manager Ralph Walker, who had not given Shumann permission to take it.

Approached about the incident, Shumann returned the jacket, apologized and also tried to explain his actions, essentially saying he wasn’t thinking clearly.

Insofar as Shumann is a Disney Company employee — Disney owns ABC and ESPN — the matter put the Warriors organization in a compromised position. Disney’s contract with the NBA gives ABC affiliates exclusive access on specific telecasts, something the Warriors take seriously. In their attempt to control the damage and preserve status quo with Shumann, they wanted to consider the matter a benign misunderstanding.

The players were not in such a forgiving mood. They urged that action be taken, partly out of loyalty to Walker but largely because of their belief the incident would not have been taken so lightly likely if the jacket had been removed by a person of color.

They smelled a double standard.

I’ve been professionally acquainted with Mike for years and had never formed an opinion of his character. I heard what had happened, followed up with a few people and became aware of how the team felt. I saw the video and considered it bizarre behavior on his part.

Maybe that’s all it is. Or maybe there is some medical or psychological explanation.

Some Warriors were merely bothered by the entire episode, others were outraged — mostly about the attempt to bury it.

My inclination in most circumstances is to give people the benefit of the doubt absent other information. Maybe this was an innocent mistake, a joke gone awry or, as Poole wondered, a medical or psychological episode.

But I also recognize that white people are more likely to receive that benefit of the doubt-.

The solution isn’t to throw Schumann under the bus without a better understanding of what happened. It’s to extend everyone that courtesy. Fairness doesn’t require extending vindictiveness.

This is only complicated by the NBA’s relationship with Schumann’s company. When justice and business interests align, it’s easier. When they diverge, it gets harder.

The Warriors have developed a cohesiveness throughout their organization (also easier done while winning). They must manage this incident to avoid undermining those bonds.

Report: Kawhi Leonard and Spurs must repair ‘broken’ relationship before San Antonio offers super-max extension

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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The Spurs can offer Kawhi Leonard a super-max contract extension – which projects to be worth $219 million over five years – this offseason.

Will they?

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

The relationship between Kawhi Leonard is broken, and it’s got to be put back together again before the Spurs are going to make that kind of commitment to a player. And that’s going to take a lot of talking, communication and some comprise here in the next few months before the Spurs can make that offer. But the idea that an organization like the Spurs are going to just blindly walk in and give the biggest contract in franchise history to a player who has behaved the last few months like he doesn’t want to be a part of them, it’s not going to happen that way. So, there’s a lot of repairing that’s going to be done before they even make that offer, I believe.

Leonard will reportedly meet with San Antonio for an exit interview, and that’s the next big step toward mending fences.

Remember, LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade last summer. Then, he and Gregg Popovich talked and got on the same page. Aldridge just had an excellent season for the Spurs. Handling unhappy players is part of the job. When they’re as good as Aldridge and Leonard, it’s worth making the effort to find common ground.

If San Antonio finds enough with Leonard to offer him the super-max extension, the next question becomes: Will he sign it? He might prefer to move on.

But nobody is that far. The big benchmark in this process is the Spurs offering or not offering the super-max extension. They must determine whether or not they will.

Report: Heat to explore Hassan Whiteside trade options

Associated Press
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Is there much demand for Hassan Whiteside around the NBA marketplace?

The pro-Whiteside camp can point to some raw numbers: He averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds a game this season (and 17 and 14 a season ago), he shot 54 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 24.1.

However, his shortcomings were on full display in the playoffs. In the first two games, when Philadelphia played small, Whiteside didn’t have a place on the court and saw limited minutes. When Joel Embiid returned things got worse — in the three games matched up against Embiid, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Whiteside played just 10 minutes in Game 5, where he was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. All through the series, Whiteside complained about his lack of minutes.

Whiteside and Erik Spoelstra are not on the same page, and the Heat would like to move him in a trade… but good luck with that. From Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

The Heat is expected to explore a Whiteside trade, with the center due $24.4 million and $27.1 million in the final two years of his contract.

In a tight financial market, the Heat are going to struggle to find a team with the space (or willing to create the space) to take on $51.5 million over two seasons. Even if they do, the Heat are going to have to attach sweeteners — multiple first round picks, or a pick and young players that interest teams (Kelly Olynyk or Bam Adebayo, for example). It’s going to be a lot to give up to get out of that contract. Maybe in the summer of 2019, when the market loosens up and Whiteside is an expiring contract, they more easily can find a deal. This summer it would be difficult.

But expect the Heat (and Whiteside’s agent) to look for a trade. It’s time to part ways, it just may not be that simple to do.