Memphis Grizzlies v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Seven

NBA Playoffs: Durant + Defense = Date with Dallas for Thunder

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No doubt, Kevin Durant was special Sunday. In the biggest game of his NBA career he remained undaunted through a slow start and hit 11 of his last 16 shots on his way to 39 points. He played smart, used back-door cuts to get easy baskets, and once he got rolling everything fell.

But that’s not what won the Thunder Game 7 — it was their defense.

And they’re going to need more (and actually better) defense like that against Dallas. But for a night they can celebrate that defense and a 105-90 win that gave the Thunder a 4-3 series win and a trip to the conference finals.

Memphis, whether due to the tightness of the situation or the tightness of the Thunder defense (or likely a little of both), could not buy an outside shot in this game. On shots outside of 10 the Grizzlies shot just 34 percent. They were just 5-of-15 from three. (Stats via Hoopdata.)

That allowed the Thunder pack the paint with defenders and contest everything close to the basket, where the Grizzlies like to make their music. The Thunder had 11 blocked shots in the game. They had a hand up on everything. No quarter was given. The result there was the Grizzlies shooting 6-of-25 outside the restricted area out to 9 feet. (That makes it 29 percent total shooting for Memphis when they were outside the restricted area in this game.)

The Thunder defense bottled up Zach Randolph, who had just two shots inside the restricted area. Fantastic defense by Nick Collison off the bench helped hold Randolph to 2-of-9 shooting from 3 to 9 feet (Collison had three blocks in the first half). With his struggles the Grizzlies started to more and more go away from Randolph as the game wore on. Then, when he would get the ball back, you knew he was going to force up the shots because he wasn’t getting the touches he wanted, all of which made him easier to defend.

That opened the door for Durant to be the hero … although didn’t look like he was going to walk through it early on. He went 2-for-9 to start, but then he got two dunks on back cuts and lobs from Russell Westbrook, and that seemed to wake him up. He shot 11-of-16 the rest of the way.

In the later parts of the third the Thunder went on a 13-2 run that was a whole lot of Durant (with some James Harden thrown in), including Durant blocking a Mike Conley shot at one end then coming back and draining the three in transition. The Grizzlies could never recover from that.

Russell Westbrook, who took a lot of heat this series for at times shooting too much and passing to little, but he recorded a triple-double with 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Westbrook has this kind of game in him and he does it during the season, if inconsistently. But he did a great job of hitting Durant on back door cuts and he left the ball to him as a trailer in transition that led to a three. Westbrook can score almost at will, and there will be games the Thunder need that, but when he gets everyone involved like this the Thunder are almost unbeatable.

Harden was so hot his beard was about to catch fire. He and 17 points and hit 4-of-8 from three.

Sunday could be the kind of big, statement game from the Thunder that says they have arrived as contenders. But they will need to prove that against a well-rested Dallas team starting Tuesday night. There is no time to rest.

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Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.

Drake congratulated LeBron James in hallway after game

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Drake is a Toronto native and a huge Raptors’ fan. He’s officially the team’s “global ambassador,” although nobody knows what that actually means.

Drake is also tight with LeBron James.

As LeBron is running down the hall to get to the locker room and celebrate making a sixth straight trip to the Finals Drake stops him to congratulate him. And Drake is one of the handful of guys LeBron will stop and talk to.

Nothing wrong with this, either. Drake has walked a line the whole series — he’s a Raptors fan, he’s trolled LeBron and Kyrie Irving on social media after Toronto wins, but he’s close with Cleveland’s players and has been seen in the Cavaliers locker room plenty the past few seasons.

Some fan bases (we’re looking at you, Philly) would flip out over this kind of divided loyalty, but not Canadians who will just forgive and move on.

LeBron James leads Cavaliers back to Finals doing it his way

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LeBron James is the first NBA star of the social media age, and with that has come a volume of criticism that the greats before him — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan — never had to deal with.

Even these playoffs, there have been chattering voices knocking LeBron for how he worked more to set up teammates — particularly Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — more than seeking out his own shot. Some people have always wanted him to be more Jordan, when he was always more Magic. Or Oscar Robertson.

And this playoff he knew that he could carry his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals through a diluted East, but if he wanted a ring he was going to need those other players to be confident, ready, and believing in the team.

You could see that all come together for LeBron James in Game 6. He attacked early and set a tone, then got everyone involved on his way to 33 points and 11 assists in what became a 113-87 win sending Cleveland back to the NBA Finals.

“I just had to bring my game,” James said in his on-court postgame interview on ESPN. “I had to bring my game, I had to be in attack mode from the beginning, trust my shot, and once my shot start going I can get my teammates involved and they was able to carry me down the stretch.”

LeBron James was getting to the rim with those attacks, check out his shot chart:

LeBron shot chart

LeBron also keyed the fourth-quarter 22-7 run that put away the game.

“There is only one LeBron James, and he makes a difference on any team he plays on, and he’s proven that,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said postgame. “It’s six Finals (in a row for LeBron), to compare him to our team — and I love our players, I wouldn’t trade any of our players — but you put him on any team and he’s a difference maker.”

LeBron’s critics will not be silenced. The man has made six straight finals, a feat not accomplished by anyone since a few legendary Celtics of the 1950s-60s (Bill Russell’s teams). It speaks to LeBron’s focus, skill, durability, and ability to lead teams.

Critics will point to LeBron being 2-4 in the Finals. That misses the point — making it to six straight is an amazing accomplishment, and LeBron did it his way. Not trying to be MJ or Magic or Oscar, just being LeBron James.

We should savor watching this guy play while we still can.