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.

Tristan Thompson: Cavaliers’ stated 3-4-week timeline for my injury was never realistic

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When Tristan Thompson suffered a calf injury early last month, the Cavaliers announced he’d miss 3-4 weeks.

More than five weeks later, Thompson still hasn’t played.

Tom Withers of the Associated Press:

Thompson:

Who said that was the real timetable? They told you guys three to four weeks. That was never the case. The first week, I was on crutches the whole time. So, there was no chance. So, I don’t know. I don’t know who told you three to four weeks. For that, I’m sorry.

Thompson sounds close to returning, so this issue should pass. But teams are usually conservative in these estimates so as not to expose their players to criticism for not working hard enough in rehab. Thompson was left hung out to dry here.

Maybe Thompson, who’s famously low-maintenance, doesn’t mind. But if a 3-4-week timeline was never realistic, I wouldn’t blame him for resenting the Cavs.

Poor communication on injuries might not be limited to only the 76ers.

Heat’s Dion Waiters: ‘I’m not coming off no bench’

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Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Dion Waiters must be more efficient.

But Waiters’ effective field-goal percentage this season (46.1) is nearly precisely his career mark (46.2). It appears last season’s career high (48.8) in a contract year was the outlier.

What if Waiters just can’t change? Could Miami bring him off the bench?

Waiters, via Tom D’Angelo of The Palm Beach Post:

“I’m a starter in this league, man, that’s who I am. We’re going to nip that in the bud right now. I’m not coming off no bench.”

This is peak Waiters, supremely confident/cocky. He’s not good enough to demand a starting spot, but here he is doing it anyway.

That make’s Spoelstra’s job trickier if he’s considering bringing Waiters off the bench. It might be the optimal basketball move, but NBA coaches must also deal with their players egos.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Waiters should come off the bench. Miami’s starting lineup – Goran Dragic, Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside – is outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. (The Heat are -3.4 per 100 overall.) That unit defends, and Waiters eases the playmaking burden on Dragic.

But if I were the Heat, I also wouldn’t take the possibility of not starting Waiters off the table. At an underwhelming 12-13, they don’t have the luxury of never experimenting – even if it might upset Waiters.

Bradley Beal: Wizards lost to Clippers after what referees described as a ‘s— rule’

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The Clippers beat the Wizards on Saturday, but not without a controversial finish.

Washington trailed 113-112 with 1.2 seconds left and inbounded the ball from the sideline to Bradley Beal, who made a shot, but after the buzzer sounded. However, the clock started early.

The sequence:

After review, officials gave the Wizards the ball in the corner with 1.1 seconds left. In a tough position with less time and on its secondary play, Washington didn’t score.

Beal, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“Excuse my language because I’m going to say verbatim what they said,” Beal said. “They said it’s kind of a ‘some s*** rule,’ it’s a freak rule. To me, it didn’t really make sense because you take a basket away. You go back and he says we get the same amount of time, but we didn’t get the same amount of time and then we get the ball in the corner. It’s kind of the tough s*** rule. I don’t understand it. I don’t get it. We ran a great play and now that you take that away, we’ve gotta set up with a different play and they get a chance to set up and change some things. Now we’ve gotta do a different play with the ball in the corner.”

Referee Bill Spooner, via the NBA:

Spooner contradicts himself here. Was the time lost 0.1 seconds or 1.1 seconds? He said both at different points. He also clearly means the game clock, not the shot clock.

Here’s the relevant example from the NBA’s casebook:

Player A1 inbounds the ball at 0.8 of the period and the game clock starts early when the timer thought the ball was deflected. Player A2 receives the ball and the game horn sounds as he immediately turns to shoot a successful basket. How is this handled?

The on-court officials will signal for replay and the Replay Center Official will determine how much time ran off the clock prior to it being legally touched. If the successful basket was released prior to 0:00, the basket will be scored and if from the ball being legally touched until it cleared the net is less than 0.8, the game clock shall be reset to that amount of time. If the ball is still in Player A1’s hands at 0:00, the field goal cannot be scored and Team A will retain possession on the sideline nearest the point of interruption and the game clock reset to the amount of lost time.

Why would the game clock be set to the amount of lost time? I can see the game clock being reduced by the amount of lost time, which seemingly happened – in error, according to Spooner – Saturday. But just setting the clock to the amount of lost time unfairly punishes the team that is already disadvantaged by the timekeeping error.

From the rule to the enforcement, this was just sloppy.

Kevin Garnett: I want to help buy out Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, not partner with him

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Kevin Garnett’s rift with the Timberwolves – specifically owner Glen Taylor – is still going strong.

Garnett, via Shlomo Sprung of Awful Announcing:

“I don’t want to be partners with Glen [Taylor], and I wouldn’t want to be partners with Glen in Minnesota,” he said. “I would love to be part of a group that buys him out and kind of removes him and go forward.”

Taylor recently said he’s not interested in selling the franchise. That could be a bargaining tactic, but at face value, Garnett isn’t getting involved anytime soon.

Garnett and Taylor could break the ice with a clearly joyous occasion, a simple number-retirement ceremony. But even that is too much for the two.