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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.

Are the Clippers, Knicks really equal threats to sign Kevin Durant?

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Is Kevin Durant going to stay with the Golden State Warriors? Is he going to sign with the New York Knicks? How about the Los Angeles Clippers? We just don’t know whether Durant will stay with the best team ever assembled, or strike it out on his own with several championships under his belt.

Durant is not currently playing for the Warriors, having injured his calf and missed the entirety of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. However, a new report says that there are rumblings that the Los Angeles Clippers are a serious destination for Durant should he decide to opt out of his contract and leave Golden State.

The only caveat? According to Mark Stein, all of the aforementioned teams have been rumored as the “favorite” for Durant by people he trusts.

Via NY Times Newsletter:

Within the last month, very smart and plugged-in people I have consulted say that the Los Angeles Clippers have emerged as an equally dangerous threat to the Knicks to sign Durant away from Golden State. And I believe it.

Problem is, at various points during the season, I have heard trusted insiders state with conviction that Durant is already planning to join the Knicks … and then that he is likely to consider the Nets as well … and now that he is eyeing the Clippers just as intently as New York.

It leads one to conclude that maybe the best forecast, at least for the moment, is that nobody but Durant and his business manager Rich Kleiman know.

Durant is one of the more tiring personalities in the NBA, and his constant need for ego-stroking has worn thin despite the Warriors’ success. If he decides to leave — and it just sort of feels like he will at this point — no doubt it won’t be the last we hear of this story.

Tim Connelly eager to finish what he started with Nuggets

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DENVER (AP) The prospects of a return home to Washington were undeniably appealing to Tim Connelly.

Not nearly as alluring as this: Finishing what he’s started.

The Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations elected to stay in town even with the Wizards calling. Things are booming these days with a Nuggets team that boasts a young nucleus led by big man Nikola Jokic and that won 54 games in the regular season. They were the No. 2 seed in the West before losing to Portland in Game 7 at home during the second round of the playoffs.

There was just too much work left to be done in Denver to consider taking Washington’s front office job even if it would’ve been with the organization where Connelly got his start and in the area where he and his wife are from.

“It’s safe to assume, and maybe it’s me being overly optimistic, that we’re going to see a better version of us next year,” Connelly said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that means more wins. I don’t know if we’re going to win a playoff series and advance, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think there will be any regression next season.”

A Baltimore native, Connelly appreciated the audience with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. He said he was flattered by their recent “exchange of ideas” as the Wizards look to fill the role of team president after Ernie Grunfeld was fired in April.

“The relationships that have been built up here and the hard times we’ve been through – it was very hard to envision leaving something that has been so hard and so long coming in its build,” said Connelly, who broke into the NBA with the Wizards as an intern in the basketball operations department, then as an assistant video coordinator and as a scout.

Connelly was hired as Denver’s general manager in July 2013 and it took a while for the team to take off. Team President Josh Kroenke stayed patient with him. Connelly brought in coach Michael Malone before the 2015-16 season and they’ve steadily progressed since – from 33 wins in Malone’s first year to 40 wins in ’16-17 to 46 in ’17-18 and finally to 54 this season, including a league-leading 34-7 home mark.

“We did not get off to a good start by any stretch, and (Kroenke) doubled down on what easily could have been perceived as an initial mistake because he liked the processes and liked how we attacked our job day to day,” said Connelly, who was promoted to president of basketball operations in 2017. “Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that’s here in spades. So those things matter to me.”

Connelly and his staff have struck it rich in the draft, taking Jokic with the 41st pick of the second round in 2014. They’ve also selected Jamal Murray, along with up-and-comers Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Michael Porter Jr., who sat out this season as he recovered from back surgery.

The biggest offseason decision remains this: What to do with veteran leader Paul Millsap. The team holds a $30 million option, which could be restructured.

“I fully expect Paul to be back in a Nuggets uniform,” Connelly said.

On the free agency front, Denver hasn’t exactly been an attractive landing spot in recent summers. But Connelly sees that starting to change and believes the unselfish play of Jokic could be an enticing selling point. Denver could be in the market for another shooter and a power forward in order to take the next step.

“It will be fascinating to make those calls” in free agency, Connelly said. “If they say it’s about winning and the answer is about winning and they don’t talk to us, then I think it’s a disingenuous answer.”

The Nuggets definitely turned some heads throughout the regular season as they challenged Golden State down to the wire for the best mark in the West. They beat San Antonio in seven games in the first round before falling to the Trail Blazers.

“We sent a pretty loud message,” Malone said. “I think there were questions about our team all year long, for whatever reason: How legitimate are they? Are they really a No. 2 seed? Can they take their game into the playoffs with so many young guys that’ve never been there before?

“We answered so many questions about our team in the best way possible.”

NOTES: Malone said Jokic’s race horse, Dream Catcher, recently won a race in Serbia. “He made sure I knew about it, because the last race he won I was at,” Malone said. “I thought I was a good-luck charm but obviously I’m not.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took Game 4 against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, 120-102.

Things started off okay for Milwaukee but started to peter off as the hometown Toronto crowd got behind their Raptors. The bench continued to show up for Leonard’s squad, and it was Kyle Lowry dueling it out with Antetokounmpo in the first quarter.

Leonard scored 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four steals, and perhaps his most impressive play of the night came early in the third quarter. Running a little two-man game with Marc Gasol, Leonard cut to the basket and wound up dunking all over the Milwaukee star.

Via Twitter:

Leonard appeared to hobble a little bit after his dunk, but he should be ready to go for Game 5 on a Thursday night. Meanwhile, the series heads back to Wisconsin all tied up at 2-2.

The victor of this series will get to take on the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala says Stephen Curry is the second-best PG ever

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The Golden State Warriors are moving on to the NBA Finals yet again, thanks in large part to the efforts of Stephen Curry. Golden State’s point guard is now heading to his fifth-straight finals, and without Kevin Durant he was a big reason why the Warriors were able to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in just four games.

Of course there is a real worry that Durant won’t be able to play in the NBA Finals, either partially or fully, thanks to a calf injury. If that’s the case, and the Warriors can take home another championship trophy, it could mean great things for Curry’s legacy.

Curry is currently chasing Magic Johnson as the best point guard ever in the eyes of many folks. What might help solidify Curry’s place in history would be an NBA Finals MVP, which he would likely wind up with if Durant is unable to impact the Finals the way he has.

At least for Andre Iguodala, Curry is already the second best point guard of all-time.

Via The Athletic:

“I think he’s the second best ever,” Iguodala said. “I always thought that about him. I knew but other people didn’t know. So I wasn’t surprised when he took over that series. But I always gave Tony Allen credit. Playing against him made you understand the grind of how hard it is to win. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to have to find another way. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He just embraced that. Just ingrained that into his system and it’s been there ever since.”

The real question is what Curry’s legacy will be after these Finals, particularly if they win without Durant. Some people aren’t keen to compare eras, and might never move off of Johnson for that spot. It seems reasonable to say that Curry is already the best shooter of all-time, but June could elevate him even further.