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Mad Chatter: Learning to laugh at LeBron; Alex Gordon's resurgence; Jake Guentzel continues playoff heroics

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Mad Chatter: LeBron still inspires awe; Alex Gordon's return; A date with Creighton-Nebraska volleyball

LeBron James scored 43 points Thursday night in Game 2 against the Toronto Raptors.

Oct. 29, 2003.

Frank Solich was still Nebraska’s coach, the Huskers ranked No. 12 in the country at 7-1, in fact. Three days later, he’d get blown out at Texas.

Creighton basketball had yet to open the Qwest Center (now the CenturyLink Center). That came a month later.

The Marlins had just upset the Yankees for the World Series, though America was still fixated on Steve Bartman. Andy Roddick was coming off the U.S. Open championship. Priest Holmes was lighting up scoreboards in Kansas City. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook was preparing to launch.

So was LeBron James. He made his NBA debut Oct. 29, 2003, and he’s been airborne ever since. Now he’s in season No. 15. He’s 33 years old. And night after night, he’s doing things that make opponents do this.

I watched the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Thursday night from 5 feet in front of my TV, standing and laughing as LeBron made H-O-R-S-E shots over helpless Toronto defenders.

Every time he launched an impossible fadeaway jumper, I thought, “No way.” I had time to think that way, too, because the ball was in the air forever. Then it dropped. It had to be one of LeBron’s five best playoff games ever. That’s hard to say with certainty considering he’s been going longer than "Grey’s Anatomy." (Will that show ever end?!?)

I’ve read columns over the years (including one this week) that say LeBron wants to play along All-Stars, that he doesn’t want to carry such a heavy burden. “He longs to be part of something, the leader of a team,” wrote one columnist.

I think those opinions are misguided. What brings out LeBron’s best is total authority. Knowing that if he doesn’t do the job, nobody will. That’s when he’s fully engaged and free to do whatever he wants. Remember, his best NBA Finals performance of the past decade — he’s played in seven straight Finals — was 2015, Cavs-Warriors Part I, playing alongside Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones. He averaged 36 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. That series, more than anything else he’s done, changed my tune on LeBron. I was done rooting against him. I started celebrating him.

Peak LeBron happens when he’s playing next to guys who wouldn’t win 30 games without him.

Yes, it’s harder on his body to play alongside J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver than it would be Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving. Yes, it probably ends short of a championship. But I think James prefers life this way. The challenge is greater. The rewards are greater.

Golden State deserves its glory. But the Warriors gave up something when they acquired Kevin Durant. The capacity to overcome! LeBron relishes it, now more than ever. The opportunity to carry a ragtag team night after night, captivating the imagination.

Which is why there’s no way he’s going to Houston or Philadelphia this summer. He’s too good for those rosters. He’d have to yield too much control. Maybe Los Angeles, where he could dominate a young Lakers team. Maybe Cleveland, where he’ll keep putting up 43, 14 and eight in playoff games. (At least when he sees the Raptors.)

Wherever he plays, nights like Thursday illustrate how much he has left. Maybe 2-3 more years at peak level. Maybe more. When he’s done, he’ll be the most prolific player in NBA history.

It’s not too late to stand with delight in front of your TV.

» Meanwhile in Boston …

Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge must step back and wonder sometimes. Do we really have two of the NBA’s top 20 players in street clothes right now? Is it possible to have too many good players? The 2018-19 Celtics may be the test case.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier look like future All-Stars. And Al Horford is the perfect No. 3 option and resident old man.

The Celtics are too balanced to lose to the 76ers. If that’s true without Irving and Hayward, you have to wonder if young Philly has the goods to beat Boston going forward. It might take a fully developed Markelle Fultz.

» C’mon, Jake Guentzel. How long can you keep this up?

A year ago, the former Omaha Mav turned Pittsburgh Penguin went nuts in the Stanley Cup playoffs, becoming a household name in hockey.

Now Guentzel is doing it again, leading Pittsburgh to a critical Game 4 win over Washington on Thursday. From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Before Guentzel, no NHL player in the past 30 years had posted as many as 20 points over his team's first 10 playoff games. Only seven men had done it in league history.

With 10 goals and 21 points in 10 games, Guentzel conceded Thursday he's in a zone the likes he never has experienced at any level. Of course it is: it's an unprecedented run for any Penguins player.

That’s just this season. But let’s go back to 2017. In just 35 postseason games, Guentzel has 23 goals.

"He's doing a great job. I don't think there's any denying that," Sidney Crosby said. "He works hard. He does a lot of good things with and without the puck. I think he cares more about the wins than the goals and assists.”

» Alex Gordon is back!

I know, the Kansas City Royals are likely headed for a 100-loss season. But if Gordon can rebound from his depressing 2016 and ’17 seasons, the Royals might be worth watching again. Since Gordon returned from the disabled list on April 24, he is batting .372 through Thursday’s games, including two home runs this week. It’s a small sample size, but it’s not nothing.

What changed? A few mechanical tweaks, according to Rustin Dodd, who covers the Royals for The Athletic. Flatter path to the ball. Quicker load. Stride toward the pitcher.

The bigger key is confidence, which Gordon has been fighting for two-plus years.

“That’s one thing I wanted to work on this year, just believing in myself the whole year even if things weren’t going well,” Gordon said Thursday. “I kind of got off to a slow start. But then I went on the DL stint and kind of refocused this start. When I came back, I just want to be positive. Just believe in yourself.”

It’s a long season and there’s plenty of time to fall back into bad habits. But Gordon, for the first time in a long time, has flashed some hope.

» Albert Pujols stands at 2,999 hits. He’ll likely reach the milestone in Seattle this weekend. But is he the greatest hitter of his generation?

Name these two hitters, sorted by their season averages:

A: .304 batting average, .385 on-base percentage, .560 slugging percentage, OPS+ 151, 39 home runs, 108 runs, 120 RBIs.

B: .317 BA, .395 OBP, .552 slug, OPS+ 151, 33 HRs, 100 runs, 118 RBIs.

Player A is Pujols. Player B is Miguel Cabrera.

What if we include this decade’s best hitter?

Mike Trout: .306 BA, .411 OBP, .569 slug, OPS+ 173, 36 HRs, 122 runs, 100 RBIs.

I give Pujols the edge over Cabrera because of postseason exploits and longevity — his past two years have reduced his averages. Trout’s numbers are superior to both, but he hasn’t hit his twilight years yet.

» Teddy Allen and Bob Huggins seemed like a marriage destined to fail. The freshman from Boys Town was volatile. The coach at West Virginia was, too.

When Allen busted out in early January with 20 points against Trae Young and Oklahoma, he showed he could play at the highest level. But Huggins benched him one week later. That’s where Allen spent most of the winter. Teddy Bear and Huggy Bear couldn't get along.

So it was no surprise Thursday when Allen announced his transfer intentions. Does he come back to Nebraska? Not likely. Neither the Huskers nor Bluejays showed much interest two years ago.

I could see Allen at Iowa State, which recruited him hard. Wherever he lands, he needs to find the right fit. A coaching staff that inspires discipline and maturity.

» Put Sept. 6 on your calendar, local sports fans. That’s the night Creighton volleyball hosts Nebraska at CenturyLink Center. The two haven’t met since September 2016, before Creighton broke through with a regional final berth.

Of course, the Huskers are defending national champions and have a great track record at CenturyLink, winning two national titles there. And they’ve actually played more matches than CU at CenturyLink. But they’re breaking in a new setter, and Kirsten Bernthal Booth returns a terrific team. The Jays won’t be much of an underdog, if at all.

Whoever wins, it’s a match that should absolutely be played every year. Creighton has earned the right.

» Finally, I dearly hope you check out Season 3 of "Where I Come From." We took a little longer break than usual this spring, but the lineup of guests will be worth it, I hope. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app or visit our podcast page. Thanks for reading (and listening).

Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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