Reviewing the Air Jordan XX9, after testing the shoes at Michael Jordan’s house

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Jordan Brand touted ground-breaking performance and innovative design when the company unveiled the latest version of its flagship basketball shoe back in April, and now that we’re less than a month away from the release of the Air Jordan XX9, it was time to see if the company kept its promise.

A group of media members were invited to Chicago recently to get a first look at the shoes in person and test them on the court — but this was no ordinary wear test experience.

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THE EXPERIENCE

We were told to dress for basketball in the base layers that were provided the night before, even though we would be outfitted in additional gear once we arrived to the court. After breakfast at Wishbone, a spot in Chicago’s West Loop frequented by Michael Jordan in his playing days and one which came personally recommended by the brand’s namesake, we were loaded onto a minibus to be transported to what turned out to be a very special location.

The ride of more than 40 minutes out of town didn’t seem suspicious, considering that Jordan Brand’s open run they hosted in New Orleans during All-Star weekend was a similar distance from the town’s center. Once we exited the freeway and took a couple of turns into a residential area, however, things began to fall into place — especially once we came to our stop.

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We had arrived at Michael Jordan’s house.

Jordan no longer lives here, and his former home is currently on the market; he spends his time these days in Charlotte in an ownership role with the Hornets. But the sprawling estate still has many of his personalized touches — including a regulation-sized indoor basketball gym where the day’s festivities would take place.

As we walked down the long and winding pathway, we passed the main home and were ushered into a guest house. Once inside, two quick right turns landed us into a locker room space that was specifically created for our special event.

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Once everyone was in uniform, it was time to head into Jordan’s personal gym, where he spent so many hours perfecting his game. It was left untouched by the folks handling the event, because as one staffer quipped, “you don’t paint the Sistine Chapel.”

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THE SHOE 

The Jordan XX9 had big shoes to fill, so to speak, because it was going to be extremely difficult to improve upon the performance provided by the Jordan XX8. The company introduced its Flight Plate technology into the sole of the shoe, and by almost all accounts, the XX8 and XX8 SE were routinely reviewed as some of the best basketball shoes to play in over the past 18 months.

The Flight Plate returned for the XX9, but was rotated and adjusted slightly in hopes of providing even better overall cushioning in the forefoot of the shoe. And, a “tendril” was added to bridge the front and the back of the sole to provide what the company hoped would be a smoother heel-to-toe transition. You can see the differences here, with the XX8 on the left and the XX9 on the right.

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The adjustments to the Flight Plate gave the shoe a different feel than its predecessor, but that was only a minor tweak from the previous iteration. The real change in the XX9 is the woven upper, which feels more like a snug slipper than it does a traditional sneaker.

“The performance-woven upper delivers superior abrasion resistance, along with an entirely new look on the outside of the shoe,” the company described at April’s unveiling. “The structure and fit of the shoe are engineered through Flight Web tunnels, and strategic panels of stiffer and softer flex to enhance natural motion. The absence of numerous layers and adhesion technologies creates an incredibly comfortable, sock-like interior lining with superior breathability.”

Michael Jordan and the shoe’s designer, Tinker Hatfield, discussed the woven upper at April’s event, while explaining its significance and the way it affects performance.

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THE REVIEW

My initial impressions of the Jordan XX9 haven’t changed much since the first couple of games I played in them, even though I’ve tested them out many times since.

I originally thought my normal size might have been too small when I first put them on, and actually checked to see if a half-size up was available. It wasn’t, and that was fine, because it didn’t take more than a few minutes for the upper to stretch a bit, to the point where it was extremely comfortable and didn’t feel like there was anything there at all.

The word “sock” was thrown around a lot that day to describe the feel of the upper, but after discussing it with others at the event, we agreed that term simply doesn’t do it justice. The fabric is firm enough to provide support when you need it, but doesn’t feel too tight or constricting, and it’s undoubtedly the shoe’s key feature.

As previously mentioned, the Flight Plate has changed a bit in the XX9, and for those who enjoyed the feel of the extreme level of forefoot bounce in the XX8, it’s worth noting that in the newest model, that has been downgraded a bit, and is much more subtle. There isn’t a greatly noticeable difference once you begin playing in them from a performance standpoint, but you will notice it when first putting the shoes on, which may be viewed as a negative by some.

While the Flight Plate was the game-changer in the previous version, the fact that it’s now combined with this woven upper is what will keep players reaching for this shoe time and again when heading to the court. There are obviously tons of factors that go into declaring which shoe is the best to play in, and ultimately, it comes down to a player’s individual game, body type, and personal preference. But it’s tough to envision anyone playing in the Jordan XX9 and coming away with anything other than positive overall thoughts.

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Nene’s 28 lead Rockets past Thunder for 3-1 series lead

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Nene scored 28 points on perfect shooting from the field, and the Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 on Sunday to take a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.

Nene made all 12 of his shots and had 10 rebounds. He helped the Rockets overcome an off night by James Harden, who finished with 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points for the Rockets. Trevor Ariza had 14.

Game 5 is Tuesday night in Houston.

Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook had a triple-double by halftime and finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. The Thunder said Westbrook joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to claim three consecutive playoff triple-doubles.

Steven Adams scored 18 points and Victor Oladipo added 15 for the Thunder.

Westbrook had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists at the break. He grabbed the 10th rebound in the final second of the second quarter, and the Thunder led 58-54 at intermission. Meanwhile, Harden made just 2 of 9 shots and scored just six points in the first half.

The Thunder opened the second half with a 10-2 run, but Houston closed to 77-73 at the end of the third quarter.

Adams made the first of two free throws with 21.7 seconds remaining to cut Oklahoma City’s deficit to four. He rebounded his missed second free throw and found Westbrook for a 3-pointer that cut Houston’s lead to one point. But the Thunder lost track of Nene on the other end, and he converted a three-point play. Gordon’s two free throws with 6.2 seconds made it a four-point game.

TIP-INS

Rockets: G Patrick Beverley was fined $25,000 by the NBA for confronting a fan after Game 3. The league announced the fine about two hours before Game 4 tipped off.

Thunder: Westbrook had just one turnover in the first half. … Adams went 6 for 6 from the field in the first half. … Westbrook missed all six of his shots in the third quarter.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.

Thunder convert missed FT to 3-pointer, refs miss James Harden push as Rockets win Game 4

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As if the end of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers Game 4 wasn’t wild enough, the finish to the matchup between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder was just as odd.

The final quarter of Sunday’s game was laden with poor play and heavy fouling, including a ploy by Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to put Thunder forward Andre Roberson at the line as part of a hacking strategy.

But the final minute was what really caught everyone’s eye, as the Thunder converted a purposely-missed free-throw attempt by Steven Adams into a Russell Westbrook 3-pointer with just 21 seconds left.

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The Thunder then broke down on the inbounds play a few seconds later, allowing Nene — who had a great game, scoring 28 points off the bench on 12-of-12 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds — to score an and-1 at the other end of the floor.

Oklahoma City then scored again on a tip.

That’s when it got REAL weird.

Houston inbounded the ball to James Harden, who got away with a gigantic, and frankly hilarious push off on Alex Abrines. OKC nearly stole the ball, but instead were called for a foul.

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This game was wild, weird, terrible, and both sides have something to gripe about when it came to fouls.

Houston beat OKC, 113-109, and take a 3-1 lead back to Texas.

Russell Westbrook clinches triple-double in first half vs. Rockets

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Thunder guard Russell Westbrook achieved a triple-double in the first half of Sunday’s playoff game against the Houston Rockets.

Westbrook had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists at halftime. He grabbed the 10th rebound in the final second of the second quarter. The Thunder led 58-54 at the break.

According to the Thunder, Westbrook became the second player to claim three consecutive triple-doubles in the playoffs. Wilt Chamberlain had three straight in 1967.

Westbrook entered the game averaging a triple-double in the series. He just set the record for triple-doubles in a regular season with 42.

Houston leads the series 2-1.

LeBron James helps Cavaliers hold off Pacers, earn sweep into 2nd round

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) LeBron James made a 3-pointer with 68 seconds left Sunday and the Cleveland Cavaliers hung on for a 106-102 series-clinching victory at Indiana.

James finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds as he became the first player under the current playoff format to win 21 straight first-round games. He also set a league record with his 10th career playoff sweep.

It sure wasn’t easy. After taking a 96-83 lead with 9:29 to go, the Cavs found themselves in a 102-100 deficit with 1:31 left.

But James answered with the go-ahead 3-pointer and Cleveland sealed the win on James’ free throw with 1 second left.

Lance Stephenson scored 22 points and Paul George added 15 but missed a 3-pointer that could have forced overtime in the closing seconds. It’s the first time the Pacers have lost a series 4-0 in their NBA history.

Kyrie Irving added 28 points for the Cavs, who await the winner of the Bucks-Raptors series.

Indiana got back into the game with a 7-0 spurt early in the in the fourth, then methodically continued chipping away at the lead until Thaddeus Young tied the score at 100 with a short jumper and broke the tie on a tip-in with 1:31 left.

But James, whose teams were 51-0 when starting the fourth quarter with double-digit leads in the postseason, made sure the perfect record remained intact.

Cleveland has won seven straight playoff games overall and 11 straight in the first round since James returned to his hometown team.

It was another milestone day for James, who moved past Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and James Worthy on the league’s list of consecutive first-round wins, and past Tim Duncan for most career sweeps, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

James also went 13 off 25 from the field, tying Kobe Bryant for fourth on the career playoff list for field goals. Each have 2,014 baskets.

Indiana has lost five straight postseason games and six of its last eight.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Will make their 11th appearance in the conference semifinals. … Cleveland has swept all eight series in which it has taken a 3-0 lead. … Tristan Thompson grabbed 11 rebounds Sunday, giving him double digits in all four games. … Deron Williams scored 14 points and Kevin Love had 16 rebounds.

Pacers: George finished with a series-low point total Sunday and was 3 of 9 on 3s after entering the game with a league-high 15 3s in the playoffs. … Teague scored 15 points and was the catalyst in the final spurt, including blocking one of James’ shots. He can become a free agent this summer. …Myles Turner had 20 points and nine rebounds, while Young had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Cleveland gets some extra rest before finding out who it will play in the second round. Indiana embarks on a crucial offseason that could dictate the franchise’s future.

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball