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 He was withdrawn, as if fuming at himself for any moment where he felt happiness at shots going down.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.

James Harden throws alley-oop to Chris Paul, pair puts on show at Houston charity event

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What chemistry problem?

There are legitimate questions about how Chris Paul and James Harden will share the backcourt and ball with the Rockets, but none of those were on display on Sunday. That’s when CP3 joined his new teammate in Harden’s charity game (raising money for Harden’s charity, which helps children from single-family homes get a higher education), a kind of pro-am with some names thrown in to draw a crowd.

Harden and CP3 put on a show for the fans.

This is a charity event, not every team is going to defend like this or the Phoenix Suns. It’s going to be harder when the games matter.

But the Rockets are going to be entertaining to watch this season. No doubt.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Joakim Noah talks of “bounce back” year for himself, Knicks

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In a season of disappointments in New York, none was bigger than Joakim Noah.

There was plenty of scoffing around the league in the summer of 2016 when Phil Jackson signed the oft-injured, already declining Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract that was seen as one of the worst of a summer (and it was an ugly summer for contracts). He only played in 46 games, averaging 5.5 points on 49 percent shooting, plus 8.8 rebounds a game in those (and basically being averaged on offense and a step slow defensively). He missed time with a rotator cuff surgery and got a 20-game suspension for testing positive for Androgen (he has 13 of those games left and can’t play until Nov. 13).

Noah realizes how poorly last season went he told the “Truth Barrel’’ podcast, doesn’t think Jackson deserves all the blame, and said his goal is to make it up this season (hat tip The New York Post for the transcription).

“It’s tough, man, because I got a lot of love and respect for Phil,’’ Noah said. “He gave me an opportunity to play back home. Somebody I read all his books as a kid. I was just a big fan and still am. I have a lot of respect for him. It didn’t work out. That sucks. It’s something I have to live with. He believed in me, and I kind of let him down. That’s frustrating. He got a lot of blame that it was his fault. But we didn’t lose all those games because of Phil Jackson…

“I went through a lot of adversity,’’ Noah said. “You go through injuries. I lost my confidence this year. It’s about bouncing back and showing who I am through these tough times. It can really show what you’re made of.”

This is the only attitude Noah should have — look forward, get healthy, and look to right his wrongs next season.

Once he finishes his suspension, Noah likely will come off the bench behind Willy Hernangomez. (The Knicks should spend more time with Kristaps Porzingis at the five, but that’s another discussion.) Noah is going to get his chances, but nothing he has shown the past few seasons should have Knicks’ fans expecting a return to form. Noah has been an average to below-average player for a couple of seasons, he’s not moving the same way, and he’s not getting younger.

Noah can still have a positive impact on this team, he has a role to play, but it has to start with him getting back on the court.

Add Milos Teodosic to long list of stars missing EuroBasket

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The last Olympics in Rio saw a long list of NBA players sitting it out, either due to injuries, concerns about Zika virus, a serious dislike of açaí berries or just choosing to do something else with their time.

Now it looks like EuroBasket is suffering the same fate.

The latest name to come up is Milos Teodosic, who signed this summer with the Clippers, could never get healthy, and is out for Serbia. He joins a long list — Sportando put together a list of NBA players and stars who are out.

More than just one someone is missing, guys such as Ivica Zubac, Mario Hezonja, Paul Zipster, and others are out as well.

Spain, led by Pau Gasol, remain the heavy favorites to win EuroBasket 2017, with Serbia, France, and Lithuania potential contenders. There may be a lot of players missing, but there is still a lot of talent, and when guys are playing for national pride there is plenty of emotion and fire as well.