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Star wars: LeBron James, Kevin Durant moving toward NBA Finals reunion

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OAKLAND (AP) — Kevin Durant admires LeBron James from afar, marveling at how Cleveland’s main man finds ways to elevate his game at age 32 – year after year, title after title.

Kobe Bryant was much the same.

Ten years into his NBA journey, the unassuming, scoring machine everyone calls “KD”, strives to emulate those superstars. Soon, he will likely see James again in the Finals, this time in a matchup that has been talked about from the very moment Durant departed Oklahoma City to join Golden State last July.

The anticipation of this potential matchup has overshadowed other postseason series.

Durant understands that like LeBron and Bryant, it’s time to take his game to another level. They each have something Durant wants.

“It’s a mindset, when you don’t realize how old you are or how many years you’ve played or mileage or the moment,” Durant said. “You’ve just got to try to keep getting better. You have that mindset when you step on the court that you want to be the best player on the court. It may not happen every game. You may not be the best, you might not have the best game, but just having that mindset you never get satisfied with what you do.

“That’s the mindset he (James) has taken on, that’s the mindset Kobe did. There’s a lot of other players that did it. I feel like I’m on the same path as far as – I wouldn’t say I’m going to have four MVPs or three championships, I’m not guaranteeing that but I want that. On the basketball court, I want to be consistent and great every night.”

James and Durant have squared off 23 times during their NBA careers, and James has a decisive 18-5 edge, including 4-1 in the postseason and 1-0 in battles for the championship.

Now the basketball world is watching and waiting, even hoping for a Durant-James rematch. And this one could live up to the hype.

After swatting aside their opponents in the first and second rounds, the Cavaliers and Warriors stand an unblemished 16-0 combined as they await their conference finals opponents.

The 3-Match. Another must-see, best-of-seven series featuring arguably the league’s best players in James and Durant – both playing some of the best basketball of their careers – and a marquee All-Star cast that includes two-time MVP Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Kevin Love.

It’s a showdown made in hoops heaven, but Durant is downplaying a matchup with James as anything worthy of stealing the spotlight from the others.

“If we do end up making it to the Finals and Cleveland makes it to the Finals, it’s never going to be me versus LeBron,” Durant said. “It’s going to be team versus team. It’s not an individual sport. We’re not playing 1-on-1 out there, as much as people want us to.”

They have history and a rivalry – albeit a rather one-sided one. James, then with the Miami Heat, won the first of his three NBA titles by beating Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.

The pair is linked by talent, tenacity and drive. Olympic gold medal-winning teammates, they have become close friends and workout companions. They spent two summers pushing each other during training sessions in James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio. Little did these two realize then that their stellar NBA careers would become even more intertwined when Durant bolted from OKC and faced the constant scrutiny that came with his decision.

In many ways, James actually helped show him how it’s done.

He as much as anyone understood the tornado of criticism aimed at Durant for signing onto a “super team” to chase a championship. James left home in 2010 for Miami, where he won two titles and played in four straight Finals before leading Cleveland to its first major sports championship in 52 years . Before returning to Oklahoma City – a place he still holds dear and supports – earlier this season to face fans who are still stung and feel betrayed, Durant sought James out for advice on handling the hatred.

Now they’re on a path toward Cavs-Dubs 3.0.

James has been practically unstoppable. And Durant, who missed 19 games late in the regular season with a left knee injury, has found the right balance of taking charge and sacrificing for him teammates with the Warriors.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue is impressed with how Durant seamlessly blended in on Golden State, as Curry took a backseat.

“When Steph and Klay have a bad game – which is not very often – when they do, then you can give the ball to Durant and he can go get his own basket and his own shot,” Lue said. “You saw that in this Utah series where Steph and Klay struggled one game, and they just put it to Durant in the midrange area, and he went and got it. So you have that third player who is definitely one of the top three players in this league that can go get his own shot at any time and that’s what makes them more dangerous.”

Mike Brown knows both well.

Golden State’s assistant, now filling in for Warriors coach Steve Kerr, spent five seasons with James in Cleveland. He appreciates his athleticism, but is more impressed by James’ all-consuming work ethic that has allowed him to evolve every year.

He sees those same qualities in Durant, who now understands that when the stage enlarges he has to expand that 7-foot-5 wingspan even more.

“That’s what those guys do,” Brown said. “When you have superstars like that and the competition gets tougher, they usually rise to the moment or the occasion.”

 

Report: Clippers likely would’ve ousted Doc Rivers with any result shy of title

Doc Rivers and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer
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The Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets was devastating. L.A. was a huge favorite. Blowing a 3-1 lead added to the misery. As did the Clippers’ history of futility, which was supposed to end with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

But Doc Rivers’ job appeared safe in the aftermath.

Then, the Clippers suddenly ousted him as coach yesterday.

What changed?

Jovan Buha of The Athletic:

There was no aha moment or event that led to the Clippers’ and Doc Rivers’ decision to mutually part ways on Monday afternoon, league sources told The Athletic.

Following the Clippers’ premature postseason ouster, Rivers and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer held several candid meetings and conversations, league sources said.

They discussed where things went wrong for the Clippers in the playoffs and forecasted their visions of the organization’s future, including the team’s style of play, the makeup of the roster, player development and on- and off-court leadership.

After hours of back-and-forth, the sides concluded they had differing visions of the team’s path forward

Even if the Clippers had lost deeper in the postseason, say, to the Lakers in the conference finals or to the Heat in the finals, Rivers likely would not have been back next season.

Of course, the Clippers want to present themselves as having made the rational decision. Nobody wants to be the organization that overreacted to a single situation.

The Clippers’ issues – specifically a lack of chemistrymanifested throughout the season. Rivers handled that poorly. That’d be true whether or not the Clippers had enough talent to get by the Nuggets or Lakers, anyway.

Process over results is a nice ethos.

It’s difficult to implement, though.

The collapse against Denver left such a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. However people think they would’ve reacted to a different outcome, it’s impossible to know for certain. So, I have some skepticism about whether Rivers still would’ve been ousted if he guided the Clippers to the Western Conference finals and especially NBA Finals.

That said, he didn’t. Not this year. Not any year.

So, it was easier for the Clippers to move on with a coach they viewed as flawed. They never faced the difficult decision on a coach they viewed as flawed but also had more success. We just can’t know with certainty how that would’ve gone.

Doc Rivers failed to deliver in playoffs for Clippers

Former Clippers coach Doc Rivers
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Listen to all the praise being heaped upon Doc Rivers – as both a coach and person – in the aftermath of his firing. He has earned that. It’s why he’s already in demand for openings around the league.

But it’s impossible to ignore his teams repeatedly falling short in the postseason.

The Clippers hired Rivers specifically for his ability to win deep in the playoffs. He guided the Celtics to the 2008 championship and back to the 2010 NBA Finals. For a downtrodden franchise like the Clippers, getting Rivers looked like a coup.

In Rivers’ seven seasons, the Clippers averaged winning 63% of their regular-season and seeding games. There have been 152 seven-year stretches that good in NBA history.

All of them produced at least five playoff-series victories.

Except the Clippers of this era.

Rivers’ Clippers won just three postseason series in seven years.

Rivers didn’t even emphasize the regular season. He often eschewed practice to keep his players fresh. And his teams still won so many regular-season games, which speaks to the Clippers’ star power.

Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and  DeAndre Jordan then Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – Rivers’ teams were loaded.

They also never advanced past the second round.

Of course, that requires more context.

Beating the Warriors in the 2014 first round looks even better in hindsight, considering Golden State turned into a dynasty. The 2015 Clippers-Spurs series, which L.A. won, had no business being in the first round with teams that good. The Clippers lost in the second round to the Rockets when Josh Smith and Corey Brewer – Josh Smith and Corey Brewer! – got hot on 3-pointers. The Clippers lost to the Trail Blazers in the 2016 first round after Chris Paul and Blake Griffin got hurt. Griffin got hurt again in a first-round loss to the Jazz the next year. The Clippers overachieved just to make the 2019 playoffs.

Maybe Rivers would’ve been the right coach for the Clippers in the 2021 postseason. New issues arise, and he already proved he can coach a team to a championship. The Clippers are taking a huge risk with this move.

But this year’s historic collapse against the Nuggets reflected particularly poorly on Rivers, who has now blown three 3-1 leads as a coach. The Clippers were disjointed – an issue that lingered throughout the season. His personnel and tactical decisions were suspect.

And – perhaps most importantly – there was no track record of success in L.A. to fall back on.

The Clippers’ problems weren’t all Rivers’ fault. The timing of his ouster, after his job appeared safe, raises questions.

But it might just be this simple: Rivers was hired to win in the playoffs. He didn’t.

Report: Doc Rivers was surprised to learn Clippers were ousting him

Former Clippers coach Doc Rivers
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The Clippers framed the conclusion of Doc Rivers’ coaching tenure as, “Doc Rivers Departs LA Clippers” and “Chairman Steve Ballmer and Doc Rivers have reached a mutual decision that Rivers will step down as head coach of the LA Clippers.”

What really happened?

Dan Woike and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

people with knowledge of the situation said Rivers was surprised to learn the Clippers wanted to move on.

Internally, Rivers enjoyed support even after the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. But ultimately, the sting from yet another disappointing end to a season prompted the change.

The Clippers suffered a historic upset by blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets. In a season with legitimate championship aspirations, the Clippers fell short of even the conference finals for a record 50th straight year.

Of course, the coach was going to face scrutiny for that collapse. And Rivers deserved plenty.

But once the smoke cleared, Rivers appeared safe.

What changed?

Despite the Clippers’ initial spin, it’s becoming increasingly clear Rivers got fired. Still, many questions remain about the shocking move.

LaMelo Ball not worried about where he gets drafted, “Anywhere is a great fit”

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Lavar Ball has his opinion. Always. When the patriarch of the Ball family went on the “Road Trippin'” podcast a couple of months ago, he said he didn’t want his youngest son, LaMelo Ball, drafted by the Warriors because he would have to come off the bench behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. “Michael Jordan didn’t come off the bench,” was his logic.

LaMelo Ball is about as interested in his father’s opinions as most 19-year-olds.

“I’m my own man. He’s his own man. He has his opinions, I have mine,” the younger Ball said of his father on Monday while speaking to reporters via Zoom as part of the NBA’s pre-draft process.

“I feel I could play on any team and do good anywhere I go,” Ball said. “Anything that happens, I’m positive.”

Ball is projected to be a top-five pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, scheduled for Nov. 18. Rumors have bounced around the league that if the Timberwolves keep the No. 1 pick they will select Ball to pair with D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt. The Warriors have the No. 2 pick, the Charlotte Hornets select third, followed by Chicago then Cleveland.

Ball spent a chunk of his time with reporters denying having had contact with many teams at the top of the draft, although he said he didn’t know about Minnesota. He did say he had contact with the Knicks, who pick eighth, adding they just wanted to get to know him as a person (outside the online persona). Ball will not be on the board when New York makes its pick (the Knicks could trade up to get him, all the teams at the top of the draft are listening to offers).

Ball’s consistent point was he could fit in with any team.

“Anywhere is a great fit,” Ball said. “It’s the NBA. You put me with good players, I feel like it’s even gonna be better.”

Ball said he has adapted to the unprecedented pre-draft process, in part because his path to the NBA is untraditional. He said he realized back when his father had him playing in Lithuania at 16 he was not going to have the more traditional route to the NBA that his brother Lonzo Ball had, but LaMelo embraced it. LaMelo spent last season playing in Australia before returning to the states to prepare for the draft.

“I feel like I am dealing with it well,” Ball said. “I kinda like it, that nobody has been through something like this, it’s kinda unique, like me… I’m one-of-one.”

For now, Ball is in the Detroit area working out, preparing for the draft. He said some of that Detroit toughness is rubbing off on him.

But he’s happy to bring that with him wherever he gets drafted.