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.”

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”