Kevin Durant outduels LeBron James in epic NBA Finals matchup

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LeBron James became the first player to average a triple-double in an NBA Finals. His Cavaliers were 36 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off against the Warriors, and he played 42 minutes per game.

Kevin Durant was even better.

The 2017 NBA Finals featured an all-time great individual battle between Durant and LeBron.

LeBron has used this time of year to fortify his argument as best player in the world. He was the best player in four of the previous five, maybe five of the last five, Finals. (He won three Finals MVPs, should’ve beaten Andre Iguodala in 2015 and was a tossup with Kawhi Leonard in 2014.)

But Durant was so good this year, he opened a legitimate debate about whether he’s better than LeBron right now. I honestly don’t know the answer. Durant’s superior supporting cast gave him and advantage, but he used it well enough to stake claim to the best-in-the-world moniker.

These were two superstars at or near the peaks of their power, engaged in intense competition.

Durant (30.4) and LeBron (29.4) posted average Game Scores in the Finals that combine to be far superior to any other Finals opponents in current postseason format.

Here are the top combined average Game Scores for Finals opponents since 1984 (as far back as Basketball-Reference records go):

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Michael Jordan-Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal-Allen Iverson – Durant-LeBron topped them all.

And Durant topped LeBron within the matchup. Making that even more incredible: This was LeBron’s best Finals average Game Score in the last six years.

Here’s LeBron (wine) vs. his top Finals opponent (blue) by Game Score:

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No Finals opponent fared better against LeBron in that span than Durant in 2012 with the Thunder. In the last few years, LeBron has kept pushing his statistical contributions higher and higher. Yet, Durant still made up all that ground.

LeBron’s Game Score this year probably inflated, because it doesn’t properly account for his for his lackluster defense, especially early in the series. Durant’s defense was awesome.

That’s why Durant won and deserved Finals MVP.

But even with its imperfections, Game Score tells a true story: Durant and LeBron were historically good in the 2017 NBA Finals, and Durant was just a little better.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.