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LeBron James after Cavaliers struggle toward end of season: “We have a chance to win it all”

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) LeBron James quickly moved past Cleveland’s disjointed regular season, an uphill, 82-game slog of injuries, roster upheaval and drama.

Reflection can wait.

James understands the Cavaliers appear vulnerable, perhaps beatable as they enter the NBA playoffs following a recent tailspin. However, he feels the grind may help the Cavs and maybe even give them an edge.

“Through everything that went on with our team, we’re in a position where we can do something special still,” he said Thursday as Cleveland prepared to face Indiana in the opening round on Saturday. “We have a chance to win it all.”

Why so optimistic, LeBron?

Leaning against a padded wall in Cleveland’s practice facility, James smiled sheepishly.

“I’ve got the answer,” he said. “I’m not giving it to you. But I’ve got the answer why I feel like we’ve got a great chance.”

It’s no secret.

The Cavs have a chance to win a championship because they have James, and with James, all is possible.

With six straight visits to the Finals on his resume, James knows his way around the playoffs better than any player in the league, and maybe better than anyone in history. After all, he’s won titles with two teams, snatched a road win in 25 consecutive series and takes a 40-17 record in first-round games into this series with the Pacers, a team he’s battled in postseasons before.

James doesn’t know how to be anything but confident. It’s in his DNA.

But there’s genuine concern about these Cavaliers, who staggered down the stretch. They lost their final four regular-season games – one to an Atlanta team resting all its starters – and surrendered the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to Boston. Cleveland went just 23-23 after Jan. 10 and the Cavs have been ranked in the bottom third statistically on defense all season.

They are defending champions in name only.

Injuries, too, have played a role in Cleveland’s fragmented, and some would say disappointing season, as 22 players have shuffled in and out of coach Tyronn Lue’s rotations and the club was forced to go long stretches without key players like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver.

If it’s true that adversity builds character, the Cavs might be a lot are stronger than they appear.

They are healthier than they’ve been in months, and James said that’s all that matters now.

“At the end of the day, I’m not going to harp on what happened in the regular season through injuries, through bad losses, through good wins, through whatever the case may be,” he said. “We have a good club going into the postseason. That’s all you can ask for.”

While this idea the Cavs can be bounced from the playoffs makes for engaging sports talk shows, not everyone is convinced James and Co. won’t find their groove in the postseason.

If any team can flip the switch, it might be this one.

“They’re the champs for a reason,” Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said Wednesday night after Toronto beat Cleveland. “I would never say that (the Cavaliers are vulnerable) – ever. Every team wants to be the champions, and that’s what they are. You can’t ever say that about any team with LeBron James.

“I’m sure they’ll get it going once the playoffs start.”

Cleveland’s schedule – the Cavs played 12 road games in March – made it difficult to practice and James said it was “refreshing” to be on the floor with his teammates. The Cavs reviewed film with Lue, whose defensive scheme will be focused on slowing Pacers star Paul George, before their workout.

Afterward, James was serious, but spirited as he talked with reporters and assessed his team’s odds in the East, where the road to the Finals figures to be much tougher than past years.

James recognizes the Cavs’ flaws and understands why they appear susceptible to an early-round upset. But there’s no sense in reliving a 7-10 record in March, 3-4 mark in April or the reasons behind Cleveland’s slide.

“The present is the only thing that matters,” he said. “Me preparing this group, me getting this group locked in and understanding what our opportunity is. I mean it is what it is. Let’s get ready to go. We’ve got to have our mind sharp, our bodies as fresh as possible going into Game 1.

“You guys can harp on the regular season. I’m not one to do it, not with the postseason starting right now. I feel great. I’m not going backward.”

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Owner: Hawks will ‘make every effort imaginable’ to re-sign Paul Millsap

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Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox called re-signing Paul Millsap this summer the team’s “priority.”

Hawks owner Tony Ressler went a step further.

Ressler, via Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“We love Paul Millsap,” Ressler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “We are trying to re-sign him. We want him to stay here. We think he is a really special player and a special person that we want on our team and in our locker room and we are going to make every effort imaginable to keep him.”

There’s certainly one effort I can imagine: Offer Millsap a max contract, which projects to be worth $205 million over five years.

That’s not necessarily a wise investment. As excellent and underrated as Millsap is now, he’s 32. He’ll be hard-pressed to maintain anywhere near this level of production over the next five years. And what’s the upside for Atlanta enduring such risk, especially late in his contract? A chance at a playoff-series victory each of the next couple years? The trade-off would make more sense for a team that can accomplish something more meaningful now.

The Hawks seem conflicted about their direction. In the last year, they’ve traded Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver but also signed Dwight Howard. Atlanta’s starting lineup is split by a glaring age divider – Millsap (32) and Howard (31) on one side, Tim Hardaway Jr. (25), Dennis Schroder (23) and Taurean Prince (23) on the other.

Do the Hawks want to rebuild or win now? It almost depends when you ask, and by the offseason, there might be a different answer. But the owner so strongly endorsing re-signing Millsap speaks volumes. Everyone in the organization, including president/coach Mike Budenholzer, answers to Ressler.

Of course, Millsap will hold the cards as an unrestricted free agent. He might prefer to leave Atlanta for a team closer to title contention or any other reason.

But the Hawks can make offer that would be darned hard to refuse.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on LeBron James’ heavy workload: ‘Next, he might play 48 minutes’

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) Except for his backpedaling hairline, LeBron James shows no visible signs of age.

At 32, still in his prime, and still at the top of his game, he’s defying time.

“Benjamin Button,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue called him, referring to the fictional character who ages backward.

LeBenjamin?

Following a regular season in which he averaged more minutes per game (37.8) than any player, James logged 43.7 per game during Cleveland’s tougher-than-it-looked sweep over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. And as James and the defending champions await either Toronto or Milwaukee in the second round, James is taking advantage of the down time.

Not that he might need it.

Lue spent much of the season defending his use of James, who in all honesty is really the one in control of when he sits or doesn’t. At this point, Lue has given up worrying about resting the superstar.

“I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of his minutes,” Lue said Wednesday. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games and then he had a week off again. So next he might play 48 minutes. … Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play.”

James wasn’t available for interviews as the team gathered for the first time in two days at Cleveland Clinic Courts, and it’s likely that he won’t speak to the media until the Cavs have a second-round opponent.

But as has been the case for months, James’ playing time was one of the prime topics presented to Lue, who believes that the four-time MVP’s heavy workload during the regular season is what enables him to play at such high levels in the postseason.

Consider that James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists, shot 54 percent from the field, went 9 of 20 on 3-pointers and led the Cavaliers to the biggest second-half comeback in league history during the series against Indiana, and it’s easy to see why Lue wants to move past the minutes chatter.

“With him playing the minutes he played during the course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs,” Lue said. “Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

Unlike the regular season, when brutal travel schedules, back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights can wear players down, the postseason allows for recovery. Lue also thinks too many teams are allowing outside pressures to influence how they use players.

“Teams are suffering,” he said, “because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes” and “some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different (playoff) series.”

James has ramped up his minutes nearly every postseason. Now in his 12th playoffs, he averaged 39.1 minutes last year and has only twice averaged less than 40 per game.

Lue trusts that the three-time champion knows how far to push himself without reaching his breaking point.

“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “He said he feels great and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”

As for the rest of the Cavaliers, Wednesday included some competition in the team’s weight room on an aerobic conditioning machine while the team’s in-house DJ from Quicken Loans Arena spun music. After the vigorous workouts, yoga mats were dragged onto the court and the facility’s lights were dimmed for some stretching and decompression.

Namaste, NBA-style.

The Cavs had a similar, one-week break between the first and second rounds last season. Kyrie Irving said it’s imperative to make the most of it.

“The mental preparation and physical preparation starts now and hasn’t stopped,” he said. “Took a brief day off or two and now just get back to work and get ready for whichever team we’re getting ready for. The work never stops.”

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

NBA fines Rockets owner Leslie Alexander $100,000 for confronting referee

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Rockets owner Leslie Alexander got up from his courtside seat, walked down the sideline and talked to referee Bill Kennedy during Houston’s Game 5 win over the Thunder.

It took less than a day for an investigation to yield the predictable result.

NBA release:

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has been fined $100,000 for confronting a referee during live game action, it was announced today by Byron Spruell, President, NBA League Operations.

The interaction occurred with 0:13 remaining in the first quarter of the Rockets’ 105-99 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 25 at Toyota Center.

Per Patricia Bender’s database, this is the NBA’s largest fine in nearly two years. The NBA fined the Clippers $250,000 in 2015 for setting up DeAndre Jordan with an endorsement deal while trying to lure him back in free agency.

The NBA rightfully keeps owners on a tight leash. Unlike players, coaches and referees, who have their own unions, the league office represents the owners. So when one crosses the line – Alexander trampled over it – the hammer comes down hard. It’s an example to keep everyone else in line, and owners know they come out way ahead in this arrangement. Alexander might not like the punishment, but he benefits from owning a share of a league that so strongly dissuades such behavior.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.