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“Good Thunder vs. Evil Heat?” It’s more complicated than that.

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I did a national sports talk radio interview the other day and the first question asked was “is this really the good vs. evil finals?” It caught me a little off guard.

But they were not the first to ask it — it’s been a national story line for a while. The themes are simplistic and easy to grasp.

The Thunder are good because they built their team through the draft and picked up some smart free-agent role players. The Thunder are good because they are humble and Kevin Durant announced he was staying with the team on Twitter with no fanfare.

The Heat are evil because they “copped out” by joining forces as free agents to chase a title. The Heat are evil because LeBron James had an hour-long special on ESPN to announce his intentions, then they threw a huge pep rally in Miami for fans where LeBron said he was coming to town to win “not one, not two, not three…” all the way up to not seven championships.

That’s simplistic. And wrong. It’s a partial picture.

Why don’t we ask the people of Seattle how pure the Oklahoma City Thunder are. Others have said this more forcefully than I. Durant was drafted a Seattle SuperSonic, but thanks to inept politicians and an new owner in Clay Bennett who had no intention of keeping the team in Seattle, that fan base got screwed over. They lost their team.

What was Seattle’s big sin? The population refused to tax themselves to subsidize a billionaire with millions more for a new arena. The people of Oklahoma City — who have been a rabid and loyal fan base, one of the best in the league — voted to tax themselves to upgrade their arena to NBA levels for a team and to revitalize downtown. People tried to tell me on Twitter how this was just capitalism at work. No it’s not — public subsidies for an arena are the antithesis of capitalism — the private sector isn’t picking up the tab. You can decide for yourself if that tax money might have had a better use.

I think the people of Seattle did the noble and right thing and thought their tax dollars had higher uses. But sure, it’s the Heat who are evil.

If you’re going to argue that knowing how to play the system like OKC did to get a team is acceptable, then how is playing the system like Pat Riley did to build the Heat roster not acceptable? He took the huge risk to strip the roster down so he had cap room, he convinced three big stars all to take less money to play together and win — and isn’t that what we ask our stars to do? Don’t we want them to win more than get the largest paycheck? LeBron would be richer in Cleveland, but he wanted a ring more.

And spare me the “those three getting together is the easy way out” crap. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy — Kareem forced Milwaukee to trade him and the Lakers got the rights to draft Worthy in a deal so lopsided the league banned future ones like it. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and some other quality players around him. Bill Russell had more Hall of Famers than you can count. Super teams are what win, and the NBA has always had them.

Meanwhile, the public hatred of LeBron James has become overblown. What was his big sin? Hubris. He (and his advisors) handled his exit from Cleveland and choice of a new home base poorly. The Heat’s pep rally for fans was a public relations mistake. That none of LeBron’s advisors saw what this was doing to his reputation speaks poorly of them.

But of all the problems we have with professional athletes, is having a really big ego the biggest one? One that deserves this level of backlash?

Baseball and football have guys on HGH and steroids. The NFL has a concussion issue, as does the NHL. There are guys in every major sport getting arrested for ugly crimes, blowing through their money living a rock star lifestyle that fans don’t relate to.

LeBron’s done none of that. He’s still with his high school girl, is by all accounts a good father, never been arrested or ended up the focus of a TMZ scandal. He’s not perfect, but his sins are not so severe as to warrant the backlash that has come his way.

And remember, with his first contract after his rookie deal, LeBron did what Durant did — he stayed in Cleveland. He left after that deal ended when he wanted the chance to win more than a bigger paycheck.

By the way, Durant and LeBron get along really well. They worked out together during the lockout. They will team up this summer to represent the USA in the London Olympics.

You don’t have to hate the Thunder. You certainly don’t have to love LeBron and the Heat. Root for the Thunder, hope the Heat fail. Pull for where your heart lies.

But you need to do better than the simplistic “good vs. evil” storyline. Because it just doesn’t work. It’s more complicated than that.

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

Mavericks don’t use scandals as excuse for poor play vs. Lakers

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long week for the Dallas Mavericks. First Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for saying on Dr. J’s podcast that he told the team they would be better off losing. That was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell report of sexual harassment run rampant — starting with the team CEO — and a corporate culture on the Mavericks’ business side that allowed it this behavior to flourish. Then on Friday, Mavericks’ star rookie Dennis Smith Jr. was named in a report about players who took money from agents while in college.

Did all that bleed over to the slow start and ultimate 124-102 blowout loss to the Lakers Friday night?

“I don’t know, we had some good looks…” Dirk Nowitzki said of the impact of the scandals, adding the rust from the All-Star break may have impacted the team’s play more. “Once you’re out there, you don’t necessarily really think about what is going on off the floor. You’re in a zone, you play, you compete with your team, we just didn’t play hard enough, compete hard enough at times.”

“I’m not going there, I think this is just a situation where Los Angeles jumped on us and we didn’t have enough answers,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, also blowing off the idea of the scandals getting in the players’ heads. “The guys we have in this locker room, we just have to show up the right way, and our level of force was not there.”

It’s difficult to say if the Mavericks did feel any impact from the controversies swirling around the team — they were already one of the worst teams in basketball (18-41, and they have been outscored by an average of 3.2 points per 100 possession). They have a bottom 10 offense and defense. A bad outing vs. the Lakers isn’t necessarily tied to everything outside the locker room, especially for a team in the middle of the Tankapaloza going on around the NBA (their owner said as much). Put simply, Dallas was already bad before the waves of controversies hit.

Cuban was right, even if it cost him — this team should tank, lose a lot of games the rest of the way, and work to get a better draft position.

The code words for that is “developing younger players.” Which Dallas is and should be doing.

They are also trying to evaluate their free agents coming up this offseason — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — to see if they are part of the future. How does Carlise divide up the minutes over the final stretch of the season to help make those decisions?

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete. Last year’s team went through a tough year, won 33 games, and was one of my favorite teams to coach because of the character of the guys — but this year’s probably been even more fun. All these undrafted guys are so grateful to be here, they want to get better, and do compete hard, and that’s an exciting thing….

“Nerlens won’t play tonight (Friday), won’t play tomorrow, but will be available Monday and I want to get him out there and see how he plays with some of our other younger guys. We’ve got to look at what this could potentially look like, because some of these guys are free agents and decisions will have to be made.”

The Mavericks also will learn how those players deal with scandals.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 26, Bucks beat Raptors 122-119 in OT

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks felt extra good about getting a rare win against the Toronto Raptors.

Antetokounmpo had 26 points and 12 rebounds, and Milwaukee snapped Toronto’s seven-game win streak with a 122-119 overtime victory Friday night.

“We haven’t beaten them in a while so the win feels a lot better, to be honest with you,” Antetokounmpo said. “They’re a great team, too.”

Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton each scored 21 points as the Bucks won the opener of an eight-game stretch against teams in playoff contention. Jason Terry scored 14 points, and John Henson and Thon Maker each had 12.

“It’s a big gut-check and a big win for us,” Middleton said. “This is the best team in the East and we proved that we could beat them on the road.”

DeMar DeRozan scored 33 points for the Raptors, who had won five straight home games against the Bucks, and 15 of the past 17 meetings.

Toronto also eliminated Milwaukee in the opening round of last year’s playoffs. The teams will not meet again in the regular season.

Serge Ibaka had 18 points, and Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam each scored 17 for Toronto.

“We didn’t deserve to win,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “They outworked us, the outplayed us, they outthought us. Whatever adjective you want to use, they did it to us tonight.”

Jonas Valanciunas‘ buzzer-beating dunk for Toronto sent the game to overtime. He finished with 10 points.

Toronto suffered its first home loss since Jan. 26 against Utah. The Raptors are an NBA-best 24-5 at home.

“It’s good to have a tough loss like this,” Lowry said. “It kind of re-focuses us. We can get beat on any given night and we’ve got to come out there and play hard every night.”

The Raptors trailed 110-108 with 3.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter after Middleton split a pair of free throws. Following a timeout, Toronto inbounded the ball to Valanciunas, who paused before driving for the tying dunk.

Toronto scored the first five points of the extra session, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Terry and Middleton capped an 8-0 Bucks run, giving Milwaukee a 118-115 lead with 1:58 left.

Valanciunas stopped the run with a dunk, but Antetokounmpo’s jumper with 13 seconds left put the Bucks up 120-117.

DeRozan cut it to one with a dunk but Terry answered with a pair of free throws in the final second. DeRozan’s long inbounds pass to C.J. Miles was knocked away at the buzzer to give the Bucks the win.

 

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