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.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.