The Extra Pass: The nightmare that is LeBron James; plus Monday’s recaps

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You know those nightmares where you can’t run away fast enough? The ones where your legs turn to mush and the baddy behind you keeps gaining ground?

That’s a recurring nightmare for lots of people, but it’s a recurring reality for Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was on the sidelines with the San Antonio Spurs for Game 6 of last year’s finals, or alternatively, on the wrong side of NBA history.

We remember the final dagger from Ray Allen in that game, naturally, but very quietly, it was a three-pointer from LeBron James that cut the lead prior to that. If James doesn’t get that to fall, it’s a whole different story.

Of course, James has a habit of doing this sort of thing, and it happened one more time against Budenholzer and “Spurs East”.

The Hawks had played about as well as you could ask, building a seven-point lead with about 1:30 to play. That probably would have been safe against most teams, especially with all the good free throw shooters on Atlanta’s roster.

Problem is, Miami isn’t just good when they’re playing from behind — they’re the best.

In the last five minutes of games where Miami is tied or behind this season, they’ve posted an offensive rating of 131.5. That’s tops in the league.

That’s in large part due to LeBron’s willingness to let it fly when facing a deficit. James attempts a surprising low amount of threes per game (2.9 this year) for hitting above 40 percent over the last two seasons, but his hesitancy is gone in the clutch.

Per 36 minutes in the clutch (Last 5 min <= 5 points), James is attempting a whopping 13.2 threes, and still making 37.5 percent of those attempts.

A lot of players have "extra gears" in that they run maybe a little faster, or jump a tiny bit higher. But for LeBron? He just begs his opponent to come outside the arc and guard him. The three-pointer is the back pocket shot for LeBron right now — he's saving for when he really needs it.

The Heat needed it Monday. A three-pointer from LeBron shrank the lead from seven to four, then another three from LeBron came with 23 seconds lead to cut the lead to one. A thunderous dunk ]brought the lead back down to one again after two made free throws.

Ultimately it was Allen who saved the day again with three clutch free throws to tie the game and push it to overtime, but the Heat wouldn't have been there without LeBron keeping the door ajar, once again.

—DJ Foster

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Pacers 103, Nets 86: This was the first game for the Nets since losing Brook Lopez for the season with a foot fracture, and it went about as well as you might expect against one of the league’s elite teams. Indiana got bug games offensively out of Paul George and Lance Stephenson, and defended well enough to hold Brooklyn to just 58 points through the game;s first three quarters. Deron Williams had just nine points on 3-of-9 shooting, and he’s going to need to be much more aggressive in looking for his own shot on most nights for his team to have a chance. Paul Pierce finished 0-for-7 in 15 minutes off the bench, before being ejected in the third following a takedown of George Hill on the break. — Brett Pollakoff

Heat 122, Hawks 121 (OT): Dwyane Wade sat out his seventh game of the season due to soreness in his knees, and Miami trailed by seven points with just over a minute and a half remaining in regulation. Then came the comeback, which included two threes and a dunk from LeBron James, followed by Ray Allen sinking three free throws with eight seconds left to force the extra session. It was the Heat reserves who came through in overtime, however, with Michael Beasley and Chris Andersen sealing the win at the free throw line, while the Hawks finished scoreless over the game’s final 1:21. With Wade out, LeBron did the heavy lifting, and finished with 38 points, eight rebounds and six assists in just under 46 minutes of action. — BP

Spurs 112, Raptors 99: Toronto has been playing well since making the trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Kings, and came into this one having won four of its last five. But after winning in Oklahoma City on Sunday, following that up with a win against another team at the top of the standings on the road was too much to ask. The Raptors hung in for most of the night, however, and San Antonio closed the game with a 12-4 run over the game’s final 2:18 to seal it. — BP

Grizzlies 104, Jazz 94: Memphis got a big game from Zach Randolph and a strong performance out of its bench to win its second straight following a five-game losing streak. Randolph finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, and the Grizzlies shot 55 percent from three-point distance and committed just six turnovers — all of which were factors that helped the team build a lead of as many as 16 points before the game was through. — BP

Knicks 103, Magic 98: Carmelo Anthony left this game in the third with an ankle injury, but the bulk of the damage for the Knicks was done in the first half. New York took a 24-point lead into the break behind 17 points from Anthony, 14 from J.R. Smith and a much better game inside from Tyson Chandler than he showed in Saturday’s brutal loss to Memphis. Orlando got back into it in the third, but a rough fourth quarter offensively from both teams allowed the Knicks to come away with the much-needed victory. — BP

Pistons 115, Cavaliers 92: Cleveland was without Dion Waiters for the third straight game due to a wrist injury, and had trouble scoring against the front line of the Pistons. Detroit has two dominant big men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, and Andrew Bynum couldn’t get much of anything done against them inside. Bynum finished 0-for-11 from the field with zero points in almost 23 minutes of action. On the Pistons side, Brandon Jennings had 21 points on 11 shots, to go along with 13 assists, and Josh Smith led all scorers with 25 points. — BP

Bobcats 111, Bucks 110 (OT): Khris Middleton hit a shot from 21 feet at the overtime buzzer that would have been enough to send the game to its second extra session, if only he were a foot or so further back. Milwaukee trailed by three, and ran a good play to get Middleton a catch-and-shoot open look as time expired. But his foot was clearly on the line, so it goes in the books as a tough loss for the Bucks. Brandon Knight finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and 14 assists in the losing effort, while Al Jefferson (26 points, nine rebounds) and Kemba Walker (25 points, 10 assists) did the damage for Charlotte. — BP

Mavericks 111, Rockets 104: James Harden missed this game with a sprained ankle, and despite an above average 29-point, 15-rebound performance from Dwight Howard playing over 40 minutes, the Rockets didn’t have enough to match the guard play of the Mavericks without him. Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis combined for 33 points and 10 assists, and Dirk Nowitzki poured in 31 points to lead all scorers. Dallas put this one away in the third by outscoring Houston 36-21 in the period; the contest was never in doubt the rest of the way. — BP

Warriors 89, Nuggets 81: Another game, another slow Denver start — Golden State was up 24-9 this time. Then as is their pattern the Nuggets spend the next couple quarters chipping away at the lead, with Timofey Mozgov’s 14 points and Ty Lawson’s 16 leading the way. Then in the fourth quarter the Nuggets came undone, shooting just 29 percent. On the other side Klay Thompson awoke from his slump for eight points in the fourth quarter. The big offensive force was David Lee with 28. Denver has now gone 3-7 in their last 10. —Kurt Helin

Suns 117, Lakers 90: Two teams heading in opposite directions, so this ended pretty much as you expected. The Suns led from the start and got 22 off the bench from Gerald Green, plus 19 from Marcus Morris. For the Lakers, they were lackluster, had another terrible third quarter and Pau Gasol was 4-of-12 in his 20 minutes (but Nick Young did have 19). —KH

Pelicans 113, Kings 100: Tyreke Evans returned to Sacramento and dropped 25 points, 12 assists and 5 rebounds on his former teammates. Evans was doing the heavy lifting for the Pelicans to stay in what was a sloppy game for three quarters, while DeMarcus Cousins did the same for the Kings (24 points, 14 rebounds). New Orleans broke it open in the fourth quarter with a 16-3 run and ended up with a 39-point fourth quarter sparked by Evans and Anthony Davis (21 points). This snapped a four-game losing streak for the Pelicans. By the way, Rudy Gay was 2-of-12 with six turnovers. Rough night. —KH

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.