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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.

Marc Gasol, Mike Conley reportedly meet with Grizzlies owner, what will that mean?

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This summer, Robert Pera maintained ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies and with that meant the status quo remained — the Grizzlies were going to try to ride the duo of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to the playoffs. There would be no rebuild.

After falling to the Celtics Friday night, Memphis is 19-26, has lost 10-of-11, and are 14th in the Western Conference. Around the league, there is a buzz that Memphis may have to look at trading Gasol, who has a player option this summer and could become a free agent.

With that slide as a backdrop, Gasol and Conley met with Pera recently, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Conley and Gasol, who has a player option for next season worth $25.5 million, sat down with Pera in Memphis this week to discuss the direction of the franchise, league sources said. Pera often meets with key team personnel when he visits Memphis over the course of a season.

Does that mean changes are coming? That’s not what Conley told the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

“That’s all there was to it,” Conley said after the Grizzlies’ loss in Boston on Friday night. “There was nothing special that came out of it that’s going to change the world or anything.

“We got to talk to him.”

Pera has resisted any kind of rebuild — and in a smaller market, with a community that has embraced the “grit ‘n grind” mantra, there are economic reasons that has been the smart move. While other teams are circling, so far there is no word out of Memphis that there are trades for stars to be had (Chandler Parsons on the other hand…).

Every GM will say of moving players “better too early than too late.” In Memphis, the franchise may have missed that window.

 

Reports: Nets to buyout Kenneth Faried, who will sign with Rockets

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He seems to have found it in a guy the Brooklyn Nets are ready to let go — Kenneth Faried. The Nets are buying him out and “the Manimal” will instantly sign in Houston.

Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN filled in the details.

Faried would step in instantly in Houston and get the kind of run he was not in Brooklyn, where he appeared in just a dozen games this season for a total of 118 minutes. When he did play for the Nets Faried has looked solid — 59.5 percent shooting, strong on the boards — but it was hard to read much into his limited run. Faried will bring hustle and effort to Houston, we’ll see how much skill he has left.

The Rockets need to clear a roster spot to sign Faried. While the team does have Carmelo Anthony on the roster but in limbo, the more likely solution is letting go of the just signed James Nunnally.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.