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.

Jose Quintana giving White Sox another ace to play as early season success rolls on

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Jose Quintana giving White Sox another ace to play as early season success rolls on

The White Sox newfound brand of crisp, clean baseball is suiting Jose Quintana awfully well. 

The 27-year-old left-hander pitched another gem Tuesday night, firing eight innings of one-run ball to propel the White Sox to a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox in front of 15,025 at U.S. Cellular Field.

Anchored by improved offensive and defensive support, Quintana lowered his season ERA to 1.40. But more jarring — in a positive way — is that in earning the win on Tuesday, Quintana for the first time in his career won three consecutive starts. 

“It’s way better this year,” Quintana said. “The offense is, for me and for everybody, everybody tries to do his job. We’re off to a really good start and we believe this year is a good year for us, and we’ll try to do everything to stay in first place.”

Quintana’s posted consistently solid results since the White Sox plucked him from Double-A Birmingham to start in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians four years ago. His decidedly-not-flashy-but-effective pitching style didn’t make headlines like his prolific teammate Chris Sale, but a 3.46 ERA and an unfairly poor win-loss record landed him on plenty of lists and social media takes focused on the most underrated or overlooked players in baseball. 

That’s changed this year. Before his stellar start Tuesday, Quintana was given 8/1 odds by the sports betting website Bovada to win the American League Cy Young, the third-best of anyone (Sale led the way at 6/5). It’s still early, of course, but these six starts to begin the 2016 season stand is one of the best stretches he’s had in his career. 

Manager Robin Ventura attributed Quintana’s ace-like success in part to pitching with a little less pressure than in the past. 

“There is something to be said for going out there thinking if you give up one you’re going to lose,” Ventura said. “It’s been a few years for him. Right now (with) the feeling going on in there, he knows if he just pitches his game those guys are going to scratch out some runs for him.”

The White Sox continue to show signs of ending a head-scratching inability to support Quintana. 

Jose Abreu’s first-inning RBI triple got the White Sox scoring started and his double in the eighth added two insurance runs (a Todd Frazier groundout in the third inning plated the White Sox other run). For the fifth time in six starts this season, Quintana was supported by four or more runs, and Adam Eaton and Austin Jackson made sparkling defensive plays to keep hard-hit balls from inflicting any damage. 

Having the offense score four or more runs in 83 percent of Quintana’s starts seems unlikely — if he makes 32 starts this year, that’d mean he’d get that support in about 27 of those — but it is an improvement off the last few seasons. The White Sox scored three or fewer runs in 54 percent of Quintana’s starts from 2013-15, a span in which it’s worth noting the club also was rated as having the third-worst defense in baseball by DRS and UZR. 

“There’s more of a confidence level of him knowing he doesn’t have to do an extraordinary thing — and he might do it, like tonight,” Ventura said. “But he doesn’t feel like he has to do it on his own.”

Quintana isn’t throwing harder this year and hasn’t added a new pitch or anything like that. But Ventura’s theory on why the Colombia native is pitching better makes sense — perhaps the next step in Quintana’s career was getting a good, reliable team playing behind him.

“He’s probably one of the best right now in the league,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through a translator. 

That’s not hyperbole. Quintana has a top-10 ERA that’s backed up by a 2.12 FIP, which is a good indicator that his early-season success isn’t necessarily a small sample size-generated mirage. 

Quintana is a shining example of how so much has gone right for the White Sox this season — even on the day in which the team announced it would eat over $11 million to cut ties with veteran left-hander John Danks. Not only is he pitching better, but everyone around him is playing better. And the combination of that, so far, has taken Quintana and the White Sox to another level. 

“Everything changed,” Quintana said. “Everything is going in a good direction this year. We believe in that.”

Today on CSN: Lester, Cubs go for sweep in Pittsburgh

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Today on CSN: Lester, Cubs go for sweep in Pittsburgh

The Cubs look to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates this afternoon, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11 a.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (2-1, 1.83) vs. Juan Nicasio (3-2, 3.33)

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Rick Hahn: Filling fifth spot in White Sox rotation a 'fluid situation'

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Rick Hahn: Filling fifth spot in White Sox rotation a 'fluid situation'

Erik Johnson gets the first chance at the No. 5 spot in the White Sox rotation, but the situation is hardly finalized.

The White Sox announced Tuesday that they would promote Johnson from Triple-A Charlotte in time to make Thursday’s start in place of John Danks, whom they will officially designated for assignment later this week. But just because Johnson gets the first start doesn’t mean he’s here for good, general manager Rick Hahn said.

Hahn and the White Sox have made it clear they want better production from the fifth spot, whether it's from an internal or an external option.

“It’s going to be a bit of a fluid situation,” Hahn said.

Hahn is comfortable with the team’s internal options at Charlotte beyond Johnson.

Miguel Gonzalez, who started last Monday in Toronto, has a solid major league track record. Then there’s Jacob Turner, who has 27 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings with a 3.04 ERA in five starts.

But Hahn also said the White Sox wouldn’t shy away from looking outside the farm system, either. Hahn declined to answer whether or not the White Sox would watch Tim Lincecum’s tryout Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz. before he noted the club has “scouts everywhere.”

The White Sox could also try and use their internal options to get by for several months before adding another pitcher ahead of the trade deadline.

No matter whom they turn to, the expectation is better results than the White Sox received from Danks, who was 0-4 with a 7.25 ER in four starts.

“Obviously, Erik starts on Thursday,” Hahn said. “After that, we may well make another move next week as we try to accomplish two things with that spot -- first and foremost, get greater production than we’ve been receiving thus far this year.”

“We do have a few internal options.

“If it does get to the point where we’re better off going outside the organization, obviously we’ve never been shy about doing that.”