Progress breeds optimism, labor deal “within striking distance”

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Friday could be the day.

But if not Friday it may be this weekend — the NBA season is close to being saved. Maybe not all of it, but most of it, enough to have an asterick-free, credible NBA season. Progress through two more days has everyone, even the participants, hopeful.

NBA Commissioner David Stern says it would be a failure if there is not a new NBA labor deal reached in the next few days.

“There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get a deal done but we’re going to give it a heck of a shot,” Stern said in a post-talks press conference (broadcast on NBA TV).

That statement was made after more than seven more hours of talks on Thursday. That followed a marathon 15-hour session Wednesday, and Friday morning the two sides will be back at it at 10:30 a.m.

There is a real sense of optimism that a deal is near, a framework that would start the clock toward the opening of training camps and the start of the NBA season around Dec. 1.

If you want a really good sign, Stern stood in the back of the players association press conference and laughed with union head Billy Hunter on issues. The two sides don’t go near each other’s press conferences when there is acrimony.

Reports are that progress was made on the luxury tax issue on Thursday, which had been one of the key sticking points of the talks so far. The owners had wanted a more punitive tax that kept big spending teams in line, the players wanted something more akin to the old system. We don’t know what that progress looks like but there are multiple reports of the gap on that issue being closed. We have heard that things such as the Bird rights (allowing teams to go over the cap to re-sign their own free agents) and allowing teams in the luxury tax to make trades will be part of the new deal, increasing player options on where to play and for how much.

“I think we’re within reach (on system issues), within striking distance of getting a deal,” Hunter said.

There are still big hurdles ahead, ones that could mean negotiations will need to go through the weekend or even into next week.

For one, the two sides have yet to talk about the split of basketball related income (BRI) — the revenue that comes into the league through ticket sales, television deals and just about everything else down to hot dog sales in the arenas. That has remained a key sticking point, the owners wanted a 50/50 split (which isn’t a true even divide, the owners take expenses off the top), while the players have not gone any lower than 52.5 percent. There had been a sense that if the “system” framework was in place BRI would be easier to divide, but that is not necessarily the case.

Stern said he expects everything to be discussed on Friday, and Hunter told Chris Sheridan BRI would be the first thing discussed Friday. (Which means a long meeting Friday is a good sign.)

One other challenge — once a deal is reached, Stern and Hunter need to sell the deal to their hardline constituencies. That has blown up previous progress in these talks (we’re looking at you, Kevin Garnett and Paul Allen).

But right now there is a real optimism around the league that a deal is close. Team general managers have cancelled scouting trips to be ready for a free agency period, team ticket sales offices have started making calls to renew seats and agents are starting to pitch teams about their clients (through back channels).

It feels like a deal is coming sooner rather than later. But after this long and bitter fight that has seen the first two weeks of the regular season cancelled, until Stern and Hunter are shaking hands on a podium nothing is certain.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.