Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.

NBA makes it official, moves up free agency six hours to 6 p.m. June 30 (Eastern)

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.

Why does Kevin Durant respond on social media? “I’m qualified to talk about basketball”

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Every NBA player gets ripped on social media, even the guys who are not on social media. Most of the time players just ignore it, the way they ignore fans yelling stuff courtside or distant family asking them for money.

Kevin Durant, however, gets into it sometimes, even with national media members (and even had a burner account). Which always becomes a thing.

Why? Why not just ignore it? From Durant himself at practice Friday, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Because I have social media,” Durant said Friday… “I mean, I’m a human being with a social media account. I could see if I ventured off into like politics, culinary arts or music and gave my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. You know what I’m saying? This is all I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.

“So when I respond to something, especially if it’s about me personally, of course I’m going to tell you if you wrong about it. When I’m on the training table getting treatment on my calf and I see a tweet that come by and I disagree — I don’t talk to people because I’m worried about what they say, it’s just that I’m interested. So if you talking about in-game or the NBA Finals, they’re the same to me, you know what I’m saying?”

Durant seems to have more time on hands to get into these spats while he is out injured. Which likely will last into the start of the NBA Finals.

Does this mean the Drake/Durant beef is inevitable?