Rudy Gay

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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):

image

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.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Cam Reddish and the importance of evaluating context

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Cam Reddish.

Previous draft profiles:

Context matters in every aspect of life, and that includes when evaluating prospects for the NBA.

In this year’s draft, there is no player where context matters more than with Cam Reddish.

Heading into the season, there were people that believed that Reddish was the prospect with the highest ceiling in the Class of 2018, and it’s not all that difficult to see why. Reddish looks exactly like everything that you would want out of a big wing in the modern NBA. He’s 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. His shooting stroke is effortless and clean. He spent the majority of his high school and AAU career playing on the ball as a lead guard, and it shows when he’s allowed to operate in isolation or when running ball-screens. His mechanics, his footwork, his release, they are all polished, whether he’s catching-and-shooting or pulling up off the dribble. He’s smooth and fairly athletic, and he has a frame that looks like it can be developed in an NBA strength and conditioning program.

Watch him at his best and it’s not hard to see why names like Paul George and Jayson Tatum get invoked when talking about him:

The upside is there.

The problem is the productivity never consistently matched his potential. Reddish shot just 33 percent from beyond the arc for Duke and under 40 percent from two-point range. His PER was a dreadful 13.8. Smaller defenders were able to climb up under him and take him completely out of rhythm. For a guy that spent so long playing as a point guard, it’s concerning that his assist rate (10.7) was half his turnover rate (20.7) with Duke. His effort level was never consistent; one of the criticisms of Reddish dating back to his high school days is that he lacks focus, that he doesn’t care enough, and he certainly did not shake that reputation while playing for Duke. He seemed to lack confidence, something that wasn’t helped by the fact that teams quickly figured out that he lacked the strength and toughness to consistently handle the physicality at that level of basketball. Concerns about toughness certainly weren’t helped when he mysteriously sat out Duke’s Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia Tech.

It’s also not hard to see why he also gets compared to the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Rudy Gay.

This is where we really need to consider the context surrounding his one season at Duke.

For starters, Reddish has always been the star with the ball in his hands at every level of basketball that he has played. He was identified very early on as a future superstar, having been invited to participate in the Team USA Junior National Team minicamp in 2014, before he turned 15 years old. He’s had every team that he has played one more or less built around him since then. Even when playing for an absolutely loaded Westtown team, his coach put Reddish at the point in order to keep the ball in his hands as much as possible.

That was never going to be the case at Duke, where R.J. Barrett dominated Duke’s touches and Zion Williamson dominated the touches that didn’t go to Barrett. Reddish was asked to essentially be a floor-spacer, someone out there to punish defenses that overhelp on Duke’s Big Two. It’s something that he had never done before in his basketball career, and to his credit, he never publicly complained about it. We never so much as heard about “sources close to Reddish” being upset about what he was asked to do or being worried about his role hurting his draft stock. He accepted his role and tried to do his job.

And even that wasn’t the best situation.

Reddish was literally the only player on that roster that opponents had to worry about from the perimeter. Defensive game-plans centered around staying connected to Reddish while completely ignoring the likes of Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire and Jack White.

How much of a role did that play in Reddish’s three-point shooting struggles this year?

And how much did the lack of spacing offensively hinder Reddish’s ability to finish around the rim?

Because that is the other major concern with his game. He didn’t just struggle as a three-point shooter. He shot under 40 percent from two-point range, which is tragically low for someone with his physical tools. Was this the result of a total lack of space in the paint? Or was this a by-product of some of Reddish’s lacking physical tools? Is he functionally athletic enough to finish around the rim at the NBA level? Will he ever learn how to avoid charges? Is he strong enough to handle physicality in the paint?

And all of that leads us to the biggest question that NBA franchises are going to have to ask themselves in regards to Reddish: Is he wired to be a pro? Is he a “winner”? Does he have that killer instinct?

Was his disappointing one-and-done season a result of a player that accepted but struggled dealing with the role of being a good teammate, or is he a player who will build a career out of convincing teams that they will finally be the ones to get his on-court output to match his on-paper potential?

Because you can watch viral clips like this to see just how naturally gifted he really is:

Then go back and actually watch the film and see just how rare it was to see him do something like this during a game.

Kawhi Leonard scores 39, drills three in final minute to beat Sixers

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If you’ve ever swam in the ocean, you know it when you feel it. It’s a slow realization, as you paddle forward with no forward progress made. A thousand faint news stories flash across your mind, you try to quickly remember the best way to fight against a riptide. The only goal is to not get sucked even further into the abyss.

In large part, this has been the experience of the Toronto Raptors throughout much of their playoff history this decade. Toronto seems to be perennial losers, and not just because of former Eastern Conference foe LeBron James (although he hasn’t helped). The playoff performances of stars like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Rudy Gay, and Terrence Ross have waxed and waned from year-to-year.

But now? Now the Raptors have Kawhi Leonard.

Sunday’s Game 4 matchup between the Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers was a rough-and-tumble, drag-it-out fight between the second-round combatants. Toronto’s bench was better than it was in Game 3, and the Raptors avoided a third straight loss to even the series, 101-96.

Leonard scored 39 points to go with 14 rebounds and five assists. More important than that, Leonard gave Toronto a finish by a superstar who was not afraid of the continual pounding from Philadelphia. Jimmy Butler, who showed zero fear playing at home, could have easily been the victor of Sunday’s matchup. But Leonard was everywhere for his team.

The former San Antonio Spurs star scored or assisted on four of Toronto’s seven buckets in the fourth quarter, and added three additional points on free throws. His dominance culminated in a 3-pointer with 1:01 left in the fourth quarter with both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons draped all over him.

At the end of the shot clock, Leonard poured in a 3-pointer to give Toronto a four-point lead.

Via Twitter:

The rest of the Raptors squad was solid in a way that Leonard needed to backup his performance. Marc Gasol and Lowry combined to shoot 13-of-26, scoring a cumulative 30 points with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Danny Green added 11 points, going 8-8 from the free-throw line.

Philadelphia was led by Butler, who scored 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and four assists. The entirety of the Sixers starting unit scored in double-figures, but no player on the bench matched that feat. Embiid scored 11 points — seven of which came from the charity stripe — and despite his near triple-double of eight rebounds and seven assists, the Cameroonian big man shot just 28.5 percent from the field. After the game, Embiid said he was battling an illness.

This series has been more interesting than many expected, but Leonard may just be the ultimate determining factor or Toronto. In years past, it wasn’t just Raptors fans who felt as though in a situation like Sunday, Toronto would fold. But Leonard changes the dynamic not just of the talent on this team, but its fortitude as well.

Kawhi Leonard has those big old claws, and allows him to pull even further against the current. Plus, his playoff experience tells him he knows he just needs to swim parallel to shore in order to get out of this current the Raptors are in. By evening the series on Thursday, 2-2, Leonard did just that.

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets hold off Spurs 90-86 to win Game 7, advance to next round

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had another triple-double, Jamal Murray hit a clutch floater with 36.8 seconds remaining and the Denver Nuggets held off the San Antonio Spurs 90-86 in Game 7 on Saturday night to advance in the postseason for the first time in a decade.

In a matchup between a Denver team with the youngest playoff roster in the West and the savvy Spurs, the second-seeded Nuggets built a 17-point lead in the third quarter only to see it whittled down to two with 52 seconds remaining.

Jokic finished with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, with no pass bigger than the one to set up Murray’s floater. DeMar DeRozan had a chance to slice into the deficit but was blocked by Torrey Craig.

Then, the Spurs couldn’t hear coach Gregg Popovich screaming for a foul over the noise and the Nuggets were able to essentially run out the clock.

“It took everybody,” Murray said. “Most of all it took the fans. … It’s a great feeling, an amazing feeling. We’re having a lot of fun. We’re one group. We’re united.”

Since making the Western Conference finals in 2009, the Nuggets have bowed out in the first round on four occasions. This was their first playoff appearance in six seasons.

Denver will host third-seeded Portland in a series that begins Monday.

Murray added 23 points for the Nuggets, who captured a Game 7 for the first time since May 3, 1978, when David Thompson had 37 in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Nuggets never trailed Saturday and it was far from easy.

“Anxiety is a good word,” coach Michael Malone joked.

Rudy Gay had 21 points for San Antonio, while DeRozan and Bryn Forbes each added 19. The Spurs fell to 3-4 in Games 7s under Gregg Popovich.

Jokic turned in another monster game. Jokic showed off his arsenal of shots, even throwing in a sky hook. He played a little more than 43 minutes – just slightly down from the 48 minutes Malone pledged to play him in pregame.

Jokic also had a triple-double in Game 1.

“He’s magnificent, magnificent,” Popovich said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Denver went an NBA-best 34-7 at home in the regular season and rode the energy of the crowd.

It was a forgettable first half for the Spurs, who trailed 47-34 after shooting 22.2% from the floor.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Veteran Spurs shoot way to Game 7

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Pressure? What pressure? Veteran Spurs step up, shoot San Antonio into Game 7 vs. Denver. It’s why San Antonio was a trendy upset pick in the first round against Denver: Experience. Guys they could trust in the clutch who would step up and make plays, and a coach in Gregg Popovich who would put them in positions to do just that.

Backs against the wall in Game 6, the Spurs experience mattered.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, changing his strategy to attack more by facing up on Nikola Jokic. DeMar DeRozan added 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting. Rudy Gay came off the bench for 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. The veterans took advantage of a soft Nuggets defense and just destroyed them from the midrange — look at this shot chart.

The end result was a 120-103 San Antonio win on their home court. It forces Game 7 Saturday in Denver.

The other key to this win was the San Antonio defense, and the strategy behind it. Jokic and Jamal Murray had success with a two-man game (a lot of pick-and-rolls) and the Spurs lived with that, not helping off shooters to defend the actions. The result was Jokic had a career-high (and Nuggets franchise playoff high) 43 points, doing that in 30 shots. He was a beast on the night.

However, Jokic and Murray combined to take 51 percent of Denver’s shots, up from 34.6 percent and 40.5 percent in the previous two wins — the ball movement and transition buckets that characterize the Nuggets offense were missing. Denver was taken out of its flow.

In Game 7, can that Spurs defense again take the Nuggets out of rhythm, or will the Nuggets role players feel more comfortable and shoot better than 25 percent (6-of-24) from three? It’s one game, anything can happen, and usually one unexpected player ends up being the star.

It’s good we have at least one game seven in the first round.

2) RIP John Havlicek, a basketball legend and true Celtic. John Havlicek left a heck of a legacy on the court — eight NBA titles (8-0 in the Finals), 11-time All-NBA, eight-time All-Defensive team, 13-time All-Star, Hall of Famer, probably the greatest sixth man the game has ever seen.

What matters more is his legacy off the court, where former teammates and everyone who interacted with the man praised him.

Hondo passed away Thursday at the age of 79. The love that poured in for him was genuine, and the thoughts about his game secondary.

“John Havlicek was a wonderful friend who represented the best of the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He described himself as a man of routine and discipline – a humble approach that produced extraordinary results, including eight NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, 13 All-Star selections and some of the most iconic moments in league history. A trusted teammate who prioritized winning, John’s passion and energy endeared him to basketball fans and made him a model for generations of NBA players. We send our deepest sympathies to John’s wife, Beth, his son, Chris, and his daughter, Jill, as well as the entire Celtics organization.”

3) Houston will be in Bay Area before Warriors/Clippers Game 6 ends. There is another Game 6 on Friday night, the feisty Los Angeles Clippers — and their pick-and-roll combination of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — will try to force a Game 7 against the championship favorites, the Golden State Warriors.

The Houston Rockets aren’t buying the Clippers’ chances.

Friday the Rockets are flying up to the Bay Area to get comfortable and rested before the series with the Warriors — before Game 6 is even. Tim MacMahon of ESPN first reported this.

It’s more about the league’s scheduling than the Clippers. If the Warriors win Friday (Golden State is a 10-point favorite), then the Rockets/Warriors series starts on Sunday. Steve Kerr can thank the Television Gods that run NBA playoff scheduling that gives his team just one day off to prepare for the Rockets.

The Rockets, wisely, want to be ready for the most likely outcome, which means a game on Sunday.

The Warriors admitted they were complacent in Game 5 at home, expecting to win and defending like they thought a win was their birthright. One would think blowing a 31-point lead at home earlier in the series would have taught the Warriors a lesson about underestimating the Clippers — this team is hard not to like, with its energy, passion, and Williams getting buckets — but the Warriors racked up a lot of bad habits during the regular season and they have not been that easy to shake through five games.

The Clippers have been surprising teams and spoiling plans all season long. They may do it to the Rockets, but Houston wants to be prepared for what we all know is coming — the defacto Western Conference Finals. Which probably start Sunday.