Believe it or not, LeBron knows how Rose feels

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People are going to want to act like LeBron James is relishing this. That there’s a part of James who is vindictively and sadistically savoring the kid who took his trophy failing like this. But it’s not like that among athletes, and it’s not like that between LeBron James and Derrick Rose.

Because some part of James sees what Rose is going through and recognizes it, empathizes with it, understands it. This isn’t to make James into some highly empathetic figure, or a kind-hearted, benevolent statesman for the game. James has shown enough behavior to warrant a piece of the criticism he’s earned. Probably not the vilification to the degree of him embodying everything evil, but James is the person who dismissively throws his warm-ups off, who spreads his pre-game laundry out as a barrier to reporters, who didn’t shake Orlando’s hand in 2009, who did orchestrate “The Decision,” etc. He is that guy.

But he’s also a player who was burdened at an obscenely young age with the hopes of a franchise. He was given the responsibility of being The Chosen One (which he embraced with a tat on his back), and leading Cleveland out of darkness and into Valhalla. Cleveland. You know, where sports hope goes to die. I’m not rubbing this in, Cleveland. It’s unendurable what you’ve gone through as a city. But the high pressure of trying to save a desperate people did weigh on James. LeBron was bested in the playoffs by the best power forward in NBA history, one of the best defenses ever seen mechanized by a Big 3 which set the model for what James would later do, by a ridiculously hot shooting Magic team that if the NBA Playoffs were pop-a-shot in 2009 would have won enough tickets to buy the whole freaking Chuck-E-Cheese, and again by that same defense. He did it with supporting players like Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Wally Szczerbiak, Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao. He knows what it’s like to have the entire world expecting you to be better than five men at once, all of whom are actively trying to kill you.

James knows how Rose feels when he sees Kyle Korver missing threes, destroying the only reason he’s supposed to be on the floor. He knows what it’s like for Rose when the Bulls can’t create space, find a lane, attack the basket or get a shot off without him. He knows what it’s like to feel like you have to do everything, and to know the opponent knows that, and to know the opponent knows you know.

And he knows what it’s like to fail.

James knows Rose, more than most will discuss because of the neat theatrics of Rose dismissing James in a text message over the summer. It’s easier to paint Rose as a saint and James as an evil demon prowling the streets of Chicago before DRose sent him packing. But it ignores fairly obvious elements. Like Derrick Rose being a Calipari product. And LeBron James and his crew being thick as thieves with Calipari.

James knows Rose, and he knows what he’s been through. He knows what it’s like to struggle and fail, to be beat up, worn down, exhausted, and constantly looking to your teammates and wondering why they can’t hit water if they fell out of a boat, or what that defensive rotation was, or where they were passing it to, or why no one else can create their own shot. He’s worn the shoes Derrick Rose is wearing and knows how hard it is to face the microphones thrust in his face after not being able to get it done. James knows how Rose feels and it’s the cause of two things.

It’s why James keeps praising Rose, and it’s why James won’t let up on Rose for a second.

In Game 4, there was no clearer manifestation of James being the active deterrent to Rose. James blocked Rose’s notorious floater into the fifth row (ask Josh Smith how difficult that shot it to time). He blanketed Rose for the entire fourth, causing yet another in a long series of disastrous fourths for the MVP. He defended the game winning attempt, twice, forcing a turnover and a miss. Want proof of the effect James has on Rose? Rose misses more shots than he makes at the rim when LeBron James is on the floor in this series. It was key to the Heat’s 101-93 win in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead.

Derrick Rose is home. He’s a 22-year-old MVP on top of the world, playing for a shot in the Finals of a World Championship. He’s shouldering the load, playing long minutes (seriously, Tom Thibodeau doesn’t know the meaning of the world “breather”). He’s going through exactly what James went through year after year. It reminds James to stay consistent, to stay aggressive, to not go back to where Rose is. When this series is over, James will hug Rose and whisper in his ear words of encouragement the same way Kevin Garnett whispered in James’ ear last year. Because Garnett knew what it was like as well, to hold up a franchise, to be their Atlas, and to fail under the crushing weight. Eventually, the lesson goes (right or wrong), you have to go out and find your own support and stop waiting for management to give it to you. LeBron did and now he’s five wins away from the title that eluded him.

But when he whispers in Rose’s ear, it won’t be smug or pompous (no matter how smug or pompous James may be otherwise), it’ll be supportive and understanding. Basketball is a brotherhood, the marketing slogan says. But franchise saviors share a unique bond. It gives James no joy to do this to the MVP. But like everything else James has done over the past year…

It’s just business.

Game 5 is Thursday if Rose wants to delay that conversation a little longer.

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.