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All-Star 2014: The Standouts

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First, the obvious: The NBA All-Star Game is different from a normal basketball game. Apathy often reigns supreme, especially on defense, in this yearly exhibition, and there’s a premium on flashy play instead of solid, efficient basketball. For some players, it’s a dream format, while it’s less than ideal for others. In short, how a player does in an All-Star game can have very little correlation with how good he is relative to his All-Star peers in the games that actually count. With those caveats in mind, let’s highlight some of this year’s All-Star performances (I’m not going to be able to get to everybody — that doesn’t mean they played poorly, or even average, but I do have some space considerations):

Eastern Conference: 

Kyrie Irving: Winning a new trophy on All-Star Weekend is becoming a tradition for Irving. His rookie year, he was named the MVP of the Rising Stars challenge. Last season, he won the 3-point shootout. This year, the 21-year old point guard took home the MVP trophy, and it was well-deserved. Irving finished with an eye-popping 31 points and 14 assists on 14-17 shooting, and he sank 3 of his 6 3-point attempts. He also spearheaded the East’s comeback from an 18-point deficit, as he scored 15 points and dished four assists in the final quarter alone.

Irving’s shot was on point, he jelled with his teammates nicely and set them up with some beautiful passes, he used his handle to make some absolutely disgusting highlight-reel forays to the rim, and he converted when he got in the paint. Irving has shown that he has the talent to hang with the best players in the league, especially when he has the spacing that comes from playing with the best players in the world on offense and facing players that aren’t all that interested in defense. Now we just have to see if Irving can carry this over into the regular season and turn Cleveland’s four-game winning streak into their first playoff appearance since the LeBron era.

Carmelo Anthony: Carmelo might have the best combination of size, range, and a lightning-quick release this side of Kevin Durant. For all his imperfections as a player, there’s not much the defense can do when his shot is falling. He’s shown that in prior All-Star games, as well as in international competition, and he showed it again on Sunday night. Carmelo finished with 30 points on 10-18 shots, and set a new All-Star game record by draining eight three-pointers.

LeBron James: The NBA’s best all-around player may have been in the mood for a duel with Kevin Durant, who as of this writing is the prohibitive favorite to take LeBron’s MVP trophy from him at the end of this season, but his outside shot wasn’t on board with that plan, as he missed all seven of his attempts from deep. However, he is still LeBron James, so he set up his teammates with some nice assists and provided some jaw-dropping dunks, including a switch-handed windmill alley-oop in the opening quarter to get the building going early and a coast-to-coast power dunk after some fancy ballhandling.

He formed instant chemistry with his teammates, setting them up with looks on pick-and-rolls and cutting to make himself available after they had gotten past the player “guarding” them. Even when James isn’t hitting on all cylinders with his shot, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him in a format like this.

John Wall and Joakim Noah: Neither player finished with huge numbers, but they brought actual energy on both ends of the floor, which was a huge part of the East’s comeback. Wall did a great job of pushing the ball and had a few huge dunks, but more importantly, he stayed active in the passing lanes and actually put pressure on the West’s offense, which was getting everything they cared to get through most of the first three quarters. Likewise, Noah brought some toughness on the boards to the East, who were beaten 19-9 on the offensive boards over the course of the game, and actually had some nice chemistry on the pick-and-roll with his rival LeBron James on offense. Noah isn’t the kind of player you’d think would thrive in an All-Star environment, but I doubt the East would have won the game without his play and mindset on Sunday night.

Western Conference:

Blake Griffin: Blake’s plan coming into Sunday was as follows —

1) Get ball

2) Dunk ball

3) Repeat

The East had no answer for this strategy, possibly because they did not consider the “keep Blake Griffin from getting near the basket with nobody around him” option. Blake finished with 38 points, which tied him for the game-high, and he came only four points short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star game scoring record. He made an All-Star record 19 field goals, and only needed 23 field goal attempts, in no small part because nearly all of his made baskets were of the dunk variety. (After the game, when asked if he was worried of being pigeonholed as just a dunker, Griffin jokingly replied “Yeah, I’m terrified of that.”)

Kevin Durant: It’s been KD’s year so far, and Durant clearly wanted to keep that going with a statement performance in the All-Star game. He was looking to fill it up from the opening tip, firing from absolutely everywhere, and he finished with 38 points of his own, with some of those coming on 3s directly in the face of a one LeBron James. Unfortunately for Durant, his shot wasn’t as good as it normally is, and he only made six of his 17 three-point attempts, which isn’t a horrible percentage, but a few more made 3s would likely have given the West the win and Durant both the MVP trophy and the scoring record. Even still, with Kobe Bryant not playing due to injury, it was fun to see Durant accepting the role of the West’s undisputed alpha dog with relish.

Steph Curry: The planet’s best shooter actually struggled with his shot this weekend — he failed to advance to the finals of the 3-point shootout on Saturday, and he only made 2 of his 11 tries from deep on Sunday. Still, Curry showed off his skills as a ballhandler and a passer — he had 11 dimes, with many of them being gorgeous alley-oops, and his behind-the-back-between-the-legs move to get into the lane for a scoop shot was one of the highlights of the night.

Anthony Davis: Davis had 10 points on 5-6 shooting, and finished off some beautiful alley-oops, but only got 9 and a half minutes of playing time. I know Davis was an injury replacement but still — Coach Brooks, let the hometown favorite show his stuff!

All-Star Performers:

Absolutely fantastic across the board. The pregame concert got everybody pumped up, the in-arena organist (Sir Foster, who normally plays for the Atlanta Hawks), became an immediate twitter sensation thanks to his renditions of a gigantic catalog of songs, and the halftime show was absolutely unbelievable. New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty did a great job leading the festivities, Gary Clark Jr. did a great job of bringing the blues, the impossibly dynamic Janelle Monae once again proved why she’s one of the must-see live performers working today, and Earth, Wind, and Fire brought the funk. The arena was absolutely buzzing well after they were done — the performers threatened to steal the show from the game itself. Great job, New Orleans, and thanks for another great All-Star Weekend. In a year, it’s off to New York for All-Star 2015.

Watch Stephen Curry drop 36 in Game 7 to knock off Thunder (VIDEO)

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If you watch the highlights, you will see plenty of Stephen Curry hitting threes — including the dagger late — to lead the Warriors to a 96-88 Game 7 win over the Thunder. He was masterful and finished with 36 points.

But it was more than just the threes.

Curry was attacking the bigs that switched on to him off the pick-and-roll far more this game, both by hitting threes over them — four of his seven threes came against bigs switched onto him, according to Synergy Sports — but also by blowing by those bigs and getting into the lane. Look at his shot chart from the night.

Curry Game 7 shotchart

“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “He looked better. He looked like he was moving better. I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”

When Curry is attacking and hitting threes, well, you get nights like this.

Kevin Durant entering free agency on sour note

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hugs Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors after losing 96-88 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The superstar free agent enters the offseason with three straight playoff losses, a once-promising season ended in devastating fashion.

Kevin Durant? Yes.

LeBron James in 2010? Also yes.

Will Durant follow LeBron’s lead and leave the team that drafted him?

Those Cavaliers didn’t beat the 67-15 Spurs. They didn’t push the 73-9 Warriors to a Game 7. They didn’t have Russell Westbrook.

And, of course, Durant isn’t LeBron.

But the Thunder must feel sick about letting this opportunity slip away – not just a trip to the Finals, but a chance to remind Durant of their virtues. Golden State – a leading suitor for Durant – undid so much of the progress Oklahoma City made in the postseason with this comeback from down 3-1, capped with a 96-88 win tonight.

“We just lost like 30 minutes ago,” Durant said. “So, I don’t have any thought about it.”

For much of the playoffs the Thunder did everything they could to convince Durant to stay. They carved up the Mavericks, overpowered the Spurs and outraced the Warriors through the Western Conference finals’ first four games. It seemed no team could offer Durant a better situation.

Now, it’s as tempting as ever to imagine Durant with Golden State.

Durant must weigh what joining the team that beat him would do to his image, but there’s no doubt that the Warriors are better than the Thunder. There can’t be after a 16-win difference in the regular season and these last three games. Oklahoma City might flip the script next season if Durant re-signs, but he must also assess how much better Golden State would be with him. At minimum, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson not guarding him anymore.

The Thunder didn’t do their part to send Durant into free agency on a high note, but he did all he could. Unlike LeBron in 2010, Durant didn’t shrink from the moment of his high-pressured closeout game with free agency looming. Durant scored 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting against those elite defenders, including a late personal 7-0 run that cut the deficit to four points.

Then, Stephen Curry scored six straight – drawing a foul on a 3-pointer and hitting a 3-pointer – to put the game out of reach. These Warriors are special. Durant has to see that.

Not that he’s focused on Golden State (or the Spurs, Celtics, Rockets or…). This loss is too raw.

“It hurts losing,” Durant said. “It hurts losing, especially being up three games to one.

“It sucks to lose. It sucks.”

How long will that feeling last, and how strongly will Durant associate it with Oklahoma City? The Thunder can offer more money, but one of their biggest selling points is their team success – and that seems like a distant memory. Right now, Oklahoma City is on a three-game losing streak that won’t be snapped before Durant signs somewhere.

Durant will weigh the prudent details, but his will be an emotional decision. Where does he feel most comfortable?

There’s plenty of time to decide. Free agency begins July 1, and he’ll surely want to meet with teams before finalizing a choice.

The Thunder have done him well for years, and they’d remain elite with him.

But they can’t feel good with this being Durant’s final image of their season – victorious Warrior after victorious Warrior hugging Durant and consoling him on Oklahoma City’s third straight failure.

Too much Stephen Curry, too many threes bury Thunder in Game 7, Warriors win 96-88, advance to Finals

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For seven games the athleticism and improved defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder smothered nearly everything Golden State tried to do inside the arc. The Thunder length and aggressiveness had them owning the paint and dominating the glass much of the series. Oklahoma City outplayed Golden State below the arc all series long.

But the Warriors owned the three ball.

“They beat us from the 3-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

After a rough shooting first half (again), the three balls started to fall for Golden State in the second half of Game 7 Monday — many of them contested, the Thunder defense remained stout. The Warriors opened the game 2-of-6 from three, then hit 12 of their next 24 — 10-of-20 in the second half — while the Thunder missed 13 straight at one point.

The Warriors made 10 more threes than the Thunder in Game 7 and — just as it was in Game 6 — that proved to be the difference. The Warriors came from down 3-1 to win Game 7 96-88 and take the series.

Golden State will host Cleveland in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

“I knew we were ready for the moment,” Stephen Curry said after the game. “I knew we were a mature basketball team that tried our best to not listen to the noise outside. Six or seven days ago when we were down 3-1 everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was the end of our run, but not the locker room. The talk was positive, it was let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time, claw our way back into the series, and see what happens.”

It took the best run of games these Warriors have put together in two-plus seasons — a stretch that included a championship and 73 regular season wins — to get past OKC and back to the Finals. The Thunder’s improved defense and great scoring  forced the Warriors to find another gear.

But Golden State always had the three ball to bail them out. Look at their shot chart from Game 7.

Warriors Game 7 shot chart

Curry, who finished with 36 points and hit 7-of-12 from three, was the difference as he played like the MVP version of himself. That version had been held in check much of the series by the Thunder’s defense, and likely a lingering knee issue (although he would never admit that). All series long Curry had struggled to beat the Thunder bigs who switched onto him off picks, but not in Game 7 when he hit four threes over those bigs, and blew by them and into the lane a host of other times.

“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “He looked better. He looked like he was moving better. I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”

Kevin Durant was giving up the ball and finding teammates early in the game, trying to get others involved, but late in the fourth he put together a personal 7-0 run that made it a four-point game inside three minutes. Durant was a beast and finished with 27 points to lead the Thunder. Russell Westbrook added 19 points and 13 assists. They just didn’t have the threes to keep up with the Warriors.

Early on it in Game 7 felt like it might be the Thunder’s night. It was a disjointed start to the game (as often happens in Game 7s), which helped Steven Adams get a couple of buckets and had the Thunder trying to move the ball. Both teams had jitters and guys are trying to do a little too much, evidence by Curry starting 3-of-8 and Thompson 0-of-4. What OKC did was get six offensive boards in first quarter, which had then up 24-19.

In the second, Waiters came in and played a little out of control but proved to be a spark that had the Thunder pushing the lead up to 13. The Thunder also got solid play early from Enes Kanter, who had eight points and four rebounds in eight minutes. Meanwhile, the Warriors were missing their twos — started 6-of-20 inside the arc — but unlike Game 6 they were missing their threes as well. Play Thompson started 0-of-7.

Then Thompson hit three in a row from beyond the arc, the Warriors’ energy returned, and they went on 11-2 run to make it a game again. Thunder responded with 7-0 run of their own. Then Warriors have 7-0 run to get it to five. By the half, it was 48-42 Oklahoma City.

Golden State came out gunning from three to start the second half and behind a few Curry threes went on a 15-4 run and the Warriors were up 57-54. The Thunder hung around but got sucked into the wrong style of play and they missed 13 consecutive threes at one point. The threes were falling for the Warriors, the Thunder could not buy a bucket, it was a 29-12 third quarter for the Warriors and they were up 71-60. The Warriors felt in control.

“I actually thought we got some good looks,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the third quarter. “I thought we really, really good looks. They made some shots… I liked the way we played on offense tonight, we moved the ball and played the right way…..

“We were right there every step of the way with them, and this was a record setting team, and a team that’s won a world championship. So you can sit there and say what happened, but you’ve got to give them credit. Give them credit.”

But the Thunder played too hard and too well this series to go quietly into that good night. Durant made his push, they crashed the glass, they defended with heart and made plays down the stretch. A foul by Serge Ibaka on a Curry three may have sealed the Warriors fate — a four-point game became seven, and that was too much to overcome.

Because the Warriors threes kept falling no matter what.

Stephen Curry goes high off the glass at the buzzer just before the half

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Golden State hadn’t shot well all first half — 38.6 percent — and Stephen Curry was 4-of-10 with time running out in half.

Then Curry hit this high, high off the glass to end the half and bring Golden State within six at the break, 48-42.

Notice that Curry grabbed his knee after the shot. He was out for the start of the second half.