LeBron

LeBron turns in MVP performance in Heat’s blowout win over Thunder

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Throughout the first half of this season, Kevin Durant has widely been discussed as the player most deserving of receiving the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

While Durant has been largely spectacular, those championing his cause may have neglected to consider one simple fact: LeBron James hasn’t exactly gotten worse, and in fact, may still be far and away the league’s best player.

James asserted himself against Durant’s Thunder from the opening tip on Thursday, scoring 16 of his 33 points in a blistering first quarter on Durant’s home floor that left little doubt as to where the MVP should ultimately reside. Miami cruised to a 103-81 victory, as James continued a personal assault that has now lasted four straight games.

LeBron finished with 33 points on 22 shots, to go along with seven rebounds, three assists and four steals. But it was that first quarter performance that knocked the Thunder on their heels, and struck doubt into their hearts.

When James puts forth maximum effort, it’s a scary site for opponents that is essentially impossible to stop. In this one, he scored his team’s first 12 points, and was active on the defensive end at the same time, creating steals that led to run-outs in transition.

It was really no different than what we’ve seen from James since the two contests before the All-Star break, where he’s clearly stepped up his game in order to help his team prepare for the postseason with a second half push. He scored 37 and 36 respectively in Phoenix and Golden State, before following up those efforts with a 42-point outing in Dallas immediately after the All-Star break.

The first quarter in Oklahoma City, however, was meant to make a statement.

James has heard all season long that Durant was the MVP, and there was no better time than in OKC on national television to let everyone know he wasn’t ready to concede that distinction. There’s no other way to explain the way he dominated from the jump, and was so visibly upset when a long three-point attempt — his sixth shot of the game — was the first of the night that he saw rim out.

LeBron wanted this one, or at the very least, he wanted to make sure he performed at his highest level if his team was going to end up with a loss. But his highest level almost makes that an impossibility.

Durant was fine in finishing with 28 points, and Russell Westbrook returned from injury to chip in a rusty 16 on 4-of-12 shooting. But when LeBron is this locked in, the only thing that can stop him is injury, and even then, he’ll still likely end up scoring.

James took a shot to the face that left him bloodied with under six minutes remaining, but managed to finish the dunk on the play where the contact occurred nonetheless.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were spectacular for the Heat as well, and that’s been the strength of this Miami team through back-to-back championship seasons. But it all started with LeBron, and his dominating first quarter effort that had MVP written all over it.

DeMarcus Cousins says as of right now he wants to play in 2020 Tokyo Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17:  Demarcus Cousins #12 of United States reacts in the first half while taking on Argentina during the Men's Quarterfinal match on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Four years in the NBA is a couple of lifetimes away. GMs get paid to try and plan that far out, but the constantly shifting sands of the NBA — injuries, player improvement, new talents coming into the league, players changing teams, not to mention front office/ownership changes — make that a nearly impossible task. Nothing is set in stone that far out.

But if four years, DeMarcus Cousins wants to be playing for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. Here is what he told Gary Washburn at the Boston Globe.

“I’m open to [coming back for Tokyo 2020]. I’ll be older then, so it depends on how my body feels. As of right now, where I’m at, absolutely, I’m open to it,” he said. “I think people don’t understand [how hard this winning is]. They see the guys on the roster and they think automatically, they’re supposed to win. This [international game] isn’t our game. This isn’t the way we play. This is an adjustment for every guy on the roster.

“No matter how much time there is, if guys can come together and mesh and play with some type of chemistry, you’re going to win games. It’s been proven in the past. We’ve had some of the most talented teams in the past and we didn’t win, so it’s not as easy as people think it is.”

I’m sure everyone on that team, save for Carmelo Anthony, is saying the same thing about returning for the next Olympics right now. We’ll see how things play out. C0usins certainly struggled to adjust to what is a foul in international ball (not to mention the inconsistent officiating) and spent much of Rio in foul trouble, but he was a monster in the gold medal game.

On another note, Cousins is right, the USA players face unreasonable expectations. They are unquestionably the most talented team in the Games, but with that and the history of USA Basketball they are expected to do more than win, they are expected to dominate. The 2016 team in Rio went undefeated and won gold, but because they had three tough games won by 10 or less — good Australian, French, and Serbian teams —, there was a lot of “what is wrong with Team USA?” talk.

The 2020 team will likely be even more talented — Cousins and Kevin Durant could well be joined by guys who skipped Rio such as Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis. However, the challenges will be the same: The rest of the world is getting better (watch out for Canada) and the USA will still be throwing a team together and trying to build chemistry on the fly.

But we still expect Gold.

After two years off court, Joel Embiid says he “probably” will have minutes restrictions

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a shot from the bench prior to the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Joel Embiid could be the best player on the Philadelphia 76ers in a couple of years — many scouts had him the highest rated of all the first-round draft picks the Sixers have had in recent seasons.

But after two foot surgeries and two seasons sitting on the sidelines, we don’t know how good Embiid can be. We should find out starting in October when Embiid is part of the Sixers training camp. Embiid says he feels 100 percent, but he expects there will be restrictions on him at first, he told Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com during the Sixers Beach Bash community event this weekend.

This is the smart move by the Sixers — they are not competing for a title, the games in November have minimal meaning long term, bring him along slowly and make sure he can make each step along the way. Let’s see what he can do, then worry about how much run he can get in games that matter.

It’s going to be interesting to watch how Embiid, Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor all fit together up front — and which one of them gets traded this season.

Celtics’ Avery Bradley on defense: “Kyrie Irving, none of those guys scare me”

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 09:  Avery Bradley #0 of the Boston Celtics celebrates after scoring against the Memphis Grizzlies  during the first quarter at TD Garden on March 9, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Avery Bradley was first-team NBA All-Defensive team last season, and his coach Brad Stevens lobbied for him to get the honor. Bradley picks up guys full court, pesters, and plays physical — we can debate if he is as good defensively as his reputation, but guys like Damian Lillard think he’s tough to go up against.

Bradley, for his part, says he has no fear going up against the best. Here is what he said to Tom Westerholm of Masslive.com.

“I love the challenge,” Bradley said on Friday, making an appearance at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I love going up against the best players. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care about getting embarrassed. I don’t care. Kyrie Irving, none of those guys scare me. I know some players in the NBA probably get butterflies before the game, but not me. I’m licking my lips. I come excited. They need to prepare for me at the end of the day. That’s how I think.”

That’s exactly the attitude you want an elite defender to have.

Bradley injured his hamstring in the first game of the playoffs last April and sat the rest of the Celtics’ one series. Then this summer his name came up in potential Jimmy Butler trade rumors (that deal never actually came close to getting off the ground). Expect Bradley to put that all behind him by the time training camp opens.

Watch highlights of LeBron James’ playoffs, Finals run

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LeBron James was dominant — the clear best player on the planet — when the Cleveland Cavaliers needed him most. That’s the reason Cleveland got its first major sports title in 52 years.

It’s the dead part of the NBA season — training camps don’t even open for a month — so why not enjoy a look back at LeBron’s amazing run to a legacy-defining NBA ring. Like you don’t have 15 minutes for this. What are you going to do, watch more preseason football?