Destined or not, Kevin Durant needed to earn hard-fought Game 5 Warriors win, NBA title

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OAKLAND — It may have felt destined, like Golden State’s birthright since last July, but it was never going to be easy. Not from getting blown out the opening night of the season through battling a brilliant LeBron James performance in the Finals. The Warriors had to earn this ring with some grit.

In the end, Game 5 followed was the script the Warriors wanted before this series started. A couple big runs, monster nights from their two top-five players Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, strong defense, a small-ball lineup nobody could stop, and some big threes when they needed it.

Game 5 also followed the script the Cavaliers feared. LeBron James would be brilliant, but the defense that was questionable all season would make key mistakes giving up easy buckets, and even a hot night from J.R. Smith would not be enough save them.

Golden State grabbed the Game 5 lead with a 28-7 second quarter run, and despite pressure from the Cavaliers never gave it up, going on to win 129-120.

Golden State is your NBA champion, beating Cleveland 4-1. This is the Warriors second title in three years.

Kevin Durant had 39 points on 20 shots, plus had seven rebounds. His five-straight 30+ point games earned him the MVP award. He came West and the Warriors may well not have won this ring without him.

“Yeah, I hear all the narratives throughout the season that I was joining, I was hopping on bandwagons, I was letting everybody else do the work,” Durant said. “But then that was far from the truth. I came in and tried to help my team. Like I said, tried to be myself, be aggressive and sacrifice as well.”

Curry had 34 points on 20 shots, and Andre Iguodala had 20 points off the bench.

LeBron had a game-high 41 points, plus 13 rebounds and eight assists He averaged a triple-double for the series and carried the Cavaliers for long stretches. Kyrie Irving added 26 points on 9-of-22 shooting, and J.R. Smith had 25 points and shot 7-of-8 from three.

Golden State came out with more energy winning the hustle battles early — Zaza Pachulia grabbed one offensive rebound (which became a Klay Thompson three), but the key factors in the first went Cleveland’s way. The Warriors went more than six minutes in the first with Draymond Green at center — their best lineups — and were just +2. LeBron James went to the bench for the final 1:20 of the quarter, and the Cavs were +3 — the Warriors need to dominate those stretches. It was 37-33 Cavs after one, LeBron and Irving each scored a dozen. Curry had 12 for the Warriors, but they were 2-of-7 from three.

Midway through the second quarter, those dynamics changed — the Warriors went on what ultimately was a 28-7 run that had them up double digits and in control of the game. The run started with defense (the Cavaliers didn’t score on eight straight possessions) which in turn led to transition buckets — but it helpe the Warriors hit 14-of-15 shots. Plus, the Warriors went 4-of-4 from three in the second.

“Turnovers. Turnovers. Bad shot selection,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said of that run. “Something we talked about all series. You can’t turn the basketball over, you can’t take bad shots because you don’t have floor balance. And they’re so fast, they get out in transition. It’s tough to get back and get matched, especially with their speed.”

“We tried to contain it and keep it a half-court game, but they continued to push the pace,” Kevin Love said. “They play really well when they do that. There were times where we were fanning out trying to get to that three-point line [on defense], and then they would back-cut us and get a layup. So we were just trying to protect everyone’s back and got caught up in a few situations that weren’t good for us.”

The Warriors were able to stay small in part due to quality minutes from David West, and he showed a little of the fight the Warriors had in this game, getting into it with Tristan Thompson (J.R. Smith jumped in for fun, and all three got technicals.

It was 71-60 Warriors at the half, and they had led by as many as 17 late in the second.

However, the Cavs did not roll over, they had great shotmaking to come out in the third, attacked the mismatches they wanted and were more disciplined, cutting the lead to four at one point. It wasn’t Cleveland’s defense that was the answer, it was all about buckets — they scored on 13 of 16 possessions at one point in the third. Getting stops was the hard part.

“They started to go with the 1-3 pick and roll with Steph Curry and Durant, which might be one of the most unstoppable pick-and-rolls in our league,” Lue said. And they waited until late to do it. But that’s a tough play to stop.”

Cleveland could never fully close the gap, the lead fluctuated between four and nine, with it being at five heading into the fourth. The Warriors got big three from Iguodala, they got some cuts for Durant dunks because defenders can’t help off Klay Thompson, and when they needed stops they got enough.

And they will get a ring for it.

Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

New Jordan brand ad asks: Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

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Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender right now.

Kawhi Leonard is the cornerstone of the seventh best offense in the NBA last season, averaging 25.5 points per game.

He’s a dominant force on both ends, which leads to the question from this fantastic new ad from the Jordan brand:

Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

Report: Minnesota “intent” on trading Ricky Rubio to get more shooting

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It’s easy to look at the trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota now and think “that team will make the playoffs next season and be a contender in a few years.” They have set themselves up for that potential run.

But with those three on the floor, Minnesota needs shooters at the other two spots to provide spacing. Butler may have hit 36.7 percent of his threes last season, but he is far more dangerous as a slasher getting to the rim. Same with Wiggins (who shot 35 percent from three). Obviously, Towns operates around the basket. The defensive strategy against the Timberwolves is not hard to envision: Pack the paint and make them shoot over the top of you. Take away the inside.

Minnesota needs shooters. To get that they are dangling Ricky Rubio, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rubio should have value, and he makes a reasonable $14.3 million next season and $15 million the one after (a fair price for a point guard of his quality). He remains one of the best passers in the league, a guy with amazing court vision. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. He shot the ball well after the All-Star break last season (35.3 percent from three) and was more aggressive getting his shot, but Tom Thibodeau is clearly not sold that’s a permanent change.

Minnesota has some cap space and could chase a player like Patty Mills at the point or Kyle Korver as a free agent to give them shooting, plus try to trade Rubio. They have options, although they don’t have the money to chase the J.J. Redicks of the world.

If you hear of a shooter being available, know that Thibodeau is lurking, trying to land him.

Report: Cavaliers, Nuggets, Pacers three-way trade involving Paul George “very unlikely”

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We knew back on the night of the draft that as the Cavaliers desperately looked for a way to pry Paul George out of Indiana, they started involving third teams in the talks (because Indy had no interest in Kevin Love for Paul George straight up, not should they). Phoenix was involved, but that fizzled. So did talks involving Denver.

But those latter ones didn’t die the night of the draft, according to reports that came out over the weekend. Denver, Cleveland, and Indiana were still talking about a three-team deal that would land Love in Denver and George in Cleveland. The challenge for Cleveland was finding the combination of young players and draft picks that Indiana wants in a deal — Indy is rumored to want a lottery pick (preferably high lottery) and a young player or players.

Now that Denver three-team is “very unlikely” to happen, according to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

As first reported by ESPN, the Cavs engaged the Nuggets as a possible third team to facilitate a trade for the All-Star George on draft night, but a source said the discussion was “nothing serious” and “very unlikely” to happen now…

The Nuggets had the No. 13 pick in Thursday’s draft and traded it to Utah for Trey Lyles — obviously giving up on getting Love, at least for the time being.

Indiana would have wanted the No. 13 pick, because future Dever picks are likely to be outside of the lottery as this is a team poised to make a leap into the playoffs, with Nikola Jokic leading them. As for players, Denver had shot down all requests for Jamal Murray. Indiana likely asked for Gary Harris, but if Murray was off-limits then Harris likely was as well. Emmanuel Mudiay was available but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

Denver likes its roster and what it’s building. While Love could have been an upgrade over Danilo Gallinari‘s role, it wasn’t enough to get them to break up the team to make it happen. And that ultimately has been Cleveland’s challenge in getting a deal done — Love isn’t commanding as much as they hoped on the trade market.

In the same article, Varden has an update on Cleveland’s discussions with Chauncey Billups about becoming the president of basketball operations.

The Cavs are still in discussions with Chauncey Billups to lead Cleveland’s front office after the departure of David Griffin. They’re also remaining active in the trade market, with a host of remaining front-office personnel, including Koby Altman, an assistant GM under Griffin, working the phones.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, speaking on the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe, said Billups is weighing a lot of things, on and off the court, in making a complex decision. He likes living in Denver (his hometown) as does his family, and with his television schedule, he can be home a lot. On the other hand, he knows the importance and need for more African-American executives in the NBA had how important it could be for him to be in that role. There’s no easy answer for Billups.

The lesson here should be one for Dan Gilbert (and other owners): If you are going to fire a GM right before the draft and the start of free agency, you must have a replacement ready to go. Plan B has to be set. To fire a guy not having that plan, then go searching right before a critical off-season for your team, is how long-struggling teams operate.