Heat, Cavaliers enter Twilight Zone; Miami emerges with 24th straight win. Barely.

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Strangest. Game. Ever… or at least this season. Rod Serling should have done the play-by-play.

In the end, Miami escaped Cleveland with a 98-95 win that extends their winning streak to 24 games. That’s what the history books will show. But like life, this game was not about the results, it was about the journey.

And the journey was wild.

To start, the opening tip was delayed for nearly 45 minutes because the scoreboard was leaking coolant onto the court and had to be lowered to be fixed.

Then once the game did start the undermanned Cavaliers — no Kyrie Irving, no Dion Waiters, no Anderson Varejao — the Cavaliers not only hung in but also went on a 23-2 run to close out the half and lead by 21. The Cavaliers played harder and were more physical than a Heat team that was cold and seemingly disinterested. Tristan Thomas led the way 12 points and 5 rebounds in the first half (he finished with 18-8)

That Cleveland lead climbed all the way to 27 early in the third quarter, 67-40.

Then the Heat came back with a vengeance — a 43-12 run fueled by pressure defense threes (the Heat opened the second half hitting 8-14 threesm Mario Chalmers hit 4-of-5 from three on his way to 17 points for the game). Miami had come out trapping on defense and pressuring the ball, and over the course of the half the Cavaliers were starting their offense farther and farther away from the rim. Miami was playing like the team that won 23 in a row and it overwhelmed the Cavs.

Then a Cavs fan wearing “LeBron 2014 Come Back” T-Shirt rushes the court and is taken off by security. (If you’re trying to convince LeBron to return, being the crazy guy running on the court mid-game is not helping your cause. Just sayin’.)

After that Miami looks like they are going to run away with it and cruise to a win. The Heat lead gets up to 8… but then the Cavaliers answer with a 7-0 run of their own.

It was a one-point game with :44 seconds left. Both teams had a chance to win it (or ice the win) but both teams missed jump shots — Dwywane Wade with a 20-foot step back miss off a Chris Bosh pick, then a Wayne Ellington isolation missed three over Ray Allen (Ellington led the Cavs with 20 points). As the game got tight both teams played too much hero ball and only Alonzo Gee — who had some great baseline drives and dunks around LeBron on his way to 10 points — seemed to have any success that way.

In the end, LeBron hit a couple free throws to add to his triple-double — 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. As it has been on this streak, he is the guy at the heart of it all.

“We had to dig deep for this one,” LeBron said in a televised post-game interview. “We already know, like I said this morning, every team is going to give us a good shot no matter their record, no matter who is on the floor, we are going to get their best. And we should enjoy that, we should embrace it because it picks up our level of intensity as well.”

There would have been something fitting about the Heat winning streak dying in Cleveland, something cathartic for Cavaliers fans. The reason it’s still alive is the maturity and additions to LeBron James’ games that he has added since leaving the Cavs. Which is a tough pill to swallow in Cleveland, despite playing the kind of game they can be proud of.

Fans to vote on “Best Dunk,” “Best Assist,” other categories handed out at NBA Awards show

zach lavine
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Fans are going to get their say at the NBA Awards Show, coming June 26 on TNT. Drake will be the host, and we to come up with an under/over on the number of players Drake gives a bro hug to during the ceremony.

That’s the night the NBA will hand out its Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and every other major postseason award — except for All-NBA Team, which has to come earlier. The media have already cast their votes for these awards.

Where the fans get to come in is the fun awards, categories created just for this event:

• Dunk of the Year
• Best Style
• Block of the Year
• Assist of the Year
• Game Winner of the Year
• Top Performance of the Year

The NBA already narrowed down the list of choices for each category to three, and voting opens tonight. Just go to  www.nba.com/nbaawards and cast your ballot, or on Twitter or Facebook just post the #AwardName and First/Last Name of their winner (for example, #DunkOfTheYear  Larry Nance).

These awards should add some energy — and good highlights — to what has the potential to be a stuffy event. It’s a bunch of NBA players in suits in a ballroom in New York, this is going to feel like a branding event at times. The NBA is hoping the fans can liven it up.

Here are the categories, with the hashtags for voting:

#DunkOfTheYear
• Los Angeles Lakers’ Larry Nance, Jr. vs. Brooklyn

• Minnesota’s Zach LaVine vs. Phoenix

• Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo vs. Atlanta

#BestStyle
• Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert
• Chicago’s Dwyane Wade
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook

#BlockOfTheYear
• San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard vs. Houston
• New York’s Kristaps Porzingis vs. Brooklyn
• Miami’s Hassan Whiteside vs. Toronto

#GameWinnerOfTheYear
• Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving vs. Golden State
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook vs. Denver
• Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis vs. Boston

#TopPerformanceOfTheYear
• Phoenix’s Devin Booker 70-point game vs. Boston
• Houston’s James Harden nets 53-16-17 triple double vs. New York
• Golden State’s Klay Thompson scores 60 in three quarters vs. Indiana
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook with most points in a triple-double, 57-13-11, vs. Orlando

#AssistOfTheYear
• Golden State’s Draymond Green to Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant
• Denver’s Nikola Jokic with no-look pass
• LA Clippers’ Chris Paul with wraparound pass

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.

Kevin Durant gets a hoot out of meme with Draymond Green

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You’ve seen the Draymond GreenKevin Durant meme, right?

Here’s the video with my favorite caption:

In the latest episode of “Still KD,” Durant watches the meme, reads other captions and calls it “hilarious.”

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.