NBA Playoffs: Heat can’t survive career-low scoring performance from LeBron

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For the fourth time in the 2011 NBA Finals, the Heat came into the fourth quarter with a big lead. For the second time, they came away with a loss, this time by a final score of 86-83. And for the second time, the Heat’s failure to secure a victory can be traced directly back to the play of LeBron James, who spent the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs clearly establishing himself as both the league and the team’s best player.

In Game 2, LeBron didn’t shoot much, but it was his fourth-quarter performance that was the real problem: James was efficient for the first three quarters, then, along with Wade, hijacked the offense and fired long jumpers as the Heat watched their lead dwindle away and a commanding 2-0 series lead turn into a tie series.

In Game 4, LeBron was off from the opening tip to the final whistle. Even though he was guarded by the 6-4, 38 year old Jason Kidd for much of the game, James never looked to be aggressive offensively, and missed easy shots when he did. James made some nice passes and had some nice rebounds, but the Heat desperately needed some scoring from James to put the Mavericks away, and he responded with the lowest-scoring game of his playoff career, with zero points in the fourth quarter.

LeBron has had some tough playoff exits in the past, but the blow was always softened by poor performances from his supporting cast, even in the infamous Boston games that ended his time with the Cavaliers. That’s not the case here. The Heat’s bench outplayed the Mavericks’ in terms of +/-, Wade was again spectacular, and Bosh added 24 points on his own. After this loss, LeBron has nobody to blame but himself.

It was hard to imagine how LeBron could have thrown away the goodwill he earned with the dominant all-around and crunch-time performances that beat the Celtics and the Bulls, but he seems to be finding it.

This is now a best-of-three series, and there’s no doubt that these next three games will be the most important ones of LeBron’s eight-year career. The Heat sweeping the Mavericks with Wade as the clear head of the snake would have been an interesting compromise for LeBron’s legacy; he would have finally gotten that elusive ring, but would have had to rely on a teammate to bring it home for him.

That’s still in play, but now there are two other possibilities. If the Heat lose, this will be the absolute nadir of his career. I didn’t think that LeBron’s public perception could reach a new low after his final Boston performances and the “Decision” fiasco that followed it, but that possibility is now in play. On the biggest stage, LeBron has failed to deliver, and the Heat would already be planning their parade if he had.

On the other hand, LeBron could realize just how important these next three games are to his legacy, turn things around, and put the Mavericks away with one or two dominant performances, which will make the Heat’s two losses a little-known footnote in the Story Of LeBron.

The Heat can win with LeBron playing a role other than that of the primary scorer and crunch-time assassin. They cannot survive James playing passively and waiting for his superstar teammates, the teammates he sacrificed his public image to play with, to hand-deliver him a ring.

With the NBA Finals coming down to the wire, just like three of the four games played in it so far have, LeBron needs to step up and make his mark. The fans know it, the media knows it, his coach knows it, and his teammates knows it. Over the next week or so, we’ll find out if LeBron has what it takes to silence his doubters once and for all and win a championship, or if he’s content to have more games like this and be the laughingstock of the NBA until he finally gets that championship ring on his finger.

 

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley out at least two weeks with sore heel, Achilles

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Injuries are already starting to shape the playoff chase in the West — Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month in Utah, and the Clippers have lost six in a row as they battle injuries to three starters.

Now add the Memphis Grizzlies to the mix.

Mike Conley, the point guard who, along with Marc Gasol, is crucial to Memphis’ success, will be out at least two weeks to rest a sore left heel and Achilles, the team announced Friday. He could be out longer, Conley has had issues with this Achilles before, the team will want to be cautious, and by far the best treatment is rest.

Conley averages 17.1 points per game, is a great floor general running the offense, and is a quality defender at the point.

Memphis is 7-7 on the season and tied with Oklahoma City for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last eight. What’s more, they are entering a gauntlet part of the schedule without Conley: Their next game is against Houston, then Portland, and in the next 10 they have the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Spurs (twice). The danger is they fall far enough back from the playoff chase they struggle to catch up again.

Expect to see a lot more Tyreke Evans, who has been strong as a sixth man but now will have much more asked of him. Also, more playmaking duties will fall to Gasol, working out of the elbow, and both Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers will get the ball in their hands. The question is what do they do with it.

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

Associated Press
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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.

Watch James Harden, Rockets drop 90 on Suns — in first half

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This game had all the drama of The Last Airbender. Which is to say none. It was essentially over when the Rockets went on a 21-6 first-quarter run — unlike Boston in the earlier Thursday game, Phoenix isn’t built to come back against elite teams.

When the 15-1 Rockets run came at the end of the first quarter, it was clear Houston could do what it wanted on offense, and by half the Rockets put up 90 points. The Rockets were putting on a show (and eventually won 142-116).

James Harden had 33 points on 12 shots in the first half (he finished with 48 points for the night). Ryan Anderson hit four threes on his way to 18 before the break. Eric Gordon had 10. As a team, Houston shot 62.2 percent, and 60 percent from three in the first half. They got to the line 25 times. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If you want more highlights, here is Harden’s 48 for the night. Enjoy.