“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.

Don’t like the wait for this year’s Finals? Here’s the top 10 plays from the last two (VIDEO)

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Que the Tom Petty

Nobody is enjoying the week-long break between the end of the Eastern Conference Finals and the start of the NBA Finals (except maybe a few of the older Cavaliers players trying to get healthy). For those of us basketball junkies, we just want to get on to the two best teams in the league battling it out.We need a fix.

Here’s the best we can do today: The top 10 plays from the last two NBA Finals, the last two Cavaliers/Warriors showdowns. Courtesy the folks at NBA.com. There’s plenty of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and a big shot by Kyrie Irving made the list. Enjoy. And just try to be patient.

Warriors’ center Zaza Pachulia cleared to play in Game 1 of NBA Finals

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These playoffs, the Golden State Warriors have been 15.4 points per 100 possessions better when Zaza Pachulia is on the court as opposed to on the bench. That’s a bit misleading, the reason for the gaudy number is he rounds out the dominant starting lineup, which has outscored teams by 32.6 points per 100 this postseason (that is actually better than the legendary “death lineup” in these playoffs). Pachulia is just the first big in the rotation with four All-Star, powerhouse players, but he fills his role well.

Pachulia was slowed by a sore right heel against the Spurs but is 100 percent and ready to go for the Finals when they tip-off Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Here are the details via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

Zaza Pachulia, the only injured Warrior rotation player late in the Spurs series, has participated in all parts of all three practices, without restriction on that sore right heel. He is on track to start Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday.

“We’ve done running, had scrimmages and he’s done everything,” Mike Brown said.

He will have a crucial role on the glass against the Cavaliers. Cleveland brings two dominant rebounders to the party with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love (plus that LeBron James guy can get some boards), the Warriors will use Pachulia to counter. Before you roll your eyes, he had 13 boards in the second meeting of these teams in the regular season, a blowout Golden State win.

He’s the first big in a rotation of them the Warriors will throw at Cleveland — JaVale McGee may get a little time, but expect a lot of small-ball lineups from the Warriors. If Pachulia can give Golden State a solid 18 minutes a night where he is strong on the glass and helps protect the rim, it will be huge for them.

Pachulia is going to get his shot, he’ll be healthy and ready to go.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.