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Kevin Durant’s 2019 NBA Finals will leave lasting imprint

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Twelve minutes.

Kevin Durant played 12 minutes in the last month. As the NBA season crescendoed toward its culmination with his team in the thick of a title pursuit, Durant played just 12 minutes. That’s it. It’s a miniscule amount of time.

But those 12 minutes changed his reputation, the rest of his career, how players handle injury and maybe even the 2019 NBA champion.

By leaving the Thunder for an already-excellent Golden State in 2016, Durant became vilified. Fans called him a snake, coward and worse. Even the Warriors were reportedly frustrated as he remained sidelined so long with a leg injury.

Durant returning in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and suffering a devastating Achilles injury changed perception. People finally saw him for the competitor and teammate he is.

It’s a shame it required him sacrificing his body like that.

Durant might never be the same. Dominique Wilkins and Rudy Gay provide hope, but most players who rupture their Achilles experience a significant drop in production. An all-time great career is suddenly sidetracked.

As Durant can enter free agency, no less. This injury was a life-changing event that could draw him closer to the Warriors or push him away. There’s no telling how it affects his thinking.

Teams are reportedly still planning to offer him max contracts. However he plays, Durant having a high salary would significantly affect roster construction around him. His deal could sink a team for years. Or someone could land a highly coveted player who elevates his team to new heights. Even if his production slips post-injury, there’s still plenty of room for Durant to remain a star, though maybe not a superstar.

There’s a wide range of possible long-term outcomes.

Even beyond Durant, injured players could resist playing through injury. There’s an inherent conflict of interest when team-employed doctors evaluate players. This will draw new attention on the entire system.

Those high-stakes possibilities have overshadowed how brilliantly Durant played in Game 5 of the Finals – a critical outcome in Golden State’s season.

The Warriors outscored Toronto by six points with him. They got outscored by five points without him.

That was the game.

And it wasn’t as if Durant just happened to be on the court during Golden State’s good stretch. He was highly involved.

Durant scored 11 points in his 12 minutes. Nobody who started a game has a higher scoring rate in an NBA Finals since 1971, as far back as Basketball-Reference has Finals starters listed.

Here are the players with the most points per 36 minutes in a Finals since 1971 (minimum: one start):

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Of course, those other players played at least 10 times as many minutes as Durant. Durant scoring 33 points per 36 minutes might be unsustainable, especially against an elite Toronto defense.

But also consider: Durant scored even more points per minute against the Clippers in the first round. He’s capable of elite production.

Not only did Durant score efficiently himself, his presence scrambled the Raptors. They repeatedly got lost defensively reacting to the extra shooter on the floor. His teammates took advantage.

Durant’s impact on Golden State’s season-extending Game 5 win has been so understated amid all the other concerns.

Still, the Warriors trail 3-2 in the series.

Golden State will probably lose tonight. Teams that win a Game 5 on the road to force a Game 6 at home have usually lost the Game 6. Considering the Warriors also lost Durant, they’re in even deeper trouble than the average team tonight. If the Warriors win tonight, they’ll be underdogs in Game 7 in Toronto.

But Golden State has a real chance. The Warriors can absolutely win the next two games. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala provide enough talent to compete, and the group has found an inspiration. A third straight championship is possible.

It’s a credit to Durant that Golden State even has this opportunity tonight.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.