“Fearless” LeBron carries Heat, but he’ll have to do it again

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Sometimes it’s good to have the best player on the planet on your team.

LeBron James made Boston Garden his own personal playground for Game 6 — 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. It was as dominant a performance as he has given in the playoffs. He set the tone from the opening moments and pushed the Heat into a Game 7 with a 98-79 win.

“He was absolutely fearless tonight,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said in a televised press conference after the game. “And it was contagious.”

Now, he just has to do it again.

The problem for Miami is that to win with this roster they need exceptional games from James and/or Dwyane Wade. Not good, they got that in Game 5 and lost. They need exceptional, heroic efforts. That’s the only way they can score enough. It’s the only way they have been able to win — it was that way against the Pacers in the previous round, it is the same now. It’s what LeBron faced in Cleveland, for that matter.

So, can he do it again?

“I don’t know,” LeBron said with a shrug after the game. “I will tell you every game is its own (thing). I will continue to try to be aggressive. I will continue to try to play at a high level like I have done this whole postseason.”

LeBron took control of Game 6 from the opening tip, shooting 6-for-7 for 14 points in the first quarter, pushing the Heat to a 16-point lead. It didn’t stop, he got hotter in the second quarter and had 30 points by the half.

LeBron had a real lift in his shot — he was taking a lot of jump shots and fadeaways — but because of the spring in his step he was elevating over defenders and there were some pretty good looks. There were also contested, difficult shots. Didn’t matter. They all went in.

With the jumper falling, everything opened up. LeBron blew past guys off the dribble to get into the lane. He would pump fake and the Celtics defenders would bite, then LeBron leaned in and drew the foul. When the Celtics went zone, he cut to the middle of the paint, caught the pass and hit the turnaround. Boston went to Brandon Bass to be more physical in the second half, so LeBron started moving without the ball and left Bass in his dust. LeBron scored pretty much any way he pleased.

“I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and how he doesn’t play in big games,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He was pretty good tonight. Now that’s to bed.”

But that meme is not dead, not with a lot of fans who love to hate LeBron following the graceless way he left Cleveland for Miami. If Miami falls short at home in Game 7, for whatever reason, it will be LeBron’s fault. And for the Heat to win, he will need another monster game.

And this kind of game may not be sustainable. LeBron knocked down eight shots from the midrange, and that is hard to sustain. LeBron did a lot of damage in the halfcourt; he did it without many easy transition buckets. That’s not usually his game.

LeBron’s 45/15/5 was better than Boston’s entire Big Three (31 points, 13 rebounds, two assists). And the only way the Heat can beat Boston in Game 7 and return to the finals is another game like that from LeBron. Again, only he and Wade (17 points) scored in double figures. Miami can only win when one or both of them go off.

It is the sad reality for LeBron now, fair or not — Thursday night he was dynamic and incredible, but he’ll have to do it again Saturday to reach his goal. There would not be a Game 7 without LeBron. But unless he steps up again, perceptions will not change.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-

Report: Iman Shumpert rejects offer from Rockets, who’ll have several familiar names in minicamp

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Iman Shumpert is the best free agent available.

Why hasn’t he signed yet? Apparently because he spent the offseason negotiating with the Rockets, but those talks haven’t produced a deal.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

I wonder whether Houston tried to sign Shumpert to a contract similar to Nene’s, creating another trade chip. The Rockets are close to the luxury tax and probably wouldn’t guarantee Shumpert much. It doesn’t take months to negotiate a simple minimum contract.

Shumpert (29) is a credible wing in a league starving for them. He played well for the Kings last season before getting traded to Houston, where he struggled. Other teams should be interested.

The Rockets have just nine players with guaranteed salaries. There’s plenty of room for some of these past-their-prime veterans to make the regular-season roster. It might mostly depend on which of Terrence Jones (27), Nick Young (34), Luc Mbah a Moute (33), Corey Brewer (33), Raymond Felton (35) and Thabo Sefolosha (35) are in the best shape at this stage.