Celtics-Heat Game 6: LeBron crashes his own funeral

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“He’s not smiling.”

I made that remark to my wife Thursday night as the Heat took the floor for Game 6 in Boston when I saw LeBron James, a serious, almost somber look on his face. James is a known “happy-go-fun” guy, often to the annoyance of teammates and opponents. Sure, he tries to look serious during parts of the game, but usually it’s more of a blank look. On Thursday, he looked downright dour, and it was easy to make the jump to conclusions that he had arrived for his own public funeral, the “we come to bury LeBron, not to praise him” event of the century, a Boston Mean Party. I took it as a sign he knew it was over, the series was done, the Celtics had won, he had failed again.

I was wrong. 45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists. 98-79 Miami over Boston.  See you on South Beach for Game 7 Saturday.

It wasn’t a cold-blooded performance. That would imply that he felt nothing. And as much as an exhausted James attempted to downplay any change of motivation, to say he just went back to his habits, this one felt different. He wasn’t seething with anger, he wasn’t rioting against the Celtics’ harassment and mocking of him throughout this series (which James would have been crucified for but what else is new). He wasn’t frontrunning or showing them up. This wasn’t M.J.’s shrug or Magic’s exuberance, or Bird’s fury.

You got the sense as James calmly and determinedly went back to work on defense after every make, every bucket that this wasn’t LeBron vs. the Celtics, or even LeBron vs. the World. He was withdrawn, as if fuming at himself for any moment where he felt happiness at shots going down. “Can’t stop” was the message. And after the game, after dropping 45 points on 26 shots, 15 rebounds, and having left Paul Pierce a shattered, sad, broken mess of the offensive juggernaut he is, there was no smile or satisfaction from James in post-game interviews.  He wasn’t talking about what a great win it was. He was cold, resigned. “We had to win this game.” That was the message.

And while I have no choice but to believe James will revert to the pompous, pouting child he comes across as (and make no mistake, I consider this to be a problem in portraying himself to the world; I have no idea who James is on the inside, I’m not sure anyone does), whether the Heat win or lose Game 7. Win, and there’s a risk he could feel that he accomplished something when he hasn’t, lose and he could turn defiant that he can be knocked off his pedestal, the way he was in last year’s Finals after elimination, talking about people going back to their lives.

But for a night, it was there. All of it. Honestly, James could have played better. Those five assists are on the low side. I’m not criticizing. I’m pointing out how insane that is. He scored 45 points on 26 shots against the best defense in the NBA, had 15 rebounds, and leveled Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett defensively and he could have played better. That is insane, but then, his night was insane, his season has been insane, his life has been insane.

There were two that got me, both in the third. He waited for Rondo to reach, spun, and then, instead of trying what he normally does, which is to barrel into Kevin Garnett and attempt a rolling scoop shot around KG, he quick-shot a floater just over Paul Pierce’s outstretched arms. Perfect.

Later in the third, he caught the ball in the shallow post vs. Rondo on the baseline. How many times have I seen him catch that, face-up, and then take five seconds trying to figure out the defense before shooting a face-up fadeaway? Granted, last night he would have hit the fadeaway. Hell, he would have hit the fadeaway if he was on the moon. But instead he immediately caught and spun. It was a fadeaway, but it was in rhythm. It was decisive.

He ran back on defense and went back to work. The game was over. He was not through.

So now we wait for Game 7, and another chance for James to make all of our vitriolic dreams come true or ascend to this next level of greatness he can aspire to. We wait to see how the Celtics respond to being embarrassed, how the Heat respond when they have to help James out, and most importantly we wait to see which LeBron James we get.

I’ll tell you one thing, if he’s not smiling in Game 7, we’re gonna need reinforcements.

Trail Blazers trade Allen Crabbe to Nets for Andrew Nicholson

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The Nets signed Allen Crabbe to a four-year offer sheet worth nearly $75 million last summer. The Trail Blazers matched, preventing Brooklyn from acquiring him for a year.

Now, a little more than a year later, the Nets are finally getting him.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Crabbe is still owed $56,332,500 – a sizable amount for a one-dimensional 3-point shooter. The Trail Blazers obviously regret matching his deal considering they’re already dumping him for another bad contract and didn’t win a single playoff game in the interim.

But Portland is undoing that mistake in a big way.

The Trail Blazers are in line to save $54,330,160 this season with this trade – $37,842,090 in luxury tax and $16,488,070 in player salary. They’ll still have to pay Andrew Nicholson $2,844,430 each of the next seven years – no small thing – but they’re at least reducing their burden for each of the next three years, when major luxury-tax issues still loom. They can deal with 2024 later.

Competing for the playoffs, Portland will miss Crabbe off the bench. But there are reasons he was expandable.

He doesn’t create enough offense for himself or others, and his defense is passable at best (and not versatile). Crabbe’s 3-point percentage (44%) is impressive, but it’s in part due to his high selectivity. He launches 3s at a middling rate for a guard, and 77% of his long-distance attempts were classified as open or wide open by NBA.com.

Simply, Crabbe must do more to get open and/or hoist more shots that reduce his efficiency but boost’s his team’s. He could also lock in a little more defensively.

Still, Crabbe is a helpful player already. He’s also just 25, so he can improve. The Nets obviously like him.

And he apparently likes Brooklyn, waiving his $5,674,875 trade bonus to facilitate a deal. As controversy swirls over Kyrie Irving requesting a trade from one of the NBA’s best teams, it’s interesting Crabbe would leave money on the table to go from a playoff team to a cellar-dweller. The Nets offer a bigger city, probably more playing time and definitely a front office that values him. So, it’s a reasonable choice, but also one that raises eyebrows.

Former Cavaliers president candidate Chauncey Billups: Kyrie Irving’s trade request unsurprising, ‘alarming’

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Chauncey Billups declined an offer to run the Cavaliers’ front office. A few weeks later, word emerged Kyrie Irving requested a trade. LeBron James can become an unrestricted free agent and leave next summer.

If Billups dodged a bullet, it wasn’t by luck.

Billups on Altitude Sports Radio:

No, it didn’t really surprise me. Obviously, I knew as they were doing their due diligence on me, I was doing the same thing on them. So, obviously I knew so much about the situation that the rest of the world doesn’t know.

But that’s unfortunate, man, because he’s a special talent. And, in my opinion, so much of what he’s been able to accomplish on and off the floor has been – he’s been a beneficiary of having LeBron James, man.

That would be alarming to me if I was a team looking to get him, because if it’s all about winning, man you’ve got a chance to win every single year, man. Every single year, you’ve got a chance to win.

And not only that, you’re getting the ball still. You’re getting everything you want. You get all the shots you want. You’re playing for a great coach who’s letting you go to work. The game is on the line, they’re coming to you. You’re playing on TV every week.

To me, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. But everybody has their own desires.

I mean, he’s won a championship already. Maybe he’s saying, “I won a championship. I did this. I did that.” Maybe he wants to be Russell Westbrook, man, and go try to win the MVP and get all the shots.

That’s the only sense I can make of it. And, to me, that doesn’t make sense, because all I cared about was winning. That’s not anything. That’s the only sense I can make out of it.

I didn’t talk to LeBron until after. And I deliberately did that, because I go into a situation, and I’m going into it because of how I feel. And the whole LeBron leaving the next year – I’ll be honest with you: That didn’t bother me that much, and here’s why.

When you have an opportunity to really put something together and put your imprint on it, rebuilding is a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing if they’re going to have the patience with you. That really didn’t bother me. What bothered me a little more than if LeBron left or not was that I just didn’t think they had great assets if you have to do a rebuild.

So, it was more that than Bron. So, I didn’t speak to Bron until afterwards, even though Bron and I have always had an amazing relationship.

This adds new insight to a few existing storylines:

  • When did the Cavaliers know Irving wanted to leave, and what did they do about it? If Billups knew weeks ago, acting Cavaliers general manager and eventual long-term general manager Koby Altman should have known, too.
  • Maybe LeBron didn’t leak Irving’s trade request. That’s not to say Billups – who works for ESPN, whose Brian Windhorst broke the story – did. But numerous people clearly knew about Irving’s discontent and could’ve provided Windhorst with information.
  • Perhaps, the Cavaliers’ inability to lure Billups was about more than salary.

Moving ahead, I’m curious how many front-office leaders share Billups’ view that Irving wanting a trade is “alarming” about Irving’s priorities. I think teams positioned to land him will be more enthralled with nabbing a young star than anything else, but the trade request could give them pause.

It would have been very interesting to see Billups handle this challenge if he were in charge. Would he have tried to get Irving back on the same page, as former general manager David Griffin repeatedly did? Or would Billups have seen Irving’s mindset as troublesome and wanted him gone?

Billups’ point about rebuilding, both in Cleveland and generally, is a worthy one. The Cavaliers’ lack long-term assets, because they pushed in to contend for a title with LeBron. They won one, making the payoff well worth the cost. But the bill is already coming due, and coming years could be rough. If ownership realizes that and approves a rebuild, that could lead to tremendous job security and freedom to craft a roster for the front-office leader. But most owners, including Dan Gilbert, aren’t that patient.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk: ‘We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row’

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The Hawks let their best player (Paul Millsap) leave without offering him a contract. They traded their second-best player (Dwight Howard) in a salary dump that reduced the payroll only slightly. They also watched other key contributors (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha) depart in free agency.

At least Atlanta could rebuild around Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins and what appeared increasingly likely to be a high first-round pick.

Except the Hawks signed veterans Dewayne Dedmon (1+1) and Ersan Ilyasova (one-year) to contract that help the team this year without providing long-term value.

What is Atlanta doing?

New Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, via Shaun Powell of NBA.com:

“We want to continue the success we’ve had, but realize we might have to take a step back,” Schlenk said. “We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row. We realize that young players in this league take their lumps but we don’t want to send the message that we’re (fine) with losing.”

Competitive people involved in running NBA teams and casual fans don’t want to tank. But it seems the Hawks are missing an opportunity.

Their young core is fine, but hardly inspiring. An additional high first-round pick could bring everything together, but Dedmon and Ilyasova just make it less likely Atlanta bottoms out – without significantly increasing the odds of gratifying short-term success. Even in this Eastern Conference, it’s unlikely the Hawks sneak into the playoffs. Picking in the middle of the lottery could doom Atlanta onto the treadmill of mediocrity.

To be fair, the Hawks aren’t reliant on only their own first-round pick. They’re also owed protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves and Cavaliers. But only the Houston pick can ever land in the top 10, and it’s just top-three protected for 2018. Most likely, the Rockets win a lot next season and convey a pick in the mid-to-high 20s in the upcoming draft.

Atlanta’s own pick is, by far, the team’s most valuable mechanism for adding premier young talent. But the Hawks have downgraded the value of that pick in the name of not wanting to sink too low in the short term. That’s not a tradeoff I would have made.

Otto Porter says he’s not bothered by John Wall’s Paul George comments

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John Wall said he wanted the Wizards to acquire Paul George, explaining:

“Look at our team. We are one piece away,” Wall said. “We have the point guard, we have the shooting guard, we have the center, we have the power forward. Our 3-man, [Porter], did great for us. You can’t take nothing away from what he did. But, [George] is a guy that can guard LeBron and go back at LeBron. It’s a piece that you’re going to need to win. If you don’t have a guy who can do that, you don’t have a chance. …

You got to add another star. You got to add another piece. You got to have three guys. And that’s what it’s looking like.”

That’s kind of a slight to Otto Porter, no?

Wall said his words created no problems, but that’s not really for him to say. How did Porter feel about it?

Porter, via Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

“We’re talking about Paul George here. If we could get him on our squad? We could definitely contend for a championship,” Porter said after the press conference to announce his new four-year contract worth $106.5 million on Wednesday.

“It’s just motivation. I will continue to get back into the gym. I didn’t take anything personal. I’m just going to continue to go out there and work and play my game,” Porter said.

George is better than Porter. That’s just a fact. So, I have no problem with anyone saying so or proceeding based on that truth.

But I’m also not Porter.

I would completely understand Porter chafing at Wall recruiting George to replace Porter. I’d definitely understand Porter chafing at Wall talking publicly about recruiting George to replace Porter.

Porter so easily moving past this just speaks to his way of quietly contributing. It also doesn’t hurt that the Wizards will pay him about $107 million over the next four years. That buys some willingness to fall in line.