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Durant’s Game 1 ejection latest evidence of recent heel turn

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OAKLAND, Calif. — He stood over the fallen foe and sneered at him, daring him to get up, all that testosterone and chest sticking out to invite a conflict and send a buzz through the crowd.

But this wasn’t Ali looking down at Sonny Liston and providing a photo op that became legendary. This was Kevin Durant giving the business to Patrick Beverley in the final minutes of a playoff game. For a mouthy Clippers guard and physical defender who lives to irritate, this was nothing unusual for Beverley to be in such a situation.

As for Durant, this is becoming familiar for the Warriors All-Star, and no one is sure whether that’s a good thing.

Durant has never been known for being quick-tempered and easily aggravated throughout much of his career, until recently. As solid as this year has gone for Durant, still established as among the game’s top five players and on track for another championship, it’s been a perplexing one because of his demeanor.

Durant has clashed with referees, had an in-game dust-up with teammate Draymond Green, racked up technical fouls at an unprecedented pace (for him), cursed the media multiple times  for having the audacity to wonder where he’ll play next season and just conducted a game-long trash-talking session with Beverley in which Steve Kerr admitted Durant “took the bait.”

And so this is a reasonable question: What’s eating Kevin Durant?

 

Kevin Durant and Patrick Veverley are ejected from Game 1.

Asked this Sunday on the eve of Game 2, Kerr, a perceptive coach who has an answer or theory for almost everything, took a pass.

Is Durant feeling angst regarding his free agency this summer? If anything, that should be embraced; Durant will be in high demand and will command a maximum contract that will pay upwards of $200 million. He can stay with the Warriors and flanked by All-Stars and play in a new arena in San Francisco, or move to a place — New York, perhaps — he can call his own. Where’s the annoyance in that?

On the surface, Durant seemingly has a charmed life, someone who has it all: Unfathomable riches, good health, maybe a third championship soon, adoring fans, the perks that come with being famous, high respect in the basketball world for his skills and a case for being among the greatest players of all time.

But there’s obviously something we don’t see or understand that’s causing Durant to become moody.

He wasn’t always this way. This was a transformation to a degree. Durant is worshipped at the University of Texas even though he only stayed one season on campus; folks there speak glowingly of his character and especially his generosity by returning and funding athletic programs.

In Seattle, his first NBA stop, Durant was an affable young player who showed maturity beyond his years, a trait that followed him to Oklahoma City after the franchise relocated. When a deadly and destructive tornado caused lives to unravel in central Oklahoma several years ago, Durant was a soothing presence who came with his time and money to help the recovery efforts.

And he teared up at his MVP ceremony in 2014, thanking his mother and also saluting teammate Russell Westbrook, a relationship that became fractured and combative after Durant defected to Golden State.

The first time his personality shift took place publicly came during his exit strategy from OKC to the Warriors during free agency. He was caught off guard by the not-so-favorable reaction, heightened by the presence of social media. Durant’s response was to return fire rather than ignore the noise and clumsily created a burner account to go on the attack.

It was astonishing to see: A celebrated and accomplished athlete with global fame trading shots with Bob from Wisconsin.

 

The Warriors face little Clippers resistance in a resounding Game 1 victory.

This only fed the perception of Durant being hypersensitive and thin-skinned, caring too much about what others think of him.

He took his battles to the media, throwing all reporters (even those who don’t handicap his upcoming free-agent choices) on the firing line, often peppering his scolding with expletives. Other times, Durant became curt and short with his answers during interview sessions, whereas before, he was expansive and thoughtful and engaging and unfailingly friendly.

All that matters is what happens between the lines on the court, and yet: Durant had 15 technical fouls this season, one shy of tying Green for league-high and only because one was rescinded by the league office.

His barking at Beverley wasn’t a crime in and of itself; for the most part, Durant had a smile on his face, has known Beverley for years, and the chatter between them Saturday didn’t appear to cross the line or lead to a physical confrontation. (Beverley never gets into fights, anyway.)

But by getting two technicals with his ejection, Durant can only get four more throughout the playoffs before each subsequent technical results in a one-game suspension. Beverley will likely not have a long postseason; Durant certainly will. Therefore, advantage, Beverley.

Will this prove costly for Durant and the Warriors in, say, late May or June, if and when they’re chasing champagne?

“I’m in control,” Durant said, dismissing that chance.

 

Kevin Durant throws down the monster slam in Game 1.

But at this point, given his pattern of late, nothing is for certain. Kerr discussed the importance of keeping cool in the presence of Beverley and anyone else, for that matter.

“That’s two technicals,” Kerr said. “You get seven technicals, your seventh one is a suspension in the playoffs, whether you play four playoff games or 24, seven is the magic number. So, he’s got four to play with after one game. And that’s what Beverley does.

“We talked about it the last couple days. He’s a hell of a defender who plays hard. We have a lot of respect for him. But you cannot take the bait because that’s a bad trade for us. You just can’t do it. The Clippers have made a lot of good trades this year, and that was maybe their best.”

Yes, because although the victory was already in hand for the Warriors, a seed was planted by Beverley.

Neither Kerr or Durant believe Beverley will get under the skin of the two-time Finals MVP again. The bigger picture lies with the games beyond the first round, assuming the Warriors move forward.

The Durant we see before us today is edgier, saltier, more willing to express himself in ways that aren’t always productive. Durant has gone hardcore, and it certainly makes him more interesting, though to what end?

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 



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About Last Night: Harden’s historic night can’t derail Rockets

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So, in the annals of demoralizing playoff defeats, where does this one rank? 

* You somehow manage to induce your opponent’s best player, the league’s reigning Kia MVP and a newly minted scoring champion — with the league’s highest average in 32 seasons — to brick his first 15 shots, setting a playoff record for futility.

* That same player draws his fourth foul with 20:28 remaining in the game, while his only other teammate who can consistently create for himself and others earns his fifth with 13:26 left. 

* Oh yeah, you’re playing at home, in front of one of the league’s most rabid crowds.

And yet, somehow, with advantages you’d happily pay several months of gameday revenue for as you attempt to dig out of a 2-0 deficit, you … lose?!?!?

Such is the extent of the wounds the Jazz will have to lick before Tuesday’s Game 4 as they dissect how in the world the Rockets were able to escape with a 104-101 victory that, if NBA history is any guide, all but ensures their advancement to the second round at 3-0. 

As great players are wont to do, Harden still had a big impact, finishing with 22 points despite shooting a miserable 3-for-20 from the field. (Not only did he set the aforementioned record for most consecutive misses at any point in a playoff game, his 15.0 shooting percentage was the third-worst of his career when taking at least 15 shots.) 

Harden insisted after the game he had no idea he was shooting that poorly, and his fourth-quarter production backs that up. Attacking the Jazz at every opportunity, he accounted for 22 of Houston’s 30 points in the period, scoring 14 and assisting on eight more, as the Rockets held on against virtually all odds.

His first bucket? A dunk with less than eight minutes remaining:

He followed with a pair of 3-pointers, including a back-breaker at 1:11 after Jazz star Donovan Mitchell cut Utah’s deficit to one with a 3 of his own. 

“That’s James Harden,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “He’s that good at the end. You give yourself a very small margin (if the game is close).”

Combined with great defense, good ball security, ample support (led by 18 points from the foul-plagued Chris Paul, five other Rockets scored in double-figures) and a nightmarish shooting night for Mitchell (18 missed field goals, one more than Harden), it was juuuuuuuuuust enough for the Rockets to escape.  

“Just keep shooting,” Harden said of his mentality. “My job is to go out there and produce and be in attack mode. Nothing changes (at 0-15).”

Said Paul, “At the end of the day, it’s win the game. It doesn’t matter what he shot. We won the game.”

 

Gut check in the Alamo City

Just like championship runs have become a rite of early summer in San Antonio, so have early exits in Denver. When the Nuggets even make the playoffs at all, which they did this season for the first time since 2013.

That was the last of 10 straight postseason appearances for the Nuggets. All but one resulted in first-round exits, with two of those coming after they squandered home-court advantage in the first two games.

So it came with a strong sense of déjà vu, perhaps even inevitability, that the Nuggets promptly stumbled out of the gates once more with a 101-96 loss to the Spurs in the opening game of their first-round series. That put them in the unenviable position of needing to win their first game of any kind in San Antonio since 2012 – a stretch of 13 straight losses – and their first in the playoffs since 2007, when the team was anchored by Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.

Attempt No. 1 failed with a 10-point loss in Game 3 that wasn’t that close. But with a 3-1 deficit staring them in the face, the Nuggets found some nerve, shaking off both their woeful history and a sluggish start to outscore the Spurs by 26 over the final three quarters for a commanding 117-103 victory in Game 4.

Even with home-court advantage restored, they still have plenty of work to do if they hope to advance. But the maturity and composure displayed by Nikola Jokic and company on Saturday indicate these Nuggets, unlike so many of their predecessors, could actually be up for that challenge.

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76ers’ crown jewel shines in Game 4

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BROOKLYN  There were 256 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team this season. For only one of the 256 could you say the following: His team was at least five points per 100 possessions better offensively and at least five points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor than they were with him off the floor.

That player was Joel Embiid.

The additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris this season have given the Sixers a ridiculously talented starting lineup. And with Embiid missing Game 3 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the rest of that lineup took care of business.

But Embiid remains the Sixers’ “crown jewel,” as head coach Brett Brown has called him. He’s a matchup problem for every team in the league and the difference maker for the Sixers on both ends of the floor.

In Game 4 on Saturday, the Nets just couldn’t match up, Embiid was the difference, and the Sixers came away with a 112-108 victory to take a 3-1 series lead.

Embiid’s line: 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and two steals in less than 32 minutes. He was the fulcrum on both ends of the floor.

 

The 76ers lead 3-1 after their road comeback over the Nets in Game 4.

The Nets were one of five teams that took more than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range this season. But they also led the league with 30.9 points per game scored on drives. The Nets’ biggest offensive weapons in this series have been Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, guards who can attack the rim by exploiting the Sixers’ lack of quickness on the perimeter.

Brooklyn was successful at the rim against Embiid on a few occasions, with both LeVert and Dinwiddie scoring over him. He also had a close-up look at a Jarrett Allen dunk when LeVert drove at him and dished off. But while the Philadelphia defense did bend at times, it never broke when Embiid was on the floor. And when Jared Dudley was ejected for shoving Embiid early in the third quarter, Brooklyn lost the only player who could possibly play center and make Embiid pay for hanging near the rim.

“I know these guys are going to go at me, because they want me to retaliate,” Embiid said about the skirmish that started when he hit Allen with what was deemed a flagrant foul. “So I got to be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and don’t react. I could have reacted, but I felt like my team needed me more than they did Jared Dudley. I just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”

On defense, his job was to help the Sixers get stops. And with Embiid on the floor, Brooklyn scored just 62 points on 71 possessions. With him off the floor, the Nets scored 46 points on just 33 possessions.

On the other end, Brooklyn just couldn’t deal with Embiid in the paint. When they tried to front him in the post, the Sixers flashed a man to the foul line and got the ball to Embiid with high-low action. When he was doubled in the post, he found the open man, often Ben Simmons cutting to the rim after the Nets sent help off him.

When Embiid caught the ball on the perimeter, he didn’t settle, instead backing down into the post where he could score more easily or draw an extra defender (or two). In this series, Embiid has shot 22-for-35 (63 percent) in the paint and 3-for-14 (21 percent) outside it. 

“I’m just trying to live in the paint,” he said. “They’re going to have to double-team me. I figured that. They’re going to have to send two or three guys. If they’re going to guard me in single coverage, I’m going to dominate. And then I’m also going to make the right pass. That’s my job. We found it.”

 

Joel Embiid goes off for 31 points in Game 4.

With the Sixers down one with 25 seconds left in the game, the Sixers looked to Embiid, with Allen fronting him in the post. Joe Harris crashed from the weak side and knocked the ball out of Embiid’s hands, but Embiid beat Traveon Graham to the ball and, with one hand, got the ball to an open Mike Scott (Harris’ man) in the corner for what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds left.

The goal in NBA offense is to find an advantage and use it to exploit the defense and get an open shot. Embiid is that advantage for the Sixers whenever he walks on the floor. And with him on the floor on Saturday, the Sixers scored 80 points on 69 possessions. With him off the floor, they scored just 32 points on 35 possessions.

“He was dominant,” Brown said. “There were times you can see that it’s still raw, and there are some decisions that he probably would like to have over again. But given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn’t had, it’s just a dominant performance. What more can you say?”

Embiid remains the most important piece to the Sixers’ puzzle. Really, when it comes to competing with the best teams in the league, he is the puzzle.

The question is just how much they’re going to have him going forward. For every game in this series, Brown hasn’t known until shortly before tip-off whether or not he’s going to have his most important player. Embiid was clearly hobbled in Game 1, better in Game 2, absent in Game 3, and dominant in Game 4.

Maybe things are trending in the right direction. And maybe Embiid’s status will remain a question from here on out.

The Sixers’ ability to compete for an Eastern Conference championship hangs in the balance.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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From retread to ‘godsend’, Bogut finds new life with Warriors

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Once his body healed, he chose to return to the game to success with the Sydney Kings. He was league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 11.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 blocks in 30 games. Besides basketball, Bogut began raising a family and the balance was beneficial to him.

“I feel good,” Bogut said. “Probably more mentally as well. Just felt burnt out mentally with the grind of the NBA season for 13 seasons straight. It was good to just get home and get back to some normality, playing in Australia once or twice a week. And then obviously having a family now. Family kind of changes my perspective of what should be stressful and what shouldn’t be and what’s important in life.”

The urge to return to the States simmered inside him, however, especially since he wouldn’t need to trudge through an entire NBA season. Bogut says that’s unlikely to happen again, no matter how well he plays from here. Still, he wants to make the most of the next two months, assuming the Warriors are still in business.

“Leaving and coming back makes you appreciate this much more,” he said. “Having another opportunity to play with the best players in the world is great. I probably appreciate it much more now. When you’re stuck in the moment as I was the first time around, I don’t think I enjoyed it and been appreciative of it as I should’ve been.”

 

With Kevin Durant at the top of his game, the Clippers had no chance in Game 3.

From a numbers standpoint, the Warriors didn’t need Bogut, even though Damian Jones, the starting center at the season’s onset, is out with a torn pectoral muscle. Not only was Cousins healthy, but Kevon Looney showed growth and a new confidence in his mid-range shot. Looney, however, is more of a power forward, and the Warriors had nothing to lose by bringing in Bogut, a favorite of Kerr thanks to his instincts and intelligence.

“Andrew is a brilliant basketball mind,” Kerr said. “He’s one of those guys when you call a play or teach him a play, he gets it right away. He understands where all five players should be and he understands why you’re running the play. He just has beautiful feel for the game. He sees and feels the game like Andre (Iguodala) does, only at the center position. His voice is so prominent, when you’re down on the floor and our team is on defense, you can hear Boges barking out commands, barking out signals, letting guys know where they need to be, like he’s like a quarterback out there.”

While Cousins was obviously a productive player, he often struggled in the pick and roll and has never been known for defense. Those are areas of strength for Bogut and it gives Kerr more options with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, shooters who are deadly when sprung off picks. Also, with the emphasis on half-court play in the playoffs, Bogut’s 7-foot stature becomes an asset near the rim on both ends.

“This is the reason we signed him,” Curry said. “We never wanted to talk about it and want to admit of the possibility. But it was to shore up that center position in case of injury. It’s how it has played out. We have to be ready to adjust and win basketball games.”

The Clippers don’t offer much resistance in the middle. Yet if the playoff seeds hold true and the Warriors see the Rockets in the second round, Bogut will be valuable against Clint Capela, who is active offensively in the pick and roll.

“I just want to be a positive to the team,” Bogut said. “They don’t need me to score, obviously. But whatever they need, really. I can be a voice defensively, control the paint and do what they need me to do. I feel I fit in pretty well. Not a whole lot has changed in the system and the flow of the game since my first time here. Hopefully as an older guy who’s played around the world I can use my voice a little more and get guys going.”

One month into this reunion, Bogut and the Warriors have discovered they need each other more than either imagined.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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