Posts Tagged ‘Bill Russell’

LeBron: On His Way To G.O.A.T.?

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.

In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — G.O.A.T?

Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.

The Chosen One.

We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.

Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.

Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.

Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.

And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.

Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.

“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”

A desire to get better



VIDEO: LeBron goes global with visit to China

That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.

James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.

Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.

Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.

“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.

“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.

“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”

James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.

Tuning out the noise

James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long,  that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.

Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.

“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.

James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.

In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.

Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.

James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot.  Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:

“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”

Jordan vs. James

If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career.  Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.

As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.

Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.

Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.

On the all-time list of PER, Jordan sits at No. 1 with a career 27.91 rating. James is second at 27.65 and closing.

Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.

For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.

“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.

“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”


VIDEO:
Would LeBron James have been a star in the NBA of the 1990s?

The measure of the G.O.A.T.

If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.

And, really, should that be the measure anyway?

“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”

After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.

“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.

“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”

Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.


VIDEO:
LeBron James’ top 10 plays from 2012-13

Iverson: The Uncomfortable Answer

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HANG TIME, Texas – He stood there at mid-court cradling the Most Valuable Player trophy and the transformation was complete.

Not quite a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, because Allen Iverson never would be described as something so light and delicate. But just as dramatic and, maybe, just as natural.

It was as jarring a sight that night at the 2001 NBA All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., perhaps, as seeing Mike Tyson in a set of tights with the Bolshoi Ballet or having the chiseled visage of Richard Nixon join the great ones high up on Mt. Rushmore.

Yet this was the way it had to be if his game, his league, his sport was to have continued hope to grow and flourish. For 14 seasons, people said Iverson was the changing face of the league — and that was not always meant in a good way.

But tattoos are only skin deep. Hairstyles change and grow, just like people.

The recent news that Iverson planned to announce his official retirement brought back a sudden rush of so many memories of the will-o’-the-wisp guard who broke ankles, broke protocol and broke the mold of what a little man could do.

He was Rookie of the Year (1997), MVP (2001), a four-time scoring champion, three-time steals leader, three-time All-NBA First Team member and twice was given the top prize at the All-Star Game. The first time, the award came for his performance in the nation’s capital when Iverson showed that behind the hip-hop persona of a modern player was an old-fashioned pro who simply lived and loved to compete.

The player whose reputation would a year later become eternally stamped by a rant about “Practice!?” was the ultimate gamer who brought the Eastern Conference from 21 points down in the fourth quarter of an exhibition game because, well, if you’re gonna play, you might as well try to win.

Iverson’s style was always far less an artistic display and much more a competitive exercise, as if there was something to prove. And there was. The guy who had been called “Me-Myself-and-Iverson” spent much of his career, as he’s spent most of his troubled life, listening to people doubt not only his motives, but what’s inside his heart.

He came into the league wearing tattoos and cornrows and bandanas and traveling with his posse. He put himself into the center of a storm with his caught-on-national-TV microphones slur about sexual preference to a heckling fan in Indiana.

Iverson was as far removed image-wise as one could get and still live on the same planet as two of the three players who preceded him in winning his first All-Star MVP trophy — the quietly purposeful Tim Duncan and the regal Michael Jordan.

He was the foam on the front of the new wave.

“I’m one of them,” Iverson said, “but I’m also me.”

For just over a decade that’s who the demanding, discriminating Philadelphia fans got to see: the fearless competitor, the tough nut that wouldn’t crack, the lump of coal that used the intense pressure to transform himself into a diamond.

A few months later, Iverson would willfully, sometimes it seemed singlehandedly, drag the Sixers to the NBA Finals and earn his due respect from the public at large. However, it was that game amid other All-Stars when he demonstrated to the masses what, behind the perception, was his reality.

In those flashing, brilliant final minutes when Iverson was everywhere on the floor, making steals, setting up fast breaks, scoring on twisting, jack-knifing drives, he could have been a player from any era, no different from Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Julius Erving, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the other greats who had been introduced to the crowd at halftime.

He looked and acted different, this new kid, like new kids always have. They make us uncomfortable, force us to look at things from a different perspective. But what it was about that day was showing that many things never change on the inside, no matter how they’re packaged. Competitors compete.

Sometimes the torch is passed and sometimes it is a wild spark that burns down the forest to make room for new growth.

He was never going to be Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. You were asking too much to replace that. They laid the foundation, established the game in the consciousness of a worldwide audience. They made it possible for the next generation to follow in their footsteps even if it meant never wearing their shoes.

The question, of course, is always: What comes next?

Allen Iverson was always The Answer, even when we didn’t know it yet.

Summer Dreaming: Most Valuable Player

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HANG TIME, Texas – We’ve been to the beach to soak up the rays and the scenery. We’ve dove into a cool mountain lake at the end of an invigorating hike. We’ve got the adrenaline pumping with a whitewater kayak ride through rapids. We’ve taken our inner tubes down the river for a long afternoon float.

What else is left to do on these sultry summer days for relaxation except to lie back in a hammock and dream of MVPs who’ll heat things up on all those chilly winter nights?

While it’s still months away from the season openers, we’re taking off from the free throw line in our lazy naps and soaring all the way to April for the top five contenders on my ballot.

LeBron James, Heat – This is when the big fun and the vegetable throwing really starts as LeBron’s resume begins to more closely resemble that of Michael Jordan, which only means the worshippers at the Church Of His Airness will scream heresy, among other more unpleasant things. He’s averaging 27.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 6.9 apg through his first 10 NBA seasons and as he turns 29, only seems to be getting more comfortable in his own skin. When James again leads the Heat to the best regular-season record on the way to a three-peat as NBA champs, he’ll be moving into lofty air. Three consecutive MVPs will put him in a class with MJ, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. A fifth MVP overall will tie him with Jordan and leave trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six). To think that he could be just getting into the meat of his career.

Kevin Durant, Thunder – As long as LeBron is upright, healthy and not getting bored of steamrolling everything in his path, KD just might have to get accustomed to a career as a great second banana when it comes to the MVP. Well, it did work out OK for Robin, Dr. Watson, Paul Shaffer and Chewbacca. There isn’t a thing anybody can throw out there to knock Durant, the most prolific scoring machine of this age. No shot is out of his range and he makes every shot look oh-so-easy. He’ll either win his fourth scoring title in five years or finish a couple of tenths behind Carmelo Anthony again. Unless Durant really elevates his OKC teammates above an strong Western Conference class of contenders, he’ll simply have to deal with being born at the same time as LeBron. But remember, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were annually overlooked at MVP voting time, winning just one apiece. KD would likely be quite satisfied if he could get just a fraction of their nine combined championships.

Dwight Howard, Rockets – This is how he gets back at the Lakers and all those mean things they said about him. This is how he proves to everybody that he made the right choice by emulating Davy Crockett and settling down in Texas. Howard has already been spending time in the practice gym with his two Houston mentors, Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon. If just half of their knowledge and fundamentals of the game rubs off on him, the Dwightmare will be over. After two seasons of indecision that also included back surgery and a shoulder injury, Howard will go back to being fit and happy on the court. That should produce another season of leading the league in rebounding, putting a chokehold on another Defensive Player of the Year Award and upping his scoring average off the pick and roll with James Harden and Jeremy Lin. There will be a lot of voters with long memories that won’t want to forget his past childish acts. But if Howard lifts the Rockets to 55 or more wins and has them looking like true contenders by April, he’s in the MVP hunt.

Derrick Rose, Bulls – After 1 1/2 years, The Return will finally be more than just a TV commercial for Adidas. No more worries about juking this way or that on a surgically repaired ACL. No more wondering about whether he can jump off his left foot and dunk. No more having to listen to all the imbeciles who wanted him to risk perhaps the next 10 years of an All-Star career by getting out on the floor for a few games at the end of last season to prove his manhood. The Rose who returns will have questions to answer to his fans and to himself, but at 24 he’s young enough to come back even stronger and better than he was. Keep in mind this is a guy who already has an MVP trophy (2011) on his mantle. A lot has changed in the landscape since Rose collapsed to the floor in the 2012 playoffs. The Heat have won two titles and have found their identity. The Pacers proved they’re for real. The Nets are reconfigured and loaded. The East will be a beast, but don’t be surprised if Rose comes back with a roar.

Chris Paul, Clippers – You figure that maybe Paul deserves to be given a truckload of MVP trophies just for transforming the laughingstock Clippers franchise into not just the best in the Staples Center, but a real contender. Everybody knows his on-court talent — great handle, penetrating to pass, hits the jumper, steals your lunch with ballhawking defense — but it’s his fierce competitiveness and overall attitude that have lifted the Clippers. The Western Conference will be even tougher next season with Dwight Howard in Houston and Andre Iguodala boosting Golden State. But you figure that new coach Doc Rivers will grab the Clippers attention and make them more than just the Lob City sideshow. That means he’ll ask even more from CP3 and there’s little doubt that the little guy can deliver. They made not improve on last season’s 56 wins, but should shoehorn their way into another top-four seeding by winning the Pacific Division. Now that Paul has re-signed and committed to the Clippers, the real good stuff has likely just begun.

PREVIOUSLY: Coach of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

Celebrating Cousy As Player-Coach

Legendary Celtic Bob Cousy went on to be a player-coach after his Boston days.

Legendary Celtic Bob Cousy went on to be a player-coach after his Boston days.

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — When you think of Bob Cousy, a man celebrating his 85th birthday on Friday, you think of black & white photos, grainy film clips and a “Leave It to Beaver” world. Cousy’s Hall of Fame career largely played out in shades of gray — he led the Boston Celtics to six NBA championships and appeared in 13 consecutive All-Star Games, all before retiring after the 1962-63 season.

The Kennedys were in the White House. Cousy’s signature shoe was a P.F. Flyer canvas high top.

But on the occasion of Cousy’s 85th birthday Friday, it was worth remembering that the legendary point guard made himself relevant again as a player — for a brief time – in living color, in the age of Aquarius, with “Laugh-In” on the tube and space junk on the moon.

On Nov. 21, 1969, at age 41, the rookie head coach of the Cincinnati Royals stepped on the floor against the visiting Chicago Bulls. Cousy scored three points, his first in more than six years, in a 133-119 victory, before a crowd of 3,450.

Two nights later, he would play again, making a scoreless cameo appearance against Phoenix in another 14-point Royals victory. This time, 2,866 fans were on hand at the Cincinnati Gardens. He would play five more times as the Royals’ player-coach that season, scoring only two more free throws, partly as backup to the great Oscar Robertson, partly as an intended gate attraction.

The Royals finished last in the league in home attendance in 1969-70 — for the third of five straight seasons — averaging 3,800 per game. Cousy’s bosses were paying him more than $100,000 a season, so the novelty of selling a few tickets to see the old “Houdini of the Hardwood” made marketing sense. Cincinnati GM Joe Axelson, after four months of negotiation that began in the summer, finally pried Cousy’s playing rights from Boston’s Red Auerbach by sending injured forward Bill Dinwiddie to the Celtics.

But the brainstorm didn’t work. Of Cousy’s five “home” appearances, only New York’s visit on Nov. 28 generated much buzz — and that game was played in pre-Cavaliers Cleveland, where 10,438 showed up to see the championship-bound Knicks of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the rest go to 23-1 that day.

Still, Cousy’s return to action — after six seasons coaching at Boston College, with a team other than the Celtics, as the latest in a considerable line [at the time] of NBA player-coaches — made headlines.

He scored only five points in his seven token appearances, none in the last four. He added 10 assists to his Boston total of 6,945, which stood as the NBA record until Robertson passed him in 1968-69. And he remains the only player-coach to step back onto the court after such an extended gap from his legit playing days.

The NBA had a rich history of player-coaches in its first three decades or so, with something like 40 men handling both jobs at one time or another.

Richie Guerin, one of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 inductees, logged 372 regular-season games and 43 more in the playoffs in that dual capacity for the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks from 1964-1970. Bill Russell, Cousy’s great Boston teammate, took over for Auerbach in 1966 while still playing, and became the NBA’s first African-American coach. By the end of the 1968-69 season, he was the only player-coach to win multiple championships.

Lenny Wilkens, who won 1,332 games as a coach, got 159 of them as player-coach for Seattle [1969-72] and Portland [1974-75]. Dave Cowens was NBA’s the last player-coach, guiding Boston in 1978-79 late in his player career. And of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players chosen in 1996 to commemorate the league’s 50th anniversary, seven — Cousy, Russell, Wilkens, Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes – pulled double-duty for some period of time.

Since the arrival of the salary cap, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreements between the league and the players association have not allowed for player-coaches. But Jason Kidd’s hiring by the Brooklyn Nets this summer generated some chatter on the topic, not so much involving coaches returning to the court but veteran players who might be capable of steering their teams through an NBA season.

Kobe Bryant? LeBron James? Kevin Garnett? In a league driven by stars, some might argue that the best and biggest-name players already run their teams. But what has Chris Paul been, if not a “coach on the floor” for the Clippers [beyond any snide remarks about former boss Vinny Del Negro]?

Kidd, for as much as he played for the Knicks last season, might have been able to handle both jobs, especially on a team with more modest ambitions. Some would say the same thing about Chauncey Billups at this stage of his playing career, which takes him back to Detroit this season before, should he want it, a coaching role in the near future.

What Cousy did nearly 44 years ago, though, remains special — one of his many magical accomplishments in lifetime 85 years young now. Happy birthday, Cooz!

George Ready To Lead Pacers Further



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LAS VEGAS – The apprenticeship ended earlier than expected for Paul George. It ended earlier than anyone expected, facilitated no doubt by his breakout 2012-13 season and the Indiana Pacers’ spirited run to the Eastern Conference finals.

The end of that process, however, gave way to another even more unexpected transition for George the past two months. He went from a promising young NBA talent, an All-Star even, to a player atop almost everyone’s hot list of the next wave of superstars the league has to offer.

Fans in his native Southern California have already tagged him as the current star capable of soothing the burn for Los Angeles Lakers’ faithful still suffering from the shock of Dwight Howard bolting for Houston. That pipe dream was one George all but dismissed publicly after his first workout during the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team mini-camp this week on the campus of UNLV.

“It’s certainly more notoriety,” George said of the wicked increase in attention he has received since going to toe-to-toe with and holding his own against Miami’s LeBron James on Eastern Conference finals stage. “It’s not the same. Everywhere I go it’s just not the same. But it’s something I wanted. I wanted to be a franchise guy, a household name guy in this league. It’s like they say, it comes with the territory. And it’ll only make me better in the future for going through this.”

George is entering the final season of his rookie deal as arguably the best bargain in basketball: he’ll make $3.2 million this season, but he is eligible for a long-term extension. The Pacers have until Oct. 31 to get a deal done. And that shouldn’t be a problem, not with Pacers’ president Larry Bird already making it clear to Pacers fans that a “major” offer for George is on the way.

(Bird said his first order of business upon coming out of retirement to take over running the show he built in Indiana was to make sure then-free agent David West was taken care of, and he did that, so he should be taken at his word.)

George insists that he’s not worried about anything and that his camp and the Pacers’ front office are “on the same page and we’ll get the job done.”

The headline on that page has to be about George coming of age and moving into the role of ringleader for a Pacers team that is poised to challenge the Heat — and anyone else in the Eastern Conference — for the right to play in The Finals. What looks like a challenge from a distance (avoiding a tug of war between Gorge and returning Pacers swingman Danny Granger) is a non-issue to George, whose ability to manage the mental and emotional aspects of the game rank right up there with his devastating blend of skill and elite athleticism.

“It’s easy, with our team we don’t have ego guys,” George said. “It’s all about getting the job done. It doesn’t matter if it’s me, Danny, David or the big fella (Roy Hibbert). It’s all about who has the hot hand anyway. I think you could see that in the way we’ve played the past two years. I’m a free player and I’m open to sacrificing. Everybody on our team is sacrificing in one way or another. I think our chemistry will be great with Danny in the lineup.”

In each of those past two seasons, the first with Granger and last season without him, the Pacers took the incremental steps needed to build towards making that Finals leap. Pacers coach Frank Vogel talked about it after that Game 7 loss to the Heat and George said it has come up during nearly every conversation he’s had with any and all of his teammates since then. The time for this team to strike is now.

The Heat will be attempting to complete the arduous task of making it to The Finals for a fourth straight year, something only the Celtics (a mind-boggling 10 straight trips during the Bill Russell/Bob Cousy era from 1956-57 to 1965-66 and again by the Bird-led crew from 1983-84 to 1986-87) and Lakers (Magic Johnson‘s Showtime Lakers from 1981-82 to 1984-85) have done.

George knows the history of the game. He knows that if the Heat are going to be vulnerable, and that’s a legitimate “if,” it’s going to be next season.

“Who knows? This could be the last opportunity we have a team well put together like this,” George said. “Nothing is ever guaranteed in this league. Everybody has to sacrifice coming into training camp and really put their minds to it. We have a great opportunity. And I think now it’s about finding a way to get over that hump and making The Finals. And as we all saw [with the Heat and the Spurs], when you get there anything can happen. But I think this is our year … I really think it has to be our year.”

For George individually, he’s ready to enter that ring with the best of the NBA’s best. He earned his respect with his actions and not his words last season. And now he’s ready for more.

“That’s definitely the next step. And LeBron and those guys are obviously are obviously getting a little older, so …” George said and then laughed. “It’s a part of the league, the young guys coming in, and obviously I’m the young guy. Just being a part of this class, with all of these talented young guys here, yeah, it is about trying to make a mark and establish yourself as one of the up and coming young stars in this league. I don’t think there is a guy in this gym right now who doesn’t think he’s ready for that.”

There’s only one, though, who has resume to back it up.

Bobcats Pay Up To Nab Jefferson

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From NBA.com staff reports

In a potentially perception-altering move for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, the Charlotte Bobcats reached a verbal agreement Wednesday with one of the most sought-after big men after Dwight Howard, Utah’s Al Jefferson, who agreed to a three-year, $40.5 million deal.

The 28-year-old Jefferson was Charlotte’s top priority in free agency, as the Bobcats sought to finally find a low-post presence that would help their perimeter players get move driving and shooting space.

Jefferson will receive $13.5 million in each of the three seasons of the contract. He will have a player option for the third season.

The Bobcats, according to a source, will amnesty forward Tyrus Thomas in order to create enough cap room to sign Jefferson, who will, along with first-round pick Cody Zeller, give Charlotte a bolstered frontcourt next season, along with second-year small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Last season, Byron Mullens (when healthy) was the de facto starting center for Charlotte, notching 41 starts in 53 games played. But the Bobcats also gave playing time in the middle to second-year big man Bismack Biyombo as well as veterans Thomas, Brendan Haywood, DeSagana Diop and Josh McRoberts.

The Bobcats are finally free of Diop, a monumental bust who played in just 92 games over the past four seasons after Charlotte took him off the Dallas’ Mavericks’ hands, and they did not make a qualifying offer to Mullens, setting the forward-center free.

Haywood and Biyombo, who started 65 games last year and will enter his third season, are both on the books at bargain rates for next season. Charlotte signed Haywood before last season after Dallas used the amnesty clause to release him. He’ll be paid $2.05 million by the Bobcats next season. McRoberts is an unrestricted free agent.

The 6-foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson is a low-post tactician on the offensive end, but he certainly is no Bill Russell on the defensive end. He averaged 17.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 1.1 bpg last season with the Jazz.

Acquired by Utah from Minnesota in a July, 2010 trade, Jefferson could be the kind of acquisition for Charlotte that Vlade Divac was for Sacramento in 1998, when he left the Charlotte Hornets for the Kings in a free agent deal. With Divac aboard and Chris Webber coming from Washington, the Kings turned their up-to-then terrible fortunes around, becoming one of the league’s most exciting teams.

Charlotte has a way to go to get to that level, but Jefferson’s presence will make things easier for everyone. Averaging 16.4 ppg over nine NBA seasons, Jefferson has never shot less than 49.2 percent from the floor. He offers a creative low-post game that utilizes both hands along with an improved jumper.

Now with four centers on the roster for next season, it will be interesting to see Bobcats owner Michael Jordan’s next move is in a possible attempt to thin out the position and seek help elsewhere for the club.

Jordan has been criticized for poor drafts and seeming unwillingness in recent years to spend money, but in signing Jefferson and eating the final two years and $18 million of Thomas’s contract, Jordan is making a significant investment in trying to turn around the Bobcats’ fortunes. They’ve been the worst team in the league the last two years, with a combined 28-120 record, including a 7-59 season in the Lottery-shortened 2011-12 campaign.

Jefferson averaged 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds last season for the Jazz, who could also lose their other free agent big man, Paul Millsap. The two sides met in the opening minutes of free agency on Monday but Utah did not make an offer to Millsap.

NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan and TNT analyst David Aldridge contributed to this report

Game 7 Often Produces High Drama

MIAMI – Game 7 of The Finals is the ultimate basketball experience for both players and fans. One game for everything. And it often lives up to the moment.

The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat will play the 18th Game 7 in Finals history on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), the last since the Los Angeles Lakers edged the Boston Celtics in 2010. That one went down to the final minute, as have many others. In fact, 12 of the 17 previous Finals Game 7s, including each of the last four, have been decided by seven points or less. They have featured some wild comebacks and several scary moments for the eventual champions.

The home team has won 14 of the 17, but we can’t forget that the Celtics had a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of that Game 7 three years ago. In 2005, the Spurs and Detroit Pistons were tied with 12 minutes to play.

That was the only Finals Game 7 the Spurs have played. Neither the Heat nor LeBron James have ever played in a Finals Game 7. Pat Riley has been there multiple times, however.

Here’s a look back at the five best Finals Game 7s of all-time, along with a full list below.

And for a complete history of Game 7s, check out NBA.com/Stats.

5. 1955 – Nationals 92, Pistons 91


The Nats trailed by as many as 17 points in the second quarter. Fortunately though, the league instituted the 24-second shot clock, invented by their owner Danny Biasone, that season. That allowed them to come all the way back and George King hit one of two free throws with 12 seconds left to give them a one-point lead. He then stole the ball from Ft. Wayne’s Andy Phillip to seal the championship.

4. 1988 – Lakers 108, Pistons 105


Up 3-2, the Pistons lost Game 6 similarly to how the Spurs lost Game 6 on Tuesday. They had a three-point lead with a minute to go and the championship trophy was ready in their locker room. But a Byron Scott jumper and two Kareem Abdul-Jabbar free throws pushed the series to Game 7.

With Isiah Thomas limping around on a bad ankle, the Lakers built a 15-point lead early in the fourth quarter of Game 7. But the Pistons came back to within two with just over a minute to go. They were down one with six seconds left, but A.C. Green broke away from the pack to make it a three-point game again and, as the crowd began to storm the floor, Thomas couldn’t get a game-tying three off.

3. 1969 – Celtics 108, Lakers 106


With Jack Kent Cooke‘s balloons up in the Forum rafters, the Lakers trailed by 17 early in the fourth quarter and lost Wilt Chamberlain to an injury midway through the period. But Jerry West led them back within a point. With just over a minute left, the Lakers’ Keith Erickson stripped John Havlicek, but the ball went straight to Don Nelson, who launched a jumper that hit the back of the rim, bounced high in the air, and dropped through the net.

It was Bill Russell‘s 11th and final championship and the first time the road team had won Game 7 of The Finals. West, the only Finals MVP from a losing team, finished with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the deciding game.

2. 1962 – Celtics 110, Lakers 107 (OT)


There’s no better way to cap a great series featuring multiple Hall of Famers than with an overtime in Game 7. It wouldn’t have gone to OT, however, if the Lakers’ Frank Selvy hit the eight-foot, baseline jumper at the end of regulation.

He didn’t and the Celtics built a five-point lead in overtime before holding on for their fifth championship and fourth on their run of eight straight. Elgin Baylor led all scorers with 41 points, while Russell registered 30 points and 40 rebounds for Boston.

Each of the final five games of the series was determined by five points or less. Here’s video of West winning Game 3 with a steal and layup in the final three seconds.

1. 1957 – Celtics 125, Hawks 123 (2OT)


Two overtimes for the NBA title? Yes, please. The Hawks tied the game in the final seconds of regulation with two Bob Pettit free throws and in the final seconds of overtime with a Jack Coleman jumper. With his team down two again at the end of the second OT, St. Louis’ Alex Hannum purposely threw a full-court pass off the backboard to Pettit, but the Hall of Famer couldn’t convert and the Celtics won their first of 17 championships.

Boston rookies Russell and Tommy Heinsohn combined for 56 points and 55 rebounds.

Finals Game 7s

Year Home H Pts Away A Pts Margin Video
1951 Rochester 79 New York 75 4
1952 Minneapolis 82 New York 65 17
1954 Minneapolis 87 Syracuse 80 7 1954 Lakers
1955 Syracuse 92 Fort Wayne 91 1 Dolph Schayes: The Evolution of the Game
1957** Boston 125 St. Louis 123 2 1957 Celtics
1960 Boston 122 St. Louis 103 19
1962* Boston 110 L.A. Lakers 107 3 1962 NBA Finals
1966 Boston 95 L.A. Lakers 93 2 1966 NBA Finals
1969 L.A. Lakers 106 Boston 108 2 1969 Game 7
1970 New York 113 L.A. Lakers 99 14 1970: Willis Reed
1974 Milwaukee 87 Boston 102 15
1978 Seattle 99 Washington 105 6 1978 Game 7
1984 Boston 111 L.A. Lakers 102 9 1984 Game 7
1988 L.A. Lakers 108 Detroit 105 3 Big Game James
1994 Houston 90 New York 84 6 1994 Game 7
2005 San Antonio 81 Detroit 74 7 2005 Game 7
2010 L.A. Lakers 83 Boston 79 4 Game 7 Mini-Movie

* Overtime
** Double-overtime

Heat vs. Spurs: This Time It’s For Real

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SAN ANTONIO — To most Americans “Remember the Alamo” is a famous battle cry they learned in middle school.

For the Heat, it might simply be something they’re trying to do.

With the shortened lockout schedule wiping out their trip to San Antonio last season and coach Gregg Popovich letting the air out of a marquee showdown four months ago, tonight’s game (NBA TV, pregame 6:30 p.m.) at the AT&T Center will be the first meeting between the key players of the NBA’s top two teams in more than 14 months and the first trip to the Alamo City by Miami’s Big Three since March 4, 2011.

Manu Ginobili is already a scratch from the Spurs’ lineup after suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter of Friday night’s win over the Clippers.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has indicated that since his team’s 27-game win streak has been snapped, he’ll be looking to get some rest for his key players before the playoffs begin in three weeks. He sat out starting point guard Mario Chalmers on Friday night against the Hornets.

But first, it’s likely that a pair of No. 1 seeds in each conference — clearly the two best teams in the league this season — will have most of their frontline stars on the court to circle, jab and try to deliver the kind of meaningful blow that might still be felt if the Spurs and Heat meet up again in the NBA Finals.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, minus Ginobili still carries the knockout punch feel of a heavyweight fight in the most anticipated regular season game in San Antonio in years.

“We haven’t played each other a lot,” Wade told reporters after Friday night’s win in New Orleans. “And that’s the Eastern and Western Conference, you don’t get a chance to see each other a lot until hopefully you meet at the end of June.”

“They play with a higher pace and a higher energy level at home,” said forward Shane Battier. “It’s a tough place. But it’ll be a good challenge for us.”

What’s at stake officially is still the race for the overall best record in the league and home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs. Miami’s 57-15 record is two games better than San Antonio, but a Spurs win would slice that in half, give them a 1-1 split of the season series and the tie-breaker (record against the opposite conference) should they eventually meet up with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line.

“You play all year trying to get home-court advantage,” said Popovich, “because that’s where you always feel most comfortable. But having said that, you don’t win championships without being able to win on the road.”

You’d be lucky to get the stoic Spurs, always a reflection of their never-let-them-see-you-sweat coach, to even admit they knew the Heat were next up on the schedule.

It’s the approach taken by second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, who’ll draw the main assignment of guarding James, who is likely on his way to a fourth MVP award, which would put him in the select company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four).

“I don’t think nothing of it, really,” said the 21-year-old Leonard. “It’s how I’ve been playing my whole life, guarding the best player on the other team.”

Of course, the first Heat-Spurs stirred up more than its share of controversy, debate and repercussion back on Nov. 29 when Popovich showed his disdain for the NBA schedule-maker by having Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green fly straight home from Orlando and miss the last stop (and a back-to-back) at the end of a six-game road trip at Miami. It had been a much anticipated and highly promoted national TV game on TNT. The club was fined $250,000 and reprimanded by commissioner David Stern for the stunt and yet a collection of Spurs understudies pushed the Heat stars to the limit in a 105-100 loss.

“People say, ‘Oh, he’s resting them,’ but it’s not about rest,” said Popovich. “It’s about being as healthy as possible at the end of the year.

“Not playing that fourth game in five nights, if you’ve got Tim Duncan’s knee and you’re at his age, might make him more ready to go at the end of the year. At lot of guys play 40-plus minutes to win now. We’re more concerned with later.”

While Miami is 2-22 all-time at the AT&T Center and took a 125-95 beating on Mar. 4, 2011 in the only other visit to San Antonio since the James-Wade-Bosh trinity was formed, it is more curiosity and honing their own game that is on the minds of the Heat.

“It’s always good to play the best and play against the best,” James said. “It’ll be an opportunity for us. We just want to get better. The game Sunday doesn’t define our season or how we go from there. We just want to continue to move forward.”

Perhaps to a historic June rematch that would be as memorable as the Alamo.

Ainge-Riley Feud Joins A Long NBA List

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HANG TIME, Texas -
- The Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj have never had anything on the NBA. When it comes to feuds, there have been some dandies.

So when Pat Riley and Danny Ainge went lip-to-lip this week it was just the latest chapter. Here are just a few other memorable ones:

Danny Ainge vs. Tree Rollins

In a 1987 first round playoff game against Atlanta, the Celtics’ guard Ainge tried to tackle 7-footer Rollins of the Hawks. They wound up in a heap of bodies on the court and Ainge came out of the pile screaming with a gash that required two stitches from where Rollins had bit him.

The next day’s edition of the Boston Herald bore the headline: Tree Bites Man.

Joey Crawford vs. Tim Duncan

It was a 1997 playoff series when the bombastic veteran referee did not like that Duncan was laughing on the bench and challenged him to a fight. The league fined and suspended Crawford and banned him for working Spurs games for several years.

The pair has since patched things up. However Duncan and teammate Manu Ginobili were photographed in October at a Halloween Party where they aimed fake guns and guest dressed up as Crawford.

Clyde Drexler vs. Jake O’Donnell

The final game of the veteran referee’s career came on May 9, 1995 when he ejected the Rockets’ Drexler in the second quarter of a playoff game in Phoenix. The league suspended O’Donnell and he never worked another game. Drexler claimed that there was no previous history between the two.

But league sources confirmed that Drexler had been ordered to send a written apology to the ref following a 1989 incident when he played in Portland and had threatened O’Donnell prior to a game.

Red Auerbach vs. Phil Jackson

It practically became a running joke. Each spring when the Zen Master would close in on adding another championship ring to his collection, some mischievous reporter would dial up the former Celtics legend and let him vent.

“Three titles in a row don’t constitute a dynasty,” Auerbach would rant. “He had Michael Jordan and Shaq.”

Of course, Red had Bill Russell.

Jackson usually responded with a bemused smile and a zinger and ultimately that cap with the Roman number X for his 10 championships when he passed Auerbach’s total of nine.

LeBron James vs. Dan Gilbert

All it took was James announcing on national TV that he was taking his talents to South Beach for the Cleveland owner to vent all of his frustrations in a letter that accused LeBron of selfishness and “cowardly betrayal” and promised that his Cavs would win a championship before The King.

Well, so Gilbert is a better venter than prognosticator. He has since admitted that his childish actions were wrong and, besides, all we be forgiven if LeBron opts out of his Heat contract and returns to the Cavs in 2014.

Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant

So how many more championships could the Lakers have won in the early years of the 21st century if the two giants of the court had been able to make their huge egos squeeze comfortably into the same locker room?

Kobe thought Shaq was lazy. Shaq thought Kobe was a ballhog.
So they both were right. Then things got personal and nasty and out the window went any chance of a “four-peat.”

Heat Streaking To A Place Of Their Own




We’re past the point now where the Heat can slip on their noise-canceling headphones and pretend the only beats they hear have been downloaded according to personal taste.

After 105-103 in Boston on Monday night, the drums are pounding louder than the “1812 Overture” all over the basketball world.

The Heat’s 23rd consecutive victory pushed them past the anomaly that was the 2008 Rockets and at very least tiptoes them across the threshold and inches them into the throne room with royalty.

Wilt, West and Goodrich. LeBron, Wade and Bosh. That’s a Hall of Fame red carpet that’s rolled out between them.

Make no mistake. It is all no more than a hollowed-out log if they aren’t standing under a shower of confetti and holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Because that’s why you play the game. It is fine for the contrarian Jeff Van Gundy and stat geek Daryl Morey to point out that these serpentine win streaks that stretch from one month into the next are almost as rare as unicorns and therefore technically more difficult to achieve than championships.

But let me know the next time somebody hangs a win streak banner from the rafters or hands out rings for consecutive regular-season wins.

As Magic Johnson said: “I’ll take the diamonds.”

Heat upcoming schedule
Day Date Loc. Opponent Time (ET) TV
Wed. 3/20 @ Cleveland 7 p.m. League Pass
Fri. 3/22 vs. Detroit 7:30 p.m. League Pass
Sun. 3/24 vs. Charlotte 6 p.m. League Pass
Mon. 3/25 @ Orlando 7 p.m. League Pass
Wed. 3/27 @ Chicago 8 p.m. ESPN
Fri. 3/29 @ New Orleans 8 p.m. League Pass
Sun. 3/31 @ San Antonio 7 p.m. NBA TV

Still, there is no denying that what is happening here is special. Even the usual facade of the ‘”We’re-above-it-all” Heat is slipping to reveal the emotion that’s building like the lava dome under a volcano.

A week ago, those in the Miami locker room still insisted that nobody was thinking about a double-digit win streak or rushing to flip ahead several pages in the record book. But a look at the expressions and the emotions that showed on the Heat faces in the fourth quarter at the TD Garden on Monday night showed just how much has changed. They were down 13 with eight minutes to play. Rather than appear defeated, the Heat were defiant.

It is prudent to note that they are just over 2/3 of the way from the record of 33 held by the 1971-72 Lakers. If the Heat were an individual player chasing Wilt’s 100-point game, they would have 69. Impressive, but still a long way off. Yet stepping over the flotsam of the Houston team that couldn’t even win a first-round playoff series in 2008 clears a path toward their own unique place in the game.

“It means a lot,” James said. “I am a historian of the game. I know the history of the game. I know almost all the teams that have come through the ranks. To be sitting in second place right now, with so much that this game has given to our fans and everything, for us to be there, doing it the way we want to do it, it means a lot.”

Back in the summer of 2010, in the aftermath of “The Decision,” James was ridiculed for ticking off the number of championships that the Heat could win — “not one … not two … not three … not four … not five … not six … not seven …”

But now that they’ve got the first title, and it seems reasonable to think there’s another in the pipeline, this could be their once-in-a-slam-dunking-lifetime opportunity to put an indelible stamp and stake a place in the NBA’s pantheon.

While Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six championships, it is the 1996 team that set a regular season record of 72-10 that stands above them all. The 1967 Sixers, led by Chamberlain, won a then-record 68 regular-season games and made their mark by ending the eight-year reign of Bill Russell’s Celtics. The 1983 Sixers vaulted from an overpowering 68-14 regular season to the pinnacle behind Moses Malone’s “Fo’, fo’, fo’ “ proclamation that they nearly fulfilled by running through the playoffs with a 12-1 record. And, of course, the Lakers ran off their 33-0 streak early in the 1971-72 season, won a then-record 69 games and made their claim as the all-time best team by closing the deal on the championship.

A singular achievement. That’s where the Heat are now, fully engaged and fully aware that this is now the stuff of legacy. It is what James and Wade and Bosh came together to do.

“We’re aware, and it’s a special opportunity that we have with this group,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “And you don’t want to take it for granted. You want to treat every day as a special opportunity to be with this group, to share these moments together, but more importantly to take a step closer to going after our goal. And every day that we improve puts us in a better position in a quest where nothing is guaranteed for anybody.”

It is almost a living, breathing creature inside the locker room, one they’ve fed and fueled. It forces the Heat to look at themselves differently.

The beat goes on, only now they’re driving it.