Destined or not, Kevin Durant needed to earn hard-fought Game 5 Warriors win, NBA title

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OAKLAND — It may have felt destined, like Golden State’s birthright since last July, but it was never going to be easy. Not from getting blown out the opening night of the season through battling a brilliant LeBron James performance in the Finals. The Warriors had to earn this ring with some grit.

In the end, Game 5 followed was the script the Warriors wanted before this series started. A couple big runs, monster nights from their two top-five players Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, strong defense, a small-ball lineup nobody could stop, and some big threes when they needed it.

Game 5 also followed the script the Cavaliers feared. LeBron James would be brilliant, but the defense that was questionable all season would make key mistakes giving up easy buckets, and even a hot night from J.R. Smith would not be enough save them.

Golden State grabbed the Game 5 lead with a 28-7 second quarter run, and despite pressure from the Cavaliers never gave it up, going on to win 129-120.

Golden State is your NBA champion, beating Cleveland 4-1. This is the Warriors second title in three years.

Kevin Durant had 39 points on 20 shots, plus had seven rebounds. His five-straight 30+ point games earned him the MVP award. He came West and the Warriors may well not have won this ring without him.

“Yeah, I hear all the narratives throughout the season that I was joining, I was hopping on bandwagons, I was letting everybody else do the work,” Durant said. “But then that was far from the truth. I came in and tried to help my team. Like I said, tried to be myself, be aggressive and sacrifice as well.”

Curry had 34 points on 20 shots, and Andre Iguodala had 20 points off the bench.

LeBron had a game-high 41 points, plus 13 rebounds and eight assists He averaged a triple-double for the series and carried the Cavaliers for long stretches. Kyrie Irving added 26 points on 9-of-22 shooting, and J.R. Smith had 25 points and shot 7-of-8 from three.

Golden State came out with more energy winning the hustle battles early — Zaza Pachulia grabbed one offensive rebound (which became a Klay Thompson three), but the key factors in the first went Cleveland’s way. The Warriors went more than six minutes in the first with Draymond Green at center — their best lineups — and were just +2. LeBron James went to the bench for the final 1:20 of the quarter, and the Cavs were +3 — the Warriors need to dominate those stretches. It was 37-33 Cavs after one, LeBron and Irving each scored a dozen. Curry had 12 for the Warriors, but they were 2-of-7 from three.

Midway through the second quarter, those dynamics changed — the Warriors went on what ultimately was a 28-7 run that had them up double digits and in control of the game. The run started with defense (the Cavaliers didn’t score on eight straight possessions) which in turn led to transition buckets — but it helpe the Warriors hit 14-of-15 shots. Plus, the Warriors went 4-of-4 from three in the second.

“Turnovers. Turnovers. Bad shot selection,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said of that run. “Something we talked about all series. You can’t turn the basketball over, you can’t take bad shots because you don’t have floor balance. And they’re so fast, they get out in transition. It’s tough to get back and get matched, especially with their speed.”

“We tried to contain it and keep it a half-court game, but they continued to push the pace,” Kevin Love said. “They play really well when they do that. There were times where we were fanning out trying to get to that three-point line [on defense], and then they would back-cut us and get a layup. So we were just trying to protect everyone’s back and got caught up in a few situations that weren’t good for us.”

The Warriors were able to stay small in part due to quality minutes from David West, and he showed a little of the fight the Warriors had in this game, getting into it with Tristan Thompson (J.R. Smith jumped in for fun, and all three got technicals.

It was 71-60 Warriors at the half, and they had led by as many as 17 late in the second.

However, the Cavs did not roll over, they had great shotmaking to come out in the third, attacked the mismatches they wanted and were more disciplined, cutting the lead to four at one point. It wasn’t Cleveland’s defense that was the answer, it was all about buckets — they scored on 13 of 16 possessions at one point in the third. Getting stops was the hard part.

“They started to go with the 1-3 pick and roll with Steph Curry and Durant, which might be one of the most unstoppable pick-and-rolls in our league,” Lue said. And they waited until late to do it. But that’s a tough play to stop.”

Cleveland could never fully close the gap, the lead fluctuated between four and nine, with it being at five heading into the fourth. The Warriors got big three from Iguodala, they got some cuts for Durant dunks because defenders can’t help off Klay Thompson, and when they needed stops they got enough.

And they will get a ring for it.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.