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LeBron James after Cavaliers struggle toward end of season: “We have a chance to win it all”

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) LeBron James quickly moved past Cleveland’s disjointed regular season, an uphill, 82-game slog of injuries, roster upheaval and drama.

Reflection can wait.

James understands the Cavaliers appear vulnerable, perhaps beatable as they enter the NBA playoffs following a recent tailspin. However, he feels the grind may help the Cavs and maybe even give them an edge.

“Through everything that went on with our team, we’re in a position where we can do something special still,” he said Thursday as Cleveland prepared to face Indiana in the opening round on Saturday. “We have a chance to win it all.”

Why so optimistic, LeBron?

Leaning against a padded wall in Cleveland’s practice facility, James smiled sheepishly.

“I’ve got the answer,” he said. “I’m not giving it to you. But I’ve got the answer why I feel like we’ve got a great chance.”

It’s no secret.

The Cavs have a chance to win a championship because they have James, and with James, all is possible.

With six straight visits to the Finals on his resume, James knows his way around the playoffs better than any player in the league, and maybe better than anyone in history. After all, he’s won titles with two teams, snatched a road win in 25 consecutive series and takes a 40-17 record in first-round games into this series with the Pacers, a team he’s battled in postseasons before.

James doesn’t know how to be anything but confident. It’s in his DNA.

But there’s genuine concern about these Cavaliers, who staggered down the stretch. They lost their final four regular-season games – one to an Atlanta team resting all its starters – and surrendered the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to Boston. Cleveland went just 23-23 after Jan. 10 and the Cavs have been ranked in the bottom third statistically on defense all season.

They are defending champions in name only.

Injuries, too, have played a role in Cleveland’s fragmented, and some would say disappointing season, as 22 players have shuffled in and out of coach Tyronn Lue’s rotations and the club was forced to go long stretches without key players like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver.

If it’s true that adversity builds character, the Cavs might be a lot are stronger than they appear.

They are healthier than they’ve been in months, and James said that’s all that matters now.

“At the end of the day, I’m not going to harp on what happened in the regular season through injuries, through bad losses, through good wins, through whatever the case may be,” he said. “We have a good club going into the postseason. That’s all you can ask for.”

While this idea the Cavs can be bounced from the playoffs makes for engaging sports talk shows, not everyone is convinced James and Co. won’t find their groove in the postseason.

If any team can flip the switch, it might be this one.

“They’re the champs for a reason,” Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said Wednesday night after Toronto beat Cleveland. “I would never say that (the Cavaliers are vulnerable) – ever. Every team wants to be the champions, and that’s what they are. You can’t ever say that about any team with LeBron James.

“I’m sure they’ll get it going once the playoffs start.”

Cleveland’s schedule – the Cavs played 12 road games in March – made it difficult to practice and James said it was “refreshing” to be on the floor with his teammates. The Cavs reviewed film with Lue, whose defensive scheme will be focused on slowing Pacers star Paul George, before their workout.

Afterward, James was serious, but spirited as he talked with reporters and assessed his team’s odds in the East, where the road to the Finals figures to be much tougher than past years.

James recognizes the Cavs’ flaws and understands why they appear susceptible to an early-round upset. But there’s no sense in reliving a 7-10 record in March, 3-4 mark in April or the reasons behind Cleveland’s slide.

“The present is the only thing that matters,” he said. “Me preparing this group, me getting this group locked in and understanding what our opportunity is. I mean it is what it is. Let’s get ready to go. We’ve got to have our mind sharp, our bodies as fresh as possible going into Game 1.

“You guys can harp on the regular season. I’m not one to do it, not with the postseason starting right now. I feel great. I’m not going backward.”

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Rumor: Tension between Chris Paul and Rockets over contract

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Chris Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 last season by opting in to facilitate a trade to the Rockets rather than opting out and signing somewhere for a max salary.

He expects to be made whole. And by most accounts, Houston understands the arrangement.

But here’s a rumor otherwise.

Undisputed:

Chris Broussard:

From what I’m told, there is tension now between Houston and Chris Paul. Because there was definitely some type of handshake, wink wink, “we’re going to max you out” last summer. But here’s the thing: Now, they’re not so sure. Houston, with good reason, doesn’t want to do that. But they’ve got an out, because they have new ownership. So, Daryl Morey can go to Chris Paul and be like, “I want to do it, but we’ve got the new owner doesn’t want to give you five years, four years.”

Former Rockets owner Leslie Alexander committed to big expenditures. New owner Tillman Ferttita has talked about his spending limits – for good reason. He sunk so much of his personal wealth into buying the team. He might not be able to afford outrageous luxury-tax bills.

Starters Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza will also become free agents this summer. Houston definitely wants to keep Capela. A large contract for Paul would be prohibitive.

Paul’s max projects to be about $205 million over five years. Already 33, he almost certainly won’t produce enough on the court to justify that amount. Players that age just decline and face greater injury risk.

But the downside of not paying him that much could be losing him. Even playing hardball could offend him given the circumstances that brought him to Houston. The Rockets are contending. A bad contract a few years down the road would be worth it if they win a title, and Paul is instrumental to that push.

This could be a delicate situation, and Morey can probe at least a little if he chooses. Would Paul be understanding of the ownership change? What options will Paul have better than a large, but sub-max, contract from the Rockets? Would Paul take a discount if Houston got his friend LeBron James?

But push too hard, and would Paul bolt to play with LeBron on the Lakers?

There has been too much insistence that Paul re-signing with the Rockets was assured to completely trust Broussard’s report. But it’d also be a mistake to completely ignore the possibility talks have broken down.

Hawks GM: We might have traded up with Bucks if their draft pick didn’t leak first

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Let’s pick up with the No. 16 pick in last night’s NBA draft.

The Suns were on the clock and planning to pick Donte DiVincenzo. John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

But then 76ers called Phoenix about trading No. 10 pick Mikel Bridges for the No. 16 pick and a future first-rounder. The teams agreed to the deal (causing this heartbreaking moment), and the Suns picked Zhaire Smith for Philadelphia.

The next three picks:

17. Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks

18. Lonnie Walker, Spurs

19. Kevin Huerter, Hawks

Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk on 95.7 The Game, via ESPN:

“Last night, for instance, we had the 19th pick, and we’re coming down and we’re actually talking to Milwaukee on the 17th pick, talking about trading up to get a guy we like,” Schlenk said. “There’s were a couple of guys we felt really good about on the 19th pick, obviously Kevin [Huerter] was one of them, and it leaked who Milwaukee was going to take.

“So, all of a sudden, we were able to pull back out of that deal and keep the draft pick instead of packaging picks to move up because we knew that, two guys on the board we felt really good about and only one team in between us, so that was beneficial to us last night.”

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports and Jeff Goodman of ESPN reported the Bucks picking DiVincenzo at 9:18 p.m.:

The pick became official at 9:22 p.m.:

Clearly, Atlanta wanted Huerter or “Mystery Player Not Named Donte DiVincenzo.”* Once they learned Milwaukee would take DiVincenzo at No. 17, the Hawks knew at least one of Huerter or “Mystery Player Not Named Donte DiVincenzo” would be available at No. 19.

*I think there’s a good chance it was Walker, whom San Antonio picked No. 18.

That saved the Hawks an asset(s) and cost the Bucks an asset(s), though perhaps Milwaukee couldn’t have gotten DiVincenzo at No. 19. Maybe the Spurs would’ve selected him at No. 18.

Still, the Bucks didn’t protect their internal plans well enough. Maybe that’s an organizational flaw. But this also could have been a fluky sequence of events. Perhaps, after hearing Phoenix would take DiVincenzo, someone in Milwaukee felt comfortable sharing that the Bucks wanted him. Then, when he surprisingly fell, it was too late. The information was already out there – allowing Atlanta to stand pat.

Danny Ainge unwittingly leaks Celtics’ draft pick on call with Terry Rozier during live show (video)

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Terry Rozier takes solace in how much Danny Ainge believes in him.

But I didn’t appreciate how deep their bond went.

Appearing on Bleacher Report’s live draft show, Rozier was asked to predict the Celtics’ No. 27 pick. So, Rozier called Ainge to ask. Shockingly, Ainge answered – with Boston on the clock. Almost certainly not knowing the call was public and live, Ainge revealed the likely selection:

Good thing the Celtics stuck with Robert Williams. That would have been extremely awkward otherwise.

As is, it was only a little awkward. Williams said today he doesn’t like to be called Bob.

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

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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.