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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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Trail Blazers advance to face Warriors after 106-103 victory over the Clippers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 28 points and the Portland Trail Blazers advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by beating the resilient Los Angeles Clippers 106-103 on Friday night to claim the first-round playoff series 4-2.

Portland will open the second round against the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday.

CJ McCollum added 20 points for the Blazers, who became the first team to overcome a 2-0 deficit since Memphis came back against the Clippers in the first round in 2013.

Jamal Crawford had 32 points and Austin Rivers added 21 points and eight assists despite having 11 stitches above his left eye from a collision in the first quarter. But the Clippers could not recover from injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in Game 4 of the series.

Los Angeles didn’t surrender easily in the final game, never allowing Portland a double-digit lead.

“We didn’t panic when they put up a fight,” Lillard said.

The Blazers appeared to pull away when McCollum’s 3-pointer made it 98-91 with 4:49 left, but the Clippers persisted. Already plagued by injuries, the Clippers lost DeAndre Jordan to what looked like a sprained right ankle before Los Angeles closed to 98-95 on J.J. Redick‘s jumper.

McCollum’s 3-pointer put Portland up 101-95 with 2:16 left. Again the Clippers clawed back, pulling within 103-101 on Redick’s layup with just under a minute left. Crawford tied it with free throws but Mason Plumlee was fouled by Jeff Green under the basket for free throws to make it 105-103.

Crawford missed a 6-foot jumper and Plumlee made the second of two free throws with 1.5 seconds left for the final margin. Rivers’ 42-foot hurl at the buzzer fell short.

“It’s mixed emotions right now,” Rivers said, his left eye swollen shut. “I’m very sad, I’m very disappointed, but I’m also very proud.”

Portland will face a Golden State team that is dealing with its own injury issue: Reigning MVP Stephen Curry continues to rehab his sprained right knee. There is no official word on when he might return.

The Clippers were ultimately doomed by untimely injuries to their top two scorers.

Paul broke a bone in his right hand in the third quarter of the Clippers’ Game 4 loss at Portland. The Clippers’ nine-time All-Star was averaging 23.8 points and 7.3 assists in the series before he was hurt. He had surgery the next day and the Clippers declared him out indefinitely.

In the same game, Blake aggravated the left quad injury that sidelined him for 41 games this season. He was averaging 15 points, 8.8 rebounds and four assists in the playoffs.

After dropping the first two, the Blazers took a 3-2 lead with a 108-98 victory at the Staples Center on Wednesday night. Clippers coach Doc Rivers tinkered with his starting lineup in the absence of Paul and Griffin, inserting Crawford, Rivers and Paul Pierce.

On Friday, he started Luc Mbah a Moute and Jeff Green, while Crawford and Pierce went to the bench.

“This team had more heart than any other team I’ve coached,” the elder Rivers said.

The Clippers got another scare midway through the first quarter when Austin Rivers sustained a cut above his left eye in a collision with Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu midway through the first quarter. Rivers returned before the end of the half after getting 11 stitches.

Crawford picked up the slack in his absence and had 22 points in the half. But Lillard and McCollum countered with a combined 25 and the Blazers led 50-48 at the break.

Redick hit a 3-pointer that put the Clippers up 58-53 early in the third. Aminu and Lillard countered with 3s and neither team could push the margin to more than five points.

Rivers’ 3-pointer put the Clippers ahead 77-75 late in the third, but the lead was short-lived when Lillard hit a 3 for Portland. Crawford’s jumper and Jordan’s dunk gave Los Angeles an 81-78 lead.

TIP INS

Clippers: Redick started all six games despite a heel injury that has reportedly bothered him throughout the series.

Trail Blazers: Pro golfer Peter Jacobsen, a Portland native, made three straight free throws for a contest during a first-half timeout. … Toronto FC and U.S. national team forward Jozy Altidore was among the fans at the game.

Austin Rivers gets 11 stitches after elbow to face, returns for Clippers

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 29: Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers walks off the court after Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on April 29, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 106-103. 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 Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t intentional, Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu and the Clippers’ Austin Rivers were both going for the rebound, but Aminu’s elbow caught Rivers clean in the eye.

That was nasty.

Rivers required 11 stitches, and after the game looked like Glass Joe after a rough day.

But you have to be impressed — Rivers came back into the game. He finished with 21 points and played hard, but the Clippers fell to the Trail Blazers 106-103 and were eliminated from the playoffs.

Pacers force Game 7 against Raptors with 101-83 win

of the Toronto Raptors against the Indiana Pacers in game six of the 2016 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  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.
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George scored 21 points, Myles Turner added 15 and the Indiana Pacers beat the Toronto Raptors 101-83 on Friday night to force a Game 7 of their series.

That will be played Sunday in Toronto, and the winner will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Indiana scored 18 straight points in the second half to pull away from the second-seeded Raptors, who haven’t won a postseason series since the first round in 2001.

DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph each had 15 points for the Raptors.

Kyle Lowry (4 for 14) and DeMar DeRozan (3 for 13) struggled again, and now the Raptors will head home and hear again about their troubled playoff problems: a Game 7 loss at home to Brooklyn in 2014, Washington’s four-game sweep last season and no series wins in a seven-game series. And there 15-year victory drought is the longest active streak in the league.

Indiana trailed by as much as 12 early, never led until early in the third quarter and had to fend off a late third-quarter charge from the Raptors before blowing it open in the fourth.

After Toronto cut the deficit to 65-64, Indiana responded by scoring the last six points of the third and the first 12 of the fourth to take an 83-64 lead.

The Raptors never recovered.

For Indiana, it was a dramatic turnabout.

Three days after blowing a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead, they came out flat. The Pacers struggled to make baskets, struggled to defend and played catch-up the entire first half after Toronto took an 18-6 lead just 6 1/2 minutes into the game.

But once the Pacers got righted, they took control and pulled away.

Indiana rebounded from a 44-40 halftime deficit with a 10-2 run to take its first lead, 49-48 on Ian Mahinmi‘s tip-in with 9:33 left. They extended the lead to 63-55 before Toronto charged back to get within 65-64 in the final two minutes of the quarter.

Indiana scored the next 18 points to seal it.

GOLDEN CROWD

Indiana handed out gold T-shirts to fans at the game and it caused a bit of a stir because the wording on the shirts read: United State of Basketball, We The Gold. It was a twist on Toronto’s motto – We The North. Raptors coach Dwane Casey didn’t seem to mind that Indiana stole the idea. “I know that they have a great home court. You know you’re in Pacers territory because of all the gold shirts,” he said. “But what happens between the lines for 48 minutes is what I’m concerned about.”

TIP-INS

Raptors: The Raptors wound up getting outrebounded 44-40 after dominating the post in the first half. … Jonas Valanciunas had 14 points, Lowry had 10 and DeRozan finished with eight. … Bismack Biyombo grabbed 10 rebounds. … Toronto gave up 20 points on 17 turnovers. … The last time the Raptors led a series 3-2 was in 2014 against Brooklyn. But the Nets won 97-83 on their home court before clinching the series with a 104-103 victory in Game 7 at Toronto.

Pacers: Turner blocked four shots, giving him 19 in the series to break Antonio Davis’ previous franchise rookie record in a six-game series. … Indiana started the second half by making five of its first seven shots. … Actor-comedian Mike Epps, who lives in Indy, attended the game. … The Pacers have won four straight elimination games on their home court.

Heat hang on with Wade’s heroics, force Game 7 vs. Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 29:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat directs teammates against the Charlotte Hornets during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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“It’s a make-or-miss league” has been a worn-out cliche in the NBA for years, but it was never more apt than Friday night. Dwyane Wade, a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter who hadn’t hit a shot from beyond the arc in the calendar year of 2016, knocked down two threes late to help the Miami Heat hold on and beat the Charlotte Hornets, 97-90, to force a Game 7 on Sunday.

Wade finished with 23 points on 10-for-20 shooting along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists to lead Miami, and had a key block in the closing minute to stave off a Charlotte comeback. The Heat held off Kemba Walker‘s 37-point explosion, which kept Charlotte in the game for much of the second half even as they never led in the third or fourth quarters.

Neither team got much out of their benches, and Miami overcame a rough night from Goran Dragic (6-for-17 from the field) and Hassan Whiteside fouling out in just 28 minutes of action. A three by Walker cut Miami’s lead to 90-88, the closest the Hornets got in the second half.

The two teams will now play a Game 7 in Miami on Sunday, with the winner facing the winner of that same day’s Game 7 between the Raptors and Pacers.