Heat's James rebounds against Spurs' Leonard during Game 4 of their NBA Finals basketball series in San Antonio

LeBron says he must play better, plays way better

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LeBron James is the most questioned NBA champion ever.

The snickers and jeering reached critical mass after he struggled through the Heat’s loss to the Spurs in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Can he elevate his game on the biggest stage? Is he afraid of the moment? Why does he crumble under pressure?

It was almost as if nobody remembers he won a championship last year, taking Finals MVP in the process.

The title was supposed bring basketball immortality. That’s how the game works. Win a Finals series, and you’re forever a champion. Nobody questions Paul Pierce’s, Kevin Garnett’s, Ray Allen’s, Ben Wallace’s or Chauncey Billups’ legacies as winners. All five won only a single championship, and all five actually returned to the Finals afterward and lost.

Yet, LeBron faces a different standard.

He brought some of it on himself by how he left Cleveland for Miami and began talking dynasty immediately. His physical dominance and advanced skillset also lend themselves to greater expectations.

But at a certain point, we cross a line and demand too much of LeBron.

And then he reminds you why he might retire as the greatest player of all time, how he’s capable of meeting the most absurdly high standards

In Miami’s 109-93 Game 4 win over San Antonio, LeBron had 33 points, 11 rebound, four assists, two steals, two blocks and only one turnover. Nobody has hit those numbers in a game, regular season or postseason, in two years. Nobody has done it in the playoffs since at least 1986, as far back as Basketball-Reference.com’s relevant records go.

LeBron knows how he’s judged, and at this stage of the season, not only must he play well individually, he must win a championship. And he knew it was time address that head on.

This wasn’t like after losing Game 1, when LeBron reinstated his belief in his teammates and then proved it in Game 2. After Game 3, LeBron focused on himself.

“I’ll be better,” he said. “I’ll be much better tomorrow night.”

“I can’t afford to perform like I did last night and expect us to win on the road.  It’s that simple,” LeBron continued. “So, I’m putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team.  That’s the way it is.”

Then he dug in deeper.

“I have to do whatever it takes,” he said.

”I will be better tomorrow,” he vowed.

And then he angled his self-demanding talk toward his teammates.

“I am the star, I am the leader,” LeBron said. “And they look at me to do things on the court, to make plays, and if I’m not doing it, I’m not doing my job.

Until LeBron attempted his first shot with 6:31 left in the first quarter of Game 4, the Heat had shot 2-for-6 (33 percent) and trailed by eight points. From then on, LeBron’s teammates shot 52 percent and outscored the Spurs by 24 points.

The Heat have gone 69 straight games without suffering back-to-back losses not because LeBron always plays better after losses – he often doesn’t – but because the Heat play better after losses. His greatness fits within their team concept, and generally, when he excels, they excel.

He’ll face even more pressure in Game 5, as his own great performance in Game 4 will raise the bar even higher.

There’s no guarantee he’ll meet the challenge, but there is absolute certainty he’s capable.

After Game 3, LeBron said he’d play better. In Game 4, he played better. It’s really that simple.

This series rests in his hands. It’s up to him whether continues bringing the focus necessary to play at his highest levels. If he does, LeBron will get his second championship and likely his second Finals MVP.

And then we can raise the bar even higher.

Charles Oakley plans to attend Knicks game in Cleveland

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2011 photo, then-Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach and former New York Knicks star Charles Oakley directs players in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Charlotte, N.C.  Oakley was forcefully removed from his seats at Madison Square Garden and arrested after an altercation near team owner James Dolan. Oakley shoved security guards before they pulled him away from his seat behind the baseline during the first quarter of the Knicks' 119-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, Feb. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)
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Charles Oakley might not be welcome at Knicks games in New York.

Knicks games in Cleveland? I suspect he’ll get a different reception.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Charles Oakley plans to attend New York’s road game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, the former Knicks player told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

Oakley, a Cleveland native, has grown close with the Cavaliers. LeBron James particularly backed Oakley in his dispute with Knicks owner Jim Dolan.

To be clear, Oakley’s feud is more with Dolan than the Knicks, Oakley’s former team. So, assuming Dolan doesn’t attend tonight’s game, this won’t into the fireworks we saw at the last Knicks game Oakley attended.

It’ll just be a chance for more people outside Dolan’s payroll to embrace Oakley.

Paul George says he was in dark as trade rumors swirled, “thought I would have been in the loop”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 18:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers greets fans prior to practice for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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If your goal over the next few months is to make your star player happy, build a contender around him, and convince him he wants to be here as a free agent in 2018, the Pacers got off to a rocky start Thursday.

George had been linked to the Celtics, while teams such as Denver and Atlanta made runs at him. It was a swirling vortex of rumors with a lot of “will the Pacers pull the trigger or not” intrigue.

What was it like to be in the middle of that? George wouldn’t exactly know, he was learning of things when we were, and he sounded a little ticked when talking about it to the media Thursday.

Damn.

Those rumors you hear about George going to the Lakers as a free agent in 2018 have some real weight behind them, much of the league thinks that could well happen (2018 is a long way off, but other teams that would like to get in the conversation think that’s PG’s intention).

The Pacers need to change his mind, and it sounds like the first step was in the wrong direction.

Hawks trade Mike Scott to Suns

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Mike Scott #32 of the Atlanta Hawks poses during media day on September 26, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Hawks wanted a stretch four to back up Paul Millsap and likely spend time with Dwight Howard.

Realizing its roster lacked an adequate one, Atlanta traded for Ersan Ilyasova.

The stretch four the Hawks already had — Mike Scott — has barely played this seasonand looked lousy when he has, shooting just 4-for-27 on 3-pointers ((15%).

Hawks release:

The Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club has acquired a protected second-round draft pick from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Mike Scott, the draft rights to Cenk Akyol and cash considerations, it was announced today by President of Basketball Operations/Head Coach Mike Budenholzer.

Money was the driving force behind this trade.

The Suns can count Scott’s entire salary ($3,333,334) toward the floor while paying only the prorated portion remaining ($941,177). So, Phoenix saves the difference ($2,392,157) and gets whatever cash Atlanta sent.

Presumably, the Hawks included an amount less than they would’ve had to pay just to waive Scott themselves ($3,333,334).

The Suns can undertake a reclamation project on Scott. Or they could just waive him. The 28-year-old looks pretty wayward.

Phoenix also gets Akyol as another nearly valueless piece. The window for Akyol, the No. 59 pick in 2005, to join the NBA is rapidly closing, if it hasn’t already. He’ll turn 30 in April.

Even in the likely event Scott and Akyol amount to nothing for the Suns, they still get the financial benefits. And so do the Hawks.

Magic Johnson’s Lakers trade for point guard: Tyler Ennis from Rockets

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers scores on his layup as he is fouled by Tyler Ennis #6 of the Houston Rockets during a 120-114 season opening win at Staples Center on October 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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Has legendary Lakers point guard Magic Johnson found someone to follow in his footsteps?

Almost certainly not.

But, in his second trade with the Rockets since taking over the Lakers’ front office this week, Johnson found a point guard to take a flier on: Tyler Ennis, who was exchanged for Marcelo Huertas.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Los Angeles Lakers have acquired guard Tyler Ennis from the Houston Rockets, league sources told The Vertical.

The Lakers sent guard Marcelo Huertas to Houston in exchange for Ennis, sources said. The Rockets will waive Huertas.

Ennis was the No. 18 pick in the 2014 draft. But he has just looked over his head in three NBA seasons with the Suns, Bucks and Rockets. There’s a reason the Lakers got him so cheap. It’s unlikely he’ll stick in the NBA, and D'Angelo Russell is clearly still the franchise point guard.

Still, point guards tend to develop late, and Ennis is just 22. There’s always a chance he’ll rediscover the court vision he displayed at Syracuse.

The Lakers will hope he plays better — just not too much better. Because his fourth-year team-option was declined, they can re-sign him for a starting salary up to just $3,066,713 (what he would’ve earned, with the rookie-scale adjustment under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, if his option had been exercised).

Also in the final guaranteed year of his contract, Huertas is making $233,880 more than Ennis. That’s not much, but if the Rockets were going to waive Ennis anyway — this trade suggests they were — why not save that money?

The 33-year-old Huertas likely drops out of the NBA. He already fell out of the Lakers’ rotation.

And with that spot open and a little extra money to spend — including more from the K.J. McDaniels trade — Houston can be a player in the post-buyout market as it revs up for a playoff run.