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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.

Report: Lakers ‘aren’t that high’ on DeMar DeRozan

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 07:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is fouled by Robert Sacre #50 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on December 07, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan sounds like he wants to re-sign with the Raptors, and Toronto wants him back.

But what about those Lakers rumors?

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, via Noah Coslov of Bleacher Report Radio:

I’m breaking up with you.

No, I’m breaking up with you first.

Warriors would show historic perseverance with Game 7 win over Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Warriors went an NBA-record 73-9.

And the Thunder massively outplayed them in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals.

No, Golden State wasn’t at full strength. But Oklahoma City reached a level the Warriors hadn’t all season. Even if Golden State had hit peak performance, I’m not sure that would’ve been enough. The Thunder were that good.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were their superstar selves. Steven Adams defended inside and out. Serge Ibaka hit timely shots and moved well defensively. Andre Roberson made open 3-pointers and cut. Dion Waiters read the floor to make the right shot or pass. And everyone rotated correctly throughout entire defensive possessions.

Oklahoma City was awesome, handing the Warriors 28- and 24-point losses.

But Golden State rallied to force a Game 7 tonight. If the Warriors win, they’ll become just the eighth team in NBA history to lose multiple games by more than 20 in a series and still win it. The seven to do it:

  • Houston Rockets lost to Los Angeles Clippers by 25 and 33 in 2015 second round
  • Atlanta Hawks lost to Miami Heat by 29 and 26 in 2009 first round
  • Houston Rockets lost to Phoenix Suns by 22 and 24 in 1995 second round
  • Philadelphia 76ers lost to Boston Celtics by 40 and 29 in 1982 Eastern Conference finals
  • Denver Nuggets lost to Milwaukee Bucks by 31 and 28 in 1978 Western Conference semifinals
  • Los Angeles Lakers lost to Milwaukee Bucks by 21 and 26 in 1972 Western Conference finals
  • Minneapolis Lakers lost to St. Louis Hawks by 34 and 30 in 1959 Western Division finals

The Warriors never stopped believing in themselves, even when getting routed. That mentality has them one game from a comeback for the ages.

Masai Ujiri: Raptors No. 1 goal is to re-sign DeMar DeRozan

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 12:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors runs up the court during the first half of an NBA game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre on April 12, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan sounds like he wants to re-sign with the Raptors.

But does Toronto want to give max money to someone who 39% from the field and 15% on 3-pointers in the playoffs?

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

This is probably the right course. I don’t know whom the Raptors could get if they lets DeRozan walk, but if he signs elsewhere, they would have just about $19 million in cap space – less than a max salary. I doubt they could land a better replacement.

I’m not sold on DeRozan as a playoff player, though he legitimately took the next step this regular season. But I’d rather keep him, hope he learns to handle the challenges of the postseason and possibly use him in a trade down the road. It’ll cost a max salary if DeRozan isn’t willing to take a discount, but that beats the alternative of losing him for nothing but cap space.

Report: Tyronn Lue urged Cavaliers GM not to fire David Blatt

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17: Cleveland Cavaliers Associate Head Coach Tyronn Lue (L) talks with Head Coach David Blatt (R) against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half of their game on December 17, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Thunder 104-100. 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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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At 30-11, the Cavaliers had the best record ever while firing a coach during a season. Cleveland was the first team in a decade to fire a coach that took it to the NBA Finals the year prior.

Maybe firing David Blatt was the right move, but on the surface, it seemed outrageous.

Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

In speaking with numerous sources close to “The Call,” cleveland.com learned the details. There were no initial pleasantries. Griffin got right to the point — David Blatt was being relieved of his duties.

Lue’s response was candid and immediate.

“This is f—– up, Griff.”

That didn’t prevent Griffin from calmly asking Lue if he could take over. Hired as the associate head coach a year and a half earlier, becoming the head of a franchise was Lue’s eventual goal. But this didn’t seem right.

Lue pleaded with Griffin, arguing for several minutes that firing Blatt was an excessive move for a team carrying a conference-best 30-11 record. Griffin listened to Lue’s pleas. When they ended, he told Lue the decision has already been carried out.

Griffin circled back to his original question.

“What’s done is done. I’m asking you if you can lead this team?” It had taken a few minutes, but Griffin got the response he sought.

“Yeah, I can f—ing lead this team.”

Griffin then congratulated him.

I’m not sure I buy all this. It’d look bad if Lue undermined Blatt in any way.

But the Cavs asked for this situation when they hired the runner-up in their head-coaching search to assist the winner. Lue didn’t have to do anything for that call to happen. The situation opened the door for it.

And it worked out. Lue has done a masterful job guiding the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals. We’ll never know how Blatt would’ve done if he remained on the job, but Lue has set an excellent bar. I’m not yet sold Lue is a great head coach, but for this team – and the difficult task of communicating with LeBron James and elevating Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who’d be featured stars on many teams – Lue has been aces.