Celtics-Heat Game 6: LeBron crashes his own funeral

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“He’s not smiling.”

I made that remark to my wife Thursday night as the Heat took the floor for Game 6 in Boston when I saw LeBron James, a serious, almost somber look on his face. James is a known “happy-go-fun” guy, often to the annoyance of teammates and opponents. Sure, he tries to look serious during parts of the game, but usually it’s more of a blank look. On Thursday, he looked downright dour, and it was easy to make the jump to conclusions that he had arrived for his own public funeral, the “we come to bury LeBron, not to praise him” event of the century, a Boston Mean Party. I took it as a sign he knew it was over, the series was done, the Celtics had won, he had failed again.

I was wrong. 45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists. 98-79 Miami over Boston.  See you on South Beach for Game 7 Saturday.

It wasn’t a cold-blooded performance. That would imply that he felt nothing. And as much as an exhausted James attempted to downplay any change of motivation, to say he just went back to his habits, this one felt different. He wasn’t seething with anger, he wasn’t rioting against the Celtics’ harassment and mocking of him throughout this series (which James would have been crucified for but what else is new). He wasn’t frontrunning or showing them up. This wasn’t M.J.’s shrug or Magic’s exuberance, or Bird’s fury.

You got the sense as James calmly and determinedly went back to work on defense after every make, every bucket that this wasn’t LeBron vs. the Celtics, or even LeBron vs. the World. He was withdrawn, as if fuming at himself for any moment where he felt happiness at shots going down. “Can’t stop” was the message. And after the game, after dropping 45 points on 26 shots, 15 rebounds, and having left Paul Pierce a shattered, sad, broken mess of the offensive juggernaut he is, there was no smile or satisfaction from James in post-game interviews.  He wasn’t talking about what a great win it was. He was cold, resigned. “We had to win this game.” That was the message.

And while I have no choice but to believe James will revert to the pompous, pouting child he comes across as (and make no mistake, I consider this to be a problem in portraying himself to the world; I have no idea who James is on the inside, I’m not sure anyone does), whether the Heat win or lose Game 7. Win, and there’s a risk he could feel that he accomplished something when he hasn’t, lose and he could turn defiant that he can be knocked off his pedestal, the way he was in last year’s Finals after elimination, talking about people going back to their lives.

But for a night, it was there. All of it. Honestly, James could have played better. Those five assists are on the low side. I’m not criticizing. I’m pointing out how insane that is. He scored 45 points on 26 shots against the best defense in the NBA, had 15 rebounds, and leveled Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett defensively and he could have played better. That is insane, but then, his night was insane, his season has been insane, his life has been insane.

There were two that got me, both in the third. He waited for Rondo to reach, spun, and then, instead of trying what he normally does, which is to barrel into Kevin Garnett and attempt a rolling scoop shot around KG, he quick-shot a floater just over Paul Pierce’s outstretched arms. Perfect.

Later in the third, he caught the ball in the shallow post vs. Rondo on the baseline. How many times have I seen him catch that, face-up, and then take five seconds trying to figure out the defense before shooting a face-up fadeaway? Granted, last night he would have hit the fadeaway. Hell, he would have hit the fadeaway if he was on the moon. But instead he immediately caught and spun. It was a fadeaway, but it was in rhythm. It was decisive.

He ran back on defense and went back to work. The game was over. He was not through.

So now we wait for Game 7, and another chance for James to make all of our vitriolic dreams come true or ascend to this next level of greatness he can aspire to. We wait to see how the Celtics respond to being embarrassed, how the Heat respond when they have to help James out, and most importantly we wait to see which LeBron James we get.

I’ll tell you one thing, if he’s not smiling in Game 7, we’re gonna need reinforcements.

Tom Thibodeau on Timberwolves not getting first-rounder in Jimmy Butler trade: ‘Getting good players was a priority’

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The Heat offered Josh Richardson and a first-round pick. The Rockets offered four first-round picks or Eric Gordon, Nene and two first-round picks. The Pelicans reportedly offered Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected first-round pick.

But the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric in a deal that included no first-round picks and Minnesota getting only one second-rounder.

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau:

We wanted quality players. I think that that was important for us.

When you look at, to get two starters off a team that won 52 games, and they’re both young, and they’re going to get better, and they’re both very good defensively. They both shoot the 3, so we think they fit well with the guys that we do have.

And so once we once got to that point where felt we were getting multiple rotational players, then we felt it would be time to execute the deal.

It was what was best for the organization. Obviously, getting good players was a priority. But the pick part is important, and we felt we got a good pick from Philly.

It was what does it mean for the team? If you get two rotational players, that’s good. And then if you can get a pick, that allows you to do more things. And so I think that’s all part of it. You always try to think about what the possibilities could be.

Thibodeau might have taken the best offer for the the Timberwolves by the time he actually accepted a deal. Miami pulled the Richardson offer after his strong start to the season. Getting four first-rounders from Houston required taking Brandon Knight‘s negative-value contract, and it’s unclear exactly how the picks were protected. New Orleans has the best record of those three teams, so an unprotected pick carries less value.

But it’s also impossible to overlook Thibodeau’s present-minded attitude. That’s how he already approached everything. Now, he appears to be coaching for his job this season. Nobody ever expected him to prioritize long-term assets.

Covington and Saric are good players, but Minnesota was also 4-9 at the time of the trade. Are Covington and Saric good enough to lift the Timberwolves out of this hole and into the playoffs? It’s a tough ask. In 2020-21, Saric will be up for a big raise, and the Timberwolves already have a lot of money committed. They might have to downgrade the rest of the roster to keep Saric and avoid the luxury tax. This is a narrow window for Minnesota to get value from this trade.

That said, blame Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor for creating this situation. By allowing Thibodeau to remain in charge without much job security, Taylor is practically demanding Thibodeau emphasize the present. If Taylor wanted draft picks, he should have fired Thibodeau earlier.

Caris LeVert suffers injury so horrific, it brings teammates to tears and opponents to prayer (video)

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Caris LeVert has been one of the Nets’ biggest bright spots. The hard-working 24-year-old was a Most Improved Player candidate, and he seems well-liked throughout the organization. He’s even already hit a couple gamewinners this season.

But LeVert’s breakout campaign hit a devastating snag tonight, as he injured his leg.

The reactions of both his Brooklyn teammates and the Timberwolves say everything. This is a tough one.

Markelle Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Kyle Neubeck of The Philly Voice:

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.