LeBron James normal
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Lakers’ LeBron James: ‘Nothing is normal in 2020’

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — LeBron James keeps hearing the same questions. How’s it going? How’s the bubble?

He now has a one-size-fits-all answer.

“I just say it’s 2020,” James said. “Nothing is normal in 2020.”

That’s not entirely true. The NBA is a few weeks from playoff mode, and James — just like normal — has himself and the Los Angeles Lakers squarely in the mix to compete for a championship. It is a rare bit of normalcy for a player who appeared in eight consecutive NBA Finals from 2011 through and including 2018, and for a franchise that has won 16 championships.

Everything else about this year has been most abnormal. A pandemic suspended play. David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner emeritus, died. Kobe Bryant, who was the third-leading scorer in NBA history until James passed him on Jan. 25, died in a helicopter crash the following day. And now James, the Lakers, and 21 other teams are at Walt Disney World, separated from the rest of the world, trying to salvage a season and decide a champion.

James took Bryant’s death – the Lakers’ star died along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on the morning of Jan. 26 – particularly hard.

“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about him,” James said. “A day doesn’t go by where our organization does not remember him and think about not only Kobe but Gigi, (his wife) Vanessa and their girls. They are a part of this family.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel has seen playoff-season James three times before – never liking how those experiences went. Vogel was coaching Indiana and his three best seasons there saw the Pacers matched up with James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Heat in 6 in 2012. Heat in 7 in 2013. Heat in 6 in 2014.

This time, Vogel is genuinely and understandably eager to see James at playoff time.

“Obviously, it’s been great having LeBron on our side after years of going against him,” Vogel said. “But in particular, when we get to the playoff environment, I’ve just seen how he is this year in some of the bigger regular-season games, how he’s more mentally locked in, more vocal, more making sure everybody else is locked in. And I anticipate that come playoff time, we’ll see that all being done at an enhanced level.”

James will have a big say in whether the Lakers win that title. By the time the season resumes July 30, the ballots will be cast to determine whether he or Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo – the two frontrunners – wins the NBA MVP award. James is almost mathematically assured of winning his first assist title; he cannot be caught by second-place Trae Young of Atlanta no matter what happens at Disney. And the Lakers, barring an all-out collapse, will be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

By any measure, it’s been a good year on the court for James.

A weird year, but a good year. Time will tell if it’s a great year. He believes the bubble will work and sees no reason yet why this NBA experiment would fail. And while he detests being away from his family and his inner circle, he’s using this chance to be locked in to focus on the opportunity.

“As far as the MVP race, I think I’ve shown what I’m capable of doing, not only individually but from a team’s perspective, us being No. 1 in the West,” James said. “There was a lot of conversation about, you know, `LeBron can do those things in the East but if he ever came to the West, what can he do?’ I heard all of that, and to have our team at the top of the Western Conference and playing the way that we were playing at that time and the way I was playing, you know, that’s definitely a good feeling.”

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.