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The Extra Pass: Nike Elite series meets the performance demands of Kevin Durant and LeBron James

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NEW YORK — The folks at Nike Basketball have once again rolled out Elite versions of the signature shoes for LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, just as they’ve done in advance of every postseason since 2012.

But the team faced perhaps its greatest challenge this season.

Bryant’s shoes didn’t need any modifications, considering the high-top, Kobe 9 Elite was already in its final stage the moment it was released. James and Durant, however, each had specific requests in terms of the improvements they wanted to see made to their shoes before the playoffs began.

Getting LeBron back into his more high-profile model wasn’t necessarily a priority for the Nike design team, but providing a performance improvement that James would feel comfortable with was definitely the goal that was in place.

The LeBron 11 was a huge success in terms of overall design and fan interest, but James himself caused a mild commotion when he ditched them early on in favor of one of his other models, the Zoom Soldier VII. Charles Williams, Senior Product Director for Nike Basketball, explained exactly what the issues were that James was experiencing.

“Early on, it was less about the components of the shoe, and more about fit,” Williams told NBCSports.com. “We went to a double-lasting proposition on the 11 that was a little bit different, so it was just more about forefoot fit, and making sure that when he cut, he wasn’t bumping up against anything, that he had enough volume.”

The fact that this was the first time one of LeBron’s shoes had an insert in it may have messed with the overall feel when taking his orthotic into account, which is essentially an additional layer of medical protection.

“When you’ve got an athlete that’s putting an orthotic in the shoe, it changes everything,” Williams said. “It changes the actual internal shape, it changes the actual internal volume and things of that nature. Players like KD and Kobe, they come right out of the box. But LeBron puts an orthotic in there, so that started to change things a little bit, especially because we had a drop-in. We’ve never had a drop-in (insert) before (on a LeBron signature shoe). So when you have a drop-in, something that kind of comes in and out — not unlike his orthotic — I think for him, mentally it was just a little difficult to get around.”

Along with the fit of the orthotic, James wasn’t feeling the level of lockdown in the 11s that he requires, and when he made cuts, he felt his foot sliding around in the shoe — another area which was unacceptable for the style that he plays.

All of that has been addressed with the LeBron 11 Elite, and the early results have been positive, if LeBron’s on-court decision to wear the model multiple times earlier than usual are to be believed.

“That’s why you’ve seen him wear the Elite model probably four or five times, and he’s never done that during the years that we’ve had the Elite project,” Williams said. “He typically starts April 17 when the playoffs start.”

The Nike design team went to Kevlar to increase the lockdown, which reduced the stretch in the material from 30 percent down to about two percent. LeBron laces up his shoes as tightly as possible on the bench before tip-off, to the point where he’s been known to break shoelaces. The lockdown aspect has been the most consistently important feature to him over the years, and it seems as though the team was able to address those concerns with the adjustment in the Elite materials.

A slightly lower cut to the Elite model (LeBron prefers a mid- as opposed to a high-top), along with added support on the outside that the design team refers to as a “roll bar” all helped to keep him from moving around inside the shoe, while providing the ultimate support for when he cuts. That extra support on the outside was by far the Elite version’s biggest overall enhancement.

“We knew that once we put that “roll bar” on it he was going to be able to have that confidence that when he cuts, he was on the foot bag,” Williams said. “And that way, we would be able to give him more of a free range of motion.”

A lot seemingly went into LeBron’s concerns. With Durant, it was a little less complicated.

His biggest request was to increase the cushioning on his shoe to the maximum level possible, while keeping a low-to-the-floor profile that is a perfect match for the complexities of his game.

“One of the big things for KD is really about impact protection,” Williams said. “As his game has evolved and as he’s really catapulted himself to be the best player in the world on any given night, we wanted to make sure that we were providing him with those things that he’s always asked us for. And one of them was this notion of cushioning, to make sure that the underfoot cushioning was something that night in and night out, he got consistently. And on a lot of the previous models he did what we would call a hybrid cushioning, where we had a max bag in the heel which gives you that protection when you’re coming down six, eight times your body weight. And then we would put zoom air in the forefoot, (which) literally gives you that instant response, that instantaneous gratification. So with KD, we said we’re going to go to a bag that will provide him with consistency across the board. It was ultimately what he’s been asking us for — maybe not specifically for the bag, but for that level of performance.”

The players, obviously, have little to do with the execution. They simply know what they want, and it’s up to the design team to figure out how to make that happen.

“KD wanted that cushioning, but he also wanted to feel very low to the ground based on the game that he plays,” Williams said. “So we made the bag lower by removing a lot of the foam that we would typically have in between the bag and the shoe.”

The Elite series has traditionally featured mostly black and white models, but this year’s class has all kinds of colors added to the project. There are three sets of colorways currently in the works, with the Gold series being the one that most resembles the past projects, but just barely.

Still, the team is driven by the performance aspect of the shoes above all else, and that’s the message that they ultimately want to get across.

“As much as we want to be provocative, we just want consumers to know that there’s a performance benefit rooted in that,” Williams said. “If I could just have consumers not view these as aesthetic propositions, if they could truly understand the competitive advantage that we’re looking to give them every time we create one of these shoes, that would be my dream.”

“This is about making sure that the best players in the world go into battle for the most esteemed goal that they’re trying to reach,” Williams said. “We give them products that really measure up to that.”


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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum lead Hornets past Nets 112-105

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets in action against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center on November 4, 2016 in New York City. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nic Batum has certainly had better shooting nights.

But the eight-year NBA veteran from France was feeling pretty good after making two clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Charlotte Hornets defeat the Brooklyn Nets 112-105 on Saturday night for their third straight win.

“I missed some easy that I need to make,” Batum said. “So I feel like when it’s a close game like that, I need to make some big plays and I did.”

After letting a 17-point first half advantage slip away, Charlotte grabbed the lead for good with 3:21 left in the game when Batum got a fadeaway 3-pointer to fall after the ball bounced lazily on the rim four times before going in. Batum, who was fouled on the play, added the free throw to complete the four-point play.

Batum added a 3-pointer from the left wing on the next possession to push the lead to 104-98. Kemba Walker then sank a leaning 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Charlotte some extra breathing room.

Coach Steve Clifford said he has no idea how Batum shoots the ball so well off-balanced.

“He’s done it since before he got in the NBA,” Clifford said. “He’s got great balance and hand-eye coordination.”

Batum finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Hornets.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 14 rebounds for Charlotte, which avenged a 120-118 loss to the Nets on Dec. 26 in which Randy Foye beat them with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Brook Lopez had 24 points for the struggling Nets, who have lost 12 of their last 13 and failed in their quest to become the last NBA team to reach double digits in wins this season.

“We came in and we were exhausted from last night and had a bad first quarter, but we responded to that,” Lopez said. “We came in the second half and definitely made it a game and that’s the way we’ve got to play every night.”

TIP INS

Nets: Jeremy Lin remained out with a hamstring injury. … Attempted 41 3-pointers in the game, making 17. … Lopez had his 15th 20-point game this season. … Quincy Acy had a season-high 14 points off the bench. … Had a season-high 30 assists.

Hornets: Shot 54.5 percent in the first half from the field, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range to build a 60-46 lead. … Marvin Williams has made a 3-pointer in 18 straight games.

TOUGH FIRST QUARTER

The Hornets jumped out to a quick 16-4 lead as the Nets missed 11 of their first 12 shots from the field. Clifford called it the team’s best first quarter of the season, considering the Nets put up 143 points against New Orleans the night before.

“They’re hard to guard,” Clifford said. “They have so many ways to drive the ball. They’re very difficult to guard. I thought our guys battled hard.”

3-POINT SHOOTING

Charlotte, which made 14 of 29 3-pointers, had seven of those in the fourth quarter.

“Two of them were off our turnovers,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “You turnover, you have to sprint back, matchup and find 3-point shooters. Credit to them, they made some huge shots.”

SCHOOL IN SESSIONS

Here’s a rarity this season: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte’s backup point guard, had 17 points and actually outscored All-Star candidate Kemba Walker, who had 16 points.

“Kemba carries us every game, so when we can step in and give those guys a rest,” Sessions said. “Last game, he didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter, so during the season if we can get those stretches where he doesn’t have to play as many minutes that will be good for us in the long run.”

UP NEXT

Nets: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.

Hornets: Play their third game of a five-game homestand Monday night against the Washington Wizards.

Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard help Hawks pull away from 76ers 110-93

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ATLANTA (AP) The young Philadelphia 76ers are on the rise, but the Atlanta Hawks’ experience and attention to detail made the difference Saturday night.

Paul Millsap scored 22 points and combined with Dwight Howard to dominate on the boards as the Hawks beat the Sixers 110-93 for their ninth win in 11 games.

Howard grabbed 15 rebounds in addition to scoring 13 points, Millsap added 10 rebounds and Atlanta used a 48-38 rebounding edge to beat Philadelphia for the sixth straight time.

The Sixers (15-27) lost for just the third time in 11 games, done in partly by 21 turnovers that led to 17 Atlanta points.

Nothing mattered more than the way the Hawks (26-18) were shooting in the second quarter. They made 16 of 23 shots and outscored the Sixers 37-29 in the period to take a 62-54 halftime lead.

“We got into a good rhythm,” said Millsap, who shot 9-of-14. “We were moving the basketball, playing with each other, all the things that make us successful.”

Ersan Ilyasova led the Sixers with 21 points, and when Robert Covington (15 points, 10 rebounds) made two free throws with 6:46 left in the game, Philadelphia had whittled an 18-point third-quarter deficit to a 94-87 Atlanta lead.

The Hawks cruised from there to win for the 11th time in 13 games. They are a season-high eight games over .500, and a half game behind the Celtics for the No. 3 spot in the East.

WRONG END OF RUN

In the second game of back-to-backs, the Sixers looked as if they ran out of gas in the second quarter about 24 hours after their 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers.

“There was an energy that wasn’t with us tonight,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think the second group struggled. I thought that the energy and the activity of that second group tonight wasn’t what it has been.”

HOWARD’S HEROICS

When the Atlanta Falcons play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the NFC championship game in the Georgia Dome, which is less than a mile from Philips Arena, Howard said he’ll be cheering like mad.

“I don’t want to jinx myself, but I said before the season the Falcons and Patriots would be in the Super Bowl,” the Atlanta native said. “Go Falcons! Rise up!”

TIP-INS

Sixers: Saturday was to be a rest day for center Joel Embiid anyway, and while he didn’t play against the Hawks his availability is unclear after he suffered a knee contusion in Friday’s win over the Trail Blazers. Brown said Embiid will be further assessed upon the team’s return home. … Backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez did not play for just the fifth time in 42 games, including 30 starts. Brown said he’s trying different combinations.

Hawks: Backup big man Mike Muscala missed his fourth straight game with a left ankle sprain. … Atlanta has scored 100 or more points in six of the last seven games.

KEEP PUNCHING

Although the Sixers scored just 16 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-16 shooting, they made a game of it with late defense. Atlanta missed seven of its first nine shots in the quarter as Philadelphia cut the deficit to seven points.

“I think the last time we played them, we came out at halftime and the game was pretty much over from there,” said point guard T.J. McConnell, who finished with eight points, a game-high 11 assists and three of Philly’s eight steals. “But this time, they punched us in the mouth again and we didn’t go away. We’ve kind of been showing that resiliency.”

UP NEXT

Sixers: have a day off and then practice Monday before playing host to the Clippers, who will be without point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin, on Tuesday.

Hawks: The Clippers will stop in Atlanta before heading to Philadelphia, meeting the Hawks for the first time this season on Monday night.

Sam Dekker scores career-best 30 leading Rockets past Grizzlies

Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) congratulates forward Sam Dekker (7) after Dekker scored 30 points in an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. The Rockets won by a score of 119-95. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Sam Dekker scored a career-high 30 points, James Harden added 29 points and 10 assists and the Houston Rockets leaned on their usual 3-point offense to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 119-95 on Saturday night.

Eric Gordon added 21 points as the Rockets built the lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before easily coasting home.

Dekker, making his first career start in place of the ill Ryan Anderson, made 12 of 19 shots, including 6 of 11 from outside the arc. Houston shot 51 percent overall and 38 percent from distance.

Marc Gasol scored 32 points and Mike Conley added 15 for the Grizzlies, who lost for the third time in the last four.

Memphis struggled shooting the entire night, finishing at 37 percent and unsuccessfully tried to follow the Rockets’ long-range attack but converted only 9 of 34 from outside the arc.

Even with Dekker starting instead of his normal reserve role, the Houston bench outscored the Memphis subs 44-29 as the Rockets dominated most aspects of the game.

Houston took the lead in the first half and never really let up the rest of the night in bouncing back from a home loss to Golden State on Friday.

After missing their first seven 3-point shots to open the game, the Rockets converted a trio late in the first quarter to run the lead to double digits.

Meanwhile, the Rockets’ aggressive defense gummed up Memphis’ offensive flow. Houston defenders double-teamed Memphis and closed out on jumpers, resulting in the Grizzlies shooting under 30 percent in much of the second quarter.

That helped Houston stretch the lead to as many as 16 in the half before holding a 58-49 advantage at the break. Dekker already had 16 points to lead the Rockets, connecting on seven of his nine shots, missing only one of his three shots from outside the arc.

Gasol had 17 points to lead Memphis.

By the third quarter, the Rockets stretched the advantage to 91-72, and even when Memphis put together a bit of a rally in the fourth, it never cut the deficit to single digits.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Anderson missed his third game with the flu. He sat out two games and tried to play in Friday’s loss to Golden State before leaving after nine minutes on the floor. .The Rockets used their 10th different starting lineup this season. .Despite the slow start from outside the arc, the Rockets ended the night 16 from 42 from 3. Houston has failed to connect on at least 10 3-pointers in only four games this season.

Grizzlies: Reserve G Troy Daniels sat out with a right knee injury suffered in the Friday night’s win over Sacramento. . F Chandler Parsons, who sat out Friday’s win over Sacramento for rest, returned to action, scoring 12 points.

BACK-TO-BACKS

The game featured two of the most successful teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Houston is now 11-1, while the Grizzlies, who beat the Kings on Friday, dropped to 8-3 on the second night of back-to-backs.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Play the second game of a five-game road trip on Monday against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Grizzlies: Close out a three-game homestand against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.

Heat beat Bucks 109-97 to earn season-best 3rd straight win

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MIAMI (AP) When Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic barely beat the shot clock with a 28-footer to seal Saturday’s win, he retreated upcourt waving his arms, eager to coax more noise from the modest crowd.

Riding a three-game winning streak for the first time since last March, the Heat and their fans finally have something to cheer about.

Dion Waiters tied a career high with 33 points and Dragic added 25 to help the last-place Heat to a 109-97 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, who are headed the opposite direction.

Bucks coach Jason Kidd shook up his lineup, but they lost their fifth game in a row and second in as many nights. Following a defeat Friday at Orlando, the Bucks held a long players-only meeting that became heated at times.

“We have a lot of games to be played,” Kidd said after the latest loss. “There’s no reason to panic.”

Waiters went 12 for 19, including 5 for 8 from 3-point range. Backcourt mate Dragic went 8 for 13 and had six assists.

“Those guys were making so many shots I almost shot a 3,” center Hassan Whiteside said. “They take our team to another whole level when they play like that.”

Whiteside added 16 points and 15 rebounds while missing one shot. The Heat made 53 percent, just shy of their season high.

“Guys are playing better,” Whiteside said. “I don’t know what really got into guys, but I like it. We’re hitting shots we were missing earlier in the season.”

Miami improved to 14-30 thanks to its modest winning streak.

“It feels better than 0-3,” coach Eric Spoelstra said.

Kidd said the Heat’s record affected the Bucks’ performance.

“One of the things that we struggle with is looking at the team’s record and not coming out with that same intent if we’re playing Cleveland, if we’re playing Golden State,” he said. “That’s something we have to get better at.”

Following Friday’s players-only meeting by the Bucks, forward Jabari Parker said he wasn’t well received when he expressed his point of view. Parker was held out of the starting lineup Saturday for the first time this season for violating a team rule. Kidd declined to discuss the violation.

Parker had 16 points and seven rebounds in 32 minutes off the bench.

“It’s just a challenge, and I just try to be as positive as possible,” he said.

“I thought he did a great job,” Kidd said.

All-Star starter Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points and 10 rebounds for Milwaukee.

The Bucks led early, but Rodney McGruder and Dragic sank 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to put the Heat ahead 68-56 midway through the third quarter.

Waiters barely beat the 24-second clock with a 3-pointer that made it 103-91 with 2 1/2 minutes left. Dragic’s buzzer-beater with 1 1/2 minutes to go put Miami ahead 106-94 lead.

TIP-INS

Bucks: While Parker sat out the first quarter, Bucks rookie Thon Maker made his first career start, and guard Matthew Dellavedova started for the first time in 13 games. Maker had six points in 18 minutes, and Dellavedova had 15 points and seven assists.

Heat: Okaro White, who made his NBA debut Thursday after signing a 10-day deal, played 19 minutes but still hasn’t scored.

“His box score doesn’t really show the impact he had defensively,” Spoelstra said. “He finds ways to fit in.”

GOING INSIDE

Waiters hurt the Bucks repeatedly with drives from the perimeter.

“I just try to play every game like it’s my last,” he said. “Tonight the coaches told me to be aggressive, be me, and do what I do best – get to the rim. I was able to do that.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Guard Tyler Johnson sat out with a sprained left shoulder he injured in the Heat’s game Thursday. His status is day to day.

UP NEXT

Bucks: Milwaukee plays at home Monday against Houston, which won 111-92 when the teams met Wednesday.

Heat: Miami plays at home Monday against Golden State, which has won five in a row in the series.