LeBron James was in his element, playing with joy, and sank All-Star Game-winner

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CLEVELAND — The camera flashed the Cavaliers’ 2016 title banner on the Humungotron (seriously, that’s what they call it) that hangs above center court, the music swelled, and as the announcer said, “He’s just a kid from Akron” 19,000 Cleveland fans erupted.

LeBron James tilted his head back and roared in joy at his All-Star Game introduction — a joy rarely seen from him around the Lakers this season.

That introduction was just the first step in a night of smiles from LeBron, who also brought the chalk-toss back home.

LeBron was having fun again — hanging with his friends all weekend in Akron, being back home, and playing basketball freely and without pressure. There was a joy evident in his game and in his smile, a joy that has seemed lacking 2,000 miles to the West this season.

And, when the game was on the line, he demanded the ball then drained the fade-away game-winner.

“I could not have dreamt it,” LeBron said of that shot that gave Team LeBron the 163-160 win. “I could not have dreamed of that moment any better than the actuality of what just happened.”

Stephen Curry — a kid from Akron himself — deservedly won the All-Star Game MVP, putting up a 50-spot for Team LeBron and setting an All-Star Game record with 16 3-pointers. The fans in Cleveland booed Curry and his wife Saturday night when they came out to promote their new show. They booed him when he was introduced before the All-Star Game. He was booed when he was introduced as a member of the 75th Anniversary team.

Curry reminded the Cleveland fans exactly why they wanted to boo him, draining 3-pointers and dancing like he did when the Warriors were beating the Cavaliers in the Finals.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 30 for Team LeBron. Joel Embiid made his MVP case in the All-Star Game, too, scoring 36 to lead Team Durant.

It was a game and a night packed with high-wattage star power, yet it still felt like LeBron’s show, his homecoming. He still sees himself as that kid from Akron trying to make good, and he’s comfortable in that role.

“Just hearing the ovation I got from these fans here, they’ve seen 11 years of my NBA career, and they saw four years of my high school career, and some of even saw me when I started playing basketball at the Summer Lake at the A.R.B…” LeBron said. “These guys have followed my journey. So for me to be back here today and for them to give me that welcome, that didn’t only mean something to me, that meant something to my family and friends that are here.”

It was almost an overwhelming night for LeBron, who said he was trying to soak up the moments, such as being part of the 75th Anniversary team and hugging Michael Jordan.

“I can’t believe that I’m here…” was how LeBron described being on stage with the other legends at halftime of the All-Star Game. “Every time they announced another name, I didn’t have the chance to rejoice in the player they had named. It was like Gary Payton, wow, and then J-Kidd (Jason Kidd) showed up, and then AI showed up (Allen Iverson), and then it was D-Wade (Dwyane Wade), CP (Chris Paul) and Steph. I was tripped out.”

Sunday saw a relaxed and smiling LeBron, on the court and on the podium in a way we just have not seen this season as the Lakers have stumbled to a 27-31 record. Back in Akron and Cleveland, LeBron was in his element.

“The joy of just being home — I stayed back in Akron all weekend while I was here,” LeBron said. “Seeing my guys… We’ve never spent All-Star weekend together. Every last one of them was here… having my mom in the building, having my wife and my kids here.

“How much more can a man ask for, really? When you have the opportunity to live this moment, with everybody that has seen you come up… We all spent All-Star Weekend together, and I don’t know if that will ever happen again.

“So, there’s no reason for me not to have joy.”

At least until he returns to Los Angeles, where things are very different.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.