Sunday, May 6, 2018

LeBron James is different (Game 4 previews, B.J. Armstrong)

He started by tapping, bouncing the bottom of the bottle on her knee in an attempt to get the rest of her to swing back toward his direction, his show.

She kept filming LeBron, though, kept recording James’ warmup routine on her phone and ignoring every bit of the guy she was sharing those front row seats with, every bit of what she could find everywhere else but here.

James wasn’t finished with the cockpit drill, sitting alone on his bench and staring straight ahead as the rest of the Cavs finished the final rehearsal shots, gathering themselves for the parts of the game that would be theirs to share with LeBron. They practiced the chances that he would take on them while James watched, and she filmed.

LeBron took sight of his hand, using that view to gather whatever notes he needed on what had already changed with his Cavs between the locker room and the bright lights. His eyes punctured holes into three different point guards while her legs bounced, the only outlet for the hysteria, bobbing six vacated seats down from the reason any of us were here on a Saturday night.

By now her date was pressing the cold water bottle into her thigh.

Look what I got you.

Look what I can still do for you.

It didn’t move her. Only one person is allowed to do that, in this building.

The Cavs pump crowd noise in, same as any other arena and same as MJ worked under during his last three years in Chicago. Same as the Ventures used to put on all their “live” albums,

It’s a carryover from when arena sensibilities weren’t as considerate or as contemporary as life exists now, all mod cons are in place in Cleveland should the clatter turn too much for some attendees, but nobody left standing on Saturday needed the push.

Cleveland struck as far cheerier before Game 3 than in the walkways exiting LeBron’s game-winners against Indiana or his season-tipping turnaround performance against the Wolves in February, shuttle drivers can only imagine what the scene shouted like after Game 3. The longer the drive, the happier the Cleveland.

There’s an earned confidence, here, an understanding with math: Toronto has Earnest Byner to try and grind up the field, Cleveland can see over the top with the greatest quarterback that the NBA has ever seen.

During the win, most of those “let’s go Cavs!”-chants came from organic, human, origins. Someone eventually pressed a button to augment it, but the people came first. Kevin Love has a case to make as a center.

He never assumed it would be like this, but now Love’s pleading through his work for every second he can get at the position, every chance you can take on him ahead of Tristan Thompson. Love needs the wider, center lanes to fit all his extremities through. He’s a little purple and puffy right now.

His dad needed the same space but never got it, forced to work alongside some of the more notable pivotmen of the day: Swen Nater, Elmore Smith, Wes Unseld. Never got a range all to himself.

LeBron will make sure Love gets his five, he’ll chat thoughtfully with his center four times before James even glares at anyone else, and the two have settled into something marvelous. LeBron sees in Love what’s he’s working through himself — these men are tired, this might take some time, this won’t look perfect.

That’s Kyle Korver’s whole disorder. By now he has to act his way through manufactured mistakes just to get the chance to be Gallant all over again.

Has to look uncomfortable peeling off what he wants to portray as a crap Cavs outta bounds play, has to Soderbergh the stumble while the shot peels away to the tiny camera, long enough for Kyle Lowry to buy the whole routine and try to nail Kyle on the funny ID.

Lowry overplays and looks for the steal and Korver, nothing wrong here, steps in for the jumper that only he and Ray Allen’s driveway are supposed to take.

Toronto skulks up to score against lineups featuring James and it’s as if all they can see is LeBron.

Every sensible half-court set fractures partway through, Toronto had the second-best offense in the NBA this year and yet James’ presence turns each of these Raptors into frightened fourth guards fearing the worst.

Like, you won fifty-nine games. And LeBron is way over on the other side of the court.

The Raptors treat LeBron James like he’s two and-a half players because, man, that’s a sensible deployment.

THIS DATE IN PLAYOFF HISTORY

(Game 2, Charlotte beats Chicago 78-76, Eastern semis in 1998)

Twenty years ago today I published a 1000-page NBA Almanac, featuring scouting reports on each of the league’s players done slightly in the style made similarly-slightly famous by Zander Hollander. I liked him a great deal.

My wife photographed the cover back when she wasn’t even my girlfriend, I was 17 and on the same day, while I stayed home from school, Kerry Wood fanned 20 Astros with twos I haven’t seen before or since.

B.J. Armstrong tipped off the evening by somehow beating the Bulls on their home court. Whatever, B.J.

SUNDAY GAME FOURS

Golden State at New Orleans, Warriors lead series 2-1

The Warriors shouldn’t swing as poorly as they did to start Game 3. No defense can be that bad from now on, they know that now, it’s May.

Golden State’s road problem is New Orleans’ increasing reliability, these players have spots to ease into and score in and the Pelicans haven’t even toyed with all the quirks inherent in lineups featuring Nikola Mirotic. The new guy stretches things and suddenly those mini-swingmen springers can butt their way into interior scores.

The trips will be the same as they were in Game 1 — can NOLA chill the hell out once it comes time to run a play against the defense they’d been warned about on Sunday morning?

The Pelicans are used to strange Sunday games, it has the capability to serve home court and to treat the ball like something that’s supposed to be played with. There was nothing Golden State could do about many of New Orleans’ best moments in Game 3.

The Pelicans will need a bit of execution, though, mixed in with all that razzmatazz. The champs will present new lineups with new arms to counter, and New Orleans has to stay cool.

Game 4 at 3:30 PM Eastern on ABC.

Houston at Utah, Rockets lead series 2-1

Houston isn’t human, it just wants to hurt, that’s what’s getting in the way of a normal Salt Lake City Sunday. This is the sort of game Utah has lapped up since the franchise was Green with Rickey, with the Millers admirably absent from view after sensibly choosing spirituality over basketball, as if able to separate one from another, Jazz taking care of the rest.

The Rockets don’t flinch in the face of all that playoff orthodoxy, though, they didn’t crumble during Game 2’s loss and Game 3’s SLC crowd didn’t seem to alter the ROXCODE one bit. The group selects where it has to go and moves into the spot. If the access isn’t digital, Eric Gordon will slip off the bench to try and pick the lock.

Utah could hound again and it might not even matter, the Rockets could be disrupted and forced into sweating its way toward the rim and Houston will still win if Utah fails to make shots. Houston is ready for the lanes that Utah wants to run off a miss, and the Rockets have already proven capable of shutting the Jazz down when the pace slows, when the ball tastes like your own net.

Game 4 at 8:00 PM Eastern on TNT.

KEEP THAT SAME OLD FEELING

The earlier in your day that you experience a trombone solo, the better. What an underrated instrument.

Yeah. Just keep that same feeling. It’s working for you.

(More to come.)