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.

All Cedric Maxwell got for winning NBA Finals MVP was this janky watch (video)

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Just two NBA Finals MVPs who are eligible for the Basketball Hall of Fame haven’t been selected for induction:

  • Cedric Maxwell (1981 Celtics)
  • Chauncey Billups (2004 Pistons)

Andre Iguodala (2015 Warriors) could join them, but he at least has some Hall of Fame chatter surrounding him. Billups is absolutely a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, even if not enshrined.

Maxwell, on the other hand, wasn’t on that level. He never even made an All-Star team. He was just a good player who had an excellent six games against the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals.

Really, it’s a neat distinction to be the lone NBA Finals MVP who was never a star. Maxwell can cherish that.

And this watch, which he reveals in this entertaining video.

NBPA reaching out to players, getting feedback on return scenarios

Michele Roberts
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been in information gathering mode since the day he was forced to shut the league down. He’s gathered information from medical experts on how a return would work, talked to owners and GMs about the financial end and what they hope to see, and had conferences with the league’s broadcast partners.

Most of all, Silver wanted to know what the players thought. With the NBA closing in on a return strategy — Friday Silver and team owners will have a conference call that could lead to a decisive plan — players’ union executive director Michele Roberts is taking the return plans to the players for feedback, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It looks like the NBA will return to play in Orlando, with training camps starting in late June and games in mid-July.

The questions to be answered are:

• Do all 30 teams report to Orlando to play a handful of regular season games, getting teams over the 70 game threshold?
• Do just the top 16 teams report with the league jumping straight to the playoffs?
• If the league does go straight to the playoffs, how will that impact player pay, which is tied to the regular season?
• Will there be a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds?
Should the NBA do a 1-16 seed playoff format, or keep the traditional Eastern/Western conference format?
• Will each playoff round have seven games, or will the first round (or two) be best-of-five?

Everything option is still on the table (as officials will be quick to say). However, the buzz around the league has grown louder that just the top 16 teams will go to Florida, and there will be seven-game series for every round, as the league tries to squelch any asterisk talk.

We may know a lot more on Friday. And the players will have their say.

Michael Jordan on tape saying he wouldn’t play on Dream Team with Isiah Thomas

Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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In “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan was asked to react to Isiah Thomas’ explanation of the Pistons’ infamous walk-off. Jordan replied immediately:

I know it’s all bulls—. Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public, that’s kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole.

Maybe there was some projection in that answer.

For years, Jordan has denied any involvement in Thomas not making the Dream Team. Rod Thorn, who was on the selection committee for the 1992 Olympics, has backed Jordan’s version of events.

But Jordan once revealed a different story.

Jordan on Jack McCallum’s “The Dream Team Tapes:”

Rod Thorn called me. I said, “Rod, I won’t play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” He assured me. He said, “You know what? Chuck doesn’t want Isiah. So, Isiah is not going to be part of the team.”

Yes, the Pistons were being poor sports when they left the floor without shaking the Bulls’ hands in the 1991 playoffs. But that neither began nor ended the story.

The Bulls repeatedly disrespected the Pistons while finally overcoming Detroit. That particularly bothered the Pistons, because, on their way up, they paid deference to to the Celtics and Lakers. So, while the walk-off was – even according to Thomas – regrettable, it happened for a reason.

Jordan carrying his vendetta to the Dream Team only escalated matters. Yet, unlike the Pistons for not shaking hands, Jordan receives minimal scorn for his poor sportsmanship. Threatening not to play if a rival player is also included is the antithesis of what people want the Olympics to stand for.

And Jordan is now on published audio admitting that’s exactly what he did. You can listen to him for yourself.

As the best player and marketing giant, Jordan had the power. Thomas felt the consequences.

In 1992, Thomas was a marginal choice for the Dream Team. He wasn’t clearly better than the players who made it on current ability. He wasn’t as great as the players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird – who made it on career accomplishments. It would’ve been fine to select Thomas. It would have been fine to omit him.

But it’s a shame he never got proper consideration on merit.

It’s also a shame Dream Team coach Chuck Daly, who coached Thomas in Detroit, is no longer alive to give his account. Did Dally really tell Thorn not to put Thomas on the Olympic team? Did Thorn really tell that to Jordan? Jordan and Thorn are just so untrustworthy on this matter.

Kendrick Perkins: LeBron James-Paul Pierce rift stems from Pierce spitting at Cavaliers bench

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In 2004, Celtics forward Paul Pierce got fined for spitting at the Cavaliers bench during a preseason game.

Why did Pierce do that?

Apparently, LeBron James.

Kendrick Perkins, via ESPN:

When LeBron was coming into the league, he was getting a lot of heat from players. “Oh he’s not going to do that to us. The Chosen One. Wait til he play against grown men.”

So, Paul is talking noise to the bench, right? He’s talking big noise to the Cavs bench. And they’re sitting over there. Bron and them, they’re all sitting over there.

Paul actually spits over there at the bench, right? The ultimate disrespect, OK?

It ended up turning up. After the game, both teams were meeting in the back. Guys was ready to fight. We had to hold people back. It went up from there.

Ever since that moment, LeBron James and Paul Pierce hate each other. They don’t speak to each other.

This was entering LeBron’s second season, not his rookie year. But Pierce was still the established star, LeBron the riser trying to prove himself. As we’ve seen since, Pierce is very protective of his place in the game.

The feud deepened over the years as Pierce’s Celtics battled LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat in the playoffs. Pierce took other shots at LeBron, even indirectly. Most recently, Pierce named a top-five list that didn’t include LeBron.

But spitting? That’s low.

There’s just something about Boston players from that era.