Warriors loom over LeBron James’ legacy quest

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Losing in the NBA Finals has driven LeBron James mad in previous years.

In 2011, he infamously reminded his haters they’d face the same personal problems while he continued to enjoy the good life. In 2015, he openly debated whether he’d rather lose in the Finals or miss the playoffs entirely.

But this year, he calmly accepted his fate – his Cavaliers losing, 4-1, to a supercharged Warriors team that spent most of the postseason looking unbeatable.

“It’s just not my time,” LeBron said.

Will it ever be LeBron’s time again?

He’s 32. Golden State’s stars – Stephen Curry (29), Kevin Durant (28), Klay Thompson (27) and Draymond Green (27) – are all younger, and as long as ownership is willing to spend, the core can remain in tact.

“They don’t show any signs of slowing down,” LeBron said.

The last time LeBron got run like this in the Finals, he left the aging Heat to return to Cleveland, which had stocked up on assets through years in the lottery. Departing won’t be an option – this year, at least. The Cavs have LeBron locked up for one more season, and he obviously has am affinity for Northeast Ohio.

But these Warriors are a challenge unlike any other.

When LeBron lost to the Spurs in 2014, his final year in Miami, he was asked about matching up with San Antonio the following year.

“I don’t think it’s just the Spurs. It’s the whole league,” LeBron said. “The whole league continues to get better every single year.  Obviously, we would need to get better from every facet, every position.  It’s just how the league works.”

There was no such couching this year with Golden State, which LeBron called “one of the best playoff teams that this league has ever seen.”

“There’s going to be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that if they’re able to actually face them in the playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference,” LeBron said. “Because they’re built for – from my eyes, they’re built to last a few years.”

If a Warriors dynasty is just kicking into gear, that’d be tough timing for someone who is likely in the finals stages of his prime and is striving to surpass Michael Jordan. An ambition like that leaves little margin for error.

LeBron will never catch Jordan’s perfect 6-0 Finals record, a fact Jordan fans are quick to point out. But now LeBron (3-5 in the Finals) becomes just the fourth player – and first in decades – to lose five times in the title round.

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LeBron’s legacy is secure as an all-time great, especially considering his Finals competition. Jerry West (1-8) and Elgin Baylor (0-7) are comfortably in that class, and they have even worse Finals records.

But they’re also not in the Michael Jordan tier of excellence, a level LeBron could theoretically still reach.

Time is running out, though – even if it didn’t appear to be in these Finals

LeBron was again fantastic, becoming the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists). He shot 56.4% from the field, including 38.7% on 3-pointers.

Yet, it wasn’t close to enough.

The Cavs got outscored by just seven points in LeBron’s 212 minutes and by 27 points in the 28 minutes he sat. He somehow rested both not enough (tiring late in Game 3) and and way too much (Cleveland fell apart without him).

For the first time in the last three, maybe six,* years LeBron didn’t deserve Finals MVP. Durant outplayed him.

*I could go either way on LeBron and actual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in 2014. LeBron – who won in 2012, 2013 and 2016 – deserved it in 2015 over Andre Iguodala.

The difference was defense. LeBron got roasted as the Cavaliers fell behind 2-0 in the series and picked up his intensity on that end only somewhat. Durant terrorized Cleveland with his length and basketball intelligence.

Of course, Durant shouldered a lesser load than LeBron while playing with so much more talent – making it easier to exert energy on both ends of the floor. But Durant out-produced LeBron this year and deserves credit for it.

That setup could remain in place for a while.

When will LeBron ever have to do less for his team to win a title? When will Durant ever have to do more?

“I have no reason to put my head down,” LeBron said. “I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”

That’s a healthy attitude. It’s the attitude of someone secure in his place.

But it’s not the attitude of someone consumed with winning, the type of unhealthy obsession often necessary to win a championship.

And maybe LeBron has just matured beyond that point, much easier with three titles under his belt. He has a wife and kids and priorities outside basketball.

Earlier in the Finals, LeBron called the Warriors adding Durant “great.” Add his placid demeanor after the series, and it seemed LeBron was content because he realized the challenge – no matter how hard he fought it – was too great.

But before Game 5, LeBron hinted he hadn’t revealed his full true feelings about Durant joining Golden State.

Maybe, just maybe, the greatest player of this generation is still deeply driven to topple the greatest team of this generation.

Portland’s Damian Lillard named seeding games MVP

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The NBA restart bubble gave us surprises — from the Suns going 8-0 and almost making the playoffs, to the much-hyped Pelicans going an ugly 2-6 — but one thing we knew going in rang true:

Damian Lillard can light it up.

His dominating performances lifting the Trail Blazers to the West play-in game made him the unanimous choice for Seeding Games MVP. The NBA announced the All-Seeding Games teams on Saturday (these awards are based only on the eight seeding games). The awards were voted on by media members in the bubble for the seeding games.

Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game, but what won him the MVP was his performance in the final three games when his team needed it to qualify for the play-in — 61 points, then 51, then 42 in the final seeding game. Lillard was the emotional leader who set the tone for his team and refused to let them lose. That is an MVP.

Lillard was the unanimous first choice for MVP. Phoenix’s Devin Booker finished second, followed by Indiana’s T.J. Warren, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, and Houston’s James Harden.

Here are the All-Seeding Games teams:

FIRST TEAM
SECOND TEAM
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Devin Booker (Suns) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) Caris LeVert (Nets)
James Harden (Rockets) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

DeMar DeRozan of the Spurs and Paul George of the Clippers were the players who finished with the most votes just out of the running.

New Orleans Pelicans fire head coach Alvin Gentry

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No team entered the NBA restart bubble in Orlando with the buzz of the New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson was back, they had an All-Star in Brandon Ingram and solid veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday around them. With all that, no team was as disappointing in the bubble as the Pelicans, who went 2-6. They looked like they were going through the motions, and all season long were less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry paid the price for that and was fired, the team announced. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez of ESPN and soon after confirmed by the organization.

It was not a surprise. Gentry was considered on shaky ground before teams flew to Florida and the disappointing play of his team while there led to team VP of basketball operations David Griffin making the change. (A sitting coach is always on shaky ground when the management above him changes, as happened with Gentry.) While Zion was not in the bubble the entire time, this is still a talented roster, one that came out like it was just going through the motions, with Lonzo Ball reportedly having checked out. No one seemed focused on the opportunity to make the postseason. That attitude is why the Pelicans fired their coach.

“I want to thank Alvin for his contributions to the Pelicans and the New Orleans community,” Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We believe that making a head coaching change is necessary at this time. I truly appreciate Alvin’s leadership, dedication and perseverance through some challenging circumstances over the past five seasons. He will always be a part of our Pelicans family, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future. Our intention moving forward is to find the right head coach that will guide this Pelicans team to compete for championships. That is what our fans deserve.”

Clippers lead assistant Tyronn Lue and Lakers lead assistant Jason Kidd — two veteran coaches who are considered player-friendly — were mentioned as potential replacements by ESPN and Marc Stein of the New York Times. Lue and Kidd have both been mentioned in connection with the open Brooklyn Nets coaching job. Both also are in the Orlando bubble with their respective teams as the playoffs are about to begin (and both likely will be there for a while). Another name to watch is current Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, who is not expected to be brought back with the Rockets and favors the kind of up-tempo system that would suit Zion. n

The challenge with big-name replacements in New Orleans is money — this is the smallest market in the NBA and ownership has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Lue, Kidd, and D’Antoni will be expensive and demand five-year contracts. The Pelicans could look at seasoned assistant coaches who have not yet held a top spot — Sam Cassell, Ime Udoka, and there are many others — who could do the job and come at a price more within their budget.

The key for whoever gets the head coaching job is to form a strong bond with Zion, the future of the franchise, and figure out how to get the most out of him.

 

 

 

Portland, Memphis where they want to be as play-in series tips-off

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.

For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.

For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.

And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series. The Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”

Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.

“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”

The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.

Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.

“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”

Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell expected to play Monday against Dallas

Montrezl Harrell play
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When the Clippers take the court Monday for their first playoff game in the bubble, going against Luka Doncic and a dangerous Mavericks’ team, Montrezl Harrell will be suited up and ready to play.

The Clippers’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate, who excused from the bubble due to the death of his grandmother and missed all eight seeding games, will be out of quarantine and cleared to play, report Adrian Wojnarowski and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

Doc Rivers said he plans to play Harrell against an active Dallas front line.

“I’m just going to throw him in there, he’s earned that right,” Rivers said. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game. We’re hoping that at this point.”

Harrell came off the bench to average 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. Harrell was often part of the Clippers closing lineup this season because of his improved defense, but he always brought relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. They will need that against a Dallas team that rolls out a front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic.

Not having Harrell for eight games in the bubble added to that versatility, Rivers said.

“We got to play JaMychal [Green] at the five far more than we ever thought we would. We needed to work on that because he’s such a floor spacer,” Rivers said. “We got way more work on that than we thought, but we actually liked it.”

Expect to see more of that — and some Harrell — against Dallas starting Monday.