LeBron plays through illness to help Heat take care of Suns

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PHOENIX — A little more than 90 minutes before tip-off, the status of LeBron James was still uncertain. With Dwyane Wade already ruled out for the second straight game with a foot injury, Miami may have been in trouble if James too was unable to go.

Thankfully for the Heat, James found a way to push through.

While he wasn’t quite his usual self, a half-healthy James is better than most at 100 percent. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, a few assists, and a couple of steals, while playing almost 41 minutes in the Heat’s 97-88 win over the Suns in Phoenix.

“Well look, he doesn’t miss much,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “I can’t even remember the last time he’s missed a practice or a shoot around. So when he missed today, obviously that makes you wonder, and you know that it’s pretty serious. We knew yesterday that he hadn’t had any food, so he went through the whole day. In the late afternoon he was starting to be able to keep down Gatorade but that was about it.

“He said it was no hesitation, that he’d never leave those guys out there. But it was a little bit in doubt with us.”

How effective James would end up being on the night was in doubt as the game got started. He began with eight first-quarter minutes that were devoid of any statistical contributions, save for a rebound and a turnover, as he tried to involve his teammates early on. He then had to leave the court to head to the locker room, as he began to feel weak once again.

“Yeah, I got a little sick,” James said of his first quarter trip back to the locker room. “So I came back here to just try to get a little more fluids in me.”

Shane Battier knocked down a few wide open threes in the first, and Chris Bosh was big with 16 first-half points. But whatever nutrition James was able to get during that brief intermission paid immediate dividends.

James played the entire second quarter, and got himself going with a few jumpers and some trips to the free throw line. But as the game wore on, he picked his spots, and was able to close the game out when his team needed him the most.

This game was largely a sloppy one from both teams at times; Miami played loose with the basketball to the tune of 19 turnovers, while the Suns weren’t much better with 17 of their own. Both teams were able to put together sizable runs that swung the game in their favor for short bursts, but neither team could keep it going for a long enough stretch to pull away before the game’s final minutes.

Phoenix came back from seven down with three and a half minutes to play, cutting the Miami lead to just two after a huge steal from Goran Dragic and a layup in transition. The Suns had a chance to tie on a jumper from Michael Beasley, but after it seemed to be just about all the way down it rimmed out, and Bosh converted two free throws to push the lead to four.

After Sebastian Telfair missed a five-footer in the lane off the back of the iron, it was closing time for Miami. And James was the one who had the ball in his hands.

As the Heat held onto that four-point lead with under a minute to play, James dribbled down the clock above the three-point arc, before making his move and driving to the basket. He spun around Marcin Gortat as if the Suns center was standing still, and calmly laid the ball in to seal the win for his team.

What made the performance from James on this night so memorable is that the outcome of this single game in November is ultimately so forgettable. For the defending champions who will measure this season’s success based on what happens five or six months from now, James could have easily sat this one out, and no one would have thought any less of him, even if his team were to have suffered a loss.

But as we know by now, James is a special player who feels a responsibility to his teammates to be out there if at all possible — even in a relatively meaningless game taking place so early in the regular season.

“It takes a lot for me not to play, for me not to be out there with my teammates,” James said. “Me at 50 percent or 60 percent is better than me not playing at all, and I was able to get a little bit of rest this early morning and afternoon. I didn’t have much energy but I wanted to be out there on the floor with my guys, and I’m happy I was able to make a couple plays to help us win.”

Report: Rival teams expect Paul George to consider 1+1 contract with Thunder

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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Paul George has openly stated the appeal of playing for his hometown Lakers. He has also openly stated the appeal of staying with the Thunder.

That has created significant confusion about his upcoming free agency.

Could George find a compromise outcome?

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

More than one rival team has suggested to me that they expect George to strongly consider a two-year deal with the Thunder at $30.3 million next season and $32.7 million in 2019-20 that includes a player option to return to free agency next summer.

This makes sense on paper.

A 1+1 contract would give George more time to determine whether he and Russell Westbrook can win together in Oklahoma City without getting stuck there long-term if they can’t. The Thunder were starting to put it together when Andre Roberson got hurt. Perhaps, Roberson getting healthy would swing Oklahoma City’s fortunes.

George would also be eligible for a higher max salary in two years – 35% of the salary cap, up from 30% if he signs now. So, a short-term contract would allow him to maximize his potential earnings.

But George said he wanted to sign somewhere long-term this summer. He also suffered an extremely gruesome leg injury just a few years ago. He might not want to bypass guaranteed money to gamble for a little more later.

Are these rival teams just looking at the general outlook for a player in George’s position without considering his specific circumstances? Or do they know something? George could have informed teams he might become available in 2019 or 2020 so they should prepare.

I’m skeptical this is more than speculation by opposing teams. But the possibility that they’re basing their expectations on inside information makes this worth monitoring.

Heartbreaking: Watch Mikal Bridges explain joy of joining hometown 76ers while they trade him to Suns (video)

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Mikal Bridges‘ mom jumped up, pumped her fists and screamed “Yes!” through her giant grin.

The 76ers – the organization she works for in human resources – had just drafted her son No. 10 overall. Bridges, a Philadelphia native who played at Villanova, seemed as if he’d stay home for his pro career.

Bridges:

She’s very, very excited. She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She was about to cry and all that. She said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’d try to hold it in. But no, she’s very excited. I’m her only son. I’m a little mama’s boy. Her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.

Except, as Bridges was talking, the 76ers were trading him to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

That extra pick carries major value. Even if you like Bridges much more than Smith – which I did, especially considering their fits in Philadelphia – that’s hard to pass up. The NBA is a business after all.

But it’s lamentable how this played out.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: ‘My team is a super team. Just young’

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The Kings drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2 last night (seemingly for bad reasons, which doesn’t at all eliminate him from being the right pick but makes it less likely he is). He’ll join a young core also comprised of Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.

That group excite you?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac isn’t reducing expectations.

Lina Washington of ABC 10:

To be fair, in 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-43 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson already on the roster and had just drafted Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Everyone would’ve laughed at calling Golden State a “super team, just young” then. But those four (plus Andre Iguodala) eventually led the Warriors to a championship.

But, really: Nah.

Entering the 2016-17 season, then-Knicks guard Derrick Rose said, “They’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.” We mocked Rose relentlessly, and of course, the Warriors went 73-9 while New York finished just 32-50.

How long until Divac’s young super team reaches even 32-50?

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.