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Is Friday LeBron’s last game wearing a Cavaliers’ uniform?

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CLEVELAND — “My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio…. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

LeBron James wrote that (with Lee Jenkins) in Sports Illustrated in 2014 to announce his return to Cleveland — and he lived up to that goal. He brought Cleveland a championship two years later, the first that city had seen in any sport in more than five decades. The hometown boy delivered.

Two year’s later, things feel decidedly different.

Is Friday night LeBron’s last game in a Cleveland Cavaliers’ uniform?

Will he leave Cleveland again as a free agent in 2018?

Nothing is set in stone, I don’t believe LeBron James has made a decision or picked a direction yet.

However, the more time spent around the team through the postseason, the more time spent watching the interactions of LeBron with teammates with management, the more time feeling the vibe around the franchise, the more it feels like the end of the relationship. It’s hard to ignore the vibe that he is leaving again. The two sides look tired of each other, or, to use the great phrasing of ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, there is an “organizational fatigue.”

It’s not something picked up in one key moment but rather in countless little ones.

It’s in the phrasing of comments LeBron has made, even over the course of these Finals. Any one of them, by themselves, could be dismissed, but taken as a group they point a direction. One headed out of town.

LeBron is too polished in interviews, too careful in his words and actions to have this many little things slip through.

“So I put our team in position to try to win a championship, to compete for a championship,” LeBron said after Game 1. “You know, it’s my job to make sure that we’re as focused, laser focused as possible, do my job, and continue to instill confidence into my teammates until the last horn sounds. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s my obligation, and I need to continue to do that, which I will.”

“Job,” “responsibility,” and “obligation” are not the words someone enjoying their situation uses. Taking out the trash or mowing the lawn are obligations.

Or, there is LeBron’s comment when questioned about not giving some kind of motivational speech to his team between the devastating end of the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 1.

“I mean, we’re in the NBA Finals. I mean, how much more picking up of teammates do you want me to do?” LeBron said.

Or, there is LeBron’s cold reception to team owner Dan Gilbert in a handshake line during the Finals.

Or, on Thursday, there was LeBron talking about the first time he left Cleveland, when that team was completely overmatched in terms of talent by the teams it had to beat. Those Cavaliers’ squads also lacked the mental skill of the teams they faced — a clear echo of this series.

“I felt like my first stint here I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” LeBron said. “When you looked at (Rajon) Rondo and KG and Paul (Pierce) and Ray (Allen), you knew they were great basketball players. But not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them.”

Then there was LeBron after the Game 3, talking wistfully about the ability of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to have an off night and the Warriors to have other stars (Kevin Durant, this time) who picks the team up. Unlike Cleveland, where LeBron has to play like Superman for the Cavaliers to even have a chance.

“You know, that’s why they’ve retooled this team, went out and got K.D. to where there’s really not much pressure on — you know, I won’t say any of them to score, but if one of them has a bad game, they have three or four guys that can actually pick up the load…

“So the best thing about their team is that if one of their stars goes down, they have two or three other stars that are still able to hold the ship until everybody gets back. Steph’s injury, him going down, K.D. and Klay (Thompson), who never misses a game, and Draymond (Green) still being in the lineup — if you look at the previous time when K.D. went down, the rest of those guys were in and held it until K.D. came back for the playoffs the year before that.”

It’s more than those comments and those moments. It’s the feel, the vibe around that team right now. It feels like the end of a relationship. The end of an era.

There’s no answer to where he will go, right now it’s as much an NBA intelligentsia parlor game as anything. The Lakers are a long shot. It’s hard to put a deal together to make him going to Houston work so that seems highly unlikely. Philadelphia has to get its own house in order first but may be the cleanest option. Maybe LeBron stays another year.

Fans in Cleveland recognize the end, and unlike 2010 seem to accept it — LeBron brought them the promised title, he has spent his money on education and charities in the region, he has not forsaken Cleveland and Akron. This time if he moves on, the feeling will be resignation rather than anger.

It feels like that time is coming.

But not for one more night. At least.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.

Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead peaceful protest

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While many NBA players have spoken out on social media and attended rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, maybe none has been as vocal and active as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown.

Saturday, he drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest at the Martin Luther King National Historic Park.

Brown was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Brown’s protest still had a run-in with Atlanta police.

This protest is one of many nationwide happening for a fifth straight night in the wake of the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That death happened not long after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Brown, like many nationwide, hope these protests and this frustration can be channeled into real change. Something this nation needs.