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.

Warriors confident Kevin Durant will fit in, improve team’s switching defense

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Wesley Johnson #33 of the Los Angeles Clippers has his shot blocked by Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder as Enes Kanter #11 looks on during a 100-99 Thunder win at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 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 condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Part of the reason Oklahoma City was able to push Golden State so far in the Western Conference Finals was Kevin Durant on defense. He could switch out on the perimeter and use his length to bother Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, and take away their driving lanes. Multiple times in that series he was the guy rotating into the paint to protect the rim and he gave Draymond Green trouble in the paint. Durant is listed as 6’9″ but look at him from this summer standing next to DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan, and you can see he’s more like 7-foot — the most mobile seven-footer in the league.

Which is why the Warriors — who already had a top-five defense the past two seasons — think they have another guy that fits right in with their switching-heavy style and can make them better on that end.

Here is what Warriors’ assistant coach and defensive guru Ron Adams told Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com.

“His versatility is outstanding,” Ron Adams says of Durant. “He’s a terrific defender, who played with great defensive consistency in our playoff series. We will expect a lot out of him in that regard….

“He can, if necessary, guard all five positions – and do it effectively,” Adams says of Durant, who spent most of the conference finals smothering Warriors forward Draymond Green.

“He’s a really good rim protector, in a non-traditional way,” Kerr says. “When he played the ‘four’ against us in the playoffs, he was brilliant. He blocked some shots and he scored a bunch of times. So he’ll play a lot of ‘four’ for us, for sure.”

You don’t need me to tell you the Warriors are going to be good this season. Hate them and KD if you want, but know they will be a force.

Just remember they are not a team looking just to get in a shootout — the Warriors get stops, too. And that’s not changing.

 

 

Steven Adams and Andre Roberson passionately sing Backstreet Boys (video)

GREENBURGH, NY - AUGUST 06:  Grant Jerrett #47, Andre Roberson #21, and Steven Adams #12, of the Oklahoma City Thunder pose for a portrait during the 2013 NBA rookie photo shoot at the MSG Training Center on August 6, 2013 in Greenburgh, New York.  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 Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are just like the rest of us.

The Thunder players sit around and belt out the Backstreet Boys’ “I want it that way.”

John Salley: If I smoked marijuana during career, I’d probably still be playing.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 01:  Former NBA player John Salley attends the TipTalk App Launch Party at  a private residence on June 1, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TipTalk)
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John Salley has said becoming a vegan sooner would’ve enhanced his NBA career.

Now, the former Piston has another idea for improving player health.

Salley, via TMZ:

I am a proponent and I believe in the advocacy of medical marijuana. We see football players in Alabama getting busted. We see – we need to get it out. We need to move it and realize that is something that can help the human body.

It helps athletes. I didn’t start smoking until my last two months before I was a pro. And I believe if I would’ve smoked while I was playing, I probably still would be playing.

Marijuana is already legal in Colorado (where the Nuggets play), Oregon (where the Trail Blazers play), Washington and Alaska. Medical marijuana is legal in numerous other states. The nation is definitely trending toward legalization.

If that continues, why shouldn’t NBA players be permitted to use the drug? It can be an effective method for treating pain – which is quite common in a profession that requires such intensive physical labor.

The 52-year-old Salley is obviously exaggerating about still played today if he smoked weed, but maybe his career would’ve lasted longer. Shouldn’t players determine for themselves what legal methods they can follow to manage injuries?

Perhaps, they’re already taking Salley’s advice.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.