2014 NBA Finals - Game Three

Kawhi Leonard showcases next dimension in quest to lead Spurs

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What got into Kawhi Leonard?

After failing to crack double digits in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals, Leonard led the Spurs with 29 points in their 111-92 Game 3 win over the Heat on Tuesday.

“We just want him to be who he’s been the whole year – the regular season and the playoffs,” Gregg Popovich said.

No, seriously, Pop. What got into Leonard?

“He was just himself,” the San Antonio coach said. “I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Popovich might be incredulous because he saw this coming so long ago, he can’t understand what took so long for everyone else to catch up. Before last season, Popovich predicted Leonard would become the face of the Spurs.

Now, it might be happening before our eyes.

The 22-year-old Leonard has drawn praise from all types, but the analytically inclined have particularly latched onto his all-around production. He led San Antonio in win shares during last year’s playoffs and again during this year’s regular season.

But being the face of a franchise, even the Spurs, involves more than quiet efficiency. It requires becoming the focal point at times, something Leonard had never done to this extent – not even at San Diego State, let alone in the NBA.

His 29 points were the most he’d scored since high school.

In the last eight years, the only other players to score so much in a Finals game are LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce and Tony Parker – each multiple-time All-Stars.

Leonard has yet to receive that recognition even once, but if he keeps scoring like this, his contributions will be impossible to ignore.

He aggressively drove to the hoop and made open shots from beyond the arc, requiring just 13 shots to score his 29 points. And he still had enough energy left to defend LeBron, who spent just 64 seconds on the court without Leonard.

There are only so many two-way stars in the league, and Leonard is building his case for a seat at the table as his offense catches up to his defense.

The difference between Leonard and Paul George – a two-time All-NBA third teamer, recipient of a max contract and unquestioned best player on a team that has made consecutive conference finals – is not as great as it appears at first glance. Leonard, a year younger than George, has time to make up whatever difference exists.

Leonard used another one of those two-way stars to help find his way after struggling earlier this series.

“LeBron is very aggressive on the offensive end and defensive end,” Leonard said on ESPN. “So, just trying to match his intensity and trying keep my energy up and just staying hydrated throughout the game.”

That’s a nice subtle jab from a member of the Spurs, an organization paranoid about surrendering any competitive advantage. Maybe Leonard should know better – even if that was an unintended reference to LeBron’s cramps – because anything might motivate LeBron. But Leonard is still just 22 and learning the ropes.

Even if he doesn’t play like it.

For the second straight year, Leonard is the youngest player by four years in the Finals. Last season, he excelled, averaging a double-double. In his return to basketball’s biggest stage, Leonard took a bit longer to get going, but he made up for lost time in Game 3. Since at least 1985, only Kobe Bryant has scored so many points in a Finals game at such a young age.

Constantly, Leonard is evolving.

“He’s got to be one of our better players on the court, or we’re not good enough,” Popovich said. “That’s just the way it is. He’s got that kind of talent.”

That’s no longer a forecast of a distant future.

It’s the reality of the present.

Kevin Durant says he appreciates fans who heckle him to get a release in their lives

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for selfies with fans before a preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 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 Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant is a basketball villain.

To most fans, NBA players are characters in an elaborate plot that is enacted live and on televisions nightly. Some players are loved, others loathed, for what they do in this grand saga.

Durant committed a basketball sin by leaving the Thunder for the Warriors, the team that eliminated Oklahoma City in the playoffs last season. It was the easy way out. It made Golden State too good.

So, Durant gets booed and jeered. His jersey gets burned. His name is smeared.

But Durant is also a real person who committed no actual ethical or moral violation by switching employers. And unfortunately, too many fans don’t acknowledge the difference between Durant the basketball character and Durant the real person – which means the attacks at Durant the basketball character often venture into personal territory for Durant the person.

At least Durant says he doesn’t mind the fans who don’t make the distinction.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

He wants all of his fans, including the negative ones, to know that he’s appreciative of their support.

“It’s fun, man, because it’s entertainment,” Durant said. “And I appreciate them letting us give them that opportunity, that experience.

“So if you want to heckle or if you want to cheer, as long as you’re getting a release from whatever is going on in your normal life, that’s cool. That’s what life is about. You have to take the good with the bad.”

This is the healthiest approach Durant can take. Given the criticism directed at him, anything else would have him holed up inside for days.

Iman Shumpert: I won’t go to Donald Trump’s White House if Cavaliers win title

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07:  Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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A couple Cavaliers predicted NBA champions wouldn’t visit the White House with Donald Trump as president. LeBron James was noncommittal.

But Iman Shumpert – who had strong words about Cleveland beating the Warriors in the Finals again – took a hard line.

Shumpert, in a Q&A with Karizza Sanchez of Complex:

Will you go to Trump’s White House if the Cavs win the championship again this year?

I’m not going to the White House.

People started boycotting New Balance after the company seemed to voice support for Trump. Kanye West recently said he would’ve voted for Trump if he had voted. Would you still wear Yeezys?

I understand people’s stance on Trump. I can’t get caught up in the racial, sexist bullshit he’s got going on. That’s his personal thing, ya dig? But I just don’t think he can make anything shake like that. He not finna start no civil war out here. I do think he’s crazy—straight up. I think he did that stuff to get people to think he’s willing to shake it up. But did I vote for him? No. The other stuff that comes with him, I can’t get with. But now that he’s here, I’m not finna drag my feet. I gotta work here, at least until the offseason, if I wanna go get a crib in the Islands.

Remember, Shumpert said he’d kneel for the national anthem before reversing course. Committing to meaningful protest is far easier than following through.

Any NBA champion who declines an invitation to the White House will be labeled as unpatriotic by the type of people who measure patriotism by the quantity and size of American flags and have forgotten this country was founded on a healthy irreverence for the political elite.

I understand why anyone would be leery of glad-handing with Trump, whose rhetoric is white nationalist and anti-constitutionalist. But Trump has also lied at an unprecedented rate for a presidential candidate. We have little idea what he’ll do by the time the next NBA champion is crowned, and given the respect the office deserves, Shumpert might have second thoughts if the Cavs repeat.

Draymond Green: Warriors laughed at Jazz coach Quin Snyder for late timeouts

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After trailing the Warriors by 25 last night, the Jazz cut the deficit to five early in the fourth quarter. Golden State re-inserted starters and pushed lead back to double digits.

Still, Utah coach Quin Snyder called three timeouts in final 1:05 with Utah never closer than seven – a strategy that earned scorn from Draymond Green.

Green, via CSN Bay Area:

“We were laughing at Quinn Snyder who kept calling timeouts,” Draymond told reporters after the game. “Like bro, you’re down 10 with six seconds left, it’s kinda over my man.”

“Just let us go to the restaurant and have a good dinner; just chill,” Draymond added. “That’s what we were laughing at.

The Warriors travelled hundreds of miles to Utah, and the teams battled for hours. What was a few more minutes for the Jazz to maximize their miniscule chance of a comeback? Honestly, I’m surprised how often teams throw in the towel in those situations.

Besides, it was actually an eight-point difference with nine seconds left for Snyder’s final timeout. The Jazz were down just two four-point plays. There was plenty of time for that.

Nine-year veteran Eric Gordon finally chose his team, and he’s clicking with Rockets

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 21: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets tires to get a shot off against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 21, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. 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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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A New Orleans restricted free agent in 2012, Eric Gordon signed a max offer sheet with the Suns and infamously declared his heart to be in Phoenix.

New Orleans matched anyway.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Gordon said. “I knew they were going to bring me back all along.”

So why make those statements? Why alienate New Orleans fans?

“You just never know what a team might do or not,” Gordon said.

Gordon been around long enough now to know you never know, even when you’re certain you do. But this much he clearly believes: In his ninth NBA season and on the first team he picked, he’s happy with the Rockets.

Gordon was drafted onto the Donald Sterling, pre-Blake Griffin Clippers, who had made the playoffs just four times in the previous 32 years and had developed a reputation for cheapness and disarray. They went 19-63, 29-53 and 32-50 in Gordon’s three years in Los Angeles. Yet he says, “I enjoyed my time there.”

He was traded to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the Clippers’ package for Chris Paul, and he doesn’t look back on his time with the Hornets/Pelicans quite so fondly. “Nobody was on the same page over there,” Gordon said. “It was just different. We had the talent there, and things just didn’t work out.”

Gordon admits he sometimes wonders what would’ve happened if he had gone to the Suns. But they haven’t made the playoffs and are on their fourth coach since his offer sheet. “After looking back on it now, they had a lot of chaos and turmoil there, too,” Gordon said.

So, Houston is a welcome reprieve.

Gordon’s first unrestricted free agency yielded a four-year contract worth more than $52 million. He’s averaging 17.0 points per game, his highest mark in five years. He has been healthy after after missing 173 games in five years with New Orleans. And the Rockets are 15-7, on pace for what would easily be Gordon’s most successful season.

Playing with James Harden and for Mike D’Antoni – whose fondness for Gordon dates back to their gold-medal run with Team USA in the 2010 World Championship – has treated Gordon well. Houston is focused on offense, Gordon’s specialty, and its system accentuates his strengths.

Gordon leads the NBA with seven open 3-pointers per game, which he’s converting at 41.3% clip:

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Notice the other Rockets on that list: Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. Benefitting from playing alongside Harden – an attention-tracker and willing passer – is not unique.

But Gordon does more than just rely on Harden to get him open shots. Since moving to the bench with Patrick Beverley healthy, Gordon has proven particularly valuable when Harden sits.

Houston scores 118.7 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor, per NBAwowy!. That mark obviously plummets without Harden, one of the NBA’s best offensive players.

Gordon has prevented it from falling too far, though.

He scores more points per 36 minutes (15.5 to 28.5) and does so with a higher true shooting percentage (56.0 to 62.5) from with Harden to without. He also handles more playmaking, increasing his assists per 36 minutes (2.4 to 4.1), though also, disproportionally, his turnovers per 36 minutes (1.5 to 3.6).

Still, Gordon’s effect on the Rockets’ offense without Harden is tremendously positive.

  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – with Gordon: 107.7
  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – without Gordon: 86.7

Propping up the Rockets’ Harden-less offense has made Gordon an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Here are the win-share leaders among eligible players:

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Given voting history, ranking eligible players by points per game is probably more predictive. It’s at least even more flattering to Gordon:

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Lakers guard Lou Williams deserves to be the early favorite for the award. I’m also quite high on Spurs guard Patty Mills.

But Gordon belongs solidly in the mix.

It might not be the stardom the Clippers predicted when they drafted him No. 7 or New Orleans envisioned when it twice acquired him, but at least Gordon is happily contributing to a winner. After so much controversy – both invited (his Suns saga) and uninvited (being part of the Chris Paul trade) – he sounds happy in Houston.

“You just try to stride it out with whatever team you’re on. So, you know, it’s been a unique situation,” Gordon said. “But here, it’s been good.”