Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Tyson Chandler

LeBron James and a golden transformation

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A year ago, LeBron James didn’t exist.

After mourning in his house over the loss of the NBA Finals for several weeks, dealing with the way his entire world had been turned upside down, how the public had revolted against him, James was simply absent. He rarely made appearances if ever at the NBA-NBPA meetings in futile efforts to resolve the lockout. He didn’t bring his weight to the negotiation. He didn’t do publicity tours or release cartoons or even commercials. He wasn’t making terrible, facepalm-inducing comments. He was just silent.

He didn’t exist.

Twelve months later, and James’ statements have been made with his actions. And his exposure is not in the form of boneheaded press conference comments or a television special in a plaid shirt, but in the simple step to the podium and a grasp of his legacy.

If the NBA Finals were the rise of James as the undisputed best player in the world and a dramatic shift in his legacy, Sunday’s win over Spain in the gold medal game of the 2012 Olympic games was the cementing of that identity. Draped in the American flag on NBC, when asked about his accomplishments over the past year, James responded with nothing complex, controversial, or self-centered. It was simple.

“This is all about USA.”

In truth, the Olympics showed maybe even more than the NBA season what James’ stature is. On a team of the greatest players in the world, James was the rock. When the offense stalled, James would force his way to the rim with his singular athleticism. When the ball movement became stagnant, James would probe, post, and dish, drawing multiple defenders and leaving players like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony wide open on the perimeter. It was an elite showing of his all-around, every-position skills.

Late in the fourth, Rudy Fernandez foolishly went to challenge a ball-fake from James, leaving the lane wide open when Marc Gasol rotated to cover an off-ball screen. James detonated to the rim and finished with authority. His three-pointer minutes later was the kind of shot he said he was done with, but its satisfying fall through the net a reminder that there is no shot he can’t hit, no ability he does not have in the bag.

James was not the spokesman on the team, nor the emotional leader. That was Kobe Bryant. Similar to Magic Johnson’s role in ’92, Bryant was the player that spoke first and most authoritatively for Team USA. He spoke on the identity, on their goals, on who they were and why they were there. James, Durant, Melo they all deferred to the five-time champion playing in his final Olympics. But on the floor, just like it was with Jordan, it was apparent. James was the best. Kevin Durant’s scoring ability cannot be bested, and it was a collective effort by Team USA to form a cohesive identity. But James’ ability to defend, create the break, pass in transition or in the post, and to attack the rim separated him.

James is the best player in the NBA, in America, on the planet. And if alien life is discovered and they know how to play basketball, you have to like James’ chances there, too.

James will still be hated by many and there is an undercurrent of rumor that James hasn’t changed his personality, that his new identity is simply the result of a new PR team that has focused on shifting how he relates. He’s no longer as candid, and that’s a good thing. He’s no longer as loose-lipped, and that’s a good thing. He’s abandoned his perimeter game by about 80 percent, even in a game with a shortened three like under FIBA rules. He’s somehow taken the vast number of talents he has and made them make more sense together, linked them to one another.

Maybe he’s not more likable. But it’s impossible not to respect what he’s capable of, and how he leads by example.

The 2012 Olympic Gold Medal in basketball will be remembered for the talk of how they match up with the Dream Team (hint: they don’t), for Kobe’s last run, for Kevin Love’s coming out party and Kevin Durant stepping to the stage as the deadliest shooter in the world (if he wasn’t already). But there will also be the knowledge that there is no step back for LeBron, no reconfiguration of his identity, no regression. After three months of the best basketball he could play, he threw another six weeks on, added his gold medal, and left no doubt.

The King has his ring, and the gold to go with it.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.