NBA Finals: Season over, but LeBron/Durant rivalry just beginning

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For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.

Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)

The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.

All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.

As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.

What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.

James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.

Devin Booker’s 3-point-contest victory bright spot for Suns (video)

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Los Angeles – Devin Booker‘s Suns have the NBA’s worst record (18-41).

“I think everyone is fed up with the losing, from the top to the bottom of the organization,” Booker said this afternoon. “So, for us, it’s what’s next?”

A 3-point contest victory.

Overcoming Phoenix’s poor record to draw an invite to All-Star Saturday Night, Booker won the 3-point contest with a whopping 29 points in the final round.

That score left little margin for 2016 champion Klay Thompson, who capped the event with a 25-point round that was otherwise the night’s high. Clippers forward Tobias Harris, in his new home arena, finished third.

Booker was all smiles after the rare victory.

“Season not going how we planned, but I know a lot of the city was ready for this All-Star Weekend, having somebody participate,” Booker said. “So, I’m glad I could win it.

Where he and the Suns go from here is still questionable, but he has a plan.

“I’m going to win the dunk contest next year,” Booker said. “No, I’m just kidding.”

Full results

First round

Klay Thompson 19

Devin Booker 19

Tobias Harris 18

Wayne Ellington 17

Bradley Beal 15

Eric Gordon 12

Kyle Lowry 11

Paul George 9

Second round

Devin Booker 29

Klay Thompson 25

Tobias Harris 17

Spencer Dinwiddie not just happy to be here, wins All-Star Skills Contest

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LOS ANGELES — Anyone who knew the Spencer Dinwiddie story knew not to count him out when he looked down.

That was true when at Colorado he had played his way into the first round of the draft, maybe the 2014 lottery, until an ACL injury derailed him. He had to battle back from a devastating injury, push his way back through the then D-League to the NBA, and wait for his chance. When he got it this season in Brooklyn (after the Jeremy Lin injury) he grabbed it and has had a quality NBA season for the Nets.

So when Dinwiddie was behind the Kings’ Buddy Hield in the first round of the All-Star Saturday Night Skills Contest, he needed a little help. Dinwiddie got it when Hield missed his first three (you have to close out the race with a made three), Dinwiddie caught up and drained his on a pull-up jumper.

Forget the fact Dinwiddie is shooting 28.5 percent on pull-up threes this season, he did the same thing to Jamal Murray in the semi-finals.

Dinwiddie boat raced Bulls’ rookie Lauri Markkanen in the finals when the big man struggled with the passing skill and got so far behind it was over.

“It’s big for me to even be at All-Star Weekend considering the road that’s been in my career, very up and down, Dinwiddie said. “Obviously being in the G-League both on assignment and as a G-League player, thank you to the Brooklyn Nets for giving me this opportunity to play and be here.

Then it all really feels and seems full circle because I got to come home and do it in front of my family.”

Dinwiddie was born in Los Angeles and played his high school ball at Taft High School in Woodland Hills (in LA’s San Fernando Valley). He went against the likes of Jrue Holiday and DeMarre Carroll, and he learned some hard lessons there.

It’s all paying off now for Dinwiddie, who has proven he belongs in the NBA.

And that he’s got skills.

Back in the dunk contest, Victor Oladipo has come a long way

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LOS ANGELES – A few weeks into the season, Victor Oladipo acknowledged he hadn’t proven whether he was just off to a hot start or had actually made a significant leap in ability.

The results are in: Oladipo is a star.

Favored to win Most Improved Player, Oladipo is leading the Pacers toward a surprisingly likely playoff berth. He’s averaging 24.4 points and 2.1 steals per game, a combination unmatched the last couple years. He has developed the skills to maximize the athleticism and drive that made him the No. 2 pick five years go.

The biggest advancement has come beyond the arc. Not only is he shooting a career-high 38% on 3-pointers, he has become a threat off the dribble.

Oladipo is one of just 18 players making more than one pull-up 3-pointer per game:

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He has made 35% of those pull-up 3s, well above league average (32%). But even just threat of the shot is effective.

Defenses must go over screens more often when Oladipo runs the pick-and-roll, opening other holes for him and his teammates. Indiana has scored 5.9 more points per 100 possessions with Oladipo on the floor than off.

But, for all his skill development, Oladipo is still back in the dunk contest tonight. He also participated as a second-year player in 2015, when he played for the Magic.

“It’s a little different,” Oladipo said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a high-flyer like I used to be, I guess you could say. Because I can do it all now.”

Oladipo added that he was joking, but he can. He, Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul are the only players who rate even one point per 100 possessions better than average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus, and Oladipo – +2.96 offensively, +2.12 defensively – clears the bar easily.

Will he also leap over the field in the dunk contest?

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to just go out there and jump as high as I can and see what works, see what happens,” Oladipo said.

That used to somewhat describe his game. Not anymore.

Russell Westbrook to Lakers fans chanting for Paul George: ‘Paul ain’t going nowhere. It’s over for that’ (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Lakers fans attending All-Star media day burst into a “We want Paul!” chant when Paul George was shown on a screen.

His Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook – in the midst of his own interview – looked to the stands to respond.

“That’s out!” Westbrook said. “Paul ain’t going nowhere. It’s over for that. See how quickly they silenced?”

Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

George said the chants “makes me feel great,” and he’ll certainly hear more in Los Angeles. But he still sounds like he’s leaning toward re-signing with Oklahoma City this summer.

“I’m a Thunder, and that’s all there is to it,” George said. “I’m not one foot in, one foot out. And I know what team I’m representing.”