Winderman: Real men do play zone. Because it works.

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Kobe_Frye.jpgReal men, of course, don’t play zone.

It is why the Suns’ gimmickry was derided by the Lakers after Game 4 as inconsequential to why the Western Conference finals are now tied 2-2.

It is why Carmelo Anthony, Jonny Flynn and now Wes Johnson enter the NBA seemingly needed to be reprogrammed from Jim Boeheim’s wretched ways.

And yet, during a quiet moment, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy couldn’t help but grin about the whole fuss.

Yes, he, too, disdains the approach. But in speaking with his brother, he said the two coaches consistently came to the same conclusion when the opposition sprung a zone: confusion, temporary loss of cohesion.

No, nothing like the scale we’ve seen from the Lakers this past week, but a very tangible sense of perplexity.

For years, Phoenix has been the NBA’s test kitchen, from “seven seconds or less” to this unyielding preponderance of playoff zone.

How ironic that a state that has come under fire for its restrictive social policy continues to serve as the NBA’s most progressive party?

So where does it go from here? If the Suns do somehow manage to spoil Celtics-Lakers, will there be copycats awaiting next season?

Don’t kid yourself, there already are.

Among the reasons the Heat managed to finish second in the league in both defensive scoring average and defensive field-goal percentage was a liberal dose of zone. Just go through that roster and try to find a single defensive stopper (and don’t try to equate Dwyane Wade’s steals and blocks to man-on-man deterrence).

Former NBA coach Don Casey, who quite literally wrote the book on the approach, Temple of Zones, argued for years that the league needed to open its mind to the possibilities.

“Many people felt the zone is a poor-man’s way of teaching defense, that it slows down the game, it’s harmful,” Casey told me in an interview a while back. “They’re wrong on both counts. It’s the inability of the offenses to attack them in a proper way. Hence it looks like it’s a slowdown game.

“When I first came into the league, as a college guy, I had played a zone. As time went on, I kind of agreed with them, that the stand-around approach (of a zone), it just may not be good for the game. But if it’s taught properly, it’s an aggressive defense and it can be played very well and it can be attacked very well.”

No one is suggesting Alvin Gentry had any back-to-the-future thoughts in mind when desperation prevailed after Game 2 of a series that appeared headed to a sweep.

But this nonetheless stands as a wakeup call, that there are other ways, that what’s old can become new again.
 
Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2007 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. To add further insult to injury, LeBron pushed this team past a very good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.

Steve Kerr on Chris Paul: ‘More than anything, I feel bad for Chris’

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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul didn’t play in Game 6 on Saturday night. The Rockets failed to eliminate the Golden State Warriors, who forced a Game 7 with a 115-86 win in Oakland.

Paul’s status for Game 7 is still unclear, although things aren’t looking good. Paul’s hamstring injury will be hard to heal in such a short amount of time, even with round the clock treatment and the power of will the veteran point guard brings to the table.

The Point God has a tendency to get hurt at just the wrong time. Paul famously broke his hand in April of 2016, and along with Blake Griffin‘s quad injury, allowed the Portland Trail Blazers to get the better of the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs that year. Paul also missed two games against the Rockets in the playoffs with a sore hamstring in 2015, a series the Clippers and Paul lost in seven games.

The NBA is not blind to Paul’s bad luck, either. Opposing head coach Steve Kerr commented on it to reporters, outlining not only what he thought they might do rotationally but his feelings about Paul’s injury history.

Via ESPN:

“More than anything, I feel bad for Chris,” Kerr said before the Warriors’ 115-86 rout of the Rockets at Oracle Arena. “The guy’s a phenomenal player and competitor and pretty much willed his team the last two games. He’s just been haunted by these types of injuries in his career, and it’s a shame. I hate when anybody gets hurt.”

Kerr mentioned that he knew the reality of the situation is that by the end of the season, not everyone is going to be healthy. No doubt it’s a good thing for Kerr and the Warriors that Paul will likely miss Game 7. It’s unfortunate for a veteran like Paul, whose stellar career is dogged by unfair narratives of playoff failures.

Maybe Houston can try again next year when they have LeBron James?