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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.

Gallinari, Faried lead Nuggets to 121-113 win over Magic

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Danilo Gallinari scored 21 points, Kenneth Faried had 19 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, and the Denver Nuggets defeated the Orlando Magic 121-113 on Saturday night.

Jusuf Nurkic added 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds for the Nuggets, who lost their previous two games. Will Barton scored 16.

Faried was 9 of 10 from the field and Denver shot 57 percent in sending the Magic to their third straight loss.

The Nuggets outscored short-handed Orlando 64-34 in the paint. Magic center Nikola Vucevic did not suit up because of an injury.

Evan Fournier led Orlando with 24 points. Serge Ibaka had 22 points and four blocked shots.

After trailing by four in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets bounced back with big baskets from Nikola Jokic and Faried. Denver, which led by as many as 11 in the third, went ahead 109-106 on a 3-pointer by Gallinari with 4 minutes left and never trailed again.

Sparked by Ibaka’s block on Nurkic and 3-pointer at the other end midway through the third quarter, the Magic fought back from an 11-point deficit to take a 95-92 lead going into the fourth.

Taking advantage of numerous defensive breakdowns by Orlando, the Nuggets took a double-digit lead during the second quarter before settling for a 65-58 lead at halftime. Gallinari had 12 points while Faried and rookie Juancho Hernangomez both scored 12 off the bench for Denver.

The Nuggets, who led by 11 in the second period, shot 55 percent from the field and nearly 56 percent from 3-point range in the first two quarters. Coming off a loss to Charlotte on Friday night and playing their fourth game in five nights, the Magic seemed a step slow as Denver was allowed to drive the lane at ease in the first half.

Led by big men Jokic and Nurkic, the Nuggets scored 36 points in the paint compared to just 20 for Orlando and won the rebounding battle 25-16 in the first 24 minutes.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Hernangomez shot 4 of 5 on 3-pointers in the second quarter. … Denver’s bench outscored the Magic’s reserves 34-16 in the first half.

Magic: Vucevic (sore shoulder) and fellow center Bismack Biyombo (sore back) were game-time decisions after coming out of Friday night’s loss at Charlotte banged up. Biyombo started and had 12 points in 34 minutes. … The Magic recalled rookie center Stephen Zimmerman from the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: Their six-game road swing ends Monday in Dallas. The Mavericks have won five of the last six regular-season matchups.

Magic: Orlando visits Atlanta on Tuesday night. The Magic have lost 17 of their last 22 games against the Hawks.

Pistons send Stanley Johnson, 2 others to D-League

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Pistons assigned forwards Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson and guard Michael Gbinije to the team’s D-League affiliate in Grand Rapids.

The moves came before Grand Rapids hosted Delaware on Saturday night. The Pistons were off Saturday. Detroit hosts the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night.

Johnson, a first-round draft pick in 2015, has averaged only 3.3 points in 21 games this season after showing potential as a rookie. Ellenson, who was drafted in the first round this year, has appeared in only six games this season.

Check out Tim Duncan’s giant new back tattoo

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San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan is apparently enjoying his retirement. He’s cutting loose, one could say.

And what’s the first thing you do when you try to cut loose? That’s right, get a tattoo that spans from traps to sciatica.

In a post shared by Elite Custom Tattoo in Arizona, it appears that Duncan got a full-length back tattoo on one side of his back.

The tattoo is elaborate, with a yin-yang symbol and a lot of mechanical underpinnings meant to look like Duncan is more machine than man.

I wonder where he got that idea?

#tattooing the #legend #wip #mechanicaltattoo #yingyang #turbo #gears

A photo posted by Christopher Escobedo (@elitecustomtattoo) on

Joel Embiid shows off custom “Trust the Process” shoes on Snapchat

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts to the call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Cavaliers won 102-101. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid has a certain sense of humor, one that has embraced former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s motto of “Trust the Process” as a kind of personal mantra and brand.

Embiid has apparently taken it a step further, showing off custom sneakers on Snapchat of his “Trust the Process” shoes.

You read that right.

The inside tongue of a pair of kicks Embiid was rocking on Saturday read in all lowercase letters the phrase we now associate with the Cameroonian center.

Embiid famously dubbed himself “The Process” and even filed for a trademark on the language in order to sell merchandise no doubt to be with us shortly.

Keep it coming, Joel. Absolutely each and every one of these are great.