Crucible of Game 7 will help shape legacies of LeBron James, Stephen Curry

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OAKLAND — “No.”

LeBron James had walked into the media interview room at Oracle Arena before practice Saturday wearing a hat with a picture Kermit the Frog sipping tea — the “that’s none of my business” meme — and was asked if Sunday’s NBA Finals Game 7 would define his legacy. He had a one-word answer. The reporter tried to follow up with, “You don’t see it that way?”

“No.”

In the social media/sports talk radio hot take world we live in now, there is a desire to define a player’s legacy as it happens, rather than sit back and wait until his career is over (or nearly over) to look back at the body of work. Nobody has dealt with this like LeBron. Although the one person who might relate is Stephen Curry, he and his Warriors have are dealing with the same thing.

LeBron is right. The outcome of this unpredictable Game 7 Sunday night will not define his legacy — the man already has two titles, four NBA MVPs, two gold medals, is high on the list of impressive NBA scoring and win records, and is arguably the most physically gifted player ever to play the game. For that matter, Curry has back-to-back MVPs, a ring, is considered the best shooter the game has ever seen, and regardless of what happens Sunday someday we’ll show our kids and grandkids YouTube clips (or wherever we show videos then) of Curry’s step-back 28-foot threes with amazement.

However, the crucible of Game 7 will help shape the legacies of both men and both teams.

No Game 7 in recent memory has had these kinds of legacy implications. What we think of at least one of these men will be different after Sunday night.

For LeBron it would bring a new level of validation — he bet part of his legacy on bringing a championship to Cleveland, the first one that city had seen since Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the first Ford Mustang rolled off an assembly line, and a young fighter named Muhammad Ali had just taken the heavyweight boxing crown from Sonny Liston (and changed his name from Cassius Clay). LeBron would have brought the promise of rings anywhere he went, but going home to Cleveland — for a variety of reasons — he has staked part of his legacy on ending the city’s title drought. He tells us in his Samsung ads it’s all about winning one for The ‘Land.

And he would do it in spectacular fashion — dominating on both ends of the court to lead the first 3-1 comeback in NBA Finals history. He would add another Finals MVP to the resume (he should do that win or lose Sunday). He would do it knocking off the guy in Curry who has stolen the mythical “best player on the planet” belt from him. It’s the kind of performance that should silence critics (but it won’t because LeBron’s haters don’t live in a world of reason or nuance).

One the other side, a win for Curry and the Warriors would bring a different kind of validation — this team desperately wants to be considered one of the all-time greats. They won a title, they won 73 games, and if they win when you and your buddies sit on barstools discussing the greatest NBA teams ever — Jordan’s Bulls, Showtime Lakers, Russell’s Celtics — you will at least have to put this team in the conversation. They have built the perfect team — with the perfect point guard in Curry — for the way the rules are enforced and the game is played today. This is a team that would be very good in any era, but a win gets them in the conversation with the greats — a validation they are very hungry to have. If they lose?

“It’s either win the whole thing or bust for us…” Klay Thompson said after Game 6. “So it would be a great season, but at the same time to us, the players, we’re so competitive, we’d feel like we failed.”

That brings pressure. A lot of pressure.

How teams handle it will go a long way toward determining a winner Sunday night.

“If you don’t feel pressure in a Game 7, you’re probably not human,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said “I told our guys that. Of course they’re going to feel pressure. Of course there’s going to be some anxiety. But how lucky are we to feel that pressure? You could play on a lottery team your whole career and just make a bunch of money and go watch Playoffs every year.”

LeBron approaches it differently.

“You don’t put too much more added pressure on it because it’s a Game 7,” LeBron said. “One thing we all know is it’s the last game of the season, so it’s not like you’re preserving any energy, be out there saying, okay, I’ve got to keep my body ready for the next game. There’s no next game. So look forward to the challenge. I mean, it’s a Game 7, but I don’t put too much more added pressure on it.”

There is no right or wrong approach, only what works for that player, that team.

But only one team will emerge from that crucible on Sunday night with the chance to crow about their legacy.

 

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.