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No questioning Kevin Durant’s decision now as Warriors near title

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CLEVELAND (AP) Kevin Durant never demanded he’d get to take the biggest shot of the NBA Finals.

The Golden State Warriors made no promises and he knew there were no guarantees. When they met last summer in New York to discuss the biggest decision of his career, neither side even focused on winning titles.

They talked about having fun, and now Durant is on the verge of having the time of his basketball life.

One win from his first championship and probably the NBA Finals MVP award along with it, Durant is the perfect player in the perfect place.

“I think I said it last night, it just looks like he understands this is his moment, this is his time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Thursday. “He’s earned it. He’s been in this league for a long time, and he’s, I think, at the top of his game at the biggest time.”

Durant was widely criticized last year when he left Oklahoma City for Golden State, chided for trying to take the easiest route to a title by joining what was already a stacked team.

But that wasn’t the way he looked at it. Durant wasn’t thinking about lifting trophies or being fitted for championship rings. He loves to play basketball, and loved the way the Warriors play it.

“I didn’t envision anything but just being around good people and getting better every single day. That’s exactly what happened throughout the season,” Durant said. “I didn’t talk to these guys when I made my decision and say we better make it to the Finals and be up in the series around this time, this exact date, or I’m not coming. I mean, it was just, `Let’s just have some fun playing ball, let’s just all get better and let’s see what happens.”‘

What’s happened is probably beyond what either even imagined.

The Warriors had the league’s best record even while losing Durant late in the season to a knee injury, and really turned it on in the playoffs. They are 15-0 and will trying to finish the NBA’s first perfect postseason with a victory over Cleveland on Friday in Game 4.

Durant’s 3-pointer over LeBron James with 45 seconds left in Game 3 gave the Warriors the lead for good in a 118-113 victory, providing him a lasting highlight that will be the signature play of this series and perhaps his career.

In his postgame interview, he used the word “liberating” to describe the shot, the moment.

James has changed teams twice and needed two seasons to win a title both times, so he knows how long it can take for everything to come together. Their situations are different – James never joined a team as strong as these Warriors – but he said he’s proud of Durant’s success and understands why moving to a team like the Warriors was so attractive.

“Their team was already kind of put together, and you just implement a guy that’s ready to sacrifice, a great talent, a guy that’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win,” James said. “But that team, they knew what they were about. He just had to come in and just do what he had to do. And that’s what he’s been doing.”

Durant is averaging 34 points, 10 rebounds and 6.0 assists in the Finals, joining Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players with at least 25 points in their first eight Finals games.

He fell well short in his first shot at the title, when James’ Miami team beat Oklahoma City in five games in 2012. He never got back to the Finals with the Thunder, and when he was finally ready to consider looking elsewhere, the Warriors offered him exactly what he wanted to hear when they sat down in the Hamptons and talked about where the former scoring champion fit in a lineup with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

“I think the whole thing was how fun it would be, because of the style of play, because of the individual talents,” Kerr said. “None of these guys are ball-dominant players. They all love playing off the ball, cutting, moving, passing. And it fits. They fit like a hand in a glove.”

A hand that will soon have a championship ring. Even those who hated Durant’s decision can’t question how it has worked out for him when watching how well he and the Warriors have meshed.

“It took a while for it to kind of reveal itself consistently as the regular season went on, but once it clicked and the habits started to become second nature, it was kind of beautiful to watch and an amazing kind of style to play and watch unfold,” Curry said. “So it’s been fun.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.

Stan Van Gundy backs off feud with ESPN ahead of televised Pistons game

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Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t give ESPN its usual access – a private pre-game meeting and an in-game interview – in the aftermath of ESPN publishing LaVar Ball’s negative comments about Lakers coach Luke Walton.

The first test of Van Gundy’s new policy comes with today’s Pistons-Wizards game on ESPN… and Van Gundy is mostly backing down.

Van Gundy, via Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

“I got an email from Rick Carlisle of the coaches association and they want me to cooperate, so my whole idea was to boycott the thing in support of coaches,” Van Gundy said. “If the coaches don’t want that, then it would be a selfish thing, sort of a grandstanding thing.”

“I’m certainly not looking to do extra stuff with ESPN.com when those guys call and want to do things,” Van Gundy said. “They want to put themselves out there as a journalistic enterprise — they’re clearly not. They don’t have any journalistic standards. I have no obligation to do anything extra.”

Many media members have quoted Ball on a variety of issues. Coaches threw a fit over this one because they’re sensitive to coaches being criticized. It wasn’t about journalistic ethics or the source. Van Gundy and other coaches simply didn’t like Ball’s conclusion.

I’m so glad Van Gundy is no longer grandstanding. [extreme sarcasm]

He’s not obligated to speak with ESPN reporters, but when Van Gundy rails on journalistic standards as cover for disagreeing with the opinion a journalist published, he sounds a lot like the guy he loves to criticize.

Pistons’ Jon Leuer to undergo season-ending surgery

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Jon Leuer‘s ankles survived this.

But apparently they’re not invincible.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

After suffering a sprained ankle on Oct. 31, the symptoms worsened, as an exam revealed bone fragments and other issues. Leuer has missed the last 35 games and has decided to have season-ending ankle surgery, he told The Detroit News on Friday.

Leuer, 28, has scheduled the procedure to remove bone fragments for next Friday and will have a four-month rehabilitation process.

The Pistons have applied to the NBA for a disabled-player exception

The Pistons have been without Leuer for a while, and they’ve done fine without him. Anthony Tolliver is a capable backup stretch four, and Henry Ellenson adds even more insurance there. Detroit misses Leuer as a stretch center, providing a different style behind Andre Drummond, but Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic have at least decently handled those reserve minutes.

The bigger issue: The Pistons are paying Leuer $10,497,319 this season and owe him $19,510,724 over the next two years and don’t miss him that much. He’s a luxury they don’t need and maybe can’t afford.

Perhaps, they’ll deal him before the trade deadline, as they look to upgrade the roster for a playoff run. Detroit could send Leuer and a draft pick or young player (Stanley Johnson) for a better player on a more favorable contract. How about Leuer and a first-round pick to the Bulls for Nikola Mirotic?

A disabled-player exception (DPE) would be worth $5,248,660, half Leuer’s salary. It could be used to sign a free agent for the rest of the season or trade for a player in the final year of his contract.

But the NBA grants a DPE only if a league-appointed physician rules the player is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15. The reported timeline would have Leuer back in May.

Still, the league tends to be lax with giving out DPEs. Detroit has a chance to get one.

The Pistons are just $2,745,417 below the luxury-tax line. So, they’re unlikely to use a full Leuer DPE to acquire another player (and would still need to clear a roster spot). But it could be helpful in facilitating a bigger trade.