Kevin Durant, hounded by criticism for joining Warriors, imposing his will on NBA Finals

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CLEVELAND – Kevin Durant never wanted the backlash, the implication he cheated the chase. He holed up in the Hamptons for days after picking the Warriors. He insisted he never would have signed with them if they won the title last year.

But when a former MVP still in his prime joins a 73-win team, whether or not it won in the Finals, the handwringing is unavoidable: Durant schemed, rather than earned, his way to a championship.

The Warriors were favored to win the 2017 title before signing Durant. Sure, there were rumors about him joining Golden State, and that was baked into the odds. But few thought he’d actually sign with the Warriors. They were favored on the core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

The perception was Durant would just ride their coattails after nine seasons of falling short in Oklahoma City, where he already built a reputation for deferring too much to Russell Westbrook. And that was only one star teammate. Durant would seemingly fade into the background playing with the back-to-back reigning MVP and two additional stars.

Reality is to the contrary.

Durant is overwhelming these Finals with an undeniable magnificence. The Warriors are one win from a championship because they rode Durant to a 3-0 lead over the Cavaliers.

He attacked the rim relentlessly in Game 1, turned up his defense while maintaining his offensive firepower in Game 2 and stepped on the Cavs’ hearts in Game 3. He has stared down Rihanna, played center and sparked a debate of whether he’s the best player in the world.

“This is his moment. This is his time,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said of Durant, who’s averaging 34.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals per game in the Finals. “He’s earned it. He’s been in this league for a long time, and he’s, I think, at the top of his game at the biggest time.”

Durant entered these Finals in a unique place – the only player on either team with Finals experience but who didn’t participate in the first two series of the Warriors-Cavaliers trilogy. His Thunder lost in the 2012 Finals in five games to the LeBron James-led Heat, but Durant acquitted himself well, averaging 30.6 points per game on 54.8%/39.4%/83.9% field-goal/3-point/free-throw shooting.

Joining Golden State got him back to this stage, but he could have taken a backseat once he got here. Not only do the Warriors have three other stars, they have former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.

But Durant is on pace to become the first newcomer to join an incumbent playoff team and lead it in shots during the Finals since Latrell Sprewell with the 1999 Knicks. (Patrick Ewing, who led New York in shots during the regular season, suffered a season-ending injury in the conference finals. But Sprewell was already leading the team in playoff shots at that point.)

“I feel like every team I’m on, in order for us to go to the next level, I have to assert myself,” Durant said. “Since I was playing for the P.G. Jaguars when I was 10 years old, I felt like if I didn’t assert myself, we weren’t as good as we should be.”

Durant has asserted himself in a way that allows Curry to thrive, too. The fear from the rest of the league when Durant signed is coming to fruition: The Warriors are more talented and cohesive than everyone else.

But Durant and his teammates aren’t totally on the same page. Other players have spoken about how they were refocused by blowing a 3-1 lead to Cleveland last year, an experience Durant didn’t share.

That Finals loss hastened their pursuit of Durant, who could be seen as a hired gun – especially when Golden State talks about avenging last year. Yet, he can relate.

“I know what losing is like, and I know how you can lose a game or give a series away or give a momentum swing,” said Durant, whose Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to these very Warriors in last year’s conference finals. “I know all about it.”

These are the absurdities that drive people mad about Golden State – overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Oklahoma City then blowing a 3-1 lead against Cleveland was apparently the exact right combination to lure Durant. If Curry’s ankles weren’t damaged goods when he signed his contract extension or the players union accepted cap smoothing, this wouldn’t have been possible.

But the perfect storm happened, and Durant took the shortcut to a championship.

He can talk all he wants about just wanting to be around good people and in a good basketball environment, and those were surely factors. But he also took the path of least resistance to a title.

Yet, he’s not coasting to the finish one bit.

Beyond all the noise – free-agency rumors, a feud with Westbrook, hot-take debates on legacy – Durant is a hell of a basketball player. He’s doing everything he can in the Finals to turn the focus back to that.

Cavaliers were clutch all season, then again in it’s biggest moment

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team this season, just a couple of games above .500. Yet they finished the season 50-32, seven games better than their differential suggested — the highest variance in the NBA.

Why? Because LeBron James and the Cavaliers were clutch. In games that were within five points in the final five minutes this season, Cleveland was 30-15 with a +18.2 points per 100 net rating (second best in the NBA, behind Houston).

That has carried over to the playoffs, where the Cavaliers came into Game 7 Sunday night 6-1 in clutch games with an insane +36.2 per 100.

Game 7 was another clutch one — it was 76-72 Cleveland with five minutes to go — and once again the Cavaliers won, advancing to the NBA Finals. This is the fourth straight year for this team, and the eighth year in a row for LeBron to make it to the NBA’s biggest stage.

In the final five minutes of Game 7, LeBron had six points, while the Boston Celtics team had 7. When we say the Cavaliers are clutch, it all starts with LeBron (as do all things Cavaliers at this point).

“He craves those moments. He loves those moments,” Kyle Korver said after LeBron was clutch in the Cavaliers’ Game 6 win that set up Sunday’s showdown, but what he said applies now, too. “When the game’s on the line, when the season’s on the line, he’s been rising up. That’s what the great players do.”

LeBron accepts that challenge, and through the postseason he has had an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, with a ridiculous 44.3 percent usage rate. Bottom line, he has had to carry the Cavaliers in the clutch, and he has done so efficiently.

“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m going to give what I’ve got,” LeBron said. “My teammates, they respect that.”

It’s going to take more than clutch LeBron and friends to win in the Finals — both of the teams in the West are much tougher than anything the Cavaliers have seen so far. However, we know that LeBron is going to give everything he has left.

And if the game is close late, don’t bet against the Cavaliers.

 

 

 

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.