LeBron James is embracing the underdog role, and that’s terrifying

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OAKLAND — It’s not often that a new side of LeBron James emerges 12 years into his career. But we’ve never seen anything quite like this before. James is an underdog, and he knows it.

That’s not a role he’s used to playing, especially now. He’s still the best basketball player in the world by a considerable margin, and is virtually universally regarded as such. The circumstances swirling around the Cavaliers have made that seem not enough. With Kyrie Irving out, the Cavs are even more shorthanded than they were, and that much more pressure is on James to make up that ground.

So far, he’s done exactly that. He finished Game 2 with 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists, shouldering the same scoring load he did in Game 1 while playing more of a distributor role. He put up the points that he did despite a rough shooting night — even when his shots weren’t falling, he still controlled the pace of the game entirely. Even by the end of the fourth quarter, when the Warriors’ defenders were reading him like a book, his will was just enough to overcome it.

His coach was at a loss for words.

“Geez,” David Blatt said after about a 10-second pause. “You’d be hard pressed to find a guy anywhere, anytime  I can think of a name or two, but that’s the whole history of basketball  that can give you the kind of all-around performance and all-around leadership that LeBron does for his group. And I think you said it the right way, he really willed his guys to win that game. That’s what a champion does, and obviously he’s a champion.”

James has nothing to lose in this series and nothing to prove to anyone. Even this win on Sunday was historic: it was the first Finals victory in Cavaliers franchise history. The only other time the Cavs were in the Finals was 2007, when James dragged a similarly undermanned group there only to be dismantled in four games by the Spurs. But James was much younger then, still yet to win a title or a league MVP award. Now, eight years later, he’s cemented himself as indisputably one of the 10 greatest players of all time, and then came back to the city where he played the first seven years of his career and won that fanbase back over. Just getting them this far is enough for now. But it’s not enough for him.

“I don’t need any extra motivation,” James said after the game. “I think our guys love it. Our guys love the fact that we’ve been counted out and come into the series being an underdog. They’re pretty much saying that especially after Kyrie got hurt and the series was over. I think our guys are using that as motivation. I use a little bit of it, but I have a lot of motivation already to just be a part of greatness and be a part of this and be a part of this atmosphere.”

If James can lead the Cavs to a title this year, with this shorthanded a roster, against this good a Warriors team, it will stand as the crowning achievement of his career. It would be in a vacuum, before even taking into account the part about delivering Cleveland its first major pro sports championship of any kind since before the NFL’s championship was called the “Super Bowl.” It’s going to be an uphill climb, bordering on impossible. But if anyone’s up to it, it’s him.

“Well, the good thing about tonight, I took 34 shots, but I had my 11 assists,” James said. “Once again, I was knocking on the 40 [points] door again. So they let me score 40 again. I’m happy I’m able to do that in a win. I’m not a high volume shooter. I’ve never been in my career. But things have changed on our team where the shots that Kevin and Kyrie would have has now been placed on myself and the rest of the guys as well. It’s what needs to be done to help our team win.

“Am I going to be in the 30s every game or things of that nature? I’m not sure. I would not like to. But if that’s what the case has to be to help us win, then I don’t have a choice.”

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.