NBA Finals Heat-Thunder Game 3: LeBron James finally suffocates Kevin Durant in the fourth

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(Before we get started, there is an alternate view point here, one in which Durant was out of his rhythm because he had been benched for the final 5:40 due to picking up his fourth foul, or that he was tentative for the same reason, concerned with drawing an offensive foul. If you choose to believe that Durant picking up those fouls was legitimately what resulted in Durant’s performance, then God Bless You. May the aliens who you wear tinfoil to avoid attacks from be merciful when they subjugate your world. For the rest of us, let’s talk about what happened.)

If LeBron James had dropped this line: 2 of 6 from the field, 0-2 from the line, 1 rebound, 0 assists, 2 turnovers in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, can you imagine the roasting that would occur? The abject demolition of his character? There would be attacks that would make Sherman’s March seem like the Disney parade.

Yet there’s Kevin Durant. Two points in the final five minutes, four in the quarter, a loss, and a 2-1 deficit after Miami’s 91-86 loss in Game 3.

You can thank LeBron.

James took on the task of guarding the NBA’s scoring leader in the fourth quarter, again, and versus the first two game in which Durant was setting records, in Game 3, James frustrated and confounded Durant into a miserable performance that helped the Heat seal the win. It wasn’t the usual NBA kind of defense which is foolish and prideful. There was no “go ahead and catch it, and come at me.” James engaged Durant all over the court. Baseline to baseline, sideline to sideline. Durant would flash for a lob, James was there with him, step for step. Durant would cut to the wing behind a screen, James was right there, somehow avoiding the foul but getting through the screen. Durant was in the post, trying to use his length to get around James (a curious tactic given his strengths). Durant forced him to the baseline, so far he was shooting behind the basket.

James had 4 fourth quarter rebounds. He pursued Durant to the ends of the Earth. Oh, yeah, and he scored 8 points.

He guided him into Chris Bosh for a bock. He forced him out of his positions. He rendered him isolated, stranded on the Isle of LeBron, trying to find his way to the ball, points, to a victory that would not come. If it was thought after Game 1 that Durant was proving himself the best player on the planet with his single-minded offense force, then Games 2 and 3 are LeBron answering with his comprehensive impact. While Durant was struggling to contain James, even before his foul trouble, especially inside, James was putting together a comprehensive effort. He pressure Durant, he bodied and challenged him.

James is on another level. It is of no slight to Durant, who is a better pure offensive player, despite LeBron outscoring the scoring champ in this series. James through three games has simply been the complete package he’s billed as (outside of the assists). There was no chance for Durant, no sliver of air, and the result was a frustrating and disappointing night.

Durant can rebound from this. He can hit pull-up jumpers over LeBron all day long. He tried to challenge him at the rim, tried to get calls that weren’t coming. He can respond by hitting pull-up j’s over and over in Game 4. But the result is still the same, a 2-1 lead for Miami on the back of their MVP, not their Offensive Player of the Year, but Most Valuable Player, swallowing the young gunslinger alive. Kevin Durant was eclipsed in Game 3. We’ll have to see if he responds with an even brighter shine in Game 4. For now, the edge goes to the King.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.