LeBron James rises to occasion in Game 6

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LeBron James rises to occasion in Game 6

From Comcast SportsNet
BOSTON (AP) -- LeBron James pushed away elimination, right along with any defender who tried to stop him. He wasn't going to let another season end in Boston. The Eastern Conference finals, and his chase of an NBA championship, are headed back to Miami for a Game 7. James had 45 points and 15 rebounds, overwhelming the Celtics and leading the Heat to a 98-79 victory Thursday night that forced the decisive game. "He was absolutely fearless tonight, and it was contagious," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "The way he approached the last 48 hours, and not only LeBron, but everybody else. Nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you're even dead. He showed great resolve." James shot 19 of 26 from the field and finished four points shy of his playoff career-high while playing 45 minutes, not sitting down until the victory was long secured. After two days of questions about the Heat's future and his own history, James provided his response in resounding fashion in a building where Miami had lost 15 of its previous 16 games. "In an environment like this, you want to have a big game," he said. "I wanted to be there for my teammates, no matter what was going on throughout the course of the game. "This was a gut check for us, and it's good to see we were able to bounce back after that loss, after that Game 5 loss at home." Dwyane Wade added 17 points for the Heat, who need a victory at home Saturday night to return to the NBA finals. And if James plays like this again, Miami should have no problem getting it. "He played amazing. He was locked in from the beginning of the game like I've never seen him before," Wade said. Rajon Rondo had 21 points and 10 assists for Boston. Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass each scored 12 points, but Paul Pierce had only nine on 4-of-18 shooting. In the site of some of James' biggest disappointments, the only disappointed ones Thursday were the thousands of fans who hoped to see a celebration but instead filed out of the TD Garden midway through the fourth quarter, just before the league MVP called it a night. "He was comfortable all night," Rondo said. "We didn't get into his air space." Miami barely won Game 2 before dropping the next three games, but this one was never in doubt. James was a one-man force on what's supposed to be a Big Three, carrying the Heat in the first half while Wade made only 1 of 6 shots. The Celtics were hoping to complete a comeback from a 2-0 deficit, as Oklahoma City did in the Western Conference, and advance to face the Thunder in the NBA finals. But they missed 13 of 14 3-point attempts and will have to win a second straight game in Miami to play for the title. James' season was twice ended in Boston while playing for Cleveland, the Celtics emerging as the winner in a Pierce-James duel in Game 7 of the 2008 East semifinals, then beating the Cavs in Game 6 of the second round two years later. That was James' last game with Cleveland, leaving that summer for Miami and the All-Star help that Wade and Chris Bosh could provide. He needed none of it Thursday. He had 30 points by halftime and spent the night silencing the Celtics crowd and perhaps some of the doubters he somehow still has. He set the tone for the game by making 6 of 7 shots and scoring 14 points in the first quarter, and he made sure the Heat were never challenged from there. "I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and he doesn't play in big games," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He was pretty good tonight. So we can put that to bed and go play Game 7." Meanwhile, Pierce, whose 3-pointer over James was the biggest basket of Boston's Game 5 victory, missed 13 of 16 shots through three quarters, including all six 3-point attempts. The Heat obviously weren't deflated by that loss and came to fight, scoring 10 straight points to build a 10-point lead shortly after Mario Chalmers was called for a technical foul after getting mixed up with Ray Allen. They extended it to 12 points later in the period, taking a 26-16 lead into the second after shooting 58 percent in the period. Wade finally got on the board with a jumper to open the second, but he seemed strangely passive even with Miami trying to save its season. No matter. James didn't need the help. He had consecutive baskets for a 15-point lead and came up with a basket every time the Celtics tried to get any rhythm. He soared high above the rim -- and any other player -- for a follow dunk after the Celtics had crept within eight in the final 2 minutes of the half. Miami led 55-42 at the break. James made 12 of his first 13 shots before missing from the perimeter on his final attempt of the half. Only Rondo kept it from being a blowout, scoring 19 points and adding five assists in the half. Relishing the challenge, he even emulated Garnett by doing a couple of knuckle pushups after being knocked to the court while drawing a foul, but he couldn't keep up with James and needed some help that never arrived. The Celtics, trying desperately for one last championship before the expected breakup of their Big Three, hope this one doesn't get added to recent series losses against Orlando in 2009 and the Lakers in the NBA finals in 2010, when they lost Game 6s with chances to win series and then fell in Game 7. James' first basket of the third quarter increased the lead to 17 points, and from there it was just a matter of coming up with another score any time the Celtics tried to make a run. Boston never came close, and when a 3-pointer by Shane Battier made it 81-63 with 10:19 to play, Rivers spent part of a timeout standing alone on the court with his arms folded, leaving it to the players to try to come up with an answer that wasn't there. Bosh entered with 5 minutes left in the first quarter of his second game back after missing nine with a lower abdominal strain, finishing with seven points and six rebounds. Notes: James is the first player to score at least 25 points against the Celtics in eight consecutive postseason games since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from April 28, 1974, to May 27, 1984. ...The NBA playoff record for points in a half is 39, set by Golden State's Eric "Sleepy" Floyd on May 10, 1987, against the Lakers. Floyd finished with 51 points. ... The Heat switched to their red road jerseys after losing in the black here earlier in the series.

D-League getting respect as legit NBA minor league system

D-League getting respect as legit NBA minor league system

SALT LAKE CITY -- Joel Bolomboy has been back and forth between the NBA Development League's Salt Lake City Stars and the Utah Jazz 15 times since November.

In the old system, the second-round draft pick would have been racking up frequent flyer miles bouncing around the minor leagues and overseas, much like Hassan Whiteside and Danny Green did before him. But in a growing trend around the NBA, the Jazz moved their D-League team closer to home - from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City.

Front-office executives are seeing that the closer a D-League affiliate is to the NBA team and its staff, and more integrated into the organization, the better it can be used as a true minor league resource.

"Your average NBA team has a better understanding today than they did four years ago of the caliber and the quality of player that's in the D-League," said Donnie Nelson, Mavericks president of basketball operations. "And that's rising literally every year.

"It's like American Idol in a lot of respects. We have brought the stage to the buyer, rather than having to go overseas and chase down. And those of us that are quote, unquote, the real judges on the American Idol panel, we can see them firsthand."

The NBA Development League has grown from an eight-team, largely overlooked sideshow to a 22-team league inching closer to becoming a legitimate minor league system. The league, in its 16th season, is no longer a final grasp for players clinging to a dream of playing professional basketball but a respected avenue to get to the NBA.

A record 22 teams have direct affiliations with an NBA team this season, including five new ones. The Bucks, Grizzlies and Magic have purchased teams slated to join for the 2017-18 season, when it will be known as the Gatorade League.

NBA teams have learned to better use the system. A record 38 percent of all players in the NBA had spent some time in the D-League at the end of the 2015-16 season.

Nelson believes it's the "fastest, most effective" path to the NBA.

The perception of the league has changed among players, who once tried to avoid it at all costs.

Whiteside is one of the biggest D-League success stories. But before becoming the center for the Miami Heat, his travels took him to Reno, Sioux Falls, Rio Grande, stints in the Lebanese Basketball and Chinese National Basketball leagues and back to the D-League with Iowa. He signed with the Heat in 2014, and in 2016 signed a four-year, $98.4 million contract.

"The D-League's tough," Whiteside said. "If being in the D-League doesn't motivate you, nothing will. It was a really tough to play. ... It gives guys a chance to stay in America and let scouts see them.

"I had a dream and I was just so undeterred. They would have had to move mountains to get me off of my dream. It was going to happen regardless."

Whiteside is one of many D-League success stories.

After being undrafted, Yogi Ferrell landed in the D-League and got a 10-day contract with the Mavericks before signing a multiyear deal in early February.

Green played for Erie, Reno and Austin before being a starter on the Spurs' 2013-14 Spurs championship team.

Rudy Gobert spent significant time in the D-League as a rookie and signed a four-year, $102 million deal with the Jazz in October.

"Reps, particularly with point guards, are huge," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "You can't make up for repetitions. Even in an NBA game, there's a difference between fitting in and playing a role and having an opportunity to get reps and make mistakes.

"I hope our guys get a chance to do that and make a lot of mistakes and get better (with the Stars) and don't make them here."

Compensation, however, continues to be an issue for the league. The NBA took a step toward addressing the concerns in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Players typically can make more money overseas, but the league created a "two-way contract" that allows a team to hold onto a developing young player with a contract that includes a considerable salary increase. The rule increases the NBA roster from 15 to 17, with those final two spots for players going back and forth between the two leagues.

D-League President Malcolm Turner believes the two-way contract can keep more talent from going overseas and expects the new sponsorship with Gatorade to provide additional training and nutrition benefits for players through the company's Sports Science Institute.

The ultimate goal is that each of the 30 NBA teams will own its own affiliate and use those squads as a true minor league farm system.

"I think it's deeper, I think there's more respect on all levels from organizations," Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the D-League. "Players now respect it more, they see that they have a real opportunity if they're in the right place to develop and get a call-up.

"They went to Europe or China before. But each organization is different. We know for us, it is a major component of player development."

It's fast becoming a major component for every NBA team.

Giants spring training Day 11: Could Ty Blach open season in bullpen?

Giants spring training Day 11: Could Ty Blach open season in bullpen?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Bruce Bochy announced a slight tweak to the spring schedule on Thursday: Matt Cain won't follow Madison Bumgarner on the mound in the opener; he'll likely start the second game, with Ty Blach backing him up.

The Giants have made no secret of the fact that Cain is the perfect-world pick to be the fifth starter this season. Is there a world where Blach could still be in the big leagues?

"Sure, I could see that," manager Bruce Bochy said.

Bochy called Blach a potentially good "swing guy." If he can't crack the rotation this season, Blach may see time as a long reliever or even a short-stint lefty. With Will Smith (elbow) on a tight timeline to get ready for opening day, the lefty help could be needed.

"He's confident, he's a strike-thrower, he has really good command and he's a good athlete," Bochy said, noting the traits that allow Blach to be versatile.

The 26-year-old had already proven to be flexible. A week after he threw eight shutout innings against the Dodgers, Blach came out of the bullpen at Wrigley Field and threw 1 1/3 hitless innings. Two days later he threw two more scorleless innings out of the bullpen. 

Blach said he was at first a little worried about the transition, but he talked to Cain, Jake Peavy, Chris Heston and Chris Stratton about the best ways to adjust to a switch to the bullpen. He ultimately didn't have any problems warming up quickly as a reliever.

"It was pretty similar, you just try to go out there the same way and execute pitches," Blach said.

Blach made the quick transition look easy, and that might have opened up a second path to a roster spot. 

Elsewhere on the final day before the games start ...

STOCK WATCH: Tyler Beede will pitch Sunday, and there are going to be a lot of eyes on him. Beede is probably the No. 7 starter at this point, and when you're in that spot, you're just about guaranteed a decent chunk of starts. Injuries will open doors.

"He's looked real sharp this spring," Bochy said. "He's coming off a great year. He's got great stuff, great makeup. He’s a smart pitcher along with having good command of all of his pitches. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s one of those guys on a fast pace.”

ICYMI: Speaking of guys on a fast pace, here’s my feature on Christian Arroyo

SPRING OPENER: Buster Posey won’t catch Bumgarner on Friday, but Brandon Crawford will be behind him. Crawford is going to get plenty of time early on to prepare for the WBC. Posey makes his spring debut Saturday.

LIGHTER SIDE: Just about every day, a rookie has to get up in front of the team and do something embarrassing. Thursday’s entertainment: Jae-gyun Hwang, the Korean third baseman, dancing to “Gangnam Style.”

QUOTABLE: I think Mike Morse was the best podcast guest so far. We talked about his wedding negotiations with Bobby Evans, his friendship with Hunter Pence, the photo he took with a trophy right after the World Series, why it’s SF-or-bust, and much more. You can stream it here or download it on iTunes here. 

The last question for Morse: Will he use “Take on Me” this year?

“If this is going to be the last time I play baseball, I’m going to have that song every at-bat,” he said.