Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Are the Heat good for basketball?

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bosh_wade_james.jpgAnother day, another edition of Crosstalk. Today’s topic: The Miami Heat.

Resolved: The Miami Heat (as we now know them) are good for basketball.
Rob Mahoney: It is better to be feared than respected. That’s the truism that LeBron James is betting on, as he single-handedly sabotaged his own image while creating one of the most intimidating teams in recent NBA history. The hometown(ish) hero who held press conferences at his high school is no more, and in his place is a narcissistic, attention-hungry superstar. 
A narcissistic, attention-hungry superstar that happens to play for the Eastern Conference favorites, a team that could conceivably shake the sport and the league to its very core.
The Miami Heat have a chance to be a truly transformational team in a lot of ways, and challenge a lot of what we think we know about the game. The unique combination of top-notch talent assembled on the Heat roster thus simultaneously acts as both basketball innovator and philosopher, ushering in the new while revealing the true nature of the old. That last part is particularly important, especially when we investigate the role the Heat will play in discussions of positional fluidity.
LeBron James may end up being the “point guard,” or maybe Dwyane Wade. Either way, should one of those two become the de facto point for Miami, the Heat would seem to be visionaries, driven by inspiration and necessity. However, is putting either LeBron or Wade in a position to make plays really anything groundbreaking? Wouldn’t either player really be going about business as usual, just with better teammates to share the load? In that way, LeBron or Wade as a point guard wouldn’t be re-defining the position or even blurring positional lines, necessarily. They’d just be spokesmen of the way that position has evolved, like Plato’s philosopher returning to the cave to assure us all that the images of traditional point guards on the wall really are just shadows.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are both phenomenally talented and successful players, but they’re not stretching the limits of position in ways that haven’t been done before. Still, the sheer magnitude of the Heat’s season will likely do more for the positional revolution than so many of their positional misfit predecessors. Many consider Miami to be the championship favorite (or at the least, a contender), and the affirmation of the Heat’s unbalanced roster means plenty. This isn’t some experiment in an underground Oakland laboratory. Miami’s dabbling in a more fluid positional set-up will take place on the NBA’s biggest possible stage. With that in mind, exposure and success are both extremely important for whichever basketball norms the Heat will eventually come to challenge, and regardless of just how good the Heat end up being, the first is an absolute certainty.
The Heat make us think about things like position, and even if they don’t culminate in any widespread, institutional change, that’s still good for the sport. Plus, it hardly stops with positions. They make us think about how teams do and should execute their late-game offense. They make us think about what kind of players can be successful in which roles. They make us think about the optimal way to put together a contending team. Miami will challenge so many different aspects of basketball convention, and turn the sport into a never-ending process of hypothesis testing that’s great for everyone involved. 
The value of a team with the power to find and emphasize the truths of the game cannot be overstated.
John Krolik: Man, you went straight to “The Heat are a fascinating basketball experiment,” which was like the third or fourth point on my list. 
Anyways, putting aside the fact that I’m supposed to be a bitter Cavs blogger (which I am, to an extent), I think the Heat are great for basketball. Of course I wish LeBron was still in Cleveland, but I can’t deny that the Heat help the league as a whole. First and foremost, the NBA is still somewhat of a niche sport when compared to the NFL, MLB, college football, and even college basketball. And yet people have been talking about the NBA all summer long, and that’s because of LeBron and the Heat. 
Some people love this team, most people hate this team, but the important thing is that they care about this team. That’s important, especially when you consider the looming CBA dispute/lockout next season. The NHL got relegated to Versus because it went away for a year and everybody realized they didn’t really need it, even with Crosby and Ovechkin coming in — if the Heat help the NBA avoid a similar fate, then long live the Heat. 
Every possible scenario involving this team leads to more interest in the NBA. If they win the next three titles and become a dynasty, people won’t be able to keep their eyes off of them. I remember a Stuart Scott chat in ESPN The Magazine a while back that went thusly:
(Random Person): My friend thinks Tiger Woods is bad for golf because he wins too much.

Stu: I think your friend is stupid.
I tend to agree with Stu on this one: dominance is fascinating. We’re drawn to it, we love it. If the Heat can become a Bulls-like team that wins nearly every game, dominates every June, and become a team that makes every road game A Happening in whatever city they go to, that’s great. The only time we’re not drawn to dominance is when it’s associated with a Sampras/Federer/Klitschko-like lack of personality or national identity, and the Heat certainly don’t lack for that. Floyd Mayweather, perhaps the best technical boxer of his generation, didn’t become a pay-per-view draw until he embraced the “Money” Mayweather persona and started pissing people off — If “I’m taking my talents to Miami” is what keeps people interested in the aesthetic and technical brilliance of the best basketball players on the planet, then I’m all for it. 
And if the Heat lose, it might be even better for the NBA — the NBA keeps the eyeballs the Heat bring, a clear babyface/heel dynamic gets reinforced, and people get to keep believing that Truth, Justice, and the American Way always prevail in sports. In some ways, the current Heat are the best of both worlds for anyone marketing the NBA: they’re going to be dominant force, and they haven’t even won anything yet. For one season (at least), they provide something that might dominate, might lose, and everyone will want to see succeed or fail. Maybe they’re the evolution of the NBA; maybe they’re the embodiment of all the wrong ways to become true champions. They’re a Rorschach blot of greatness, and everybody is seeing something interesting.  
As to your point, I don’t see how you can deny that the Heat are a fascinating basketball experiment. You’re talking about a (runaway) two-time MVP hooking up with the best player on a championship while both of them are in their primes. Plus the best young power forward in basketball, who seems to be content with playing the Iago to LeBron’s Jafar. LeBron is the most versatile great player since Magic, and for the last seven years he’s been forced to play the role of the Alpha and the Omega for the Cavaliers. Now he gets to play an actual role with players that are close to his level, and the results should be absolutely fascinating. Forget
who’s going to be a man, th
e man, or THE MAN IN ALL CAPS INSTEAD OF STANDARD-SIZED HELVETICA FONT  — It’ll be fascinating to see who handles the ball, who sets the screen, who makes the cut, and who finishes the play on any given Miami possession. 
That Miami’s centers are Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony only make everything more interesting: their lack of quality size in the middle will force the Heat to beat teams with their game, as opposed to being able to out-talent everybody and beat them at their own. My general point is this: I don’t know how this Heat experiment will turn out, but can you imagine anyone not watching? 
RM: Of course not. Everyone will want to know how the Heat are doing, what LeBron is saying, how the Lakers match-up. Moves like this reach out to casual basketball fans in ways that aren’t fully measurable, and the collection of talent in Miami could do more for the NBA as a business than anything we’ve seen in a decade. 
Plus, on top of that, having LeBron James as a hated figure is a huge marketing boon. Kobe Bryant just wasn’t cutting it as the archetypal villain anymore, and the league needs some elite player to play the part. LeBron kind of stumbled into that role by way of his own remarkable PR failures, but he’ll do wonderfully as the big bad.
Dominance really is fascinating, but it’s even more so when a player of LeBron’s caliber is there to laugh maniacally from the shadows. People despised the dynasty Lakers. They complained endlessly about Tim Duncan’s Spurs through San Antonio’s best years. Even Michael Jordan’s reign left countless fans angry and impatient, enamored by his success but perfectly willing to put him at the center of their dart boards. The Heat have the kind of foundation to match those squads, to become a historically great team, and to bring home the ‘ships. Now, with LeBron as a public enemy, they also have that face at which everyone can take aim, even if it’s no more “his team” than it is Dwyane Wade’s. The only thing more fascinating than dominance is watching a dominant team or player fail, and you’d better believe that the Heat will have plenty of newly christened basketball fans rooting for their demise.
Odd though this may sound, that kind of negative fanhood is a huge positive for the league. Teams like the Heat not only bring in more fans, but also more invigorated fans. Suddenly everyone cares what’s going on in Miami, and they’re opinionated and heated, even if they needn’t be. The fact that this beautiful game devolves into a water cooler talking point may irk hardcore NBA heads, but infiltration into that level of the public consciousness is how the Heat could, as you mention, affect a potential lockout. 
The Heat will boost ratings. They will bring in more league and team sponsors. They’re not going to pull the owners and the players in for a group hug at the CBA negotiations, but they can make the game and the league a product too good to miss out on from a financial standpoint, even for a season. If the league as a whole sees an uptick in interest and fan consumption because LeBron, Wade, and Bosh decided to play together in a major market, then we — as followers of the game — all win.

PBT Extra: If Portland is going to turn series around it starts with Damian Lillard

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This was the year the Trail Blazers were going to break through. They were defending better as a team. There was some depth on offense. And Damian Lillard was playing at a level that will get him on many voters’ MVP ballots.

Instead, they are down 0-2 to Anthony Davis and New Orleans, having dropped both games at home to open the series. Portland is on the verge of being bounced in the first round for the third time in four years.

If Portland is going to turn this series around, it starts with Lillard, something I discuss in this latest PBT Extra. C.J. McCollum needs to get more buckets, Jusuf Nurkic needs to contribute more on both ends, but for Portland it all begins and ends with Lillard and it’s on him to start the turnaround.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.