Kevin Durant, hounded by criticism for joining Warriors, imposing his will on NBA Finals

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CLEVELAND – Kevin Durant never wanted the backlash, the implication he cheated the chase. He holed up in the Hamptons for days after picking the Warriors. He insisted he never would have signed with them if they won the title last year.

But when a former MVP still in his prime joins a 73-win team, whether or not it won in the Finals, the handwringing is unavoidable: Durant schemed, rather than earned, his way to a championship.

The Warriors were favored to win the 2017 title before signing Durant. Sure, there were rumors about him joining Golden State, and that was baked into the odds. But few thought he’d actually sign with the Warriors. They were favored on the core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

The perception was Durant would just ride their coattails after nine seasons of falling short in Oklahoma City, where he already built a reputation for deferring too much to Russell Westbrook. And that was only one star teammate. Durant would seemingly fade into the background playing with the back-to-back reigning MVP and two additional stars.

Reality is to the contrary.

Durant is overwhelming these Finals with an undeniable magnificence. The Warriors are one win from a championship because they rode Durant to a 3-0 lead over the Cavaliers.

He attacked the rim relentlessly in Game 1, turned up his defense while maintaining his offensive firepower in Game 2 and stepped on the Cavs’ hearts in Game 3. He has stared down Rihanna, played center and sparked a debate of whether he’s the best player in the world.

“This is his moment. This is his time,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said of Durant, who’s averaging 34.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals per game in the Finals. “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 entered these Finals in a unique place – the only player on either team with Finals experience but who didn’t participate in the first two series of the Warriors-Cavaliers trilogy. His Thunder lost in the 2012 Finals in five games to the LeBron James-led Heat, but Durant acquitted himself well, averaging 30.6 points per game on 54.8%/39.4%/83.9% field-goal/3-point/free-throw shooting.

Joining Golden State got him back to this stage, but he could have taken a backseat once he got here. Not only do the Warriors have three other stars, they have former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.

But Durant is on pace to become the first newcomer to join an incumbent playoff team and lead it in shots during the Finals since Latrell Sprewell with the 1999 Knicks. (Patrick Ewing, who led New York in shots during the regular season, suffered a season-ending injury in the conference finals. But Sprewell was already leading the team in playoff shots at that point.)

“I feel like every team I’m on, in order for us to go to the next level, I have to assert myself,” Durant said. “Since I was playing for the P.G. Jaguars when I was 10 years old, I felt like if I didn’t assert myself, we weren’t as good as we should be.”

Durant has asserted himself in a way that allows Curry to thrive, too. The fear from the rest of the league when Durant signed is coming to fruition: The Warriors are more talented and cohesive than everyone else.

But Durant and his teammates aren’t totally on the same page. Other players have spoken about how they were refocused by blowing a 3-1 lead to Cleveland last year, an experience Durant didn’t share.

That Finals loss hastened their pursuit of Durant, who could be seen as a hired gun – especially when Golden State talks about avenging last year. Yet, he can relate.

“I know what losing is like, and I know how you can lose a game or give a series away or give a momentum swing,” said Durant, whose Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to these very Warriors in last year’s conference finals. “I know all about it.”

These are the absurdities that drive people mad about Golden State – overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Oklahoma City then blowing a 3-1 lead against Cleveland was apparently the exact right combination to lure Durant. If Curry’s ankles weren’t damaged goods when he signed his contract extension or the players union accepted cap smoothing, this wouldn’t have been possible.

But the perfect storm happened, and Durant took the shortcut to a championship.

He can talk all he wants about just wanting to be around good people and in a good basketball environment, and those were surely factors. But he also took the path of least resistance to a title.

Yet, he’s not coasting to the finish one bit.

Beyond all the noise – free-agency rumors, a feud with Westbrook, hot-take debates on legacy – Durant is a hell of a basketball player. He’s doing everything he can in the Finals to turn the focus back to that.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.