“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.

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.

Remembering Notre Dame, Laker legend Tommy “the hawk” Hawkins

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Tommy Hawkins passed away recently at the age of 80.

The former NBA player was the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame (he still holds the school’s total rebounds record), was drafted in the first round, and went on to have a 10-year NBA career playing for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers as well as the Cincinnati Royals. Los Angeles fans may also remember him as the long time director of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his playing days ended.

The NBA put together this well done video look back at Hawkins’ career.

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.

Allen Iverson predicts LeBron James will win MVP

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LeBron James has four NBA MVP trophies in his case. (Does he keep that case in his home in Akron or the one in Los Angeles… that’s a question for another day.) Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan (five) have more.

Could LeBron James add a fifth to his case this season?

Allen Iverson said yes at last weekend’s Big3 playoffs in Seattle.

LeBron was fourth in preseason odds to win the MVP at 15/2, behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

To me, LeBron could be a good bet. If/when Kyrie Irving is traded, the chances of LeBron getting the MVP go up. If LeBron puts up impressive numbers (again) and leads a depleted Cavaliers team to a top two seed in the East, he is certainly going to be in consideration. And should be.

It’s a long season, and personally, I think you need to get midway through the season before seriously considering the year-end awards. But history says LeBron will be in the mix, and Allen Iverson could be proven prophetic.