LeBron James’ swagger: “I’m the best player in the world.” He backed that up.

74 Comments

OAKLAND —I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world.  It’s that simple.”

That was LeBron James after his Cavaliers fell in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Sunday night. It’s a statement filled with swagger said in a matter-of-fact tone.

And he’s right.

He proved that Sunday night.

LeBron scored 40 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out 11 assists Sunday night. He scored or assisted on all but six of Cleveland’s 32 baskets. When Cavaliers coach David Blatt decided to match the Warriors’ small lineup LeBron played a lot of strong defense in the paint, trying to protect the rim.

That small lineup was part of an effort to find other offense, but the Warriors shut that down. In the end, the Cavaliers had to go back to LeBron isolations. That was the only thing that worked.

As he has done virtually all playoffs, he’s carried a banged up, flawed roster farther than anyone else in the game could have. He carried them to the point that Game 5 was a one-point game with just more than five minutes remaining.

LeBron has been tremendous is even an understatement for how he’s played in the series,” Cavaliers’ coach David Blatt said. “And he had another one of those days today.  Under the current set of circumstances, that’s what we’ve got to get, and he’s bringing it. You don’t see that every day, what he’s doing.  You’ve got to take your hat off to him too.”

LeBron’s critics — a vocal and misguided group who flock to Twitter — will point out that he wasn’t efficient. LeBron was 6-of-8 shooting at the rim but 6-of-18 from outside the restricted area out to the three-point line. (He was 3-of-8 from three.)

But LeBron finished the night with a solid true shooting percentage of 52.7 percent — actually, solid is an understatement considering his 41 percent usage rate.

The Warriors who have to defend LeBron get it. All they hope to do is wear him down.

“You’re not going to shut him down,” Draymond Green said. “But if you continue to make him work hard for each and every bucket that he gets, it takes a toll on his body. He does a lot for this ballclub, on top of it he’s not a guy who takes the defensive end of the court off.  He’s constantly working, constantly working. You just want to make him take tough shots and make him work for those baskets that he gets.

“If he gets 40, he gets 40. Like I said, that’s why he’s LeBron James. You can go throw a triple-team at him, and he’ll probably still get 40, but as long as you make him work for those 40, then you’ve got to be satisfied with what you do.

“He took 34 shots and got 40. I mean, 15 for 34 is still a great percentage, but that’s kind of what it’s been this entire series. He’s going to be aggressive and score. Especially with some of the guys they have out, and we understand that. If he’s hitting shots, he’s hitting shots. You’ve got to live with it and continue to make him take tough ones.”

LeBron was hitting shots, from at the rim to ridiculous 34-foot threes. He was clearly gassed again at the end of the game and it started to show. So how does he cope with that kind of effort that still leads to a loss.

“Well, you cope with it by understanding it’s just one game and looking at the opportunity we have on Tuesday to force a Game 7,” LeBron said. “Obviously, for myself, I want to do whatever it takes to help our team win, and I haven’t been able to do that the last two. So hopefully I can do a better job coming in on Tuesday.  We all as a unit can do a better job, and we’ll be fine.”

It doesn’t look like they will be fine. It looks like the Warriors — the deeper, better team — has figured the series out. They know how to win it now.

But that’s not going to diminish LeBron’s swagger.

With his performance Sunday, LeBron joined Jerry West as the only players to have a 40+ point triple double in the NBA Finals. That would be the same West who was the last guy to win the Finals MVP on a losing team.

Something that could happen for LeBron. And he’ll likely feel about it the same way West does — he doesn’t like to talk about it because all West remembers is the loss.

That didn’t impact his swagger either. LeBron and West have that in common, too.

 

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

Leave a comment

The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

Don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.

Brad Stevens hosts late night meeting with Smart, Brown, Celtics’ leadership

Leave a comment

A frustrated Marcus Smart yelled and vented at teammates after Boston’s come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jaylen Brown reportedly snapped back that the team needed to stick together and not just point fingers. Things reportedly were thrown around in the Celtics’ locker room.

Boston coach Brad Stevens knew he had to get everyone back on the same page before Game 3 on Saturday, so he had Smart, Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker meet and talk through their issues, reported Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It was a smart move by Stevens, and it apparently worked. The Celtics have moved on from the incident, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

But one source within the bubble told NBC Sports Boston that the emotions of Thursday night are “water under the bridge now” as the team prepares for a must-win Game 3 on Saturday.

The Celtics need to match the Heat’s “do whatever it takes to win” intensity on Saturday. It would be a help if Gordon Hayward plays, which appears possible (he is officially listed as questionable but seems to be moving toward playing.

Everything that happened before to Boston needs to be a lesson on what it takes to win at the highest level. Miami is confident and rolling, plus they have the relentless Jimmy Butler in their corner.

One of the four players in Stevens’ room Thursday night — Boston’s leaders — has to be the one to step up and match that intensity. If not, the Celtics will be watching the Finals from home like the rest of us.

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo: Agents will position me to succeed ‘with the team or another team’

Leave a comment

Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s moment has arrived.

He won Most Valuable Player, yes. But he’s also the center of speculation as he approached 2021 unrestricted free agency. He could head that off by signing a super-max extension with the Bucks this summer.

In the meantime, every word he says will be scrutinized for clues about his future.

That includes grainy video today from Greece, where – because Milwaukee already got bounced from the playoffs – Antetokounmpo conducted a conference call with reporters and an interview on NBA TV about his award.

The Bucks’ season is so far in the rearview mirror, Antetokounmpo already met with Bucks ownership and returned home. Now, attention turns to his long-term outlook.

Antetokounmpo:

I have two great agents that help with that, and I know they’re going to put me in the best situation to be successful with the team or another team. But at the end of the day, I had a great conversation with the owner. And as I know so far, we’re on the same page. And I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship.

As long as everybody is on the same page and as long as everybody is fighting for the same thing … every single day, which is to be a champion, I don’t see why not be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years?

I believe Antetokounmpo prefers to find a way to stay with the Bucks. But even while professing his loyalty, Antetokounmpo had made clear he doesn’t hold blind allegiance to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, said in February, “Everything is open.”

Yet, this is the first time I recall Antetokounmpo himself so directly mentioning the possibility of joining “another team.”

The other time he supposedly said something like that, he claimed he was misquoted.

Of course, you could focus on other portions of his responses today like: “I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career.” Yet, there’s that “we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship” caveat.

Two major questions:

1. How willing are the Bucks to pay the luxury tax to maximize Milwaukee’s title chances?

2. Even with a financial commitment from ownership, how equipped are the Bucks to win after a couple years of shortcuts?

Antetokounmpo must evaluate.

But he’s not just putting the onus on the organization. He spoke about working to continuing to improve, doing his part to achieve his main goal.

When talking about his 2019 MVP, Antetokounmpo said at the time, “Please, after this day, don’t call me MVP because until I win it again next year.”

Is he ready to be called MVP now?

Antetokounmpo:

Don’t call me MVP. Don’t call me two-times MVP until I’m a champion.

LeBron James surpasses Michael Jordan in career MVP voting shares

Leave a comment

Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP.

As for the rest of the voting?

Here are the results with first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes and total voting points (10-7-5-3-1 points from first to fifth):

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks): 85-16-0-0-0-962

2. LeBron James (Lakers): 16-84-1-0-0-753

3. James Harden (Rockets): 0-1-64-10-10-367

4. Luka Doncic (Mavericks): 0-0-14-36-22-200

5. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers): 0-0-9-31-30-168

6. Anthony Davis (Lakers): 0-0-5-14-15-82

7. Chris Paul (Thunder): 0-0-3-1-8-26

8. Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers): 0-0-1-4-6-23

9. Nikola Jokic (Nuggets): 0-0-2-2-2-18

10. Pascal Siakam (Raptors): 0-0-2-1-4-17

11. Jimmy Butler (Heat): 0-0-0-2-3-9

12. Jayson Tatum (Celtics): 0-0-0-0-1-1

No, LeBron didn’t win. Nor should he have.

But the only other player in the top eight of voting still alive in the playoffs? His Lakers teammate, Anthony Davis. LeBron has a prime opportunity to bolster his legacy with another championship.

In the meantime, LeBron also boosts his resumé even with his runner-up finish.

LeBron received 753 voting points. A unanimous MVP would’ve received 1,010 voting points. So, with 75% of that total, LeBron gets .75 MVP voting shares.

That puts him ahead of Michael Jordan on the career MVP-voting-shares leaderboard:

Getting a vote every year of his career, LeBron also tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most seasons receiving an MVP vote:

A big caveat: MVP ballots had just one or three slots prior to 1981, when they went to the current five-player format. So, LeBron has had more opportunities to get lower-ballot votes.

Another caveat: LeBron’s lone fifth-place vote last season came from NBA.com fan voting.

But he didn’t just sneak onto the back end of ballots this year – even at age 35. Only Karl Malone, who won 1999 MVP at 35, has finished top two while so old.

And LeBron has been receiving MVP votes since he was a teenager.

He didn’t get the trophy that will endure. But this silver-medal finish still reflects just how incredible his career has been – and continues to be.