2018 Free Agency Update: LeBron lays low during early morning madness, as do Heat

Cleveland’s LeBron James during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on May 27, 2018. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

As LeBron James’ private plane was tracking from Anguilla to Van Nuys Saturday, backroom deals were being struck all over the NBA landscape.

The frenzy started minutes before the ball dropped on the NBA New Year at midnight and continued well into the morning. Within hours about 20 players reportedly agreed to deals, with most not allowed to sign before noon on Friday.

One team sitting out the madness: the Miami Heat. The Heat’s lack of flexibility makes it very difficult for Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg to become a major player this summer, other than through the trade market.

The biggest names – Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City’s Paul George, Houston’s Chris Paul, Denver’s Nikola Jokic – are returning to their old teams. The four will re-sign on deals ranging from two to four years and totaling more than $500 million. (And this is a summer in which the theme is fiscal responsibility.)

The most intriguing names on the move so far are DeAndre Jordan from the Clippers to Dallas, Trevor Ariza from Houston to Phoenix and two players who obviously do not Trust the Process in Philadelphia, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, who will sign with Milwaukee and San Antonio, respectively.

Other than that, few names will tilt the needle as we enter the week, with, of course, one exception.

James spent most of last week holed up in the Caribbean, weighing his options. Saturday morning, he and his financial team boarded his jet for Southern California, where, let’s face it, all signs point to him ultimately staying put as a member of the Lakers. But on Sunday, James’ agent, Rich Paul, reportedly was set to meet with a high-level Sixers contingent in Los Angeles.

Before meeting with Philadelphia, the only reported contact James had with any team after midnight was a phone call with Cleveland general manger Koby Altman. James owes the Cavaliers nothing after delivering on his promise to bring Cleveland a title after returning four years ago but perhaps he learned from the embarrassing way he left his hometown team the first time with a poorly-planned, hour-long infomercial in which he declared he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”

James is not holding this free agent season hostage as he did eight and four years ago, when he bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland. A sign that many believe James’ decision has been made is so many deals being reported in the early hours of free agency. If James had a long list of teams he was considering, everything would have been on hold, much like it was two years ago for Durant and last year for Gordon Hayward.

But James has been trending toward the Lakers for weeks and that narrative become stronger Friday when James informed Cleveland he would opt out of the final year of contract, which realistically narrowed his choices to the Lakers, Cavs and Sixers. The biggest question now is who rides James’ coattails to L.A. With George staying put in OKC, the Lakers (and likely James) have targeted New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins.

Despite the early rush, this will be a tight market for free agents. Just eight teams have cap space of any significance and already two of them, Dallas and Phoenix, have made their big moves. Of those remaining teams, just the Lakers, Philadelphia and Indiana appear willing to hand out substantial contracts. The others – Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento – could sign mid-tier players and/or use their space for trades.

Many teams are looking back at the summer of 2016 when spending got out of control and some of the worst contracts in league history were handed out, and ahead to next summer when the cap will rise to a projected $109 million and the market will be deeper with Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love among those all likely to be available.

As for the Heat, the first bit of news likely will involve free agent guard Wayne Ellington. Miami would like to retain the franchise’s record holder for the most 3 pointers in a season, but at what price? The Heat have Ellington’s early Bird rights and can pay him as much as $10.9 million next season but that could put them above the new luxury tax line, which was revealed last night as $123.733 million, unless other salary is shed through a trade.

Ilyasova, Belinelli and Doug McDermott (Indiana) are long-range shooters like Ellington and their contracts were in the $6-$7.3 million per year range. Ellington will receive interest as the market settles but expect him and the Heat to have several conversations.

[Miami Heat swingman Rodney McGruder’s contract guaranteed for 2018-19]

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NBA Finals: Stephen Curry puts on a show; Cavaliers look deflated in Game 2 loss to Warriors

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors celebrates with Draymond Green during the fourth quarter of Game 2. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Coach Tyronn Lue insisted the Cleveland was not a broken team after squandering a great opportunity to steal Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Lue said the Cavaliers were ready for Sunday’s Game 2 in Oakland.

Lue’s team did not back him up.

Game 2 was more like what most expected from this series. The Cavaliers fell behind early and never led. Now they limp back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday down 0-2.

“I didn’t think we started the game like we needed to start,” Lue said as Golden State made its first seven field goal attempts. “Not being physical enough. We can’t start the game like that. … We have to start the game better, being more physical, bringing the physicality. We didn’t do that tonight to start.”

The Cavaliers can say what they want but Thursday’s loss was deflating and took something out of the underdogs. Cleveland was flat on both ends of the court for most of the first half and after cutting into the lead in the third quarter, quickly ran out of gas in the fourth quarter as Golden State stretched the lead to 23 before setting fo a 122-103 victory.

Cleveland reverted back to the shaky defensive team was saw all season, allowing the Warriors to shoot 57.3 percent from the field and LeBron James wasn’t anything close to matching his extraordinary Game 1 effort. And unless James plays out of this world, the Cavaliers have no chance.

James once again filled the stat sheet with 29 points, 9 rebounds and 13 assists, but his impact was nothing like Game 1 when he dropped 51. And James looked fatigued at times playing all but the final 4:09. He now has played 185:29 of a possible 197 minutes in the last four games. When LeBron is tired it shows more on the defensive end and in his effort getting back on defense. And he spent more time whining about non-calls than usual.

“It sucks to lose,” said James, who insists he got tired once during the game. “It sucks when you go out there and give everything you have – your mind’s into it, your body’s into it and you come out on the losing end.”

Cleveland forward LeBron James sits on the bench during the second half of the Cavaliers’ Game 2 Finals loss to the Warriors. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Stephen Curry highlight film: The first one came with 7:54 to play in the game. With the shot clock running down Curry briefly lost his dribble, picked up the ball and threw up a high-arcing shot from about 30 feet over Kevin Love that cleaning went through to push the Warriors lead to 14. About two minutes later, Curry raced to the corner and launched another 3-pointer, again over Love. The only difference this time was he landed on his back as he was fouled by Love and the shot turned into a four-point play.

“A big moment where we had a significant lead and we could extend it a little bit and create some separation down the stretch,” Curry said about the three that beat shot clock. “It was a cool moment for sure.”

The two 3-pointers were part of Curry’s Finals record of nine (in 17 attempts). He finished with 33 points and placed himself as the leading contender for Finals MVP. And that is saying a lot when for the second straight game the Warriors’ Big Three all topped 20 points with Kevin Duran scoring 26 (on 10-of-14 shooting) and Klay Thompson adding 20 (8 of 13).

    Warriors fans taunt JR Smith: Cleveland’s JR Smith wasn’t going to forget about one of the biggest blunders in Finals history in Game 1, a play that dominated the conversation during the two-day break between games. Smith’s meltdown in the final seconds of regulation – he dribbled out the final 4.7 seconds with the score tied – gave the Warriors life, who took advantage and dominated the overtime.

Warriors fans first showed Smith how much they appreciated his contributing to their team’s win by loudly cheering him during pregame introductions. Then, with Smith at the foul line, he heard chants of “MVP, MVP.” One fan brought a sign saying Smith was “DA REAL MVP.”

And how did Smith respond? He finished with five points on 2-of-9 shooting but wasn’t about to admit the taunts got under his skin. Then again, this is a man who wanted everybody to believe that he knew the score at the end of Game 1 and was dribbling the ball to halfcourt looking for a better shot.

“I’m always a person who the fans like to talk to or heckle,” Smith said. “I like it. I’d rather they do that than not acknowledge me at all. I appreciate it.”

[Heat offseason Q&A: Udonis Haslem not going to rush decision on his future]

[Why are the Heat tied for fifth-best odds to win the 2018-19 NBA title?]

[Heat offseason Q&A: Kelly Olynyk from India on Basketball Without Borders, his offseason & more]

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NBA Finals: JR Smith’s blunder costs LeBron, Cavaliers chance to steal Game 1 from Warriors

Cleveland’s LeBron James looks at JR Smith as time expires in regulation against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals with the score tied at 107. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Cavaliers – the biggest underdogs in the Finals in 30 years – squandered a golden opportunity to steal Game 1 and now must be wondering just what they have to do to win a game against the Golden State Warriors.

In the final minute of regulation, the Cavaliers were victimized by a little-known rule that allowed the officials to change a call and then watched JR Smith dribble out what could have been their only chance at a win.

Smith rebounded a missed George Hill free throw with 4.7 seconds to play in regulation and thinking the Cavs had the lead raced to halfcourt with the ball. The problem was the game was tied and Smith’s brain cramp send the game into overtime where the Warriors dominated for a 124-114 win.

Although Smith tried to save himself by saying he knew the game was tied and he was trying to find room to get a shot and then thought Cleveland going to call a time out, he clearly believed the Cavs had the lead.

Cavs coach Tryonn Lue confirmed that.

“He thought it was over,” Lue said. “He thought we were up one.”

The look on LeBron James’ face told the story. James finished with 51 points and must have been wondering if his effort was going to go to waste.

It did.

Smith’s mental meltdown concluded a bizarre final minute filled with drama and breakdowns.

It all started with a reversal on a block-charge call with 34.6 seconds to play that had a huge impact on the outcome. Kevin Durant was originally called for an offensive foul but because the officials could review the play to see if James was in the restricted circle, the actual call was also able to be reviewed. It was changed – correctly – to a block on James.

Instead of the Cavs leading 104-102 with the ball, Durant made both free throws and the game was tied.

“For our team to come out and play their hearts out, compete the way we did, it’s bad,” Lue said about the overturned call.

Fast forward to the final seconds with the Warriors leading 107-106 thanks to a Stephen Curry basket and free throw. The Warriors fell asleep on the biggest possession of the game and Klay Thompson had to grab Hill, who was cutting to the basket and would have been wide open as James was making the pass. Hill made the first free throw to tie the score and missed the second, setting up Smith’s blunder.

All of which must have James wondering: “What more can I do?”

James had the sixth 50-point game in NBA Finals history. He also tied Michael Jordan with his 109th playoff game with at least 30 points. James shot 19 of 32, had eight rebounds and eight assists and still could not will his team to a win.

In addition, the Cavaliers finished with a 52-38 rebounding advantage and the Warriors were just 8 of 30 on 3-pointers midway through the fourth quarter. They finished 13 of 36.

While Lue said the  Cavs were robbed, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said his team was lucky.

“We played as well as we’ve played all postseason,” James said. “We gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession. And there were some plays that were kind of taken away from us.”

Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson confronts Golden State’s Draymond Green late in Game 1. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Let’s get physical: With the Cavaliers’ frustration level already boiling over, tempers flared in the final seconds of overtime and it could impact Sunday’s Game 2. After James had words with Curry and Thompson, Cleveland’s Tristian Thompson took offense to Shaun Livingston taking a shot with four seconds remaining and threw an elbow at Livingston.

Thompson said the thought Livingston should not have shot the ball and taken the shot clock violation. “That was some bull****,” he said.

Livingston, and the rest of the Warriors, disagreed.

“We don’t ever take a turnover,” Livingston said. “We finish the game out, that’s just how we play. That’s not disrespect to any team.”

Thompson was immediately ejected and as the teams came together Golden State’s Draymond Green started talking and waiving goodbye. Thompson shoved the basketball and his hand in Green’s face. Green backed off.

The league certainly will take a look at the play today and could fine or even suspend Tristian Thompson for a game.

Klay Thompson is in pain after injuring his left knee. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Warriors let out sigh of relief: As much as we all believe this will be a quick series the first quarter reminded us how quickly things could change.

Everybody connected to the Warriors held their breath when Smith slipped and rolled into Klay Thompson’s left knee about six minutes into the game. The Warriors guard went down grimacing and slapped the court, a bad sign. But the news was as good as it could have been for the Warriors as Thompson was diagnosed with a leg contusion and returned at the start of the second quarter. He finished with 24 points.

But the play illustrates why nothing is guaranteed. This could easily have ended differently and suddenly the Warriors are down one of their stars and the series takes on a whole different look.

[Heat center Hassan Whiteside to play in NBA Africa Game]

[Mailbag: Do Heat really have a chance in the LeBron James free agency sweepstakes?]

[Miami Heat ties to Finals not limited to LeBron James]

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Miami Heat president Pat Riley’s theory on the best way to catch the Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors have won two of the last three NBA Championships. Heat president Pat Riley isn’t sure the best way to catch them is the way they were built. (Getty Images)

Pat Riley remembers the feeling, how his organization once was the gold standard, the one every team was trying to chase and build to unseat.

Now it’s Golden State. And Riley understands what it will take to catch the Warriors.

Riley recently spoke about how the Warriors were built. “Organically,” he said. The Warriors original foundational pieces – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green – all were acquired through the draft.

Once Golden State became a contender it started supplementing and building depth by acquiring players through trades and free agency.

[Pat Riley kept his word and Wayne Ellington is ‘ecstatic’ he did]

[Former Heat center Willie Reed’s decision to decline option results in less money with Clippers]

[Two Heat players make a list of the league’s worst contracts. … and they have the same name]

“They drafted well, but they also made some very good acquisitions via trade and free agency,” Riley said last week. “They got (Andre) Iguodala, they ended up getting (Andrew) Bogut in a trade. The very first championship they won, they signed Shaun Livingston. They drafted Draymond Green in the second round. So they had a very low contract with Steph, they got Klay, so they grew organically. … They used all three areas.”

After their first title the Warriors slipped before deciding they needed one more final piece to truly separate them from the rest of the league.

That was Kevin Durant.

Now, everyone is chasing the Warriors and Riley has an interesting take in how that should be done.

Riley is not sure the best way to beat Golden State is to build your team the way Golden State did. His reasoning. … it will take too long.

“I think today in order to catch them, if you want to do the organic trip, it’s going to take you a long time,” he said. “Because the organic trip obviously is through lotteries and draft, and maybe some real good trades. But to be able to pick off the free agent that can change that organic trip and make it a little faster, I think will always be there.”

Which lends more insight into the way Riley has been thinking as he attempts to rebuild the Heat.

Riley isn’t interested in tanking and trying to rebuild through the lottery. What he wants is to remain competitive and then hit on another superstar free agent signing or a blockbuster trade.

Riley attempted that last summer in his pursuit of Durant and again this month by unsuccessfully going after Gordon Hayward. But even Hayward alone would not have been enough.

Still, he has put together a competitive team with a core of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Justice Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson and Wayne Ellington.

But the Heat remain a star player (or two) away from becoming a true contender, one Riley always believes will be out there to chase.

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Do the Miami Heat need another ‘super team’ to compete with Warriors and Cavaliers? Udonis Haslem says, ‘No’

Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade led the Heat to four Finals appearances and two titles. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

MIAMI – The Golden State Warriors have redefined the term “super team” and it is working out pretty good, so far.

The Warriors one upped the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, adding a fourth All-Star to their roster in Kevin Durant and it has shown this postseason. With two easy victories over the Cavs in the Finals, the Warriors not only are two wins away from their second title in three years, but if they sweep the series, they will complete a 16-0 postseason, becoming the first team in NBA history to sweep four postseason series.

The Warriors and Cavaliers, who were 12-1 during the playoffs before running into Golden State in the Finals, have raised the bar and 28 other teams now are on the chase, including the Miami Heat. Heat captain Udonis Haslem knows the feeling of being on a super team when he played alongside LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade for four years, a period in which the Heat qualified for four Finals and won back-to-back titles in 2012 and ‘13.

The 14-year veteran, though, does not believe it will take the stars aligning just right to make a run at a title. Haslem says a good team with the right attitude can compete with anybody.

“You don’t have to have a super team,” Haslem said Saturday from the Mountain Dew NBA 3-on-3 fan experience at Bayfront Park. “The problem is the majority of the league doesn’t play hard. You’ve got 20 percent of the NBA that does play hard. So when you take a super talented team that actually plays hard and plays the game the right way you get a team like Golden State.

“They’ll be other talented teams. The question is will they play hard like Golden State? Will they play together like Golden State? That’s what separates them from other talented teams. It’s the way they approach the game.”

 [Will Dion Waiters give the Heat a hometown discount in free agency? Waiters didn’t rule it out]

[There won’t be free-agent meetings and uncertainty for Hassan Whiteside this summer, and he’s OK with that]

[Justise Winslow, Udonis Haslem discuss ‘complicated’ Chris Bosh situation]

Forward Justise Winslow is not sure about a super team – “I don’t know how you define it,” he said – but he is sure about one thing. …

“You have to have a great team to get to the Finals,” he said. “I don’t know about a super team, I don’t know how you define it. I don’t know what players have to average or what kind of star they have to be.”

So how far away are the Heat from being mentioned with the Warriors of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, or even the Cavaliers – the team Miami would have to go through in the Eastern Conference – with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love?

Miami should have about $38 million to spend in free agency next month. But president Pat Riley and GM Andy Elisburg would have to believe there is one player – one major piece of a super team – worth spending a majority of that money on. Perhaps Clippers power forward Blake Griffin or Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward.

Although he has yet to be an All-Star, the Heat could have the first piece in center Hassan Whiteside, who at least is paid like one with a max deal that is paying him $98 million over four years. In the last two years Whiteside has led the NBA in blocks (2015-16) and rebounding (2016-17). And Whiteside believes Miami is not that far away with players like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters (if he re-signs) emerging during the second half of the season.

That trio was the foundation to a team that went 30-11 in the second half of last season, which was second-best in the NBA behind Golden State, and missed the playoffs by one game.

Another key piece to that turnaround: forward James Johnson, who, like Waiters, will be a free agent July 1.

“You don’t know what a guy like Dion is going to bring and Goran,” Whiteside said. “Those guys can become superstars themselves. So you might not even have to go get anybody else. It might be enough.

“I think we got a chance next year. I feel like if we would have got into the playoffs (this year), we could have made a lot of noise in there.”

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Stephen Curry dribbling circles around LeBron James epitomizes Warriors’ win in Game 2 of Finals

That Stephen Curry dribbling routine that blows up on social media during warmups,  well, it doesn’t only happen before games.

Curry’s 13-dribble exhibition early in the second half of the Golden State Warriors’ 132-113 Game 2 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday was the greatest highlight of a game full of them — mostly all from Golden State.

Curry received the pass at the top of the circle, dribbled close enough to get one foot in the paint before reversing his course and coming back out to the circle. He then pump-faked LeBron James into leaving his feet and headed to the rim, eventually finishing with a right-handed layup over James and Kevin Love.

Curry said early in the play he was “just kind of like a chicken with my head cut off running circles,” before adding, “he’s a great defender so you know you have to do something pretty special to score,”

The Cavaliers called time out and although the Warriors lead was 10, it felt like 100 as Cleveland showed, once again, it had no clue how to stop Curry and Kevin Durant.

The two combined for 65 points — one fewer than in Game 1 — 23 rebounds and 17 assists with Curry recording his first postseason triple-double: 32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assist.

And although he did not have a great night from the floor (7 of 17, 4 of 11 on threes), Curry made all 14 of his free throws.

Durant had 33, 13 and 6. To put their dominance in perspective, the 131 points by Curry and Durant while the Warriors have taken a 2-0 lead in the series are just 73 fewer than the Cavaliers have scored.

Golden State’s Klay Thompson watches his jump shot during the second half of the Warriors win over Cleveland in Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals.
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Klay Thompson finds his stroke: The Warriors had two players score more than 30 points in Game 2 but it was the guy with 22 points that will bring the most smiles today. Thompson has been in the shadows of Durant and Curry this postseason, and most of this season for that matter. He’s having the worst postseason of his six-year career, averaging 13.8 points and shooting just 36.6 percent entering Game 2. And he appeared frustrated and confused in Game 1 with just six points, while missing 13 of his 16 shots.

But the old Klay Thompson returned in Game 2, his 22 points coming on 8-of-12 shooting (4-of-7 on threes). And if he’s all the way back, a team that has been unbeatable in the postseason (14-0) will become even more daunting.

LeBron James

LeBron goes from aggressive to gassed: LeBron James is getting no help and it’s starting to show. He came out aggressively in Game 1, taking the ball hard to the rim on his first 12 shots. And although he was piling up points, he was getting worn down, a byproduct of chasing players like Durant and Thompson all over the court as the Warriors continue to push the pace. James’ first jumper, a three, did not come until 6:48 remained in the third quarter. James had 27 points after three quarters, but by late in the third quarter he appeared exhausted, and a few minutes later Cavs coach Tyronn Lue noticed, giving him a break. James had just two points in the fourth quarter and he did shoot 12 of 18 and finish with a triple double (11 rebounds and 14 assists), but he was not a factor the final 12 minutes, allowing the Warriors to race to the victory.

Once again James will have two days of rest before the next game, but that didn’t help between Games 1 and 2. Wednesday’s Game 3, though, will be in Cleveland where James should receive a major boost from the home crowd.

Following the game James was asked if he needed IV fluids. “No, I’m good, I’m good,” he said. “Just need some food and some wine and I’ll be all right.”

[Game 1 of Finals exactly what Kevin Durant envisioned when he signed with Warriors 11 months ago]

[LeBron James entering the NBA Finals as the underdog … again]

[2017 NBA Finals: 10 storylines as the Cavaliers and Warriors meet for third straight year]

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Game 1 of Finals exactly what Kevin Durant envisioned when he signed with Warriors 11 months ago

Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers just forgot Kevin Durant was on the floor. After all, the last two years they didn’t have to worry about Durant when they faced the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, with the eight-time All-Star nothing more than a spectator after his Oklahoma City teams were eliminated.

How else to explain the fact that Durant was more wide open than Draymond Green’s mouth during most of Thursday’s Game 1? The result was exactly what Durant envisioned when he left Oklahoma City 11 months ago, a juggernaut offense taking down the Cavs in the Finals.

The Warriors’ 113-91 dismantling of the Cavaliers showed exactly how dangerous they have become with Durant. Sure, Durant scored 38 points, shot 14 of 26 and his six dunks reminded us all just how bad the Cavaliers’ defense was late in the season, but this is why the Warriors will be so hard to beat. …

Kevin Durant dunks during Game 1 of the Finals. (John G. Mabanglo/Pool Photo via AP)

With four All-Stars, even if two have checked out offensively, as Klay Thompson and Green did in Game 1, combining for 15 points and 22 missed shots, the Warriors always will have two players ready to take over. In Game 1, Stephen Curry was that other guy with 28 points.

The Cavaliers’ treatment of Durant was baffling, appearing more concerned with the 3-point shooters as he would race down the court with the ball. Durant had six dunks in the first half, five in transition. Of course, Cleveland’s transition defense was the second worst in the league this year, so …

The one play that was a microcosm of this game occurred in the first half when Durant grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball — all the while his eyes on Curry on the left side hoping LeBron James and Kyrie Irving would bite. Both did and suddenly the middle of the court was wide open and Durant went in for another uncontested dunk.

Just as he envisioned.

Another disappointing Game 1 for LeBron: LeBron James has been to eight Finals, and seven times his teams have lost Game 1. And the only win was in 2011, his first Finals game as a member of the Heat. Miami went on to lose that series to Dallas in six games. James’s 28 points and 15 rebounds did not tell the entire story. His defense on Durant was atrocious and he had eight of Cleveland’s 20 turnovers, the third most by an individual in Finals history. Clearly frustrated, James is going to need a lot more help than Irving scoring 24 points if Cleveland is going to avoid being embarrassed in this series.

LeBron James on the bench during the Cavaliers loss to the Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Hey Cleveland, you’re not in the East anymore: The Cavaliers blew through the Eastern Conference during the playoffs, going 12-1 on the way to their third straight trip to the Finals. But the Cavaliers are no longer facing the weaker teams from the East and it showed. Cleveland averaged 116.8 points, shot 50.7 percent and held the Pacers, Raptors and Celtics to 87 field-goal attempts per game in the first three rounds. In Game 1, Cleveland scored 91 points, shot 35.5 percent and the Warriors took an astounding 106 shots. Welcome to the big leagues.

[Police looking into possible hate crime after LeBron James’ L.A. home vandalized with racial slur]

[LeBron James entering the NBA Finals as the underdog … again]

[2017 NBA Finals: 10 storylines as the Cavaliers and Warriors meet for third straight year]

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2017 NBA Finals: 10 storylines as the Cavaliers and Warriors meet for third straight year

Cleveland’ s LeBron James celebrates in the final moments of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against at Golden State. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet for the third consecutive season in the NBA Finals starting Thursday in Oakland.

The teams have split the first two series, with the Warriors winning in six games in 2015 and the Cavaliers recovering from a 3-1 hole to win Game 7 on the road in 2016.

Now, we have a new twist to the rivalry as Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the offseason to give them a Big 4 (Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) to go against Cleveland’s Big 3 (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love).

The series should be compelling so we bring you 10 storylines to keep in mind throughout:

Will Golden State lose a game these playoffs?

The Warriors enter the finals 12-0 in the postseason with sweeps over Portland, Utah and San Antonio. The closest anybody has come to that in the expanded playoffs era (needing 15 or 16 wins for the title) are the 2001 Lakers who were 15-1, sweeping the first three rounds and defeating Philadelphia in the Finals, 4-1. So the question really is: Will Golden State sweep Cleveland, which would give it a 16-0 postseason? The Warriors will win the title but, yes, they will lose a game – or two – along the way.

If the Cavaliers wins, will LeBron James’ success in Cleveland surpass his success in Miami?

LeBron’s first two seasons in his return to Cleveland and first two in Miami ended the same; losing in the Finals the first year and winning a championship the second. And while LeBron’s Cavs teams have had an easier run through the East than his Heat teams, the Warriors teams Cleveland has played in the Finals clearly are better than the Mavericks and Thunder teams the Heat faced in the 2011 and 2012 Finals. The Heat then defeated a very good Spurs team in the 2013 Finals, one that was much closer to these Warriors. If Cleveland wins this season it is on the same track as the 2011-2014 Heat. Then perhaps next year could determine which team has been more successful.

Will we see Warriors coach Steve Kerr on the bench in the Finals?

Kerr has not been on the bench since Game 2 of Golden State’s first round series against Portland due to complications from his 2015 back surgery – a spinal cord fluid leak causing headaches and nausea. Kerr, though, started traveling during the conference finals but remained in the locker room during games as Mike Brown continued as acting head coach. Kerr said Monday that he is not healthy enough to return to the bench and his status for the series is “still up in the air.”

What would another title mean to LeBron James’ legacy?

LeBron (and teammate James Jones) will become the only players not members of the Celtics’ dynasty of the 1960s to appear in at least seven straight finals. Michael Jordan, the man to whom LeBron is compared, never played in more than three in a row but it can be argued he would have been to eighth straight had he not abruptly left the sport for two seasons. This is James’ eight finals overall, winning three championships and losing four times in his previous seven. But last year’s title came against the greatest regular season team in league history. He still will have to convince some he is on par with Jordan if the Cavs upset the Warriors, but that gap would be narrowed.

Will the winning team be invited to the White House?

This will become a storyline after the Finals. Kerr is one of a handful of NBA coaches who have been outspoken against Donald Trump, calling him a “blowhard” and saying he “could not be more ill-suited” to be president. James never has been a fan of Trump’s, speaking out against his immigration order and refusing to stay at a Trump property in New York. The question then comes down to if the winner somehow is invited, will it accept?

Will Charles Barkley accuse Kevin Durant of riding Stephen Curry’s coattails if Golden State wins?

A discussion last week between Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal on TNT got personal when Shaq once again reminded Barkley that he has never won a title and Barkley shot back that Shaq won his four titles by riding the coattails of Kobe Bryant in L.A. and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Durant could be accused of the same thing if the Warriors win. Durant already was heavily criticized last summer for joining Golden State after his Oklahoma City team blew a 3-1 series lead in the conference finals and lost Game 7.

Are Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love a better fit with LeBron James than Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?

James had his ups and downs (mostly ups) with both the Cavaliers (since his return) and the Heat, but many believe he has never been better than he has this postseason. In both situations the third wheel of the Big 3 (Bosh and Love) had to make major sacrifices and at times some wondered if it would work (it did). James’ main sidekick (Wade and Irving) appeared to have an easier time with the transition. The biggest difference is Irving is a point guard while Wade is a shooting guard. But either way, James has done pretty well playing with both.

Will Draymond Green stay out of trouble in this year’s Finals?

The Warriors’ polarizing forward was suspended for Game 5 last season after being assessed a flagrant foul 1 on a play in which he and James got tangled and Green swung his arm into James’ groin area. Green has had several incidents throughout his career in which he has appeared to attempt to kick an opposing player, sometimes making contact to the groin. But Green has been a good boy during these playoffs. … so far. The NBA has handed out 10 fines during the postseason, none to Green. And there have been four flagrant 1s and one flagrant 2 called, none on Green. The worst he’s gotten is two technical fouls. So, continue that pattern and, yes, he’ll be OK. But, you never know with that temper.

Can either team be challenged in their respective conferences in the next few years?

The Warriors are younger when you consider their top four players still are in their 20s (Curry will turn 30 next March). James is 32 while Irving and Love are in their 20s. Still, neither team appears to be slowing down at least for the next two to three years. The only team possibly challenging either is Boston, which made it to the East finals this season, has the No. 1 pick in the draft and enough money to sign a max free agent.

Will the Finals make up for a boring NBA postseason to date?

Like the thrilling second half and overtime of the Super Bowl made up for a boring NFL playoffs? Yes. These playoffs have not been very competitive with five series ending in sweeps and two more lasting just five games, and just two going to Game 7. But this is what everybody has been waiting for and now is the time for the Warriors and Cavaliers to save the postseason.

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Five reasons to watch the NBA playoffs even though the Miami Heat are not in them

For the first time, both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be playing for teams other than the Miami Heat in the playoffs. (AP Photo)

The NBA playoffs start Saturday and the disappointment of the Miami Heat not being part of the postseason still is fresh in the minds of the South Florida sports fan.

But, the show must go on and the league usually gives us an entertaining two month run of postseason games.

Although many believe this all we come down to a third consecutive meeting between the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals, nothing is guaranteed, which is why there still are plenty of reason to watch from the start.

We give you five of those reasons.

Is LeBron’s run over?: The Cavaliers have left themselves no excuses not to get to the Finals. Cleveland conceded the top spot in the East by resting LeBron James and Kyrie Irving the final two games of the season, which means it’s Finals or bust to justify the move. And if Cleveland is in a Game 7 in Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, the pressure to win will be enormous. But for James to get there for a seventh consecutive year and for Cleveland to repeat as champions, the Cavs will have to fix a defense that sprung a leak and was among the worst in the league the final six weeks of the season.

How far will Dwyane Wade and the Bulls go?: Despite finishing with the same regular-season record as Miami, Chicago made it to the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed due to a head-to-head tiebreaker. Wade and the Bulls will take on the top-seeded Celtics in a first-round series that begins with Game 1 on Sunday in Boston. The Celtics are the clear favorites to win the series, but Wade, playing in the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career with a team other than the Heat, isn’t used to an early playoff exit. Wade was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs three times in his 13 seasons with the Heat.

Can the Warriors avenge last season’s Finals loss?: Golden State finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record at 67-15. But the Warriors’ road back to the Finals won’t be easy, as a matchup with the dangerous Spurs could await them in the Western Conference Finals. With Kevin Durant now on the roster to go along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Golden State has the most talented roster in the NBA. But will it be enough for the Warriors to make up for last season’s disappointing loss to the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals?

Are the Celtics fraudulent?: Boston finished 53-29, its best record since winning 56 games since 2010-11. Still, the Celtics were gifted the No. 1 seed in the East by the Cavaliers and they have not been the pillar of consistency with a 4-4 stretch in early March, then losing 3-of-5 in late March and early April. And while Isaiah Thomas will receive some MVP love – by that I mean he could be could sneak in to the Top 5 of the voting – can a team led by a 5-foot-9 guard truly be a title contender?

Which MVP candidate will advance?: The MVP race is down to OKC’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden and the two will face off in the most entertaining first round matchup of the playoffs. Westbrook led the league in scoring and is the first player to average a triple double in 55 years. Harden led the league in assists and was second in scoring. Between them they averaged 60.7 points, 21.6 assists and 18.8 rebounds and combined for 64 triple doubles. This series will be the ultimate one-on-one battle and it will be fun.

[The captain speaks: Udonis Haslem discusses how special this Heat team was, his future, and Erik Spoelstra]

[Five that got away: Heat can look back at these five games in season that ended one win shy of playoffs]

[Miami Heat: Five burning questions entering the offseason]

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On 55th anniversary of Wilt’s 100 point game, Miami Heat players say it would never happen on their watch

 

 

Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game 55 years ago tonight.
Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game 55 years ago tonight.

MIAMI – Tyler Johnson knows what he would do if somebody were about to drop 100 points on his team.

“You’re not getting 100 on me,” the Heat guard said. “I’m going to hard foul you. Once you start sniffing 80, I have to give you a hard one. I have to. And as a coach I’m definitely sending double, triple (teams). We’re not going to be that team for sure.”

The Knicks needed Johnson on the sidelines in Hershey, Pa., 55 years ago tonight when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points, an NBA record that likely never will be broken. Chamberlain made 36-of-63 shots from the floor and 28-of-32 from the line.

And he chipped in with 25 rebounds in the Philadelphia Warriors’ 169-147 victory.

“It’s probably one of the greatest performances that I haven’t seen,” said 25-year-old Dion Waiters.

Several players were asked what they would have done to stop the 7-foot-1, 275-pound Chamberlain and the answers pretty much echoed Johnson’s.

“I got six fouls,” Waiters said. “I’m going to use up all my fouls before you score 100 on me. I might have to watch from the side. I’m not letting you score 100 points on me.”

I asked a number of players what was the most points they ever scored in any game at any level.

Dion Waiters: 63 in a rec league game when he was in 8th grade. “I shot every time, though,” he said.

Goran Dragic: 47 playing for his national team in Slovenia.

Hassan Whiteside: 55 playing in China. “I had a triple double with 28 or 29 rebounds and 10 blocks,” he said.

Wayne Ellington: 45 in a high school game.

Okaro White: 52 in a high school summer tournament.

Jason Richardson: 47 in a college rec league game.

James Johnson: 40 in the D-League.

Tyler Johnson: 62 in middle school.

Some players were asked if Wilt’s 100 could be matched in the modern NBA. The closest anybody has come is the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who totaled 81 against the Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006.

Chamberlain, who averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in 1961-62, has four of the top five scoring performances in NBA history.

Dragic said maybe Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson.

“I feel like how Golden State is playing maybe Steph or Klay,” he said. “Klay already had that game he had 37 in a quarter. They know how to share the ball. You never know.”

Ellington agrees but also throws Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the conversation. Tyler Johnson said he’d go with Westbrook over Harden or any of the Warriors.

Tyler also delicately (and respectfully) pointed out how the level of competition and the talent level 55 years ago is not quite what is it today and believes he shares a locker room with a player who has the skills today that would have been as dominant as Wilt’s back in the day.

“If Hassan played back then I bet he’s get 100,” Johnson said.

[Q&A with Heat forward Luke Babbitt, who in the past talked coaches into allowing him to shoot threes]

[Five takeaways: Miami Heat offense catches fire in blowout win over Philadelphia 76ers]

[Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month]

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