Swept, sad and still starving for another title, what’s next for LeBron James?

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CLEVELAND – LeBron James sat in his locker, covered by more ice than clothing and his right hand – which he injured while punching a whiteboard following the Cavaliers’ devastating Game 1 loss – wrapped. He hunched his towel-covered head into his left hand. He leaned back and slumped in his seat, the towel still hiding his face, and sat that way for several minutes.

LeBron looked beat.

By the Warriors, by the burden he carried leading an underwhelming supporting cast to the NBA Finals, by the weight of his second Cleveland tenure possibly ending.

Will he use his player option to leave the Cavs this summer?

“I have no idea at this point,” LeBron said after Golden State swept Cleveland in the NBA Finals. “The one thing that I’ve always done is considered, obviously, my family. Understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age. They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this four years ago. I’ve got a teenage boy, a pre-teen and a little girl that wasn’t around as well. So sitting down and considering everything, my family is a huge part of whatever I’ll decide to do in my career, and it will continue to be that. So, I don’t have an answer for you right now as far as that.”

A few days ago, LeBron spoke candidly about why he left the Cavaliers in 2010 – because the team wasn’t good enough. Tonight, he addressed why he returned in 2014.

“I came back because I felt like I had some unfinished business,” LeBron said.

Did leading Cleveland to its first championship in 2016 finish that business?

“That’s a trick question at the end of the day,” LeBron said, “and I’m not falling for that.

“It made me even more hungry to continue to try to win championships, and I still want to be in championship mode. I think I’ve shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.”

The Cavaliers showed how they are not. They traded Kyrie Irving against LeBron’s wishes and whittled down their return for the star point guard to spare parts and the No. 8 pick – a valuable asset, but one that didn’t help the 2018 Cavs compete in these playoffs.

At times, LeBron’s weak supporting cast appeared to drive him mad. He vented at his teammates during a Game 4 timeout, and he melted down on the bench before Game 1’s overtime as he learned details of J.R. Smith‘s blunder. And, as we discovered, LeBron carried his frustration into the post-Game 1 locker room and tried to channel it through a whiteboard.

Gesturing while answering a question tonight, LeBron raised his right hand above the table and revealed a cast. The sound of cameras flickering overpowered the room.

“You guys like this brace, huh?” LeBron said, cracking a smile. “You guys like this cast, huh? You want me to sit it right here for you?

“Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand.”

It hurts now, but LeBron has been through too much – 15 seasons, eight straight NBA Finals appearances and now six Finals losses (behind only Jerry West’s eight and Elgin Baylor’s seven all-time) – to totally sulk through this latest challenge.

LeBron knows precisely what that challenge is. It was down the hall covering itself in champagne while LeBron sat silently at his locker and contemplated.

Finally, LeBron emerged from the locker room and turned right down the hall. Unaware LeBron was headed toward the interview room rather than leaving, a security guard called from behind that LeBron and his group should go another way to avoid crowds. LeBron stopped to sort out the confusion. Turns out, he was going the best way to the interview room, and he kept going.

After his press conference, LeBron walked out of the interview room and made a pointed turn toward Bill Russell. LeBron leaned down to embrace the legend in his wheelchair.

Then, LeBron headed straight for the exit.

NBA players, fans react to Damian Lillard’s series-ending shot

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Damian Lillard is the best Portland Trail Blazers player of all time. We’ve established that, it’s time to move on.

Lillard hit yet another game-winning, series-ending shot in the playoffs on Tuesday night as the Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 at Moda Center, 118-115.

Lillard hit a step-back 37-foot 3-point shot over Paul George to win the series at the buzzer. It was reminiscent of the shot Lillard hit in 2014 over Chandler Parsons to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland to the second round.

Of course the league was watching as the game went down this track too late into the night on the West coast, and early in the morning on the East.

After Lillard hit the shot, NBA Twitter left into action. NBA players who were awake reacted as well, including Parsons, who was cavalier about the whole thing.

What an incredible night in the NBA.

Damian Lillard did it again

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Damian Lillard did it again.

On Tuesday night when the Portland Trail Blazers needed him most, Lillard came through. Things were tight between Portland the Oklahoma City Thunder late in Game 5 at Moda Center. Both Russell Westbrook and Paul George played with five fouls in the fourth quarter, and after an explosive first half where Lillard scored 34 points, things had slowed for Portland.

In the second half, Westbrook played the part of the bully against CJ McCollum, and George was fantastic, eventually scoring 36 points with nine rebounds and three assists.

But things seemed to turn around when Jusuf Nurkic, out with a broken leg, returned to the Blazers bench with three-and-a-half minutes left and Portland down by eight. Nurkic said he left his house with a few minutes to go in the third quarter, anticipating his team could use his good spirits. Indeed, Nurkic’s presence seemed to fuel Portland. When Nurkic showed up, the home team immediately went on an 8-0 run.

Then, Lillard did what he does best.

After hitting the two-for-one shot with 32 seconds left, Lillard found himself with the ball, the game tied, and the shot clock off. As time ticked down and with the game on the line, Lillard hit the biggest shot of the night, right as time expired.

It was the shot that won the series.

You wouldn’t be mistaken if you equated Tuesday night’s big shot to the one Lillard hit in 2013 to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland into the second round of the playoffs. In fact, I was at that game and I can tell you it was a defining moment for the franchise over the past half-decade.

But this was so much more.

Lillard’s shot to beat the Thunder solidified several things, both about the team and about the star guard himself. The Blazers have been a squad that have relied on its bench and supporting cast all season long, even more so with Nurkic out with a broken leg. But when the Thunder played perhaps one of their best games of the postseason, it was Lillard’s 50-point performance that moved them forward.

Portland is a team’s team, but in the end, it was their star that they needed.

There’s no doubt that Portland and Lillard have had it their fair share of doubters over the past several years. The idea that they could — or should — have a team built on the backs of Lillard and McCollum has raised the eyebrows of many, including myself. But externally, and particularly after their playoff sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, it appeared most were ready to write off this team altogether.

But this playoff series, and this team, is different. They’ve been different all season long, right down to the rotations and flexibility that head coach Terry Stotts has enabled this season. Stotts has gone deeper into his bench, and altered his Flow offense in a way that is helped Portland stay fresh after years of running the same old song and dance.

Guys like Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Enes Kanter have all stepped up over the course of the season to be able to contribute to a squad that is needed more than just Lillard and McCollum.

To that end, Portland rose again and again to the challenge. Despite some of their losses, the Thunder gave numerous gut punches to the Blazers that would have seen previous iterations of this team fold. But Portland has been stronger, both as a unit and as Lillard has solidified himself as a more complete two-way player.

The idea that Lillard came back stronger and as more of a leader, ready for adversity, is not a supposition. At this point, it’s fact. You can see how the rest of the team has banded behind him in support of his path forward. Hell, Kanter told reporters after the game on Tuesday that he separated his shoulder and had to have an injection at halftime. That’s how bad these Blazers wanted to win, and how much they wanted to push not just for themselves, but for Lillard.

Thanks to Lillard’s shot (and McCollum’s jumpers, and Maurice Harkless’ free throws) Portland beat the Thunder, 118-115. They advance to the second round, and Rip City will be buzzing all week long. They deserve it, and they’ll be real contenders to challenge for a Western Conference Finals berth.

But where does that leave us when we think about Lillard, and these Blazers? If his famous “0.9” shot from 2014 was the thing that put him on the map, Tuesday’s 37-foot step-back jumper over George was the thing that made Lillard a legend.

The impossibility of that jumper — and the sheer gal to take it — is what makes Damian Lillard who he is.

The greatest Blazer of all-time.

Nuggets have figured out Spurs, how to win, dominate Game 5 to take 3-2 lead

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The coach who made the adjustment that changed the series is not the Olympic team coach, not the “why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame already guy. Instead, it’s Michael Malone. He has been the Bobby Fischer.

Malone’s adjustment: Starting Torrey Craig. Exactly the move everyone expected before the series.

Defensively, Craig has used his length to slow DeMar DeRozan (as much as anyone is going to), while Gary Harris could focus on the young Derrick White and Jamal Murray could hide on Bryn Forbes.

Craig was supposed to drag down the Nuggets offense too much to play him, but he was 5-of-7 from three in Game 4, and in Game 5 it didn’t matter because the San Antonio had no answer for the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll.

The result was a 108-90 Denver thumping of the Spurs, giving them a 3-2 series lead. Closing out the Spurs in San Antonio will be a tall order, but a Denver team that came into the series needing to learn how to win at playoff basketball looks like a team that has figured it out.

“They just outplayed us in every facet of the game,” Gregg Popovich said succinctly.

Murray had 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus dished out seven assists and was +33 on the night.

Murry and Jokic have developed a tremendous pick-and-roll chemistry that leads to easy buckets off cuts, rolls, or open threes. Jokic is going to be good — 16 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists — but when Murray is hitting shots too the duo is nearly impossible to stop.

More important than the offense has been how Denver has started to defend the Spurs well — something Craig helped bring to the table. The Nuggets were stepping in and blowing up pick-and-rolls, forcing the Spurs into dry stretches of offense that allowed Denver to pull away.

The Spurs at home cannot be written off, but their role players need to make more plays — LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan each had 17 points, but the rest of the Spurs shot 38.7 percent on the night. Against this Denver offense, that’s not going to be good enough. Denver has figured out what it needs to do to win, the ball is in the Spurs court to adapt. And just make shots.

A bunch of players got ejected at the end of Sixers-Nets (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on to the second round. They beat the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, 122-100. They will meet in the Toronto Raptors in the next series after Kawhi Leonard & Co. took care of the Orlando Magic earlier in the evening.

Brooklyn was a spunky team, and they gave the Sixers some headaches. They also exposed some of Philadelphia’s more obvious flaws, which we will no doubt see Toronto try to exploit moving forward.

The Nets are a prideful team, and they weren’t too pleased about getting bumped out of the playoffs by Philadelphia. At the end of the game, a scuffle between Jonah Bolden and Rodions Kurucs resulted in the ejections of several players.

Via Twitter:

Greg Monroe and Dzanan Musa were also ejected.

It’s a bummer of a way to end the year for Brooklyn, but they should hold their heads high given they gave a championship-hopeful team in the Sixers a scare and cast some serious self-doubt in their hearts.