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The evolution of the James Harden-Giannis Antetokounmpo feud

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The Houston Rockets‘ official Twitter account took what could be considered the first jab in the beef between two of the NBA’s biggest superstars seconds after Giannis Antetokounmpo was announced as the league’s 2018-19 MVP.

James Harden finished as the runner-up for the third time in five seasons, which didn’t sit right with the Rockets organization. The tweet has since been deleted but was certainly up long enough to send a message.

“Congrats to the MVP, but we respectfully disagree,” the tweet read before rattling off several bullet points making a case that Harden should have been the repeat winner, such as that he was the first player in NBA history to average at least 35 points and seven assists per game for a full season.

It’s common for franchises to lobby for their stars to receive postseason honors. But the timing of this tweet — as first-time winner Antetokounmpo was making his acceptance speech — was perceived by many around the league as poor form, a disrespectful display of sour grapes.

“The Beard” and “The Greek Freak” have exchanged a handful of jabs since, some direct shots, others more subtle.

As Harden’s Rockets prepare to face Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), get up to speed on the pokes between the perennial MVP candidates over the past year.

“I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. There’s only a few other seasons that anybody has ever done that before. People were tuned into how many points I was going to score the next game. It was a thing. But I can’t control that.”

James Harden

Harden, making an August 2019 appearance on Houston hip hop station 97.9 The Box to promote his annual JH-Town Weekend charity events, readily agreed when one of the hosts declared that “politics” determined the MVP winner.

The implication seems to be that Antetokounmpo wasn’t deserving of the honor, which he won by receiving 78 of the 101 first-place votes, despite a historical stat line (averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals) to lead the Bucks to the NBA’s best record.

There’s a precedent for the Rockets complaining about the “narrative” determining the MVP winner when Harden finished second in the voting. It also occurred after the 2016-17 award went to Russell Westbrook in the case of the then-Oklahoma City Thunder point guard joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double for the season.

Of course, that didn’t prevent the Rockets from pumping up Westbrook as a recent MVP when they pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade to acquire him last summer.

It’s not clear why exactly the narrative would have shifted to favor Harden in 2018-19, when he won the MVP in a landslide, getting 86 of 101 first-place votes. It’s also hard to build a case that the ballot is biased against Harden when he has received more points in MVP voting over the past five years than anyone.

But Harden doubled down in an interview with GQ weeks after his radio appearance when asked if a narrative had been already formed for this season’s MVP race.

“Nah, it hasn’t happened yet, it’s too early,” Harden said. “Wait until the preseason and when the regular season starts up again. But they [the media] for sure got some teams they locked in on. We all know. That’s just what it is.

“You can’t tell me that a guy whose team was a 14-seed at one point last year, and ended up a 4-seed with everything that was going on — so many injuries — and who went on a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games in one season … and all the talk was about [Antetokounmpo]?

“There’s no way.”

“It’s me. I can get any shot I want to.”

James Harden

This was Harden’s explanation for why he struggled in a season-opening home loss to the Bucks, finishing with 19 points on 2-of-13 shooting.

Harden consistently declines to credit the opposing defense for causing him problems after an off night, never wavering in his confidence that he can create his shot regardless of the defenders or schemes that he encounters.

But it’d be understandable if Antetokounmpo — rarely if ever the primary defender on Harden but a dominant force in a help role — and the Bucks believed that their No. 1-ranked defense was due some credit. After all, they held Harden to 23 points on 26 field goal attempts in their previous meeting, a convincing win by the Bucks in late March that might have influenced some MVP ballots.

“I want somebody that’s going to pass the ball.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Credit TNT’s Charles Barkley for the assist in provoking Antetokounmpo into blurting a headline-making explanation for passing on Harden when picking his All-Star team.

“What, you don’t want The Dribbler?” Barkley asked, interrupting when Antetokounmpo said he was deciding between Trae Young and Kemba Walker when Harden was the only other starter available, prompting a chuckle from fellow captain, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is torn between choosing Kemba Walker or Trae Young, and when Charles Barkley jokingly suggests James Harden, Giannis deals a fun jab during the NBA All-Star draft.

Antetokounmpo chose Walker, a selection that didn’t quite match his stated criteria. Harden averages 2.5 more assists per game than Walker this season. Walker’s career-best assists average was 6.1 per game in 2013-14, and Harden has averaged at least that many dimes in the past seven seasons, including when he won the assists title with 11.2 per game in 2016-17.

Antetokounmpo, for what it’s worth, has never averaged at least six assists in a season.

“Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding. That’s who we thought we’d have the opportunity to score on.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Unlike during the All-Star Game draft, nobody provoked this swipe at Harden. It was Antetokoumpo’s answer to a bland question about his team’s approach down the stretch of the All-Star Game.

That swipe wasn’t exactly supported by the facts. Team Giannis, which had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (5-of-19) in the fourth quarter while blowing a nine-point lead, attempted only two shots in the frame in which Harden was the primary defender. Neither of those shots was good.

Not that simply targeting Harden on defense is a sound strategy. There’s a narrative that Harden is a notoriously poor defender, but the numbers don’t back that up.

Harden has established himself as an elite post defender. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Harden ranks in the 90th percentile this season by giving up only 0.65 points per post-up despite being the league’s most targeted player in those situations (107 possessions). He has graded as an average isolation defender this season, ranking in the 50th percentile by giving up 0.89 points per possession.

“I wish I could just be 7 feet and run and just dunk. Like, that takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and have skill, you know? I’ll take that any day.”

James Harden

This was the meat of Harden’s response to Antetokounmpo’s punchline about his passing when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols broached the subject during a 1-on-1 interview at All-Star Weekend.

However, just as Antetokounmpo was off target with his disses of Harden’s game, it’s hard to claim this criticism by Harden is based in reality. It’s rare to find a near-7-footer with such top-level athleticism, though there have been several who have played in the NBA.

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Stephen A. Smith agrees with James Harden’s response to Giannis Antetokounmpo saying he wanted to draft a player who passes the ball.

But Antetokounmpo is the only player who fits that description that has thrived as his team’s primary facilitator. Sure, his jump shot is a work in progress. But Antetokounmpo is certainly a skilled ball handler, especially for a player his size.

Has there ever been a player that size who created most of his own dunks off the dribble?

“There hasn’t been a back and forth. I’m not that type of guy. I’ve never tried to take stabs at somebody. Maybe sometimes it might come out like that, but I’m definitely not. … If that’s what [Harden] believes, that’s what he believes.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Perhaps Antetokounmpo’s skill set includes acting, because these comments in a late February interview with ESPN prove he can certainly play coy.

These came in the wake of Antetokounmpo taking stabs at two subjects that are sensitive to Harden: the perception that the Rockets star is a ball hog and that he’s a dreadful defender. Did Antetokounmpo really expect anyone to believe those were accidental?

“I’ve got to go with James Harden.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo paused for several seconds when asked during an Instagram Live Q&A in late March which NBA player was most difficult to guard. After carefully considering it, he replied with the player who is en route to his third consecutive NBA scoring title.

Maybe this virtual olive branch ends the back-and-forth beef between the league’s last two MVPs. Or maybe the Bucks and Rockets’ next meeting could ignite another round inside the bubble.

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Dan Le Batard, Bomani Jones, and Domonique Foxworth react to how hard it was for Giannis Antetokounmpo to admit that James Harden is the hardest player he’s had to guard.



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Celtics’ Gordon Hayward, wife Robyn welcome fourth child

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Celtics forward Gordon Hayward and his wife, Robyn, are parents for a fourth time.

Robyn Hayward announced the birth of the couple’s first son — Gordon Theodore Hayward — on Wednesday, a couple of hours before the Celtics would face the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Hayward had originally planned to leave the bubble for the birth, but he remained with the Celtics. He got some unplanned time off earlier in Boston’s postseason run because of a sprained ankle, and spent some of that with his wife and daughters before returning to the NBA campus.

“I think his ankle’s fine right now,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday after the birth was announced. “I don’t think he’s thought about it all afternoon obviously. … Very, very happy to hear the news.”

Robyn Hayward said the baby — who was already wearing Celtics apparel Wednesday with his father’s name and number on the back — will go by Theo, despite his father’s preference that he go by GT.

“Our little man is finally here!” she wrote.

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Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets players say Breonna Taylor ruling by grand jury ‘wasn’t enough’

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the Los Angeles Lakers meal room — located down the hall from the court the team was practicing Wednesday — the television had been left on. The news anchor was dissecting a Kentucky grand jury decision not to prosecute any of the officers for the the death of Breonna Taylor.

In the ballroom-turned-practice facility around the corner, the Lakers were finishing up the day’s workout. LeBron James, sitting off to the side of the court eating a sandwich, discussed the decision with longtime friend Randy Mims and shook his head.

Lakers players, planning for a light practice after dropping Game 3 of the Western Conference finals to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, had their phones pinged by James earlier that afternoon, prepping them for the news.

“Bron texted the group chat that there might be an announcement made,” Lakers guard Danny Green said. “Nobody was really happy about it. It was disappointing. In a sense, something was done, but it wasn’t enough. Most guys felt it was definitely not enough. … It’s a tough one. It’s a tough one.”

On Wednesday, a grand jury in Louisville indicted one police officer — Brett Hankison — for shooting into neighboring apartments. Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment in connection to the police raid that resulted in the death of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, on the night of March 13.

Like many Americans, NBA players had been anticipating a decision in this case for months. Calling for justice for Taylor — and for the police officers involved in her death to be held accountable in court — has been a constant message from players in the bubble in Orlando.

In the early days of the season restart, several players — including Lakers guard Alex Caruso and Nuggets forward Jerami Grant — dedicated entire interview sessions to discussing only Taylor.

NBA teams also began to advocate for victims of police brutality in their own cities. Nearly a month ago, games in the bubble came to a halt after the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play their first-round game against the Orlando Magic as the team reeled from the shooting of Jacob Blake — a Black man — by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Green, who has talked about Taylor’s case to begin every one of his media sessions since July, lamented the fact that the league’s players haven’t come together since an “all hands on deck” meeting in August in response to the Bucks’ decision.

“We’re still trying to make the proper steps,” Green said. “We haven’t even gotten the chance to reconvene. We need more time as a group, not just as our team, but as everyone in the bubble and outside the bubble to figure out how we can continue to get progress in these certain aspects, in these certain categories, in these certain communities — specifically with what happened today wasn’t enough, we felt, and I’m sure most people around the country felt the same.”

Caruso, a white player who chose to wear the message “Black Lives Matter” on the back of his uniform, pointed out that for as much attention the Taylor case is receiving, racial inequity remains pervasive.

“This one case I think is the focal point right now, but even since then there’s been more Black innocent people that have been killed,” Caruso said. “You know, it’s just going to be a long journey. Steps like this are hopefully small steps in the right direction, but there’s still such a long way to go.”

Like the Lakers, the timing of Nuggets practice coincided with the grand jury decision becoming public. Denver coach Michael Malone offered the floor to Grant to address the team, which Grant declined as the news was so fresh.

“He chose not to, which I truly understood,” Malone said. “I at least wanted to give him, before we got into basketball, the option to do so because I know it’s something that he’s been carrying in his heart throughout this process.”

Malone has consistently worn a black T-shirt with the words “Justice for Elijah McClain” printed in white, block letters on the front of it to news conferences in Orlando. McClain, a Black man, was just 23 years old and walking home from a convenience store last summer when police officers in Aurora, Colorado put him in a chokehold, causing him to become nonresponsive. McClain was injected with ketamine when paramedics arrived, which eventually caused him to go into cardiac arrest and he died a few days later.

“I know we’ve been using our platform down here to try to bring about education and a voice in a lot of players on our team, especially also spoken out on justice for Breonna Taylor,” Malone said. “We have not gotten that justice. That’s a shame. Hopefully that will change at some point.”

ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.

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New Sacramento Kings GM Monte McNair commits to Luke Walton as coach

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New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair said he is looking forward to working with coach Luke Walton to revive a franchise that has the longest current playoff drought in the NBA.

McNair was hired last week to replace Vlade Divac after a long tenure as an executive in Houston. He backed Walton publicly during his introductory news conference Wednesday.

“I’ve got to know him the last few days; we’ve had some good conversations,” McNair said. “I’ve heard great things. So far I think we’ve had a great rapport. Luke’s going to be our coach next year. I’m really excited to work with him. I think we’re aligned with our vision and we’re gonna start implementing it.”

Walton is the team’s 10th coach since the Kings last made the playoffs in Rick Adelman’s final season in 2005-06. Sacramento went 31-41 in Walton’s first season at the helm.

McNair and Walton will work together to end the 14-year playoff drought that is one year off the longest one in NBA history.

“I understand the frustrations of all the loyal Kings fans,” McNair said. “I’ve already seen and heard about their passion. I think we’re aligned on that goal. I was fortunate enough to spend the last 13 years at an organization where we were able to build those winning habits, that culture, where year in and year out we expected to be in the playoffs and compete for championships. My goal is to recreate that here. We’re going to be flexible and just be ready whenever that opportunity arises to really improve the team and get us back into that consistent playoff hunt.”

McNair inherits a roster that has some intriguing young pieces but has not been good enough to contend in the Western Conference.

Point guard De’Aaron Fox is one of the better young players in the league. Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, showed flashes as a rookie but struggled with injuries this past season that limited him to 13 games.

The Kings also have a pair of talented 3-point shooters in Buddy Hield and restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic as some of the pieces to build around.

McNair is a Southern California native who spent 13 years working for the Rockets. He has been the assistant general manager since 2018 and also was integral in the team’s analytics department, working closely with the coaching staff on strategy.

The Rockets made the playoffs for eight straight seasons with two trips to the Western Conference final and seven 50-win campaigns thanks to a playing style that relied heavily on 3-point shots.

“In Houston, obviously we pushed some things to the extreme,” McNair said. “That was partly due to our personnel there. There are some tenets that we’ll apply here. We’re definitely going to play fast and space the floor. There’s a lot of versatility and talent on this roster. I think that’ll dictate how we build the team.”

Divac was initially hired by the Kings in March 2013 as vice president of basketball operations and franchise operations. He became general manager in August 2015 but was unable to get the Kings back into the playoffs.

He traded DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in 2017 and made the decision to draft Bagley second overall in 2018, one spot ahead of Luka Doncic.

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