“Fearless” LeBron carries Heat, but he’ll have to do it again

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Sometimes it’s good to have the best player on the planet on your team.

LeBron James made Boston Garden his own personal playground for Game 6 — 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. It was as dominant a performance as he has given in the playoffs. He set the tone from the opening moments and pushed the Heat into a Game 7 with a 98-79 win.

“He was absolutely fearless tonight,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said in a televised press conference after the game. “And it was contagious.”

Now, he just has to do it again.

The problem for Miami is that to win with this roster they need exceptional games from James and/or Dwyane Wade. Not good, they got that in Game 5 and lost. They need exceptional, heroic efforts. That’s the only way they can score enough. It’s the only way they have been able to win — it was that way against the Pacers in the previous round, it is the same now. It’s what LeBron faced in Cleveland, for that matter.

So, can he do it again?

“I don’t know,” LeBron said with a shrug after the game. “I will tell you every game is its own (thing). I will continue to try to be aggressive. I will continue to try to play at a high level like I have done this whole postseason.”

LeBron took control of Game 6 from the opening tip, shooting 6-for-7 for 14 points in the first quarter, pushing the Heat to a 16-point lead. It didn’t stop, he got hotter in the second quarter and had 30 points by the half.

LeBron had a real lift in his shot — he was taking a lot of jump shots and fadeaways — but because of the spring in his step he was elevating over defenders and there were some pretty good looks. There were also contested, difficult shots. Didn’t matter. They all went in.

With the jumper falling, everything opened up. LeBron blew past guys off the dribble to get into the lane. He would pump fake and the Celtics defenders would bite, then LeBron leaned in and drew the foul. When the Celtics went zone, he cut to the middle of the paint, caught the pass and hit the turnaround. Boston went to Brandon Bass to be more physical in the second half, so LeBron started moving without the ball and left Bass in his dust. LeBron scored pretty much any way he pleased.

“I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and how he doesn’t play in big games,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He was pretty good tonight. Now that’s to bed.”

But that meme is not dead, not with a lot of fans who love to hate LeBron following the graceless way he left Cleveland for Miami. If Miami falls short at home in Game 7, for whatever reason, it will be LeBron’s fault. And for the Heat to win, he will need another monster game.

And this kind of game may not be sustainable. LeBron knocked down eight shots from the midrange, and that is hard to sustain. LeBron did a lot of damage in the halfcourt; he did it without many easy transition buckets. That’s not usually his game.

LeBron’s 45/15/5 was better than Boston’s entire Big Three (31 points, 13 rebounds, two assists). And the only way the Heat can beat Boston in Game 7 and return to the finals is another game like that from LeBron. Again, only he and Wade (17 points) scored in double figures. Miami can only win when one or both of them go off.

It is the sad reality for LeBron now, fair or not — Thursday night he was dynamic and incredible, but he’ll have to do it again Saturday to reach his goal. There would not be a Game 7 without LeBron. But unless he steps up again, perceptions will not change.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.