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LeBron James scores 45 as Cavaliers edge Pacers in Game 7

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The best team may not have won on Sunday as the Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers played in a deciding Game 7, but the most impressive player certainly did. In a stunning performance, LeBron James played 43 minutes as The King advanced yet again while the Cavaliers beat the Pacers, 105-101.

The game started quick for Cleveland as they jumped out to an impressive 31-19 lead after one quarter. Indiana’s defense struggled, and their offense reverted to some of their worst habits — poor ball movement, one-on-one dribbling, and a lack of rebounding. The Pacers settled in the second quarter as Darren Collison helped lead the way.

Indiana remained unafraid of the Cavaliers as they have all series long. Despite needing to surmount an 11-point lead to start the third quarter, the Pacers rallied back. Their offense looked more fluid, and their switches on defense pristine. Indiana finally took the lead off an Oladipo steal and quick outlet to Bogdanovic with 7:12 left, setting the table for an exciting finish at The Q.

Cleveland fans had to hold their collective breath to end the third quarter as James exited the game for the first time to head back to the locker room. He soon returned to the bench for the start of the fourth, and reports from the sideline were that he was suffering from cramps. Perhaps the most critical stretch of the game for Indiana came with James out of the lineup. The Pacers failed to make up any ground with LeBron out, and when he finally did check back in 8:25 the game felt all but decided.

Kevin Love was magnificent, particularly in the fourth quarter where he scored eight of his 14 points. Love hit clutch 3-pointers and midrange jumpers as the Pacers rotational defense began to break down. Indiana’s defensive chances took another hit when Myles Turner fouled out on a questionable call with 4:33 to go in the fourth.

The deciding plays of the game came three minutes to go. Bojan Bogdanovic lost his handle on a ball, creating a scoring opportunity that the Cavaliers turned into free throws. Oladipo would hit a jumper 30 seconds later, but Collison missed an opportunity to hit a 3-pointer and make it 98-95 in favor of the Cavaliers with two minutes remaining. Domantas Sabonis fouled LeBron on the rebound, and Indiana never recovered.

Oladipo led the way for the Pacers with 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting, adding 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Collison provided 23 points and two assists. Bogdanovic, a strong performer for Indiana throughout the series, was limited to just three points.

For Cleveland it was all James, who scored 45 points to go with nine rebounds and seven assists. Tristan Thompson finished with 15 points on five-of-six shooting, grabbing 10 rebounds. LeBron’s 45 points are the second-most all-time in a Game 7 of the playoffs.

They probably don’t deserve it, but the Cavaliers are moving on to the next round to face the Toronto Raptors. Game 1 will be in Canada on Tuesday, May 1 at 5 p.m. PST.

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.

Zion Williamson signs shoe deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand

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Russell Westbrook. Jimmy Butler. Blake Griffin. Chris Paul.

And now Zion Williamson has joined them as a Jordan Brand athlete. Williamson announced that he had signed with Jordan on his Instagram.

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Let’s Dance #JUMPMAN

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Williamson was probably the biggest shoe free agent on the market this summer. While still a rookie, he already is a huge marketing presence — Summer League in Las Vegas sold out to see him the first two nights (people ended up disappointed) — and it was estimated he would make north of $10 million a year on his rookie shoe deal.

While we have not heard official numbers yet, the rumors are he did get that money.

If true, this is the second-largest rookie shoe deal in history. LeBron James got seven-years, $87 million, however, Williamson is second and bumps Kevin Durant to third (seven years, $60 million).

There are rumors Puma had offered even a larger contact, but Williamson wanted to be a Jordan brand guy.

“I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” Williamson said in a statement. “Since I was a kid, I dreamed of making it to the league & having the type of impact on the game Michael Jordan had & continues to have today. He was one of those special athletes I looked up to.”

“Zion’s incredible determination, character and play are inspiring,” Michael Jordan said in a statement. “He’s an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future. He told us he would ‘shock the world,’ and asked us to believe him. We do.”

Nike continues to dominate the NBA and basketball shoe market, with more than two-thirds of NBA players wearing Nikes. Even still, landing Williamson — who will play for the New Orleans Pelicans — was such a big score that Nike stock jumped up one percent on the news. He has the potential to be the next LeBron or Durant for Nike, if he can live up to the hype and weight of being the most discussed No. 1 pick in a decade.

He’s the kind of player who could sell a lot of shoes, and Jordan is betting on just that.

Al Horford calls Celtics’ reported tampering allegations ‘ridiculous’

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The Celtics have reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford.

Horford opted out, and it seemed he could return to Boston. But more than a week before free agency officially began, a report emerged he’d leave the Celtics while expecting a four-year, $100 million contract elsewhere. He committed to the 76ers on the first day of free agency, getting $97 million guaranteed and up to $109 million over four years.

What did Horford make of tampering allegations coming from Boston, where Danny Ainge runs the front office?

Horford on The Dan Patrick Show:

It’s pretty ridiculous. But it is what it is. Danny – I love Danny. Danny was always really good to me. I know that he’s definitely frustrated with things didn’t work out with us.

Notice the lack of a denial.

But Horford is right: It’s ridiculous. Because the Celtics are hypocrites who locked up Kemba Walker before free agency officially began.

Though Boston’s specific complaints don’t hold water, there are legitimate issues with the wider landscape.