With LeBron’s free agent decision looming, Heat try to appreciate what was accomplished

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SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James was the best player on the floor in Game 5 of the Finals, and opened it with a blistering 17-point, six-rebound first quarter that briefly delayed what would become the inevitable — another blowout victory for the Spurs on the way to becoming the NBA champions.

“LeBron James is a great player,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said afterward. “He’s a great competitor. He’s a class act. And I know he’s feeling what we felt last year, and I don’t wish that on anybody. It’s tough. Most people never even have that feeling. Either the feeling of elation or the depression that goes with a loss. But he hangs it out there, and he’s still the best player on the planet.”

Being the best has its privileges — like getting to choose virtually anywhere in the league you want to play, for the maximum salary figure allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

The Heat were dismantled thoroughly in this series, and very soon, there is at least the possibility that they may be taken apart quite literally.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all able to opt out of the final years of their deals to become unrestricted free agents this summer, thereby concluding what has been a glory-filled journey together to four straight appearances in the NBA Finals.

But still stinging from a loss in the championship round after taking home titles in each of the last two seasons, LeBron wasn’t willing to even begin to consider that option.

“I haven’t even really thought about that just yet,” James said. “Not disappointed in any of my teammates, just wish we could have came through, played a better series, but obviously we ran up against a better team this year. Like I said, I haven’t even thought about it yet.”

With a player of his stature potentially changing the face of the league by choosing free agency, the questions kept coming — even though LeBron wasn’t going to answer them.

“I’m not even nowhere near at that point,” he said, when asked if the team had enough to come back and win as currently constructed. “You know, we went to four straight Finals in four years. We’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish in these four years. We lost one, we won two, and we lost another one. I’ll take 50 percent in four years in championships any day.  Obviously, you want to win all of them, but that’s just the nature of the game. You win some; you lose some. You’ve just got to come back the next year and be better as an individual, as a team, and go from there. But I know me and D. Wade and C.B., not proud of the way we played. All three of us, that’s the last thing we’re thinking about is what’s going on this summer.”

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra echoed the sentiment of appreciating what was accomplished, even on a night where it would seem extremely difficult to do so.

“Even as painful as it feels right now, you have to have perspective,” Spoelstra said. “Even the team we’re playing against has never been to the Finals four straight years. You can’t be jaded enough not to appreciate that.”

Wade, perhaps more than James or Bosh, has the most intriguing choice. He looked physically like a shell of himself in these last two games, which could affect his value when it’s time to talk contract this summer. He reflected on the group’s journey, however, and similarly was able to talk up its relative success.

“I mean, we didn’t know what to expect when we decided to become teammates years ago,” Wade said. “We just knew that we felt as individuals that we could do it, that we could put our egos to the side and not care about the individual part of the game and become a great team and become two leaders of that team.”

“It’s been a hell of a ride in these four years,” he continued. “And when we decided to play together, we didn’t say, okay, let’s try for four years. We said let’s just play together and let’s see what happens.”

Those four years have now come to an end, and it’s decision time for everyone once again.

The odds are that James stays in Miami — he’ll opt out of the final year of his deal, and re-up with the team on a brand new one for five years on a max contract this summer. The stability of the Heat front office is the primary reason, and it’s what gives the team an advantage that is unmatched anywhere in the league, except (somewhat ironically) by these same Spurs that are the newly-crowned champs.

Pat Riley is as respected a team president as there is, and has a long-term track record of proven, sustained success. Spoelstra has emerged as one of the game’s top coaches, and his competency has him locked in at that position, further solidifying the Heat’s team vision — one that makes them the heavy favorites to retain LeBron’s services.

Once James commits, Wade and Bosh are likely to, as well. The years and dollars on those deals will be beyond interesting, because more than one if not all three will need to sign for less than the max in order to leave the team in a position to make the necessary upgrades to the roster.

But none of that has to be sorted out until July 1. And LeBron certainly wasn’t willing to get into it Sunday night.

“I will deal with my summer when I get to that point,” James said. “Me and my team will sit down and deal with it. I love Miami. My family loves it. But obviously right now, that’s not even what I’m thinking about.

“You guys are trying to find answers, but I’m not going to give you one,” he said. “I’m just not going to give it to you. I’ll deal with it when it gets to that point.”

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.

After two lopsided losses to OKC, Kevin Durant leads Warriors rout

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 28 points for Golden State while avenging an embarrassing home loss to his former Oklahoma City team earlier this month and another on the road in November, leading the Warriors past the Thunder 112-80 on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry added 21 points with five 3-pointers, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals as Golden State put on the kind of defensive performance coach Steve Kerr has been seeking from the defending champs.

Russell Westbrook had 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists for Oklahoma City, which failed to reach 100 points for the first time in the last five games. The Thunder had scored at least 100 in 14 of their last 16.

Durant’s pretty layup off a perfect pass by Curry with 3:06 left in the third put the Warriors up 75-66. That was part of a 37-11 Golden State run that included 30 points over the final 8:48 of the third – when Zaza Pachulia subbed in to relieve JaVale McGee.

The Warriors held Paul George to five points. George’s 3-pointer at the 7:52 mark of the third with Durant’s hand in his face was his first basket after going 0 for 9 to begin the game. He finished 1 for 14 after going off for 38 points in the last meeting when Oklahoma City left Oracle Arena with a 125-105 rout on Feb. 6.

Golden State also lost at OKC by 17 on Nov. 22.

Draymond Green added 10 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He picked up his 15th technical of the season with 1:04 left in the first half, moving him within one of an automatic suspension. That came after Durant and Carmelo Anthony pushed, shoved, yelled from close range and had to be separated, receiving double technicals.

It was a testy rematch after the Warriors received five technical fouls in the previous meeting. That prompted general manager Bob Myers to address the importance of keeping poised.

Durant announced his decision to join the Warriors and leave OKC on July 4, 2016, making him an instant villain in his former city.

He scored 33 in the Feb. 6 meeting but got plenty of help this time.

Earlier this month against the Thunder, Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 11 of 27 from the floor and 4 for 15 on 3-pointers as the Warriors lost for the third time in four games. Thompson had 11 points Saturday, shooting just 1 for 11 from deep.

The Warriors on Saturday improved to 8-1 this season in the next game against an opponent after losing the previous meeting.

After Shaun Livingston‘s jumper at the 8:47 mark of the second quarter, Golden State went nearly five minutes without scoring before Curry’s basket at 4:51 started a 7-0 burst.

The Thunder grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the opening quarter to score 10 second-chance points, with Westbrook getting eight boards and George five. But Oklahoma City went 2 for 11 on 3s in the initial 12 minutes – Anthony, George and Westbrook a combined 1 of 8.

 

Steve Kerr “disappointed” in alma mater Arizona; wants to see NCAA follow new model

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Before he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors, before he was a five-time NBA Champion playing next to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, Steve Kerr was one of the great players the University of Arizona ever produced. The crowd would echo the announcer after ever made three — “Steeeve Keerrr” — where he was an All-American and helped lead a team (with future NBA players Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert) to the Final Four.

There is a crisis around Arizona basketball right now. Coach Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton (expected to be a high lottery pick in June, possibly the No. 1 pick). Miller did not coach Saturday and changes are coming to Arizona.

Kerr was asked about it before the Warriors took on the Thunder Saturday.

Kerr said he was “disappointed” in his alma mater over the incident. Which is understandable.

Not to completely excuse it, but what Miller got caught doing is commonplace — money is funneled to families or the players of top recruits on a regular basis. What is more troubling (in my mind) is the money paid under the table to AAU coaches, family members, and others close to elite recruits to funnel them to a specific “financial planner” or agent, or a specific university. People in positions of trust with the player are bought and paid for.

Kerr put out one solution that would certainly be a big step forward: follow the Olympics model and let elite players get sponsorships that don’t end their college eligibility.

This system has its flaws as well, but it gets some of the dirty money out in the open. It would be better than the hypocritical facade of amateurism the NCAA has hit behind for years.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”