Heat survive most pressure-packed season of all time

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LeBron James wandered around the American Airlines Center court in an apparent stupor – receiving congratulatory handshakes hugs and from Spurs players, surviving a bear hug from Juwan Howard and sharing a moment with Gregg Popovich.

If LeBron looked tired, it’s because he was.

LeBron said he couldn’t sleep the night before Game 7 victory, and he couldn’t fall asleep the afternoon of the game as he usually does, either.

“You’re nervous. You’re excited,” LeBron told NBA TV. “You’ve got anxiety.”

MORE: LeBron ‘stuck with it,’ named 2013 Finals MVP

But LeBron and the Heat overcame that burden, merely their latest in an exhausting three years, and now they have another championship.

The Heat’s challenges were deeper than just a sleepless night and a restless afternoon. No team has faced more pressure in NBA history, and the weight on LeBron’s shoulders was even heavier.

Of course, the Heat brought a lot of it on themselves. From “The Decision” to “Not two, not three, not four…,” LeBron drew even more scrutiny to what would have already been a controversial choice to team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

The Heat took their lumps, falling to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. And that was especially difficult to endure, considering the Heat received more media attention than any North American professional team ever has. Media outlets completely reorganized their coverage plans to devote more resources to the Heat beat.

MORE: LeBron, Wade stick together to win another title

Miami survived the gauntlet in year two, winning the title. Though that should have ended issues it didn’t – has any NBA champion, let alone a Finals MVP, received more questions about whether he can win the big one than LeBron did this year? – it brought a new level of difficulty.

“The second one is way harder than the first one,” LeBron told NBA TV. “I heard a lot, after I won my first one, they was like, ‘You know, they’re going to start getting easier and easier and easier.’ Absolutely not true. Absolutely not true. This was the hardest one by far.”

Not only were expectations higher and media attention greater, Miami leaned on a blitzing defensive system that, while effective, was physically exhausting. A 27-game regular-season win streak became mentally exhausting too, requiring the Heat to bring a tighter focus than most contenders summon in the dog days of February and March.

MORE: ‘Game 7 is always going to haunt me,’ Duncan says

The win streak also created unreasonable expectations that the Heat could cruise through the playoffs. In reality, Miami need 23 postseason games to outlast the field, a total topped just eight times before. Any thought this was going to be easy was delusional, but perhaps nobody realized how tough the Heat’s road would get near its end.

They could have succumbed after losing Game 3 of the Finals by 36 points – no team that suffered a 35-point loss in the Finals had ever won the series – but they didn’t.

They could have succumbed when they fell behind 3-2 San Antonio – they hadn’t won back-to-back games in the previous month – but they didn’t.

They could have succumbed when they entered Game 7 – San Antonio had never trailed in a Finals series, and only the 1988 Lakers had won two Game 7s as deep into the playoffs as the Heat, which also beat the Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals – but they didn’t.

After surviving their final challenge, the Heat celebrated their championship, and Doris Burke asked Wade what it took to reach this point.

“Everything,” Wade said. “It took everything we had as team.

“We’re a resilient team, and we did whatever it took.”

A few minutes later, LeBron, awoken from his stupor, stood in the locker room under a mist as steady as rain.

“I can’t see,” LeBron said squinting and grinning until someone got him a towel to wipe his eyes.

Several times this season, the Heat could drowned in the pressure, in the attention, in the physical exhaustion. But they never did, and now they’re swimming in champagne.

As expected, Kevin Durant reportedly opts out of contract with Warriors

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I can give you 6.7 million reasons this was going to happen, no matter what Kevin Durant decided to do this summer.

Durant has opted out of the $31.5 million final year of his contract with the Warriors, clearing the way to sign a $38.2 new max contract with the Warriors or someone else in July, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Durant had to do this to maximize his earnings. Since coming to the Warriors, he has always signed short deals, both to give himself options and leverage, and to keep making the new, higher maximum when the salary cap went up.

While Durant tore his Achilles that dynamic didn’t change. He still has multiple teams lined up to offer him max contracts, and whether he signs for four years with another team or five with the Warriors, or takes another shorter deal, his new starting salary will be $38.2 million.

Durant, along with Kawhi Leonard, will be one of the franchise-changing players whose decision will shape both the balance of power in the NBA and this summer’s free agency. All season long, most around the league thought he was going to be a New York Knick, but that dynamic seems to have changed. He could re-sign with the Warriors (although there appears to be some issues in his camp, and maybe with Durant, on how the Achilles injury went down after Warriors’ doctors told him all he could do was re-injure his calf). Brooklyn has emerged as a possible destination, and the Clippers were always in the conversation on some level. Durant’s camp is playing this close to the vest right now and may take multiple meetings.

Durant is going to be in the spotlight again this summer, as he was a few years back when the Warriors players and management went to the Hamptons to convince him to come West. Opting out of his contract was just the first step in making that happen.

Don Nelson says suggestion to trade Patrick Ewing for Shaq cost him Knicks job

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Don Nelson’s tenure as the Knicks’ coach was short. It lasted nine months. He took over for Pat Riley at the end of the 1994-95 season, coached the team to a 34-25 record, and was given the boot mid-season for Jeff Van Gundy.

Why? Nelson says it’s because he told owner James Dolan and the rest of management to trade Knicks’ icon Patrick Ewing for Shaquille O’Neal.

Nelson, now living happily in Hawaii, was on  HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” this week and talked about what went down.

Gumbel: “Did you really suggest trading Patrick Ewing?”

Nelson: “Yes. It cost me my job … I said, ‘You need to trade Patrick Ewing. And you need to trade him right away. There’s a guy by the name of Shaquille O’Neal that’s available, would love to come to New York. And we can jump in there and beat the Lakers out and get this guy. And we should do it.” And of course it got back to Ewing, and I was done. I was toast (laughing).”

Gumbel: “Why’d you wanna trade him?”

Nelson: “I didn’t think he had very much left in the tank. And he was one-dimensional. He was, you know, he was interested in rebounds and points. And that was it. And I thought that we could do better.”

Gumbel: “What’d Dolan think when you said that?”

Nelson: “He listened. But I got fired about a month later. So somebody didn’t like it.”

By the 1995-96 season, Ewing was 33 years old but averaged 22.5 points and 10.6 rebounds a game, and while his efficiency was starting to slip he was still an All-Star with a PER of 20.1. He would play five more seasons in New York and helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals.

Shaq, however, was a 23-year-old dominant force just coming into his prime. In the summer of 1996 he left Orlando and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent, where he and Kobe Bryant would eventually go on to rack up three rings together.

What would have happened if Nelson got his way? That’s for the writers of fan fiction, but it would have been a very different NBA. And Nelson would have stuck around in New York longer than nine months.

Cam Reddish looks to make new home with Hawks

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ATLANTA (AP) — Cam Reddish is looking forward to playing for the Atlanta Hawks after he was hampered by a groin injury during his one season with Duke.

The 19-year-old Reddish joins a promising young core with Atlanta that also includes Trae Young and John Collins after he was selected by the Hawks with the No. 10 pick in the NBA draft. Former Virginia star De'Andre Hunter also is headed to Atlanta once its draft-day trade with New Orleans becomes official next month.

“It’s truly a blessing and a dream come true,” Reddish said Monday at the Hawks’ training facility. “The city of Atlanta is so beautiful. I’m just really happy to be here.

“I think it’s a perfect fit in a way.”

Reddish was one of college basketball’s top prospects heading into last season. But his stock slipped a bit after he averaged 13.5 points on 35.6 percent shooting with the Blue Devils, filling a supporting role behind fellow freshmen stars Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett.

Reddish’s commitment level was called into question during the run-up to last week’s draft. But the 6-foot-7 swingman from Norristown, Pennsylvania, said he has a laid-back personality and was bothered by a minor groin tear during his short stay at Duke.

The injury shelved Reddish for the Blue Devils’ preseason Canada tour last summer. It also kept him out of an NCAA Tournament game.

“It was kind of nagging me the entire season,” Reddish said.

Reddish recently had surgery to address the issue. He will miss the NBA’s upcoming summer league while he recovers from the procedure.

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said he felt Reddish fit what they are trying to do after watching him for years.

“We’ve had the opportunity to see him many times playing for USA Basketball, playing on the AAU circuit and then playing at Duke last year,” Schlenk said. “So, he’s a guy that we’ve seen for several years. We’re looking for guys that are multidimensional, multi-positional.”

Coach Lloyd Pierce envisions Reddish taking pressure off Young as a ballhandler. On the other end of the court, Pierce is looking forward to incorporating Reddish’s 7-1 wingspan into a defense that last season was one of the NBA’s least efficient.

“I think defensively is where you get excited … The more playmakers and facilitators you can put on the floor, the better your team is, and we saw the amount of attention Trae will get,” Pierce said. “We saw it late in the year, and we’ll see it more next year.”

Reddish thinks the Hawks can make the playoffs after finishing with the NBA’s fifth-worst record last season at 29-53.

“I definitely feel like it’s a possibility. It all starts with our chemistry,” Reddish said. “(Young is) a phenomenal, phenomenal player. Just talking to him made me feel really good.”

 

Report: There is mutual interest between the Knicks, Julius Randle

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The Knicks priority this summer is big game hunting: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, maybe Kyrie Irving (if one of those first two come). They have the cap space (or can get to it easily) and the lures of New York and Madison Square Garden. They want to be players.

Whether they land a superstar or not — and right now “not” seems the more likely outcome, reading the tea leaves around the league — they will need to round out the roster with good players to fit next to rookie R.J. Barret and young prospects such as Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.

Enter Julius Randle.

From Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated:

Other free agents on the Knicks’ radar include their own free-agent center DeAndre Jordan, Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins and twins Markieff and Marcus Morris. New Orleans Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks also have mutual interest, according to sources.

“We are going to have the opportunity to meet with the guys we want to meet with,” [Knicks president Steve] Mills said without offering details or confirming names.

Randle, just 24, has seen his stock go up in recent years and averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season. His game is a throwback, he uses his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. He also shot 34.4 percent from three, forcing teams to respect him from the arc.

Randle could fit well with the Knicks. The question, as always, is at what price.

As for the others mentioned in the report, DeAndre Jordan may well land wherever Kevin Durant signs (they are good friends). Cousins and the Morris twins are second-tier players, meaning once the stars make their picks teams will be looking to round out rosters and those guys will start getting more and more calls. (The Warriors can only offer Cousins a little more than $6 million to return, another team will likely come in higher, but what worries teams more is the years, he very well may not get more than two.)