Oklahoma City Thunder's Durant reacts after not getting a foul call against the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter during Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Oklahoma City

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.

WNBA rescinds fines regarding protest shirts

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 13, 2016 file photo, members of the New York Liberty basketball team await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream in New York. The WNBA is withdrawing its fines for teams and players that showed support of citizens and police involved in recent shootings by wearing black warmup shirts before and during games. WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement Saturday, July 23, the league was rescinding penalties given to the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and their players for wearing the shirts–which was a uniform violation. The players started wearing them to show solidarity after shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
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LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and a number of Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets players wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in warmups after the death of Eric Garner in New York. LeBron and his then Heat teammates wore hoodies for a photo shoot after the Travon Martin shooting. NBA players have made other protest fashion statements, with no repercussions from the league.

But when WNBA players wore black warmup shirts in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-violence protests, the WNBA came down with fines for the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury ($5,000) and players involved ($500) for uniform violations. That led to a lot of backlash — including among WNBA players. Some refused to answer basketball questions with the media after recent games.

Saturday, the WNBA rescinded the fines. As they should have.

The women’s players’ union supported the move, via a statement from the director of operations Terri Jackson.

“We are pleased that the WNBA has made the decision to rescind the fines the league handed down to the players on the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury. We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the league to ensure that the players’ desire to express themselves will continue to be supported.”

I want a league — for men or women — where player’s individuality and statements can be made — I don’t want the NBA to be the button-down, cookie cutter NFL. Let the players be themselves. And if players want to weigh in on the biggest social issue of our time, they should. Without fear of repercussion.

Good on the WNBA for coming around to that.

Meyers Leonard says he hopes to be ready by start of Blazers’ season

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 8: Meyers Leonard #11 of the Portland Trail Blazers takes credit for a foul call during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on December 8, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Meyers Leonard could be poised for a big season in Portland. His minutes jumped last season because he provided spacing. With Portland adding Evan Turner on the wing to go with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, any big who can stretch the floor is going to get run, and Leonard has turned himself into a stretch four.

Leonard just hopes he can show what he can do at the start of the season — he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery. Here is what he told the Associated Press.

“My hope is to be ready right around the start of the season,” he said. “It’s a progression, first introducing rebounding, grabbing stuff overhead, then one-on-one, three-on-three, extending to the full court. We’ll see. You just never know.”

Leonard had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in April (they could have used him in the playoffs), and the timeline then was to have him back around the start of the season. Before he was shut down, he proved enough to get a four-year, $41 million contract extension with the Trail Blazers this summer.

The Trail Blazers will start Al-Farouq Aminu at the four, and Moe Harkless can certainly play there too (I’m far less sold on the future of Noah Vonleh). Leonard wants to get back before someone starts to steal any of his minutes.

Pelicans sign Jones for 1 year, Frazier for 2 years

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a play as Cody Zeller #40 of the Charlotte Hornets looks on during their game at Toyota Center on December 21, 2015 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) The New Orleans Pelicans say they have signed free-agent forward Terrence Jones and re-signed guard Tim Frazier.

A person familiar with the negotiations says Jones, a four-year veteran, signed a one-year deal Friday for the NBA minimum of about $1.14 million, while Frazier has signed a two-year deal worth about $4.1 million. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Pelicans have not released contract terms.

The 6-foot-9 Jones, who was Anthony Davis‘ teammates on Kentucky’s 2012 national championship team, has spent his first four NBA seasons with Houston, posting career averages of 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Frazier played in 16 games for New Orleans late last season, averaging 13.1 points, 7.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 29.3 minutes per game.

Deron Williams says he is recovering well from sports hernia, will be ready to go at camp

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 01:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 1, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.   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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Deron Williams will be back with the Dallas Mavericks next season — and be ready to go by the start of the season.

He’d like to say he’d be back for the next few seasons, but coming off a Sports Hernia injury his options were a little limited. However, his recovery is going well he told NBC Dallas in an interview from American Century Championships celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe (which you can watch this weekend on NBC).

“Feeling really good. It’s healing pretty well, I’m doing a lot of work on and off the court. I haven’t got the full-go clearance yet, but that’s coming soon. I’ll be ready to go definitely by the time training camp rolls around.

“I’m running, I’m jumping a little bit. I’m just not going crazy. I kind of have to wait for August 1 for that, to go see the doc and get the go ahead. But it’s not much restriction right now.”

Williams averaged 14.1 points and 5.8 assists per game for the Mavericks last season and was solid at 32. His efficiency slipped a little (to be expected as he is on the wrong side of 30 and has plenty of miles) but he played well for Dallas.

Dallas signed him to a one-year, $10 million deal. Williams was hoping for a little more security.

“I was happy to come back. Would have liked a little longer deal but I’m back for one year and hopefully can build on last year and improve. I think there’s room for a lot of improvement. Hopefully I can stay healthy. I think that’s the biggest key but I’m excited about this year and this team.”

The one-year deal is more about Dallas than Williams — they could see a significant shift in plans when Dirk Nowitzki steps away (he inked a two-year deal but the second year is only $5 million guaranteed, so he could be in his final run if he wants).

Dallas added Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut from the Warriors to a starting five that also includes Nowitzki, Williams, and Wesley Matthews. If they can stay healthy — no little thing with that group — it’s a quality starting five that coach Rick Carlisle is going to love.