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Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”

Three Things to Know: All-Star starters named, who should be in reserve?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) All-Star Starters named, but the decisions much tougher with reserves. Not everybody took their jobs seriously (unless you think Semi Ojeleye, Cedi Osman, and Royce O'Neale earned starting All-Star slots). Not everybody liked the results — Damian Lillard felt snubbed.

Still, it was mostly the usual suspects and there were no surprises as the NBA All-Star Game starters were announced. They were picked by a vote of the fans (50 percent), players (25 percent), and selected media members (25 percent). Here’s the list.

Western Conference: Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Houston’s James Harden, and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Eastern Conference: Cleveland’s LeBron James, Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

Remember it is not East vs. West this year. LeBron and Curry, as the top vote-getters, will be the captains and select teammates in a playground-style draft, first from the starters listed above, then from a pool of reserves selected by the coaches to be announced next Tuesday. LeBron chooses first and what is Curry going to do when LeBron goes with Durant?

Picking those reserves is where someone will get snubbed — there is no way to pick just seven players per conference and not leave out deserving guys. Damian Lillard didn’t deserve to be an All-Star starter no matter what he thinks, but is he even an All-Star this year in the loaded West? There must be two backcourt, three frontcourt, and two wild-card selections for each conference. Here’s who I would pick:

Eastern Conference: Victor Oladipo, John Wall, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry. That leaves out Kevin Love, which was hard as he’s been very good after being pushed to center this season.

Western Conference: Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Klay Thompson, Lou Williams. This was brutal, leaving out Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, and Paul George completely, even though they fully deserve an All-Star slot. So much talent moved West this season that the conference is overloaded.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers win… over the Orlando Magic. By one point. After blowing a 22-point lead. “Right now we’re in Strugglesville,” is how LeBron put the Cavaliers right now. He’s right. Cleveland had lost four in a row and was 2-8 in their last 10 coming into this one, but Thursday night they were facing one of the flat-out worst teams in the NBA in Orlando, so easy win? Nope. It took a couple Isaiah Thomas free throws with 11 seconds left — then Elfrid Payton missing a contested layup with a couple of seconds left — to give the Cavaliers a 104-103 win.

Cleveland was up 22 in this one, but once again their defense isn’t good and when the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders they can be beaten by anyone. The Cavs shot 1-of-17 from three in the second half and were outscored by 16 in the third quarter, blowing another good first half effort.

There were bright spots for the Cavs. Derrick Rose returned to the lineup and after missing two months due to a sprained ankle, and he had nine points in 13 minutes on the court. And Isaiah Thomas had a strong night.

However, the play of the night — and maybe the assist of the season — went to LeBron.


3) James Harden returns, Rockets pick up win over Timberwolves.
The Houston Rockets picked up a quality win at home over a Minnesota Timberwolves squad that is playing good basketball — and that’s not really the big news out of this one.

James Harden was back and starting for the Rockets. He missed seven games with a strained hamstring and the Rockets went 4-3 without him, which is not bad but they were not the same dominant team. Harden had 10 points and seven assists in limited minutes, and he understandably showed a little rust. His return this fast is a boost for his MVP chances if he can return to form — he and LeBron have been neck-and-neck as the frontrunners for the award this season, and the injury gave LeBron the chance to take charge of the race, but instead the Cavaliers have stumbled badly of late. Harden has a chance to take hold of this race, something that does matter to him.

Finally having Harden and Chris Paul healthy moved Eric Gordon back to his sixth man role and he thrived, dropping 30.

Gordon would be the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year, but he started too many games due to injury (half of them, coming into this game). If Paul and Harden can stay on the court, Gordon could repeat as Sixth Man winner.

Elfrid Payton slams chasedown block on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is usually the guy handing out chasedown blocks. He’s famous for them, and has carted out his signature move in the biggest moments of his career.

He’s also not used to having his own shots blocked from behind, and certainly not by opposing point guards.

Enter Elfrid Payton.

During a play halfway through the first quarter against the Orlando Magic on Thursday, LeBron was on a drive to the hole with Elfrid trailing far behind.

Thanks to a pinch by two Magic defenders, LeBron had to try and use brute force a bit deeper in the paint than he wanted to.

That allowed Payton — running at full speed — to catch up and pin The King on the glass.

Cleveland still got the best of the Magic, as Isaiah Thomas hit a clutch free throw to win the game with 11 seconds left, 104-103.

All-Star Joel Embiid doesn’t need Rihanna: “On to the next one”

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For about as long as we can remember, Joel Embiid has famously thirsted after Rihanna on Twitter. Fans have tried to boost his standing with the singer, but it apparently that has not been enough.

In 2014, Embiid mentioned on social media that a “famous girl” — presumably Rihanna — told him to “Come back when you’re an All-Star.”

Well, today is that day.

Embiid is a starter out of the Eastern Conference, and on Thursday night he had his chance to speak to Rihanna (or whomever) via national TV on TNT.

Did Embiid decide to reach out to this famous person? Apparently he’s off it.

Via Twitter:

This is like that scene from Private Parts when Howard Stern hits No. 1 and he tells Paul Giamatti’s character to get lost.

Embiid had the chance to curve Rihanna (or whomever) and took it. Long live The Process.

Here are the weirdest NBA All-Star voting results for 2018

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NBA All-Star voting is over, and now we have the results. The starters are in, and what’s left is for us to wait until they announce the teams after they are picked in double secret ceremony.

Of course, the NBA did release the full voting results via their PR website this week, and as such there are some head scratchers. My boy Patrick Redford over at Deadspin did an excellent job rounding up some of the players who got exactly one (1) vote from other players.

The gag here is that these guys presumably voted for themselves.

Of course, what I found most interesting was actually the guys who got multiple votes from their compatriots without being All-Star caliber players.

My favorite list of player-voted non-All-Stars includes: Michael Beasley (4), Gordon Hayward (2), Boban Marjanovic (2), Jahlil Okafor (4), Quincy Acy (2), Tyler Zeller (4), T.J. McConnell (2), Elfrid Payton (2), Zaza Pachulia (3), Taj Gibson (6), Zach Randolph (5), Maurice Harkless (2), Deyonta Davis (3), Lonzo Ball (9), Mike Conley (3).

There’s a whole smattering of guys in there who either didn’t play enough, aren’t stars, are injured, or who aren’t very good.

That multiple players took time to vote for these guys really speaks to the frivolity of the NBA All-Star Game. At least outside of player contract incentives.

Bring on February!