NBA Finals: Season over, but LeBron/Durant rivalry just beginning

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For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.

Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)

The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.

All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.

As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.

What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.

James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.

PBT Podcast: Zion Williamson and the rest, an early NBA Draft breakdown

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Zion Williamson is a force of nature, an athletic freak that has become must-watch television and silenced the doubters about his game.

Before the season, scouts questioned his shot and fit, but his play for Duke so far has moved him past teammate R.J. Barrett on everybody’s draft board into the consensus No. 1 pick. The shine has really come off Barrett early this season for a guy averaging 24 points a game, Cam Reddish may be the second Blue Devil taken in next June’s draft.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports joins me to talk Duke’s trio of superstars, plus other names to watch in this coming draft, such as Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, Oregon’s 7’2″ Bol Bol (maybe the most divisive player in the draft), Kevin Porter out of USC and many others.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, now fourth on the all-time coaching wins list

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Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.

His resume can stack up next to anyone’s: the sustained excellence of 20 seasons of 50+ wins which has given him a .686 win percentage, the five NBA titles, and maybe most impressive of all is small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise that was feared on the court and modeled off it.

And, of course, there are all the wins — 1,211 of them to be exact after the Spurs knocked off the struggling Suns Tuesday night.

That win moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich needs just 10 more wins to tie Utah legend Jerry Sloan for third on the list, something that will happen well before the All-Star break.

Will he coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of the coaching-wins leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins)? Only Popovich knows that, although the speculation around the NBA is probably not (many expect him to retire after the 2019-20 season, although nobody knows for sure).

Whatever happens, Popovich’s place on the all-time wins list just adds to a Hall of Fame legacy.

Three Things to Know: If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard it went poorly

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LOS ANGELES — 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. Today we come straight from Staples Center.

1) If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard Tuesday, it went poorly. When the discussion turns to speculation about where Kawhi Leonard could be playing next season, the Los Angeles Clippers are high on the list. He grew up in Southern California and wants to return there, sources say he doesn’t want to play with LeBron on the Lakers, and the Clippers have been surprisingly impressive this season but are a team without a true superstar that is looking to add one (or two, the Clippers reportedly want to add both Leonard and Kevin Durant).

Not that the notoriously media-shy Leonard cares about the speculation.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before his Raptors took on the Clippers Tuesday night without him (due to a tweaked hip). “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

If the Clippers — or any team — is going to impress and entice Leonard, it’s not going to be with a well-crafted marketing plan to grow his brand (the people advising Leonard on the other hand…). Leonard presents the image of being focused only on what happens on the court.

That’s where the Clippers fell short Tuesday.

Actually, “fell short” is putting it kindly. The Clippers got thumped by 24 on their home court, their worst loss of the season. Playing without its superstar, Toronto looked like a team much closer to the NBA’s elite in terms of talent and execution than Los Angeles. The Raptors won 123-99 in a game that was not in doubt from early in the third quarter on.

“I think we just played bad,” Clippers’ guard Tyrone Wallace said, summing it up well. “We just had a rough night, we didn’t play well defensively.”

That was the starkest contrast: While the Clippers looked like a dazed team on the second night of a back-to-back (and without Lou Williams, who will miss a couple of weeks with a tweaked hamstring), the Raptors’ defenders were on a string — they switched, they rotated, they even threw in a zone for a few plays and the Clippers could not adapt fast enough.

Toronto turned the stops into shots in transition and the Clippers were not getting back or handling their scrambling defense well. Serge Ibaka feasted on the Clippers with 25 points.

However, the best news for the Raptors was the “return” of the real Kyle Lowry, who had 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to break out of his slump (he had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games).

Whatever Leonard decides to do this summer — stay in Toronto, come to Los Angeles, or choose from the 28 other teams that will be knocking on his door — the decision will not be based on the outcome of one December game. However, if the Clippers were trying to show off an impressive young core Leonard could join and elevate, this was not the effort that they needed.

Toronto, on the other hand, looked exactly like a team with an impressive young core. One Leonard is already elevating to the top of the East.

2) The good Rockets show up — especially the bench players — and Houston knocks off Portland. About once every week or so I watch a Rockets game and think, “they can get it together and turn this around.” Not turn around to the level they expected entering the season — they are not going to be a threat to the Warriors with this current roster — but there are nights they look like a playoff team and better than their sub-.500 record.

Tuesday was one of those nights, mostly thanks to hot play off the bench. Houston’s second unit outscored Portland’s 37-13, and they were the group that blew the game open at the end of the third and into the fourth. Danuel House and Gerald Green combined for 25 points, shooing 4-of-7 from three and 64.3 percent overall, and they had nine rebounds. Houston was +22 when they were on the court together.

James Harden had 29 points (which Chris Paul continued to struggle, with 11 points on 12 shots).

While the Rockets looked better, Portland struggled. There was too much isolation, not enough ball movement, and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum took 53 percent of the team’s shots. The Trail Blazers were predictable, and that made the struggling Rockets defense look good.

I’ve seen too many good games followed by bad ones from Houston to suggest the Rockets have turned the corner, so let’s just say the good Rockets showed up for one night. We’ll see who shows up Thursday night against the Lakers.

3) Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, moves into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list. When it is all said and done, Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the best coaches in NBA history. The sustained excellence, the five rings, turning small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise to be feared on the court and modeled off it, all will be part of his legacy.

So will all the wins he’s racked up — 1,211 of them after the Spurs win over the struggling Suns Tuesday night. That moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich is just 10 wins shy of tying Jerry Sloan for third, something that will happen in the coming months. I don’t know if he’s going to coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of that leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins), but Popovich’s win total just adds to his legacy and place in history.

Was Stephen Curry just using his moon landing comments to promo his new shoe?

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The current social media marketing landscape is sort of a gross place to be. People will do anything for clicks, views, and the idea of “all PR being good PR” is taken to the extreme by many parties.

We live in a world where Kanye West, who made a couple of good albums a decade ago, says something patently crazy in advance of any new marketing campaign as a way to keep his name in the news (and in search engines) prior to the release of a shoe or a new song. It’s not very subtle.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry appears to have done much the same this week. Curry proposed that he didn’t believe that humans had landed on the moon, prompting widespread discussion of the kind of negative impact those comments can have. NASA wasn’t happy about it.

Both ESPN’s “PTI” and “The Jump” issued commentary on it that was out of the ordinary, and fans denounced Curry for setting a bad example and being “anti-science” and “anti-history”.

And now, just a couple of days later, Curry has a new shoe for you to buy from Under Armour. Imagine that!

Tuesday night Curry was at an event showing off the new shoes, and he even did a Q&A on Twitter. Perfect timing, don’t you think?

Steph, let me tell you buddy. This is not the way to sell a shoe. Well, it is one way to sell a shoe in 2018, but as the two-time NBA MVP and a three-time NBA champion, it’s definitely not the right look for a guy of your stature. This is gross, and inappropriate, and honestly damages the legacy of how people will write about you and view you in the future.

Say it was a bad joke and move on. It’s not worth it to look like you’d sell your soul just to huck some rip-off Kobe 10 All-Stars anyway.

The UA Curry 6 drops soon but I’m not telling you where.