Winderman: Nine games the Heat could lose you didn't expect

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Thumbnail image for bosh_wade_james.jpgEven before the NBA released its complete schedule Tuesday, there were plenty of logical assumptions that could have been made about the longshot odds of the revamped Miami Heat matching the 72-10 of the 1995-96 Bulls.

There are, after all, four games apiece against the Celtics and Magic, as well as two against the Lakers, in addition to road tests against several upgraded Eastern Conference opponents.

But the NBA schedule is about more than opponents.

Sometimes the greatest opponent is the schedule itself.

That’s what made Tuesday significant for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and for more than letting them know they will be working on both Christmas and New Year’s, but not Thanksgiving or Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

So where are the traps? Where are the games that you might, along the way, wonder how in the heck Pat Riley’s creation slipped?

Here are a few:

Sun. Oct. 31 at New Jersey: Rare are NBA games played on football Sundays. But rare is the NBA team that stands as the secondary tenant to an NHL team. So not only do the Nets have to battle the NFL on the season’s first Sunday, but the game in their new Newark digs is scheduled for 1 p.m., which is never a good thing for the type of stars likely to be embraced across the river the previous night.

Tue. Dec. 1 home vs. Detroit: No, not because of the T-Mac factor. But because of what follows the next night — LeBron’s first visit back to Cleveland. Figure on much of the discussion that week centering on all things Cavalier and Gilbert. James well could find himself spending more time studying escape routes from Quicken Loans Arena than any game plan for the Pistons.

Thu. Dec. 23 at Phoenix: Oh, the Suns well could challenge the Heat with their unique blend of speed. But, like James’ first visit to Cleveland, this is about the game that follows, the Christmas showdown in Los Angeles against Kobe and the Lakers. This is the rare two-game western trip, and the league didn’t send the Heat coast to coast for a mere three days because it was searching for a TNT game against the Suns hours before Christmas Eve.

Jan. 13 in Denver: This could be one of very few games when the Heat actually is cast as an underdog by the odds-makers. Not only is this game at altitude, but it comes on the second night of a back-to-back, after playing the previous night in Los Angeles against the Clippers. Oh, and it’s also the fourth stop of a five-game road trip.

Sat. Jan. 15 in Chicago: This is the final stop on a five-game trip that challenges any sense of geographic logic, one that starts in Milwaukee, continues in Portland, Los Angeles and Denver before returning within miles of where it started. And it’s not as if Wade made many friends in Chicago during free agency.

Fri. Feb. 4 in Charlotte: Another case of schedule positioning. The Heat is in Orlando the previous night for a nationally televised game against the Magic. Larry Brown will be more than willing to pick on Erik Spoelstra’s tired and weary.

Wed. Feb. 16 in Toronto: Chris Bosh’s first visit back north of the border comes at the end of a four-game trip, when the whole customs things sets up as the very type of nuisance Bosh sought to escape.

Fri. March 4 in San Antonio: Not only is the opposition a sufficient challenge, but this comes a night after yet another nationally televised game against the Magic. There might be not greater statement about greatness than beating Orlando at home and then wining in San Antonio the following night.

Wed. April 13 in Toronto: The season finale comes just three days before a potential playoff opener. Considering the Heat’s penultimate game is that Monday in Atlanta, figure on plenty of Spoelstra’s stars suddenly realizing in Atlanta they left their passports home.

The point being that while the Celtics, Magic and Lakers set up as the Heat’s most difficult opponents, it is the schedule, itself, that might set up as the greatest challenge to a date with the record book.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Gregg Popovich on Fox News pundit attacking LeBron James: “Unbelievable”

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Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham launched an attack at Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James after the NBA star voiced his opinion on Donald Trump. LeBron had done so many times before, alongside other notable NBA personalities like Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr.

This instance of LeBron speaking up apparently struck Ingraham in some type of way, enough to invoke a shot at James’ intelligence and speaking mannerisms in thinly-veiled comments. Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble” which sparked the ire of many around the league. LeBron responded in kind, and most considered Ingraham’s racially-tinged tirade to be par for the course from that particular outlet.

Ingraham, who failed to do basic research on LeBron’s background, community leadership, and charitable contributions, also drew criticism from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Speaking before San Antonio’s game against the Cavaliers, Popovich told a crowd that Ingraham’s comments said more about her than about LeBron, and that he was happy the game had such a positive role model for young fans in James.

Via Twitter:

Shoutout to Popovich for continuing to be a voice from such a prominent position within sports and pop culture. Guys like him and LeBron haven’t exhausted themselves even though the discussion about what they say is undoubtedly tiring.

Jimmy Butler has surgery on right meniscus, no timetable for return

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The playoff picture in the Western Conference became much more opaque after Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury earlier in the week.

Reports out of Minnesota was that Butler had suffered a right meniscus injury, ducking what many had feared was an ACL tear. According to the team, Butler had successful surgery on his right meniscus this weekend.

As of Sunday morning they did not have a timetable for his return.

Via Twitter:

Minnesota currently stands third in the West but they will have a hard time fending off the rest of the playoff hopeful teams below them without their star player.

For his part, Butler is hoping he will be back in time for the playoffs. Early reports were that the team was thinking his recovery had a 4-to-6 week timeline, but again nothing has been set. Meniscus recovery times vary greatly depending on the issue at hand and the procedure done, neither of which we have details on at this time.

The Timberwolves have the 15th most difficult strength of schedule ahead of them according to Tankathon.com, with games against major Western Conference opponents ahead of them as well as bottom-dwellers like the Memphis Grizzlies.

Minnesota has been a good story all season long. No doubt many will bring up Tom Thibodeau’s workload once again with Butler injured, something compounded by Butler apparently requesting to rest during the 2018 All-Star Game.

Wolves fans have been waiting a long time for this. They don’t deserve this kind of punishment at this late a date, but the Basketball Gods are cruel and unceasingly unforgiving.

Isaiah Thomas on Cavaliers trade to Lakers: “They were in panic mode”

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It seems Isaiah Thomas is a thorn in the side of many in the NBA these days. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard reportedly was the source of some locker room conflict while he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, although it appears that Dwyane Wade was the first to lead the charge against Kevin Love in the infamous player rap session.

Thomas is now a member of the Lakers after being part of the worst section of the season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, with their revamped roster, have just one loss since the trade deadline. LeBron James & Co. have moved on, and Thomas appears set for free agency this summer and yet another team.

A move for the Cavaliers seemed inevitable, even if the return for Kyrie Irving from Boston — conveyed through consequent trades — was less than ideal. Meanwhile Thomas, who didn’t appear to enjoy his time in Ohio, has now said that he was surprised Dan Gilbert’s team bailed on him so quickly.

Via ESPN:

“I didn’t think they would pull the trigger that fast, 15 games,” Thomas told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview that will air March 11. “But again, it’s a business. And the Cavs were, I mean, they were in panic mode. We were losing — a lot. And I think they felt like they needed to make a move, and they, they basically cleared house.”

Thomas went on to say that he didn’t think he had enough time to find a rhythm not only coming back from a hip injury but on a new team in a new system. Thomas also mentioned that he harbored no ill feelings toward the Cavaliers.

We’ll see if that’s the case when the Lakers take on Cleveland on March 11 in LA.

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.