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Rare Air: LeBron James on cusp of passing Michael Jordan’s scoring mark

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CLEVELAND (AP) — A generation of kids wanted to be like Michael Jordan. They bought his red-and-black Nikes and sported his No. 23 Bulls jersey. They mimicked Jordan’s spin move and fadeaway jumper and even wagged their tongues the way he did on a flight to the rim.

While millions worshipped Jordan, only a handful entered his rarefied air.

LeBron James lives there.

Without a father in his life, James viewed Jordan as a role model and on Friday night the indomitable Cleveland Cavaliers star, playing at an MVP level in his 15th NBA season, likely will surpass a record held by a player he once admired “like a god.”

On Wednesday night in Charlotte, James equaled Jordan’s NBA mark by scoring in double digits in 866 consecutive games, an extraordinary streak of consistency and durability that may not end until James wants it to. No one else seemingly can stop him.

Once he scores 10 points against New Orleans, probably at some point in the first half Friday night, James will surpass Jordan’s record and add another check mark to his side in the greatest-player-of-all-time debate.

To put the streak in context, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is third at 787 games, followed by Karl Malone at 575. Among current players, James Harden is second to James with 257 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

James typically avoids talking about his accomplishments, saying that’s what he’ll do once he retires. But the double-digit scoring streak, which dates back to Jan. 5, 2007, and an eight-point game against Milwaukee in his fifth season, has turned him somewhat reflective.

“I’ve stayed available, obviously,” James said following a 41-point, 10-rebound, 8-assist performance in a win over the Hornets. “I haven’t played every game but for the most part I’ve played over 70 percent of my games throughout that journey. … It’s just another feat for me to be appreciative and humbled by what I’ve been able to do. And just knowing where I come from, I look at it and say, `Wow, I can’t believe I’m in this position,’ knowing where I come from.”

As a child being raised by a single mom, James found father figures in the coaches who helped him refine his game. There were others in Akron, Ohio, who protected the basketball prodigy and made sure he didn’t stray from a path toward greatness.

Then there was Jordan, whose blend of passion, skill and artistry made an indelible impression on a young James.

“I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just because of what he was able to accomplish,” James said last year after breaking Jordan’s playoff scoring record. “When you’re watching Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So I didn’t think I could be Mike.”

And yet James has surpassed expectations and more than lived up to the “Chosen One” label, a tag he got in high school and had tattooed across his shoulders before turning pro.

One of the few coaches who worked with Jordan and James, Cavaliers assistant Larry Drew was asked to compare the two hardwood heroes.

“Oh man, that’s a tough one,” said Drew, filling in while Cleveland coach while Tyronn Lue is on medical leave. “Certainly Michael was as good of a finesse player as there was. You just never seen anything like LeBron with his size, his speed, his power. He’s something different. But the one thing that both guys do have in common, they’re really driven to win and to be the best.”

Watching James catch and overtake Jordan has been thrilling to his teammates, who are continually awed by a player who shows little signs of wear. James told The Associated Press earlier this week that he would vote for himself as MVP this season, and there’s not a player on Cleveland’s roster who would oppose his case.

James has excelled during perhaps the most challenging season of his career as the Cavs have been ravaged by injuries and overhauled with three major trades at the deadline.

J.R. Smith is savoring the chance to witness greatness.

“It’s pretty dope,” the forward said. “It seems like every game it’s something. When you’re up there with Mike, it’s a different level. You can actually sit there and tell your grandkids hopefully one day that you were part of that. … It’s kind of overwhelming at times.”

Jordan, the Hornets’ majority owner, didn’t attend Wednesday’s game, which ended with the hoop-savvy Charlotte crowd standing to salute and serenade James with chants of “M-V-P!”

It was a moment to set aside loyalty and honor a once-in-a-generation player.

“Everywhere we go he gets a standing ovation,” Smith said. “It’s like watching Michael Jackson on tour.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.