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.

Clippers stun Warriors by forcing rare Game 6

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The Warriors feel inevitable.

So, when the Clippers let a 15-point second-half lead dwindle away in the final minutes, the game and series appeared over.

Instead, Lou Williams responded with a personal 8-0 – including a four-point play – run that sparked L.A. to a 129-121 Game 5 win Wednesday. The last two teams to lose a home Game 5 while leading a series 3-1:

  • 2019 Warriors vs. Clippers
  • 2016 Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Golden State will try to avoid any more comparisons to those 2016 NBA Finals in Game 6 Friday. The Warriors have won both their games in L.A. in this series, but have dropped two in Oakland – more home losses than they had the previous two postseasons combined.

The Rockets took care of business earlier in the night, but Golden State didn’t clinch its place in the anticipated rematch. The Clippers just aren’t making it easy.

“It’s a little mix of arrogance and just hard work,” said Williams, who scored 33 points and dished 10 assists. “We have a lot of young guys. We have a lot of veterans, guys that want to prove their names. We were wrote off early on in the year, people saying we weren’t a good team. We take all of those things. We digest it, and we try to make as much as we can out of it. So, it’s shown in this series.”

These Clippers have such an awesome identity.

They easily could have cherished their 31-point comeback in Game 2 as their moment of the series. But they kept fighting.

Patrick Beverley (17 points, 14 rebounds and four assists) was everywhere. Montrezl Harrell (24 points on 11-of-14 shooting with a clutch block) controlled the paint. Danilo Gallinari (26 points) got rolling after a couple off games.

L.A. has already won more games (two) than anyone except Houston (which won three in last year’s Western conference finals) in a series against the Warriors since they added Kevin Durant.

Durant scored 45 tonight, but Golden State turned up its defensive intensity too late.

“Build from this game? This game sucked. We lost,” Klay Thompson said. “Let’s go win Friday. Let’s win big. Let’s freaking win by 30 like we’re capable of.”

Rockets set up rematch with Warriors

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Bring on the Warriors.

The Rockets did their part to set up a highly anticipated rematch by dispatching the Jazz 100-93 in Game 5 Wednesday. With a 4-1 series victory over Utah, Houston enters the second round to face the winner of Warriors-Clippers. Golden State leads 3-1 entering its own Game 5 tonight.

Houston pushed these Warriors harder than anyone has, falling just short in last year’s seven-game Western Conference finals. James Harden said he thinks about losing Games 6 and 7 every day.

Will the Rockets supplant Golden State this year?

Harden is better. Chris Paul is healthy. The Warriors – their veterans a year older, Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency causing more drama – look somewhat vulnerable.

But Golden State is still favored in the second-round series before even winning its first-round series. The Warriors have historic top-end talent, and that usually wins out in the playoffs.

It did for the Rockets against the Jazz.

Harden (26 points, six rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals) and Paul (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals) weren’t great tonight. But they gave Houston enough considering Utah’s best player was Royce O'Neale (18 points on 8-of-13 shooting).

Donovan Mitchell (12 points on 4-of-22 shooting, including 0-for-9 on 3-pointers, with only one assist and five turnovers) had an awful game I doubt he’ll forget. His competitiveness and self-awareness are so impressive. I bet this only fuels him.

The Rockets are ready now.

They’ve won 24 of their last 29 games, going back to the regular season. They like to play a high-scoring style, but they’re versatile enough to adjust. P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela keyed a strong defensive performance tonight.

Houston probably won’t beat Golden State. But the Rockets have the opportunity they’ve desired for the last 332 days.

PBT Podcast: Looking ahead at the NBA playoffs second round

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Boston vs. Milwaukee. Philadelphia vs. Toronto. Houston vs. Golden State.

The first round of the NBA playoffs had plenty of emotion — just ask Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook — but it was short, with very possibly only one series going at least six games.

The second round? That’s not going to be so quick, and it is filled with even matchups that present a lot of questions.

Is this the Rockets’ year? They have the formula, can they execute it? The Bucks were the best team in the regular season, but can they carry that elite level into the second round against Boston? Is Toronto the team to beat?

Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports/Real GM/Celticsblog to look ahead at the second round, and even talk a little about what is next for Oklahoma City.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Sebastian Telfair convicted on gun charge, faces up to 15 years in prison

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Sebastian Telfair – a high school phenom from Coney Island, N.Y. – was the No. 13 pick in the 2004 NBA draft. He never lived up to the hype, but he still stuck in the NBA for 10 seasons, with the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Suns, Celtics, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors and Cavaliers.

He got arrested in 2017 for gun crimes and just his lost his trial.

TMZ:

Sebastian Telfair has been convicted of possessing a firearm … and could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Don’t assume Telfair will get the maximum sentence, but this is a serious conviction and will likely carry a serious sentence.