Cavaliers top Warriors in thriller. Again.

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The venue changed. So did the stakes. A very important player entered the equation.

But sixth months after their incredible seven-game NBA Finals, Warriors-Cavaliers once again ended with Cleveland players enveloping their star in jubilant hugs along the baseline as the buzzer sounded.

Kyrie Irving – who replaced LeBron James as the center of postgame attention – hit a heavily contested fadeaway over Klay Thompson with 3.4 seconds left to give the Cavs a 109-108 win an an instant Christmas classic.

Though this was only one regular-season game – Golden State won both regular-season matchups with Cleveland and 73 games last year – both teams played with incredible intensity in this budding rivalry. As much as both teams will downplay the significance, this was no ordinary regular-season game.

“It’s Christmas,” said a beaming Irving, who had 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds.

The Warriors nearly played Grinch. But just as they blew a 3-1 lead in last summer’s Finals, they blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and a three-point lead with the ball and 45 seconds left today.

Richard Jefferson ignited Cleveland by dunking on Kevin Durant in the fourth to end an 11-1 Golden State run – especially because Jefferson then received a technical foul for winking at Durant:

Jefferson’s dunk over Klay Thompson later in the period required no additional taunting:

By that point, the Cavaliers were right back in the game, and their confidence only grew.

LeBron James – who finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals – dunked as if he were trying to tear down the entire hoop:

Draymond Green, who spent most of the game threatening to get a second technical foul and got a technical last week for hanging on the rim too long, held up his palms in bewilderment. What would it take for the Warriors to get a break against Cleveland?

They thought they answered that question last July.

Their league-altering newcomer excelled today. Durant scored 36 points, another excellent Christmas performance by the former Thunder star. He kept Golden State clicking as Curry started slow, and the question that hovered over the entire season gained prominence: How will anyone stop these Warriors? Stop one of their MVPs, and you still have to contend with the other.  Golden State won the first, second and third quarters. And it’s not as if Curry just disappears. His 3-pointer untied the game with 1:14 left.

But, a possession later, Irving stole the ball and drove for a layup. Then, came a little controversy.

The Warriors’ penultimate possession ended in a clear shot-clock violation, but officials reviewed it anyway – giving the Cavs, who were out of timeouts, a chance to diagram a play. Golden State also subbed out Curry during the stoppage, which seemingly shouldn’t have been allowed and made it easier for Thompson to guard Irving. (Update: The NBA says the 24-second violation made a sub permissible.)

But Irving still hit the big shot against the Warriors – his second in two matchups, dating back to Game 7.

On Golden State’s final chance, Durant stumbled with the ball, and time ran out.

Welcome to the rivalry, KD. The Warriors’ talent keeps falling short against Cleveland’s perseverance.

That could change, of course. These teams face each other again in Oakland on Jan. 16. They could also meet in an unprecedented third straight finals.

After this hard-fought, exhilarating contest, that’d be a delight.

Nike “very concerned” after LeBron James’ jersey rips on opening night

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In the team’s first preseason game, the jersey of the Lakers’ Tyler Ennis was torn in the back with a tug from an opponent. Everyone made tearaway jersey jokes and moved on, thinking it was a one-off situation.

Then LeBron James‘ jersey ripped down the back on opening night, on national television.

Now Nike is looking into the issue, reports Darren Rovell of ESPN.

Nearly three days after one of its jerseys tore in the first regular-season game of its new deal with the NBA, Nike released a statement Friday expressing worry about the issue, without offering insight as to what happened or what will be done.

“The quality and performance of all our products are of utmost importance,” the company said in a statement. “We are obviously very concerned to see any game day jersey tear and are working with the NBA and teams to avoid this happening in the future.”

This is the first year Nike has the NBA apparel contract, having just taken it over from Adidas. They made the jerseys similar to what had been done for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where there were no issues, but these jerseys are lighter than the former Adidas ones. It’s unclear what, if any, changes could be coming.

Like many of the jerseys from opening night, LeBron’s ripped one is being auctioned by the NBA to raise money for hurricane relief.

Reports: Rockets think Chris Paul could be sidelined for up to a month

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The Rockets’ opening night win over the Warriors was a boost to their confidence — they believe they can challenge the Warriors next May in the playoffs.

Chris Paul is a big part of that plan, which is why we may not see him for up to a month (even though he is listed as day-to-day, and officially only out Saturday). With that, the Rockets are considering adding another point guard to the roster. Marc Stein of the New York Times and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news Friday afternoon.

At the top of the free agent point guard list is Jameer Nelson, the veteran was just waived by Denver to make room for Richard Jefferson.

C.J. Watson and Trey Burke also are available.

Chris Paul and Harden still need to smooth out playing together, something that will take time on the court together. CP3 being out until mid-November is not ideal, but the Rockets are thinking about May, and ideally June, so they will sacrifice a few games now to have him healthy then.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.