NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron

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The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.

Pascal Siakam scores 37, Raptors remain red hot with win vs. Suns

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TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam had 37 points and 12 rebounds and the Toronto Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101 on Friday night for their 16th victory in 17 games.

Serge Ibaka scored 16 points, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis each had 14, Kyle Lowry had 13 points and 10 assists and OG Anunoby aded 12 points for the defending NBA champion Raptors.

After Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak ended with a loss at Brooklyn in the final game before the All-Star break, the Raptors bounced back by starting the second half with their eighth consecutive home victory.

The Raptors have not lost back-to-back games since an overtime loss at Indiana on Dec. 23 and a home loss to Boston on Christmas Day. Toronto has gone 19-1 since.

Siakam connected on 12 of 19 attempts, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

That was just one fewer than the six 3-pointers the Suns managed on 34 attempts. Phoenix shot 17.6%t from long range, its lowest mark of the season. No Suns player made more than one shot from distance.

Devin Booker scored 21 points and Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Ayton returned to the starting lineup after missing the final two games before the All-Star break because of a sore left ankle.

Phoenix trailed 93-78 through three quarters, but the Suns cut the gap to six points, 96-90 on a basket by Ayton with 8:08 left to play. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made a pair from the line, and VanVleet and Siakam both scored to put the Raptors up 102-90 with 6:58 remaining.

Booker missed a 3 with 4:45 left that would have made it a four-point game. Anunoby scored on a dunk and, after another missed 3 by the Suns, Ibaka banked home a 3-pointer to restore Toronto’s 12-point cushion.

Moe Harkless says no buyout with Knicks: “I’ll be here the rest of the year”

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Moe Harkless went from a guy often starting and playing critical minutes for a contender in the Clippers to being the matching salary in a trade and finding himself on the woeful Knicks.

“It is definitely an adjustment with the way things are,” Harkless told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Everything is different, the culture and everything.”

If there was a player nobody would blame for wanting a buyout and the chance to get back to a team playing for something, it would be Harkless.

That’s not happening. Multiple reports have surfaced that he is not talking buyout with New York running up to the March 1 deadline. The latest comes from Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then Harkless was even more direct speaking to Bondy.

“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said.

Harkless has fans in NBA front offices, with the Lakers rumored to be among them (although they are about to land Markieff Morris in a similar role). Harkless could play good defensive minutes on the wing down the stretch for a team, buying rest for key guys, plus in the playoffs he could be advantageous in certain matchups.

Morris and the Knicks have time to change their minds, but it sounds like he will play out the season in New York then be a free agent next summer.

Lakers reportedly will waive DeMarcus Cousins to clear roster spot

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If the Lakers are going to add Markieff Morrisas has been rumored — or anyone else via free agency, they are going to need to clear out a roster spot.

That has the Lakers looking to waive DeMarcus Cousins, a report broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Cousins signed with the Lakers over the summer but never set foot on the court with them after tearing his ACL during summer workouts (which led to a scramble and L.A.’s fortuitous signing of Dwight Howard). He was around the team and rehabbing, and while they would never officially rule him out, Cousins was never expected to play.

He was not waived before because his $3.5 million salary might have been useful in a trade. When that didn’t materialize at the deadline it, became likely he could get waived.

It’s highly unlikely a team picks up Cousins this season, while he continues to rehab from his injury. However, it might be a good roll of the dice this summer by a team to sign him to a minimum contract for next season. Cousins still has some NBA basketball in him, if he can just stay healthy.

Karl-Anthony Towns has fractured wrist, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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Karl-Anthony Towns was a surprise scratch from the Timberwolves last game before the All-Star break, a “left wrist injury” delaying the home debut of him with D'Angelo Russell (they did play a road game together in Toronto). Then came the rumors he could miss a few games when play started up again.

It’s going to be more than a few games, more than a few weeks.

Towns has a fractured left wrist, the team announced Friday. He is out and will be re-evaluated in two weeks. From the team press release:

“While Towns has been diligent in treatment with a goal of return to play, he has been assessed by multiple specialists over the last several days and the team continues to gather information on the optimal management strategies.”

Towns had been playing through wrist pain for a couple of weeks before this diagnosis.

Towns is having a career year on offense, averaging  26.5 points a game while shooting 41 percent from three (on 7.9 attempts per game), plus grabbing 10.8 rebounds a night. That has not translated into wins for Minnesota, however.

Towns being out doesn’t hurt the Timberwolves in the short term, they have fallen far out of the playoff chase in the West. However, this cuts into time Towns and Russell could have used to grow accustomed to each other’s games. It’s time lost for the coaching staff and front office as they evaluate the fit of players they have around Towns and Russell.