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.

In or out of the NCAA tournament? Where every Big Ten team stands with one week left in the regular season

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USA TODAY

In or out of the NCAA tournament? Where every Big Ten team stands with one week left in the regular season

There's one week to go in the Big Ten regular season.

Thing is, though that means just two games apiece for the 14 teams, seemingly nothing has been determined yet. Just a game separates Purdue and Wisconsin at the top of the standings, and a trio of squads — Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan State — are tied for third place a game behind the the Badgers. Mathematically, any one of those five could win at least a share of the Big Ten title.

The picture isn't much clearer when it comes to the NCAA tournament. The teams that were locks a week ago are mired in losing stretches now, and teams that figured to be on the bubble are rising in the standings, creating an entirely new group of bubble teams.

This year has been a mediocre one for the conference, making it hard to peg which groups belong in the field of 68 or not. Seemingly, though, that's a national trend, and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had seven Big Teams in his projection on Monday.

With one week left in the regular season, here's a team-by-team look at who it looks like will go dancing, who doesn't have a chance and who still might have some work to do.

Illinois Fighting Illini

In or out: Hard to say

John Groce's team is surging, blowing out Nebraska over the weekend to pick up its fourth win in its last five games. That stretch includes two wins over a stumbling Northwestern team, wins that are unfortunately losing heft as the Wildcats keep piling up late-season losses. But there's no doubting that the Illini are playing a much better brand of basketball lately, with defense powering wins. The last two Illinois opponents have scored fewer than 60 points. Playing better against the likes of Nebraska and Iowa won't mean much without a signature win in there. Wednesday night brings an opportunity against Michigan State. Win that one, and the Illini would suddenly — and miraculously, given a 3-8 start to conference play — be in the conversation for a spot in the Dance.

Indiana Hoosiers

In or out: Hard to say

For some reason, the Hoosiers have remained in the "will they or won't they" conversation despite a dreadful season. Saturday night's win over Northwestern stopped Indiana's five-game losing streak, but with the Cats mired in their own losing stretch — and blowing that game with a last-second foul — how impressive is that win, exactly? Indiana sticking on the NCAA tournament bubble despite its 6-10 conference record and current 10th-place standing is a little head-scratching, but it's hard also to completely discount the resume, which features those early season non-conference wins over Kansas and North Carolina. A win like those the rest of the way — like in Tuesday night's bout with rival Purdue — could crank the conversation up surrounding the Hoosiers' candidacy for a spot in the Dance.

Iowa Hawkeyes

In or out: Out

It was a brief flirtation with the NCAA tournament bubble for the Hawkeyes, but it looks like Fran McCaffery's young team will have to wait till next year. Maybe things change if Iowa deals yet another loss to Wisconsin on Thursday night. After all, the Hawkeyes already have wins over Purdue, Michigan and Maryland teams all seemingly destined for the Dance. But with a max 18 possible wins in the regular season, would that be enough to even start the conversation? After all, these selection-committee folks have a long memory (as evidenced by the fact that they're still talking about Indiana), and Iowa had that disastrous run during non-conference play where it dropped five of six. It would seem Hawkeyes' fans' eyes should be on next season's tournament.

Maryland Terrapins

In or out: In

Mark Turgeon's team is on a three-game losing streak after getting thumped good by Iowa over the weekend. But already with double-digit wins in the conference and a whopping 22 wins overall, it would seem nothing could knock the Terps out of the field of 68. That doesn't mean, of course, that their seed won't take a beating from this losing stretch, which has featured losses in five of their last seven games.

Michigan Wolverines

In or out: In

The Wolverines seemingly played their way into the Dance with a big win over Purdue on Saturday. Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the conference right now, a winner in five of its last six games. From flirting with disaster to a surefire lock, Michigan is a No. 8 seed in Lunardi's latest projection, and that number could go even higher if the Wolverines keep things going. The two games that remain on the regular-season schedule come on the road, where Michigan has won only twice this season. But those games are against a struggling Northwestern team and a beatable Nebraska team. If the Wolverines win both games, that's closing the season on a seven-out-of-eight run to produce an even more favorable Big Ten Tournament matchup. Talk about getting hot at the right time.

Michigan State Spartans

In or out: In

Much like their in-state rivals, a big win over the weekend figured to secure a tournament spot for the Spartans, who took care of business against a stumbling Wisconsin team on Sunday in East Lansing. A team that's found itself in that "last four in" discussion this season seems safe with a No. 9 seed in Lunardi's latest projection. A brutal non-conference season that featured five losses will stick in the memory of the committee, but since Sparty has picked up wins over Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and two over currently red-hot Minnesota. Freshmen Nick Ward, Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston are playing real well right now, and Michigan State has won four of its last five. Holding off Illinois on Wednesday night would do the Spartans a lot of good. A win this weekend over Maryland might lock things up.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

In or out: In

There's no Big Ten team hotter than the Gophers, who have won seven straight, a streak that includes wins over tourney-goers Maryland and Michigan. Minnesota's playing great on the offensive end and scoring a lot of points. More importantly it's redeeming a midseason five-game losing streak that had at least this observer questioning what all the fuss was about. Well, there's no questioning that anymore, and the resume looks terrific: a 12-1 non-conference record with a win over Arkansas and the only loss to Florida State, plus a potential top-four finish in the Big Ten with wins over Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Maryland. The cherry on top would be a win in the regular-season finale over rival Wisconsin. Oh, and given their current streaking, the Gophers might be the favorite heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

In or out: Out

Conference play started with such promise for the Huskers, who won their first three Big Ten games. But they've won just three Big Ten games since and at 6-10 are tied with three others in the second-to-last spot in the conference standings. Glynn Watson Jr. and Tai Webster have been good this year, but it'll be a third straight year without an NCAA tournament trip. But considering that Tim Miles-led appearance was the program's first since 1998, there's certainly no reason for Nebraska brass to have anything but full confidence in its head coach.

Northwestern Wildcats

In or out: Hard to say

Maybe I'm being an alarmist, but Northwestern's crash-and-burn finish to the regular season puts into question what was very recently lock status for the Wildcats. Chris Collins' crew was 7-2 in the Big Ten when Scottie Lindsey had to take a four-game absence with mono. Since, the Cats have lost five of seven — including two to Illinois — and can't do a thing at the offensive end. Saturday night's collapse at Indiana was the latest and most painful way Northwestern has lost during this recent stretch. The final two regular-season games come in Evanston, but they're against really good Michigan and Purdue teams. It's not difficult to envision the regular season ending in a four-game losing streak with losses in seven of nine. Would that be enough to kick Northwestern out of the field of 68? It remains to be seen. Lunardi still has the Cats at a No. 10 seed a week after assuring everyone they were a lock. If they keep losing — and what if that includes their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, too? — will he have to change his rosy outlook?

Ohio State Buckeyes

In or out: Out

The worst year of the Thad Matta Era is about to come to a merciful end. A 10-3 non-conference season with losses to UCLA and Virginia set the Buckeyes up for a potential tourney run, but they started league play with a four-game losing streak and never recovered, just last week snapping a three-game losing streak with a win over Wisconsin. There's a chance to end the season on a positive note with two winnable games left against Penn State and Indiana. That could dig Ohio State out of the bottom four and avoid the dreaded Wednesday games in the Big Ten Tournament. But certainly right now, nothing seems possible — short of an unexpected conference-tournament run to a championship — that would vault it into the Big Dance.

Penn State Nittany Lions

In or out: Out

There are a lot of reasons to be excited in Happy Valley, and it looks like 2018 is a real possibility for the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. It won't be 2017, though, as everyone can tell. But the play of Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, not to mention plenty of other guys who aren't Philly freshmen, has to have people pleased with the direction Patrick Chambers is taking his program. Winnable games remain against Ohio State and Iowa, plus there's potential noise to be made in the Big Ten Tournament. It could all end up with just the second above-.500 finish of the Chambers Era.

Purdue Boilermakers

In or out: In

One of the most obvious locks in the conference, the Boilers will likely enter the Big Ten Tournament as the popular pick to win the whole thing, and they'll likely enter the NCAA tournament with the best chance of any Big Ten team to make the deepest run. That being said, not everything is perfect in West Lafayette. Purdue is coming off a weekend loss to Michigan, that after sweating out a midweek overtime win at Penn State. Both those games came away from home, and getting back to Mackey for Tuesday night's showdown with rival Indiana should be a positive for Matt Painter's bunch. The regular-season wraps against a stumbling Northwestern team in Evanston. There's no reason to doubt the Boilers will get an invite to the Big Dance, but already the selection committee's boxing out of the Big Ten from its top 16 a few weeks back looks prophetic.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

In or out: Out

Yes, Rutgers is still residing in the 14th spot in the Big Ten standings, but in the first year under new head coach Steve Pikiell, the Knights have certainly played better than their record indicates. That doesn't mean they'll upset Maryland or Illinois in this final week or that they won't finish with just two league wins. But if Pikiell's group can get just one more win this week or in the Big Ten Tournament, it will have doubled last season's win total.

Wisconsin Badgers

In or out: In

The Badgers are a lock, but if they want anything besides a first-round exit, they better figure out what the problem is and fix it fast. If Wisconsin hadn't racked up 21 wins by early February and if the Big Ten wasn't so mediocre this season, this recent stretch of four losses in five games would be looked upon as an epic collapse. Instead, Greg Gard's group is just one game back of first place in the conference standings and could still manage the Big Ten Tournament's No. 1 seed even with this stretch of poor play. Coming off back-to-back road losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, Wisconsin gets its shot at redemption Thursday night against Iowa before a big weekend bout with red-hot Minnesota. The Badgers don't have to worry about their NCAA tournament spot vanishing, but their AP top-25 ranking is about to disappear.

Michal Rozsival, Jordin Tootoo extensions give Blackhawks flexibility at expansion draft

Michal Rozsival, Jordin Tootoo extensions give Blackhawks flexibility at expansion draft

The Blackhawks agreed to one-year contract extensions with defenseman Michal Rozsival and forward Jordin Tootoo, the team announced Tuesday.

Rozsival's deal is worth $650,000 while Tootoo's deal carries a $700,000 cap hit, according to ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.

The move gives the Blackhawks two players eligible to be exposed during this summer's expansion draft.

NHL teams must expose two forwards and one defenseman that have played at least 40 games in 2015-16 or more than 70 in 2016-17, and they must be under contract in 2017-18.

[MORE: The Blackhawks' 9-1 February by the numbers]

Rozsival and Tootoo meet those requirements, which means the Blackhawks can now protect Ryan Hartman, who is also eligible.

They are allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goaltender. 

Rozsival, 38, has one goal and one assist in 16 games this season, often serving as the team's extra defenseman. Tootoo, 34, has no points in 36 games.