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.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.

Joel Embiid, his mask, Sixers three point shooting too much for Heat in Game 3

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Joel Embiid is back and all is right with the world in Philadelphia.

From the opening tip Tuesday night, this felt like an old-school playoff game. It was chippy, with the referees futilely trying to use technicals to settle people down. Dwyane Wade was yanking on Justin Anderson’s arm away from the play. Justise Winslow was stomping on Joel Embiid’d goggles. Goran Dragic’s hatred of Marco Belinelli was on full display.

All of which is to say it was what we want in a playoff game — intense. No love lost. It was a battle royal for three quarters.

Then in the fourth quarter it quickly became a blowout. Because Philadelphia — with Joel Embiid back in the lineup — is that good. And that dangerous. Especially when they hit 18 threes on the night.

The Sixers won the fourth quarter 32-14, behind Embiid and Ben Simmons combining for 15 in the quarter and playing great defense. With that, the Sixers won Game 3 on the road 128-108. Philly now has a 2-1 lead in the series, with Game 4 on Saturday in Miami (and that game becomes vital for the Heat).

Embiid is a force of nature, even if he was showing some rust in this game after missing three weeks with a concussion and orbital bone fracture. Embiid was a disruptive force on defense from the opening tip, finishing with four blocks but that doesn’t begin to get into the number of shots he altered. His ability to make plays on the perimeter and recover is impressive and was on full display.

On offense, he led the Sixers with 23 points, on just 11 shots. He was 3-of-4 from three and got to the line for 15 free throws — Hassan Whiteside could not handle him in the paint, or when Embiid got the ball and drove.

When Embiid sat the Sixers’ pace instantly picked up, they were getting transition chances, moving the ball around and getting good look threes. Philly hit 18-of-34 threes (52.9 percent) and when the outside shots are falling it opens up the drives and everything the Sixers want to do in the paint.

It was a tale of two teams for the Sixers — one with Embiid, and a faster one when he sat — and Miami had trouble adjusting to the different but effective versions of the Heat.

Simmons finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists. He also did this, which is some insane handles for a guy 6’10”.

Handles so smooth!

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Dario Saric and Belinelli each had 21 for the Sixers.

Goran Dragic playing his best game of the series, finishing with 23 points on 13 shots.

The game was choppy for stretches, there were turnovers and an uneven feel to the game in the first half, but it was close with the Heat up 64-63 at the break. Both teams made runs, but the other always answered. It was close through the third quarter, too.

Then in the fourth, the Sixers found themselves on both ends, and it was over. The Heat play hard, play smart, but they don’t have the talent of the Sixers and when Philly finds its groove there is little Miami can do.

Justise Winslow stepped on Joel Embiid’s mask (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid started for the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. The Game 3 matchup between the Miami Heat and Philadelphia was an important one with the teams tied, 1-1.

Embiid had previously vented his frustration on social media about the perceived slowness of his return to the floor from an orbital fracture.

Now, the Cameroonian big man is back for the Sixers and playing with a huge mask and goggles.

But the mask didn’t come without its problems for Embiid. It clearly affected his shooting and ability to handle the ball, as evidenced by a missed alley-oop in the second quarter, among other things.

There’s also the matter of how other players are treating Embiid and his mask. At one point, Embiid’s googles ended up on the floor and Heat forward Justise Winslow purposely stepped on them.

Via Twitter:

That’s harsh.

Embiid will have to adjust to using the mask since it’s unlikely he will be cleared to play without it soon. Hopefully he has some backups just in case the first couple sets get broken.

Tractors worth $50,000 stolen from Scottie Pippen’s farm

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HAMBURG, Ark. (AP) — Authorities in rural Arkansas are investigating the theft of more than $50,000 worth of equipment from a farm owned by former NBA star Scottie Pippen.

Investigator Mark Griever of the Ashley County Sheriff’s Office says two tractors were stolen from the farm in Hamburg, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southeast of Little Rock. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pippen’s family is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Griever says Pippen owns the livestock farm with his brother.

Pippen, who now lives in Florida, is a native of Hamburg. Pippen won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.