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LeBron James, NBA champion -- at last

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LeBron James, NBA champion -- at last

From Comcast SportsNet
MIAMI (AP) -- LeBron James looked at the crowd, knowing he had just a few moments left on the court for the season. He waved his arms to them. They roared back. Moments later, he was atop the stage at center court, wearing a champions' hat and T-shirt, and waving a champions' towel. He smiled. He danced. For the first time in nine years, he enjoyed the ultimate relief. Maligned for so long, by so many, it brought him to this moment. On Thursday night -- with a triple-double, no less, 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds -- LeBron James got his NBA title. "You can't win," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, speaking about James, "unless you win." That's no longer an issue. The man who was called heartless, callous, narcissistic, cowardly and selfish -- and that was just in one scorned, angry letter from Dan Gilbert, the man who used to pay him to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers -- will forever be called something else. He's a champion. "When he gets involved in something, business, basketball, he puts everything he has into it," longtime associate Maverick Carter said. "And this year, during the playoffs, he took it up another notch. He dedicated himself even more. I don't think he's any more dedicated than he was last year, but he found ways this year to channel it better, to limit his distractions and it raised his focus." It raised the city of Miami, and raised the Heat back to the mountaintop as well. And next fall, James will be there when they raise a second championship banner. "He's one of a kind," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "One of a kind." Vilified for both exercising his right to leave Cleveland and for the manner in which he announced the move, James came to Miami for this very thing. It took two years -- one more than many people expected. The change of address didn't come with a change in stature. He remains one of the world's most polarizing and best-paid athletes, with his annual income recently estimated by Forbes to be 53 million. But apparently, when it comes to James, enormous money and fame is not enough to satisfy everyone. A guy who is already a lock for the Hall of Fame -- and might only be halfway or so through his career -- needed a championship as validation. Fairly or unfairly, that was the deal. And that title is now his. "Perceptions better change, OK?" Heat forward Mike Miller said before Game 5. "You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a world champion. There's a very, very, very, very, very short list of those. A very short list. The way I've seen him improve in just the two years I've been around him, I've seen the maturation the whole time, and it's a scary thought because it's not going to stop. It's a freight train right now." James is 27 years old. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships. Which raises one question that might just scare a few people around the NBA: Could this just be the start of what James is going to accomplish? Maybe. "I see LeBron James," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "I see the best and most dominant player in the game." Most talked-about as well. He regretted lashing out at a question about critics posed not long after last season's finals ended, one where he answered by saying "I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do." That criticism was deserved. But some is just silly. He even takes heat for his hairline. With James, nothing is off-limits for critiquing. "He's been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and that makes you stronger," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "Just the fact that he can just come out and play and show his strength, his strength of mind, his will to win, I think that's just really important for everybody else to see, not only us but everybody in the stands and watching on TV how much a person can really have some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on." There is no in-between with James, it seems. Fans either love him or hate him. They love his ability. They hate that he left Cleveland. They love the staggering statistics. They hate the phrase "take my talents." He might be more criticized than any athlete in American pro sports today, and that's even without some huge glaring incident of wrongdoing on his resume. It took time for the Heat to get used to that element of the James world. "It's different than anything I've been around, there's no question about that," said Spoelstra, who, it bears noting, has spent the vast majority of his adult life around another lightning-rod personality in Pat Riley. "It's unfortunate that somebody who has the qualities that he has would be critiqued as negatively as he's been because he embodies so many of the things that you would want from a professional athlete. "He's never been in trouble," Spoelstra added. "He's a team guy. He's a pass-first guy. He's a scorer, he's a defender, a two-way player, he's a great teammate. He's honored all of his contracts and he has a dream that he's been trying to chase but he's been doing it within a team concept." The mouthpiece he wore throughout these playoffs said "XVI" -- the Roman numerals for 16, how many postseason wins it takes to win an NBA championship. The towels that the Heat handed out Thursday night said the same thing, both a reminder of the goal and a tribute to what James flashed every time he opened his mouth on the court in these past four series. XVI wins later, the mission is complete. "It's a dream that he's had since I've known him, to be in the NBA and be a champion," his longtime friend Randy Mims said. James' successes are celebrated. His failures might be more celebrated. When the Heat lost last year's finals to the Dallas Mavericks, all the blame went James' way, and with good reason. He averaged three points in fourth quarters of those six games. The most common complaint, one that James acknowledges is true, is that he didn't make enough plays in the biggest moments. He managed only eight points in the loss that turned the series around and spun it in the Mavericks' favor. "Old Lesson for all," Gilbert tweeted a few minutes after Dallas won the championship in Miami. "There are NO SHORTCUTS. NONE." Gilbert didn't mention James by name in the tweet -- or in his letter that came out shortly after The Decision. He didn't have to, either. The Heat are understandably biased when it comes to perceptions about James. Some of Miami's competitors are as well. "He does the right thing," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "When he makes the right pass and the guy misses the shot, he's criticized. When he forces a shot in a double team, he's criticized. It's the way it is for him, for whatever reason. He's competitive as heck. He's one of the most powerful players to ever play the game. And maybe it isn't enough. I don't know." Rivers said he thinks only one athlete might be able to relate to what James has to deal with -- Tiger Woods. "Tiger over the last two or three years," Rivers said. "Other than that, no one. No athlete that I can ever remember being under the scrutiny -- definitely in basketball. I've never seen anyone under the scrutiny that LeBron James is under." So in these playoffs, instead of trying to defeat the scrutiny or use it as fuel, James tried to ignore it as much as he could. He turned his phones off. Literally, off. And they stayed off. When the NBA tried to send word that he won the MVP award, James wasn't reachable. The message eventually got to Mims, who delivered the news. "I can't remember being as nervous with a message," Mims said. No phone calls. No tweeting. He didn't watch much television. Instead of reading articles about himself or the playoffs, he was reading books, something that became part of his pregame ritual. He would sit at his locker, usually with headphones on, pregame snack of a meal-replacement bar next to him, and flip through a few pages. ("It slows my mind down," James said.) "He's just focused, you know, just like the rest of this team," Wade said. "He has a goal, and he wants to reach that goal, and he doesn't want nothing to stand in his way, and he doesn't want himself to stand in his way. He wants to make sure once you leave the game or you leave the series, you can say, I gave it my all. I don't know if we all could have said that last season." They couldn't. That's why James made a slew of changes after the 2011 finals. He worked out harder. He said he was getting rid of the anger that he played with last season, something he did in an effort to prove people wrong. This year, he said he played with joy again -- and figured out that the best way to win wasn't to prove detractors wrong, but to pro" "He's made some changes, obviously, to his game and more importantly, to his approach, how he views it and how he prepares for a game," Heat forward Juwan Howard said. "I commend him for some of the decisions that he made, looking at himself in the mirror and saying I want to make some changes.' A lot of players won't do that. Obviously, it shows he's very bright and that he's humble. He wants to get better." But first, he had to address not being happy. His family -- then-girlfriend, now-fiancee Savannah Brinson, and the couple's two sons -- spent long stretches of last season in Ohio. James confided to those in his close circle last year that at times he felt isolated. When Brinson and their kids moved to Miami full-time, things changed in a hurry. James asked Brinson to marry him. The nuptials are next summer. Why then? Well, this summer will be a little busy, for starters. There's the Olympics. Another close friend's wedding. Some off-court business responsibilities. Training camp will be here soon enough. Oh, and first, a parade to celebrate the world champions. "Life is the best experience you can get," Mims said. "That's what's basically happened with him that whole year, from leaving Cleveland to coming here to being here basically alone for that year. And then you see things change. His family came here. He got engaged. He learned more about the team, became more of a leader." James' free-agent courtship officially lasted about a week, The Decision went on for an hour, and the words that changed so many aspects of James' life that night took only four seconds to say that night. "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," James said, that unforgettable phrase. He'll forever be linked to what he said in that infamous welcome party-turned-rock concert -- which despite countless insistence to the contrary was arranged not for him, but for Wade and with the goal of topping how the organization celebrated Shaquille O'Neal's arrival in 2004. And the most-replayed moment from that night was when James started peeling off how many championships he would hope to win in Miami. "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," James said that night, as Wade and Bosh nodded in the seats next to him. No, he doesn't have any of those yet. However, at long last, he does have one.

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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Trotz's future in Washington remains unsettled on eve Stanley Cup Final

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USA TODAY Sports

Trotz's future in Washington remains unsettled on eve Stanley Cup Final

Caps Coach Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the Stanley Cup Final, and any potential talks about an extension will wait until the trophy is awarded, GM Brian MacLellan said Friday.

“No,” MacLellan said, asked if a decision on Trotz’s future had been made. “We’re going to address everything after the playoffs are over.”

Trotz’s four-year contract expires at season’s end.

It’s rare for a head coach to enter a season while in the final year of his deal. But that’s how the Caps decided to handle Trotz’s situation last offseason after another strong regular season performance ended with yet another second round playoff exit at the hands of the Penguins.

It was a suboptimal situation for Trotz, a 55-year-old who ranks fifth all-time in regular season victories but, until this year, had never led any team beyond the conference semifinals.

Despite his lame duck status, all Trotz did was produce his best coaching performance to date. 

Consider:

  • While visiting his son in Russia last summer, Trotz visited Alex Ovechkin in Moscow to discuss the changes he’d like to see the Caps’ captain make to his training and his game.
  • When the Caps reconvened for training camp in September, it was clear there were still some hurt feelings in the locker room. So Trotz and his assistants backed off, allowing some necessary healing to occur.
  • When the team suffered back-to-back blowout losses in Nashville and Colorado back in November, Trotz initiated a tell-it-like-it-is team meeting that many players have pointed to as the turning point of the regular season, which ended with the team’s third straight Metropolitan title.
  • Trotz also got his highly-skilled lineup to buy into a more structured, detailed style of play late in the campaign, a transformation that prompted MacLellan to call this playoff run the most defensively responsible of Trotz’s tenure.
  • In each of the two previous conference semifinals, Washington was defeated by Pittsburgh and, as a result, the Penguins had become a physical and a mental hurdle for the Caps. Earlier this month, Trotz helped direct Ovechkin and Co. past the two-time Cup champions.

Although MacLellan wouldn’t say much about Trotz’s contract, he did say that he’s noticed a big change in Trotz’s day-to-day approach to his job, a change possibly prompted by the coach’s free agent status.

“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure. Maybe a little more freedom about how he goes about things. He’s more relaxed, I guess would be the way to describe him.”

MacLellan also acknowledged the job Trotz’s has done this season, beginning with his delicate handling of the dressing room to start the year.

“I think he’s done a good job managing it,” MacLellan said. “To come in this year with so many questions—from my point of view, the lineup questions weren’t that big of a deal—but just the emotional state of our coming into to start the year [and] how to handle that. I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

Indeed, Trotz’s situation remains unclear on the eve of the Final. But we do know this much: He’s having one of the best contract years in NHL coaching history.

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