6fb1a92ff27f46f6ccc7bd6593ff092f-getty-bkn-nba-final-heat-mavericks

NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron

44 Comments

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.

Will Kevin Durant leave Thunder? Other teams reportedly believe decision hinges on Spurs series

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) walks up court during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series as San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) looks on, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
1 Comment

There’s plenty at stake in this Spurs-Thunder series already.

The winner advances to the Western Conference finals – an accomplishment in itself – likely to face the Warriors, who still haven’t gotten Stephen Curry back.

But this second round matchup could also prove instrumental in whether Durant stays in Oklahoma City or bolts – maybe to San Antonio.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

As well as Durant and his close-knit tandem of representatives, Rich Kleiman and Charlie Bell, have done in terms of keeping their intentions mysterious, there is a working assumption among KD’s would-be suitors that a second-round Thunder exit essentially cinches the notion that he’ll indeed walk away and look for the best external situation that positions him to win that elusive first championship.

The theory (stress: theory) also holds that OKC success in this round against the 67-win Spurs would be enough, no matter what happens in a presumed Western Conference finals showdown with the Warriors, to convince Durant, at the very least, to sign a new two-year deal with Oklahoma City ‎that contains a player option for Year 2.

Durant has already denied a report he’ll leave the Thunder if they don’t reach the NBA Finals. It’s never that cut and dry for a free agent.

But the Thunder’s success is works in their favor, and seeing that come undone right in front of his eyes could push Durant out of Oklahoma City. Likewise, seeing the Thunder win could convince Durant of his current team’s potential.

I don’t know whether Durant will re-sign if the Thunder advance and leave if they don’t. But if I’m Oklahoma City or San Antonio, I’d sure want to win to tip the odds toward my favor.

Four Things to Watch in Playoffs Friday: Can LaMarcus Aldridge get some scoring help

San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) runs up court during the first half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Associated Press
Leave a comment

Kentucky Derby pick? I’ll take Outwork, I think the lack of early speed in this race will favor the frontrunners, who will hold off the Nyquist led charge. Oh, and here is some basketball stuff for Friday night.

1) LaMarcus Aldridge will get his, what about the rest of the Spurs? Oklahoma City’s defensive strategy in Game 2 started with more aggressive, more disruptive pick-and-roll coverage (the Thunder effort was much better than Game 1).  The Spurs responded by getting the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, both in the post and on the pop, and it worked to the tune of 41 points for the All-Star forward.

Oklahoma City can live with that. In leaning so heavily on Aldridge in an isolation set the Spurs ball movement went away, the spacing got off, and the Spurs weren’t getting the same open looks by making the extra pass. San Antonio played isolation basketball too often, not just with Aldridge. The Thunder would be happy with a repeat of that offensive outing, but Gregg Popovich was clearly, understandably less thrilled with the outcome. Expect a more balanced Spurs offense — if Aldridge is north of 35 points again Friday it’s not necessarily a good sign for them.

2) Oklahoma City needs to keep running — and take care of the ball this time. Game 2 was played at a faster pace than Game 1 — San Antonio’s early missed shots (2-of-15 to start the game) let the Thunder show off their superior athleticism in the open court. It happened a few times throughout the game, leading to Thunder scoring runs, and the Spurs would be back to digging out of a hole. The Thunder need to replicate that pace on Friday night — and turn the ball over less while doing so. OKC had 18 turnovers in Game 2 (18.5 percent of their possessions) and if they make those kinds of mistakes again the Spurs will make them pay for it.

3) Expect a better defensive effort from Atlanta. Clearly there was a snowball rolling down a mountain effect in Game 2, where the Cavaliers confidence grew as the three balls started to fall and pretty soon the momentum was nearly unstoppable. But there also was a lot of indifference from Hawk defenders about the arc in that game — rather than whine about all the threes the Cavs took after the game, go out there and stop them from shooting them. The Cavaliers are not likely to be that hot shooting from deep again, but also expect a much better defensive effort from the Hawks — they should be embarrassed and now will be in front of their home fans.

4) Can Al Horford and Paul Millsap get going at home? Millsap is 10-of-27 from two-point range through two games in this series (but hitting 40 percent of his threes). Horford is 7-of-20 from two and 5-of-16 from three. The Cavaliers have had those two struggling in the paint and daring them to beat them with jumpers, especially long twos. Millsap and Horford need to knock down these jumpers or the Hawks stand zero chance of a comeback this series.

Beyond those two, this applies to all the Hawks starters — they have been crushed by the Cavs starting five this series. The Hawks need for that to change back home.

Steve Kerr: Stephen Curry out for Game 3, ‘maybe a slight chance’ of playing in Game 4

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, and head coach Steve Kerr react during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Leave a comment

Stephen Curry said there was a “pretty good” chance he’d play in Game 3 of the Warriors-Trail Blazers series on Saturday.

Steve Kerr said Curry would probably sit.

The coach was right.

Kerr, via The Dan Patrick Show

He hasn’t practiced with us yet. So, Game 3 tomorrow, he’s not going to play. He’s getting better every day, but until he’s out on the floor with our team and scrimmaging and we’re seeing him move, and trainers say it’s a go, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. But no way tomorrow, and I would say maybe a slight chance on Monday if he gets great work in the next few days.

Even if the Warriors lose in Portland tomorrow, they’d still lead the series 2-1. Golden State has looked like the better team through two games, and with Curry in its back pocket just in case things get tight, advancing seems likely.

As long as they Warriors keep talking around the same return date, there’s no reason to panic. They need Curry healthy for the conference finals or if this series gets tight.

So far, it’s not, so Curry can continue to heal.

Jazz extend Quin Snyder’s contract

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder speaks with reporters during the Jazz's end-of-season media availability Thursday, April 14, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
3 Comments

The Jazz hired Quin Snyder in 2014, reportedly giving him a contract that ran through next season with guaranteed salaries and contained a team option for 2017-18.

Utah wants to keep him around even longer.

Jazz release:

The Utah Jazz announced today a long-term contract extension for third-year head coach Quin Snyder. Per team policy, financial terms were not released.

“With this contract extension, we are declaring our confidence in Coach Snyder’s ability to continue to develop the Utah Jazz into a championship team,” said Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. “The Miller family recognizes the significant progress made under his leadership and we are excited about the direction we are headed.”

“Our relationship with Quin, and this extension, reflect our shared passion for building a championship team,” said Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz. “With long-term contracts now in place for Quin, Dennis and other key front office personnel, we are well-positioned for the future.”

“We have continued to take significant steps as a team under Quin’s direction,” said Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey. “His work ethic, basketball intelligence and ability to connect with and develop our players make him the ideal head coach of the Jazz.”

“I am very grateful for this gesture by the Miller family and the Utah Jazz and appreciative of their belief in me to continue to lead this team,” Snyder said. “Amy and I are fortunate to be a part of a franchise and family that cares deeply for our community, stays true to its values and is committed to winning. More than anything, it is confirmation of our collective commitment to building a championship team.”

Snyder has done a nice job in Utah.

Despite a young roster and some ill-fitting pieces (namely Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors offensively), the Jazz have gone 38-44 and 40-42 under Snyder. Player development looks good, and the defense has been top notch.

At some point, the goal must become snapping a four-year playoff drought – the franchise’s longest since its first four seasons in Utah. But Snyder has the team on the right track, and the Jazz are already winning at a fine clip given their circumstances. He deserves a chance to see this through.

Gobert, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Favors, Dante Exum, Trey Lyles and Alec Burks – who are all already signed for next season (and, in some cases, beyond) – give the Jazz a bright future.

So does Snyder.