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.

Anthony Davis’ “old-school, smash-mouth” 50 points leads Lakers past Wolves (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — It almost seemed effortless.

Anthony Davis simply got wherever he wanted on the court Sunday night. And he wanted to be in the paint, right in front of the rim. Davis shot 11-of-11 at the rim and 17-of-23 in the paint on his way to what his coach described as an “old-school, smash-mouth way of getting 50.”

Yes, 50. Davis had his best offensive game as a Laker going right through the size of Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, leading Los Angeles to a 142-125 win.

LeBron James did plenty — 32 points on 20 shots, plus 13 assists — but he battled foul trouble through the first half, and that’s when Davis put the team on his shoulders and carried them.

He carried then to the rim — Davis had 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting in the first half, and only one of those buckets from outside paint. Or, take a look at his shot chart for the game, it’s all about points in the paint.

“I was feeling very good tonight, very well rested, going against another great big man in Karl-Anthony Towns… you get up for those games, they’re a team that’s hungry,” Davis said.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each had 19 to lead a balanced Minnesota attack. The Timberwolves hung around the game because they were getting buckets against the Lakers. It gave them hope.

“I yelled at them for giving up 125, but I don’t think anyone heard me,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel joked after the game.

The Laker defense was not great, but the way they got buckets it didn’t have to be.

Gordon Hayward on his return, “Tomorrow’s a possibility”

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Boston’s depth was on display for the past month with Gordon Hayward sidelined following hand surgery — the Celtics went 9-4 with a +5.9 net rating — but the team’s offense slid back to middle-of-the-pack without his scoring and shot creation.

They are not going to be without him much longer, Hayward could return Monday night, he told reports Sunday, via Chris Forsberg at NBC Sports Boston.

“Bone has healed, probably stronger than my right hand. There’s a plate in there with screws. The bone is good,” Hayward said Sunday after going through the team’s off-day practice. Boston did not engage in any live 5-on-5 action but Hayward sounded open to returning Monday.

“Tomorrow’s a possibility,” he said. “See how I feel when I wake up, go through shootaround, see how it goes.”

As one should expect, coach Brad Stevens was more cautious but said Hayward will be back “sooner than later.”

Hayward was having a bounce-back year through his first eight games, averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. He’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics next to Kemba Walker.

Hayward fractured his hand on a fluke play against the Spurs and required surgery to repair a fracture to his fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand (the bone that connects the wrist to the ring finger), the team announced Monday evening. Hayward has made a speedy recovery from that injury.

Boston hosts Cleveland on Monday then travels to Indiana on Wednesday.

LeBron James blows by Gorgui Dieng then puts him in poster

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LeBron James battled foul trouble in the first half against Minnesota, picking up four and only playing 12 minutes because of it.

When he was on the court, however, he was dominant — 16 points on 10 shots, with a couple of deep threes.

Then LeBron did this to Gorgui Dieng.

That’s just not fair.

In the video, watch the reaction of the Laker bench — that group is having fun.

The Lakers led 73-65 at halftime of this defensive struggle game in Los Angeles. Anthony Davis had 27 on 12-of-15 shooting in the first half.

Watch Heat rookie Tyler Herro drain game-winning three in OT, Miami beats Chicago

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Miami just finds guys. And develops them. Kendrick Nunn is at the top of that list for them this season, playing like someone who will get Rookie of the Year votes so far this season. Don’t leave Duncan Robinson off that list,  he has had some big games for the Heat lately.

Sunday it was Tyler Herro‘s turn. The rookie out of Kentucky scored 16 points through the fourth quarter and overtime against Chicago. That includes draining the game-winning three off an assist from Jimmy Butler.

That bucket held up as the final score, 108-105 Miami.

It also wasn’t Herro’s only big three in OT.

Miami improves to 17-6 on the season, and a part of that is they have rookies stepping up and contributing.