June 8, 2018, 1:54 pm
The day before LeBron James dropped a 30-point triple-double in another NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, he was asked to respond to criticism gleaned from his real-time reaction to J.R. Smith’s epic blunder in Game 1, a gaffe that squandered one of the finest individual performances of his career.
“Me? Me being criticized?” James, in a mocking voice, questioned back sarcastically. “No. You’re saying I got criticized for something, right? Nah, I don’t believe that. Not me.”
He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, kept smiling, then answered with a typical brand of honesty that left his many detractors with additional fodder.
“I don’t care,” James said, shaking his head. “I don’t care at all. I mean, we’re in the NBA Finals. How much more picking up of my teammates do you want me to do?”
Down three games to none against defending champion Golden State, James is on the verge of losing his sixth NBA Finals – the number of championship series Michael Jordan won without a single loss, a straw man devotees of the Chicago Bulls legend always lead with or fall back on in discussions concerning the greatest basketball player of all time. Coming into his eighth consecutive Finals, with certainly his worst supporting cast since at least the top of the decade, there was a developing sense that James might be immune from the derision that accompanies him during relative failures of June.
Ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought by beating a 73-win juggernaut after falling behind 3-1 will be the defining accomplishment of James’ career no matter where it goes from here, and built him a mountain of goodwill on which to stand until his playing days are finished. James’ mind-blowing per-game averages of 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists on 56.4 percent shooting in a five-game loss to Warriors one year later calcified his legacy more than anything else, even as a vocal minority pondered whether Kevin Durant, a fully deserving Finals MVP, had surpassed him in the game’s individual hierarchy. That premature debate was put on hold while James enjoyed perhaps his finest offensive season ever for the Cavaliers, and shelved for good after he dragged his inconsistent, undermanned team to the Finals with six 40-point efforts, two walk-off game-winners and a 35-point, 15-rebound, nine-assist outing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Boston Celtics’ TD Garden.
There’s almost nothing more James could have done against the Warriors so far to put his team in better position to come away with a victory. Cleveland should have had it in the opener, when James went supernova en route to 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 19-of-32 from the field. If the Cavaliers couldn’t beat Golden State with James playing maybe the finest game of his life, just how were they going to do it? It’s unfair to submit that his play in the following two games simply wasn’t good enough; context is always necessary in basketball, but especially when a team’s best player combines for 62 points, 19 rebounds, 24 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting just less than 50 percent in a pair of consecutive losses.
Part of the problem is that James has spoiled the basketball world with so many years of brilliance that it’s become monotonous. Unless he’s clearly playing a game for the ages, some will always cling to an irrational belief that James could have done more to prevent his team from losing. But his historic production in the Finals hasn’t left much room for that time-honored scrutiny, forcing those intent on making another Finals loss an indictment of James to seek other means of hollow justification.
Suddenly, a growing contingent of league followers have decided the Cavaliers’ supporting cast, the same one subject to a “Saturday Night Live” skit earlier in the playoffs making light of its reliance on James, is better than advertised. Kobe Bryant threw fuel on that fire before Game 3, sticking up for Cleveland’s grab bag of a roster in an interview with The New York Times.
“It seems like [James] has some good talent to me,” he said. He’s got [Kyle] Korver who’s a great shooter, J.R. Smith who has always been a solid player — we focus on his one mistake and that tends to overshadow all the things he’s done to help them win a championship before — you’ve got Kevin Love, who was an All-Star and an Olympian; Rodney Hood, who was a 17-point scorer in the Western Conference; you’ve got Tristan [Thompson] who is back to playing like he played a few years ago. He’s got some workable pieces there. I don’t understand how, in order to talk about how great LeBron is we need to [expletive] on everybody else. That’s not O.K. Those guys have talent. I don’t buy this whole thing that he’s playing with a bunch of garbage.”
None of that is debatable. There’s never been a 3-point shooter quite like Korver, and Smith was indeed integral to Cleveland winning its only title in 2016 and getting back to the Finals last season. Love was enjoying arguably his best season in wine and gold before breaking his left hand in late January. Many considered Hood the most significant acquisition at a trade deadline that turned over nearly half the Cavaliers’ roster, while Thompson, after falling out of the rotation entirely in March and the first round of the playoffs, has been an absolute terror on the offensive glass since the Conference Finals.
But focusing solely on accomplishments of the past ignores realities of the present. Time and circumstance inevitably affects superstars, let alone role players, or in Love’s case, a five-time All-Star. Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum.
Korver is 37 years old, and the Warriors’ switch-heavy defensive scheme combined with their surplus offensive firepower magnify his weaknesses to the extent that Ty Lue doesn’t trust him. Smith, shaken by initially coming off the bench this season, was barely replacement-level before the playoffs, and has somehow been worse on both ends of the floor since. Golden State has been targeting Love on offense dating back to the first time these teams met in the Finals, and effects of a thumb injury suffered during the first round continue to linger. Hood showed off the natural scoring chops in Game 3 that were evident during his time with the Utah Jazz, but Lue had already given up on him before he had a chance to make a lasting impact in the Finals. The same two-way issues that have always made Thompson decidedly limited, even in the afterglow of that 2016 championship, still exist, and the game’s evolution between now and then has only exacerbated them.
Bryant didn’t mention George Hill, a solid if unspectacular veteran beset by injuries since last spring, whose play has vacillated wildly from game to game over the past five weeks. He praised former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Jordan Clarkson earlier in the interview, telling The Times that a shot-happy, defense-averse combo guard who’s shooting 30.1 percent in the playoffs “has a lot of talent and potential.” Bryant forgot about Jeff Green, but so did 29 teams during free agency, finally, leaving the Cavaliers to sign him to a one-year deal worth the veteran’s minimum.
To be fair to Bryant, Cleveland absolutely has some varied offensive talent, the type that fits nicely next to a ball-dominant playmaking maestro like James. Notably absent on the Cavaliers is another player gifted enough to function as primary ball handler in the playoffs, though, a role first left vacant by Kyrie Irving and then Isaiah Thomas. The trade deadline made it obvious that James would enter the postseason shouldering a heavier offensive burden than any of his playoff runs since 2010, and he’s carried it more easily than anyone could have anticipated.
Still, James’ game-by-game dominance hasn’t led to the team-wide offensive prowess it did in years past. The Cavaliers’ offensive rating in the playoffs is a ho-hum 107.2, nearly 11 points per 100 possessions worse than last year’s number. It dips all the way down to 94.1 with James on the bench; Smith’s 101.0 off-court offensive rating is the team’s second-lowest. For Cleveland to compete with Golden State, the whole of its offense needed to be greater than the sum of its individual pieces. That just hasn’t come to fruition, a hardly unexpected reality that has little to do with James.
After connecting on 39.0 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts during the regular season, the Cavaliers are shooting 29.2 percent on those looks against the Warriors. Love and Smith are a combined 5-of-27 on triples after passes coming from James. He averaged 17.6 potential assists per game coming into the Finals, and has bumped that number all the way up to 25.0 versus Golden State – over five more than John Wall‘s top-ranked postseason mark. James is shooting 52.5 percent from the floor against the Warriors; his teammates are shooting 39.3 percent. He’s made 23 free throws, three fewer than his teammates, and has over half of Cleveland’s assists.
In January 2017, toward the end of a 7-8 calendar month, James publicly lamented how top heavy the Cavaliers were, telling the media, “We need a ******* playmaker.” Deron Williams was brought in four weeks later, and played well for Cleveland off the bench before completely falling apart in the Finals. James gave a similar quote the day after Game 3, but didn’t show the frustration he did a year and-a-half prior. At 33, he’s been resigned to life as his team’s first, second and third ball handler for months.
“Obviously, we haven’t had many playmakers throughout the course of the season,” James said. “We had some early on, and we made the trades and things of that nature.”
But keeping Dwyane Wade or Derrick Rose around certainly wouldn’t have helped the Cavaliers’ defense, which is their biggest problem in the first place. Last season, Cleveland became just the second team since 1970-71 to make the playoffs despite finishing with a defensive rating ranked in the 20s, per Sporting News, joining the 2014-15 Cavaliers. Lue’s team finished second-to-last in defensive rating in 2017-18, barely ahead of the Phoenix Suns. Not only is this year’s iteration of Cleveland its worst defensive outfit of both James eras, but it’s the worst defensive team to ever make the Finals by a wide, wide margin. Before James went back home, the 2000-2001 Lakers, pioneer switch-flippers, had the lowest-ranked defensive rating, 19th, of any Finals participant.
James warrants some of the blame for his team’s defensive ineptitude. He’s the foremost tone-setter in basketball, and took his defensive apathy to new heights this season. James, like the Cavaliers, has been better during the playoffs, but the habits he established from October to April have hardly vanished altogether. Even if they had, it’s not like James – or any player in basketball, for that matter – is good enough defensively to mask the widespread deficiencies of Cleveland’s personnel. This team has no designated stopper, no rim-protector and lacks the like-sized athletes necessary to reap the inherent benefits of switching one-through-five.
The Cavaliers’ best defensive lineup, Hill-Smith-James-Green-Thompson, isn’t stingy enough to string together stops against the Warriors. Of course, no team in history could when Curry and Durant take turns making highlight-reel cases for Finals MVP. But a year ago, Cleveland could at least be confident knowing it had the horses to mostly keep pace with the Warriors on the other end. That’s not true this time around, no matter who Lue plays. Case in point: Golden State has scored 34 points and shot 70 percent in the 13 minutes Korver and Love have played together in the Finals.
The Cavaliers were always doomed against the Warriors. Even if they’d managed to win Game 1 at Oracle, James and company would still have been decided underdogs in this series. The time of objectively and forever-flawed teams winning a championship is over. Not only does Cleveland lack the talent of Golden State, it’s also absent the cohesion and collective intellect that allows the best teams to function as something more.
With his 15th season almost over and second tenure in Cleveland on the precipice, a reflective James is taking that reality into account.
“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,” he said on Thursday. “When you looked at [Rajon] Rondo and KG and Paul [Pierce] and Ray, 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. They were calling out sets. Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down. It was like, OK, this is bigger than basketball. So not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well.”
James changed the league forever when he left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in July 2010, setting a precedent that Durant took advantage of six years later. Unlike his three-time Finals counterpart, though, James has overcome the inevitable backlash that comes with leaving a static franchise in flyover country for a super-team on the coast. A similar move may be coming, and it shouldn’t be hard to see why.
This Cleveland team never had a realistic chance to win a title, and has no realistic prospects of the upward mobility necessary to dethrone the Warriors. James should leave once again. If he doesn’t, James won’t just be sacrificing an opportunity to be the last man standing in June, but also face the same round of baseless criticism some, it’s abundantly clear now, will never let him escape.
March 21, 2019, 7:46 pmMike Conley - G - Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are listing Mike Conley as doubtful for Friday's matchup with the Magic due to "general soreness."
Conley's been excellent this season and really hasn't generated much buzz as a shutdown candidate, largely because he hasn't dealt with many nagging injuries. We're expecting him to return to the lineup after this likely night off so he's not a drop. Delon Wright is going to be a popular play tomorrow, and with good reason. With Avery Bradley (shin) already out for at least a week, Justin Holiday, Bruno Caboclo, Jevon Carter and Tyler Dorsey should be in line for a lot of minutes tomorrow.
Source: Grizzlies PR on Twitter
March 21, 2019, 7:06 pmNicolas Batum - G/F - Charlotte Hornets
Nicolas Batum has been replaced in the starting lineup on Thursday night, with Dwayne Bacon drawing the start against the Wolves.
Batum is expected to be available off the bench, though he could be dealing with an undisclosed injury. He has started every game he's played in this year and it could be James Borrego looking for a spark with Charlotte trying to scrap their way into the playoffs.
Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter
March 21, 2019, 7:03 pmAllen Crabbe - G/F - Brooklyn Nets
Allen Crabbe had fluid drained from his sore right knee.
Crabbe will miss three straight games having already been ruled out for Friday, and odds are he misses more time than that. There's not much fantasy appeal here as Crabbe can only pop as a 3-point specialist in a deep Brooklyn rotation.
Source: Brian Lewis on Twitter
March 21, 2019, 6:54 pmKevin Love - F/C - Cleveland Cavaliers
Kevin Love (head) is not on the injury report and is expected to play in Friday's game against the Clippers.
Love left Wednesday's game after bumping heads with Eric Bledsoe, logging six points on 1-of-10 from the field in 18 minutes. He didn't return but it looks as though he's avoided a concussion, which comes as a massive relief to fantasy owners. Keep him in your lineups.
Source: NBA Injury Report
March 21, 2019, 6:49 pmJosh Hart - G - Los Angeles Lakers
Josh Hart (right knee tendinitis) is questionable for Friday's game against the Nets.
Hart's been able to go through games despite being less than 100 percent, and it's possible that he does get shut down eventually. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Bullock will pick up additional minutes if that happens.
Source: NBA Injury Report
March 21, 2019, 6:47 pmLance Stephenson - G - Los Angeles Lakers
Lance Stephenson (left toe sprain) is questionable to play on Friday against the Nets.
Stephenson has sat the last five and there's been almost no change in the fantasy landscape, unless you're going to count a sliver of Alex Caruso's playing time as coming at Stephenson's expense.
Source: NBA Injury Report
March 21, 2019, 6:01 pmGeorge Hill - G - Milwaukee Bucks
George Hill (left groin soreness) is being listed as probable to play on Friday against the Heat.
Hill sat out on Wednesday, the second leg of a back-to-back. The team is bringing him along slowly after he missed about a month, and he won't be a fantasy option until his minutes restrictions are lifted — even with Malcolm Brogdon out.
Source: NBA Injury Report
March 21, 2019, 6:00 pmSterling Brown - G - Milwaukee Bucks
Sterling Brown (right wrist soreness) is probable to play on Friday.
If he returns, it'll put and end to a 13-game absence. He might have some deep-league appeal with Malcolm Brogdon on the shelf but this isn't an add scenario unless you're in a 30-team league.
Source: NBA Injury Report
March 21, 2019, 5:58 pmPau Gasol - C/F - Milwaukee Bucks
Pau Gasol (left ankle soreness) has been ruled out for Friday against the Heat.
Gasol isn't in the rotation in Milwaukee and his utility to the team comes more in the locker room than on the court.
Source: NBA Injury Report
March 21, 2019, 5:57 pmGiannis Antetokounmpo - F - Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo (right ankle sprain) is probable ahead of Friday's game with the Heat.
Antetokounmpo should return from a two-game absence tomorrow night, but it may be too little too late for fantasy owners as Milwaukee's four-game week quickly turned to a two-game week for Giannis. Ersan Ilyasova and D.J. Wilson will get less action, though they're still going to help replace Nikola Mirotic's minutes. Expect all the other Bucks to get less usage.
Source: NBA Injury Report