LeBron James, Tim Duncan

Transcendent LeBron puts up 35, leads Heat to 98-96 win to tie series 1-1

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SAN ANTONIO — If the Heat were going to beat a Spurs team that had won nine in a row at home, they were going to need a transcendent game from LeBron James. The guy who had his toughness questioned by some after missing the end of Game 1 due to cramps.

They got it — video game LeBron (complete with cheat codes) showed up in the second half Sunday night in San Antonio. It felt like NBA Jam.

LeBron finished with 35 points on 22 shots (he shot 64 percent), grabbed 10 rebounds, defended Tony Parker down the stretch and was a +11 in a two point game. He started slow, he got more rest than normal, but when it mattered in the second half LeBron James took over the game shooting 8-of-11, including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc after halftime.

The result was a 98-96 Miami win that evens the NBA Finals at 1-1.

Game 3 is in Miami Tuesday night.

“LeBron with the ball did a great job at his end and we had to be really pretty perfect at the other end and we didn’t,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We didn’t take advantage of things, we made bad decisions.”

LeBron started 1-of-4 shooting with a couple turnovers but after a rest he came back in the second quarter and was aggressive attacking the rim — 9 of his 11 first half shots came inside 8 feet.

“I just continued to attack,” LeBron said of his run starting in the second quarter, extending into the second half. “I had a slow start, but all my misses were in the paint…. I was confident in where I was getting on the floor and I had to stick with it.”

After all that attacking the Spurs switched their defense on LeBron and played off him more in the second half (similar to how they played him last Finals). LeBron just started draining jumpers over them. Not that what they did mattered much, LeBron was 9-of-15 on contested shots in the game. He was hitting everything.

Miami was far sharper defensively this game, forcing the Spurs to take 29 percent of their shots from the midrange – San Antonio was 7-of-23 from there. That is not their game. After a slow start Miami’s defensive rotations inside were tight, contesting everything in the paint (San Antonio shot 17-of-33 in the paint for the game, they were 7-of-15 in the restricted area after a hot start) and the Heat were chasing guys off the arc. Miami did a good job of switching pick-and-roll coverages, throwing different looks at the Spurs to keep them off balance.

Under that pressure, the Spurs ball movement stopped late. With that they did not get shots in the paint down the stretch.

“We’ve got to be close to perfect to win, and tonight we were far from perfect,” Manu Ginobili said.

“I think it’s a 48-minute game and we didn’t move it enough of those minutes, basically,” Popovich said. “It’s how we have to score.  We can’t put it in somebody’s hands and have them create everything for us.  It’s got to be a group effort and we didn’t do that….

“You move it or you die.”

“(We had) more awareness of their shooters,” Dwyane Wade said. “We still make mistakes, it wasn’t perfect. Bit we made them take tougher shots. Our defense on the ball was a lot better and we rebounded the ball once the shot went up.”

A key turning point may have come with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter: The Spurs were up two when Mario Chalmers was whistled for a flagrant foul when he threw an elbow to Tony Parker’s gut while Chalmers was on the drive. It was the right call. But then Parker missed both flagrant free throws (he said the pain from the blow was part of that). The Spurs got the ball out of bounds, ran a play for Tim Duncan who was fouled driving the lane. He got to the line and missed both of his free throws. Rather than stretch the lead out to six, it remained at two.

Then at the other end LeBron hit a three.

“I just wanted to put pressure on their defense,” LeBron said.

“I don’t think we lose the game on that,” Parker said. “We were up one with 1:30 to go or two minutes and we made the stops that we needed. We just couldn’t make the shots to come out on top. We had a great opportunity.”

Miami got 18 points from Chris Bosh including a clutch three in the fourth quarter to give the Heat the lead for good — it was the same pass, same play LeBron made to Bosh for a potential game-tying shot against the Pacers, but he missed it then. He got nothing but net Sunday.

Miami also got 14 each from Dwyane Wade and Rashard Lewis (who played surprisingly well).

San Antonio had 18 from Tim Duncan, 11 in the first quarter, 21 from Tony Parker and 19 from Manu Ginobili.

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

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)
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

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 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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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.

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.

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. Just not enough.

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.