LeBron on verge of slaying Celtics, demons that haunted him

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James Bond movies are only as good as the villain — unless there is someone who pushes Bond to new extremes, his victory is hollow. (Well, except for all the hot Bond girls.)

That need for the hero to have to reach new heights is true of all drama. It is true of sports. What is Muhammad Ali without Joe Frazier and George Forman? Magic without Bird (or Bird without Magic)? Even Michael Jordan had to get over the hurdle of the Bad Boy Pistons before he could become a legend.

For LeBron James, that has been the Celtics. His career had always seemed to fall short — it’s why he left Cleveland — and the Celtics had caused that demise two of the last three years (including last season when Clevelanders are convinced LeBron quit on them). While other teams had beaten him too, the Celtics had come to symbolize the mountain he had to climb.

And he almost did not scale it Monday — he made the amazing jumpstop layup in the final minute to give the Heat a short-lived lead, but after that was stripped by Ray Allen giving the Celtics a final chance to win in regulation. They blew it. Given a second chance in overtime, James did not.

He sounded relieved and excited after the game, as reported by Ian Thompson at Sports Illustrated.

“I looked at it as one of the biggest games of my career,” said James. “Me and D-Wade had a lot of conversation after Game 3 all the way to the tip-off today about how important this game is. I heard a stat that D-Wade had lost 11 straight in this building. I haven’t had much success in this building. So we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try to do whatever it took to help our team win this ballgame.”

There is a long way to go. Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics are not going to roll over and die in their closeout game. They will play harder and better than they have all series. Then there will be the conference finals, then the finals. None of it easy, most of it harder than this.

But for LeBron, it’s feeling like a breakthrough.

Report: Pelicans cut Lakers GM Rob Pelinka from Anthony Davis trade talks

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On Jan. 31, a report emerged the Pelicans hadn’t returned the Lakers’ calls about Anthony Davis. Later that day, another report said the Pelicans and Lakers discussed a Davis trade.

That sparked questions: Was the first report wrong? Did New Orleans and Los Angeles begin talking that day?

Maybe we missed an important distinction.

The first report said then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hadn’t returned Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s calls. The second report said Demps spoke with Lakers president Magic Johnson.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Pelinka was mostly cut out of trade talks between L.A. and New Orleans, with the Pelicans preferring to deal directly with Johnson, multiple league sources told ESPN.

Since Johnson stunningly resigned, Pelinka has assumed control in Los Angeles. The Lakers surely still want to trade for Davis.

Will having Pelinka running the front office impair their ability to do so?

We don’t know why the Pelicans rebuffed Pelinka. Different theories bring varying levels of present concern.

Maybe the Pelicans just didn’t want to waste their time with someone who’s not in charge. That’s often an issue when lower-level executives contact other teams. If that’s the case, Pelinka assuming the top job in basketball operations would solve the problem.

Maybe Demps was still bitter with Pelinka over Pelinka’s time as an agent. In 2012, New Orleans restricted free agent Eric Gordon – represented by Pelinka – signed an offer sheet with the Suns. Gordon lobbied hard to leave New Orleans, even saying his heart was in Phoenix. Though New Orleans matched, the saga caused animosity. But the Pelicans fired Demps and hired David Griffin, who’ll now oversee Davis. If this was a personal issue between Pelinka and Demps, that’s now irrelevant.

Maybe Pelinka is just that off-putting. I definitely don’t buy everything people say about him. Being a good agent often means ruffling feathers, and it’s easy for people he countered in negotiations to gossip about him now. But maybe there’s some truth to Pelinka being difficult to work with. If so, that’d come up again – not just with the Pelicans, but every team.

Report: Hornets not trading for Marc Gasol soured Kemba Walker on Hornets

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Kemba Walker has never had an All-Star teammate. For someone as established as Walker, that’s unprecedented.

The Hornets nearly paired Walker with a former All-Star, though. Shortly before the trade deadline, they reportedly nearly dealt for Marc Gasol. But talks stalled, and the Grizzlies instead sent Gasol to the Raptors.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over well with Walker, who was trying to lead a playoff push before entering free agency this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I got the sense in talking to people, that trade deadline really deflated him. When they were pretty close on a Marc Gasol deal, and it fell apart. It didn’t happen. He goes to Toronto. And he looks around and goes, “Come on, what are we trying to do here?”

The reported outline of the Gasol deal: Gasol for Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a protected first-round pick. The hang-up was reportedly on the specifics of the protection.

Which is important!

The Hornets shouldn’t have relinquished too high of a pick for a 34-year-old center just for a likely first-round loss.

Making the playoffs matters. Keeping Walker happy matters. But so does keeping draft picks to build the team going forward. Without knowing the exact line of the protection being haggled, I can’t say whether Charlotte erred by not making the trade. But there’s plenty of room to make passing the right call.

Shortly after the deadline, a rumor emerged Walker would likely leave the Hornets in free agency. This probably explains why.

But a lot has and will happen before Walker makes that call. Charlotte still made a strong late playoff push, though fell short. Walker could make an All-NBA team, which would make him eligible for a super-max contract.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he re-signs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he leaves, either.

What’s clear: He wants to win right now. Though it certainly won’t be the only factor, the Hornets’ stagnancy looks like a real negative when Walker ultimately decides.

Ben Simmons on feud with Jared Dudley: ‘I don’t really have energy for it. It’s done’

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Jared Dudley called Ben Simmons great in transition and average in the halfcourt.

Simmons responded: “It’s coming from Jared Dudley. C’mon.”

In the 76ers’ Game 3 win over the Nets last night, Simmons did what he frequently does – create high-efficiency transition and semi-transition opportunities for himself and teammates. He was also good in the halfcourt, though one game doesn’t establish Simmons in that facet.

Simmons, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I don’t really have energy for it,” Simmons said. “It’s done. People are going to say what they want to say. Just gotta play.”

As I wrote earlier, this beef will be only as big as Simmons makes it. Dudley’s scouting report was largely accurate. He didn’t really say anything inflammatory, except to people in Philadelphia looking for a slight.

Apparently, after one dismissive comment and one excellent game, that’s no longer Simmons.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Ben Simmons drives right into Nets, earns 76ers win

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Ben Simmons drives right to basket, into the heart of Brooklyn, leads Sixers to a road win. Jared Dudley has become enemy No. 1 in Philadelphia for saying out loud what has been in every scouting report on the 76ers all season:

Ben Simmons answered that with his best game of the playoffs Thursday night, driving to get to his right hand at the rim all night long, and the Nets could do nothing to stop him. Simmons was 9-of-10 from inside eight feet of the rim, took just one shot outside the paint all night (an 11-foot hook shot he banked in), scored 31 points and led Philadelphia to a 131-115 win in a game Joel Embiid sat out to rest his knee.

Simmons made his statement and won the argument with Dudley…

or did he?

Whatever it took to get this aggressive Simmons, this is the guy Philadelphia needed. He did have help — Tobias Harris was 6-of-6 from three and had 29 points, while J.J. Redick added 26 — but with Embiid out Simmons has to be the catalyst.

D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert each had 26 to lead Brooklyn.

With the win the Sixers are now up 2-1 and in control of the series, making Saturday’s Game 4 basically must-win for the Nets.

Brooklyn could use to be a little more efficient on offense — 8-of-39 from three, as they did Thursday, is not good enough — but the more significant issue is defensive. Brooklyn has to find a way to slow the Sixers, and that starts with keeping Simmons from getting the shots he wants going to his right hand. If Simmons is still attacking and getting his shots, this series will be over soon.

2) Kevin Durant reminds everyone exactly who he is, scores 38 in Warriors blowout win. Doc Rivers was prophetic before his Clippers took on the Warriors in Game 3 Thursday night. Just not in a way he wanted.

“If we get down 31 again, it’s not going to turn out well,” Rivers said.

They did and it didn’t.

Golden State went up by 31 with 7:10 in the third quarter Thursday night. That score and game time was very similar to when the Clippers came back from that record deficit to even the series on Tuesday. However, this time the Warriors did not lose focus, they did not take their foot off the gas and let the Clippers back in the game. Golden State held on to win 132-105, and it wasn’t that close.

The Warriors now lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 on Easter in Los Angeles.

Through 12 quarters of play, the Warriors have completely dominated 10 of them so far. They have been much the better side in this series.

Thursday was Kevin Durant’s turn to dominate as he finished with 38 points. The Warriors made some adjustments on how they attacked the Clippers’ “top lock” defense, leading to a lot of shots at the rim. Durant got more touches where he could isolate and shoot over the smaller Patrick Beverley, although though when Clippers switched up to a taller defender Durant torched them, too. It was just his night.

The Clippers also need to find some offensive outlets. The Warriors did a good job making life hard for Lou Williams (4-of-11 shooting) and Los Angeles struggled to get consistent buckets, shooting 37.2 percent as a team for the game, including going 7-of-32 from three.

The Warriors are in control of this series, they have been all along when they didn’t get bored. These Clippers do not quit, they will be feisty again on Sunday, but that alone will not be enough. Los Angeles needs to find some offense and a way to slow down Kevin Durant. Good luck with that.

3) Derrick White puts Spurs in control of series with Nuggets. Derrick White is a vintage Spurs story. What received zero Division I scholarship offers out of high school, so he played three years of Division II ball, but impressed enough that he transferred to Colorado for his senior season. After impressing there, the Spurs picked him 27th in the 2017 NBA draft in one of those “that could be a good fit,” picks San Antonio always seems to make.

Two years later, White “came out of nowhere” to score 36 points, be +30, outplay Kentucky product Jamal Murray, and lead the Spurs to a Game 3 win. Even Denver coach Mike Malone was impressed.

Denver’s defensive strategy the first couple of games this series was, basically, to not cover White — he was the guy they helped off of, and they dared him to shoot from the outside. On Thursday the Spurs and White attacked that strategy having him cut to the basket or, when the ball swung to him, drive into that space and get buckets. The Spurs also used White as a pick-and-roll ball handler to get the switch because Nikola Jokic isn’t quick enough to stop White in space. It all worked brilliantly.

Now the adjustments fall to Malone and the Denver staff, who already have to scheme for LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and their midrange games. What it also means is Murray is going to have to step up his game and start winning the battles with White. Denver’s starters need to do better, they cannot get outplayed like they did in Game 3.

If they do, or if White goes off again, the Nuggets will be in too big a hole to climb out of it. A first round exit for the No. 2 seed would be a disappointment.