LeBron James, Miami Heat make their case at Thunder’s expense

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If this does end up being the NBA finals matchup, we are all in for a lot of fun. These teams are starting to develop a real dislike of each other.

Miami and Oklahoma City got together for an intense, physical, playoff-style game Wednesday were LeBron James make his MVP case and the Heat got a measure of revenge on Oklahoma City with a 98-93 win. They split their season series, each winning at home (OKC rolled the Heat two weeks ago).

It was a game where each team picked up some flagrants (including Russell Westbrook on LeBron and Kendrick Perkins on Dwyane Wade). There was some trash talking. There were messages both ways. You could feel a little playoff

Be careful about reading much into regular season statements — the Lakers dominated the Mavericks and the Bulls owned the Heat last regular season. But what we can say is that both of these teams are better on their home court and a finals series between them could be penciled in for seven games. Seven hard games.

One of the best part of Heat/Thunder games is that LeBron and Kevin Durant go head-to-head a lot.

After a sub-par performance in OKC (and lackluster play for a couple of weeks) LeBron came out with the kind of game that had him the clear frontrunner for the MVP back at the All-Star break. He dropped 34 points by starting out nailing threes then going into the post and bullying his way to the rim. All the time he was recognizing the play and hitting the open man — he finished with 10 assists. (A few of those were to Shane Battier — James Harden sagged off him a lot and the veteran made the Thunder pay.)

At the other end he was charged with stopping Kevin Durant — and nobody stops Kevin Durant. KD had 30 points on 21 shots but struggled from three (2-7) including missing a rushed deep three with 15 seconds remaining in the game that could have tied it. Westbrook added 28 but was just 9-26 shooting on the night.

The MVP race comes down to this — LeBron James has had the better statistical season, but voters (media members) are drawn to stories and narrative and as Durant is the great young player on the fun young team he has an advantage. Just like Derrick Rose did last year. This game put LeBron back in the mind of a lot of voters.

These are two teams with great athletes that like to play up-tempo — and you could feel the playoff series hatred starting to build a little. Both sides will say it’s one game and forgotten now, but they’ll remember just fine if both of them are playing in June.

Gregg Popovich makes it official: No Kawhi Leonard for Game 4

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This was expected. It still sucks to hear.

Kawhi Leonard is out for Game 4 vs. the Warriors Monday night.

Leonard has sprained his left ankle in Game 5 against the Rockets and sat out Game 6 of that series (a San Antonio win), then returned for Game 1 against the Warriors. He re-injured his ankle twice in that game — once stepping on David Lee‘s foot, once when Zaza Pachulia slid under him on a jumper and took away his landing space. Leonard left that game with his team up 23 points, but the Warriors rallied back to win Game 1 and have controlled the series ever since. Leonard has not returned to the series.

San Antonio will play with pride on Monday night, but it may not be enough. You can bet the Warriors were reminded all day about taking their foot off the gas after what happened with Cleveland Sunday.

Report: Orlando hires Toronto GM Jeff Weltman to be president of basketball operations

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In Toronto, Masai Ujiri is the head of basketball operations and the guy with the hammer on deals. Jeff Weltman was his right-hand man and team GM.

Make that was his right-hand man, Weltman has been hired by the Orlando Magic to run its basketball operations, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Orlando Magic have hired Toronto Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman as the franchise’s president of basketball operations, league sources told The Vertical.

Weltman met with Orlando CEO Alex Martins and ownership on Monday, finalizing a five-year deal, league sources said.

Orlando officials had been intrigued with Cleveland GM David Griffin, but moved steadily toward Weltman as they became further engaged with his candidacy in recent weeks, league sources said. Weltman has been deeply involved in every aspect of the Raptors’ front office under president Masai Ujiri as Toronto became a perennial Eastern Conference contender.

Making a move now is smart in this sense: The Magic have the No. 5 pick in this draft and would want the guy making the big picture decisions about this roster on board to make this selection.

That roster already has some quality pieces — Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, maybe Elfrid Payton — but has underachieved. There were questions about the culture and a lack of accountability, and that blame ultimately fell on GM Rob Hennigan and he was let go. Frank Vogel is locked in as

Frank Vogel is locked in as coach, so how well Weltman and Vogel work together — and share a vision — will be key.

Weltman is well-respected around the league. He spent five seasons as an assistant GM in Milwaukee, and has been with the Raptors since 2013 as that team has risen up the Eastern Conference standings and had its best run in franchise history. He also has worked with the Clippers and in Denver. He’s been one of those guys expected to get a chance in the big chair for a few years now.

He’s got it, and it’s an interesting challenge in Orlando.

Celtics’ Guerschon Yabusele has foot surgery, expected to be ready for training camp

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When the Boston Celtics head to training camp next fall, all eyes will be on Markelle Fultz whoever the Celtics take with the No. 1 pick. He will be the guy expected, in a few years, to lead the Celtics to the top of the mountain in the East (assuming LeBron James ever leaves that space).

But they will have another high first round pick coming in: Guerschon Yabusele, a 6’8” power forward out of France. The Celtics drafted him No. 16 a year ago, then had him go get a year of seasoning in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Yabusele is having foot surgery but is expected to be ready for training camp, reports Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

Guerschon Yabusele, a 2016 first-round pick of the Boston Celtics, underwent surgery recently to remove bone spurs from the top of both feet and will not participate in summer league, according to a league source.

Yabusele, the 16th overall pick in last year’s draft, spent much of his first professional season stashed in China. He came stateside in March and latched on with the Maine Red Claws, Boston’s D-League affiliate.

For a team that lacks rebounding, Yabusele could be a fit in Boston. He has the build of an old-school power forward, but he has a face-up game on offense, a quicker first step than people think, and he can shoot the three.

The Celtics also have Ante Zizic, last year’s No. 23 pick, who played last season in Turkey. The Celtics are a deep team, will they have a roster space for Yabusele or Zizic next season? Or will at least one of them play another year overseas, stashed away and waiting for their chance? There are a lot of questions about the Celtics’ plans this summer, that is just one of them.

Could Game 4 Monday be Manu Ginobili’s last in the NBA? He hasn’t decided.

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If the San Antonio Spurs fall to the Golden State Warriors Monday night, their season comes to an end. A frustrating one because of the “what might have been?” questions if Kawhi Leonard had not rolled his ankle.

It also could be the last time we see Manu Ginobili play.

The Argentinian with the clever passing and high IQ game will turn 40 before next season starts and has hinted at this being his last year. He’s also not thinking about that right now and told the San Antonio Express-News he has yet to make a decision on his future.

“I’m going to go game by game,” Ginobili said. “We’ll see if (Monday) is the last one of the season. We hope that it’s not, and that we have a few more. Once it’s over, then I’ll start wondering what the future brings.”

Of course he said that, what else would he have said?

The question for athletes at his point in their careers becomes this: Do I want to still put in the extra work it takes to get my body ready to play at this level? Listen to the greats that left the game recently — Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett — and that’s the common theme. They were ready to move on, they didn’t want to be working out at 7 a.m. all summer long and avoiding trips to In-n-Out (or Whataburger for Duncan) because they had to prepare for another long grind of a season.

Does Ginobili want to put in the work? It didn’t sound like it over the course of the season, but who knows. He made $14 million this season, that’s a lot of motivation to come back.

If he does leave, he will be missed. There hasn’t been anyone quite like him in the game.