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.

LeBron on Cavs’ three-game losing streak: “We got to get out of the honeymoon stage”

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James wipes his face as he looks down after guard Kyrie Irving missed a shot during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Chicago. The Bulls won 111-105. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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For a team that is 13-5 and atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t been their intimidating selves consistently this season. There have been flashes during a 13-2 start, but mostly they win on talent, or when they flip the switch for a half, but they haven’t looked like a tested team working on building good habits through the first quarter of the NBA season. They have an elite offense, but their defense is surrendering 105.1 points per 100 possessions, 20th in the league.

It’s been worse the last four games. The Cavaliers had to come from behind to beat the Sixers, then got blown out by the Bucks and Clippers. Friday night, Cleveland lost to Chicago, giving the Cavs a three-game losing streak, and LeBron James had enough. He sent a message to his team through the media (from the Associated Press):

“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage,” James said. “You got to play the game, the right way. We’ve got to battle every night like we ain’t won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it’s a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It’s time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We’ve got to man up. Everybody.”

The Cavaliers would be far from the first team to have a championship hangover, and considering the five-decade title drought in Cleveland before that win we should have expected one of those “I can’t get off the couch, I’m just going to lay here and watch golf all day” kind of hangovers. As Gregg Popovich has said before, its human nature to let up after a big win.

However, the blowout loss at the hands of the Clippers Thursday — the only title contending team the Cavs have faced this season — should be a wake-up call. The fact is the Cavaliers are still playing well enough to beat everyone in the East, but their real tests come in the form of the Warriors/Clippers/Spurs out West. Right now it’s hard to picture the inconsistent defense of the Cavaliers lifting them past any of those teams in four out of seven games.

LeBron has been to six-straight Finals for a reason — he does not let up. And he’s going to have to shake this team out of its malaise to get them back to an elite standing.

It’s also the first week of December. It’s we’re having this same conversation the last week of March about the Cavaliers then it’s okay to start looking for the panic button in Cleveland. For now, trust LeBron to be the leader this team needs. Calling them out was just step one.

 

James Harden scores 20 in Rockets’ runaway win over Denver 128-110

Houston Rockets guard James Harden brings the ball upcourt against the Denver Nuggets in the first half of an NBA basketball game late Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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DENVER (AP) — James Harden scored 20 points and the Houston Rockets led from start to finish in beating the Denver Nuggets 128-110 on Friday night.

Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson had 18 points each and Sam Dekkar added 17 points for Houston, which completed an impressive road back-to-back sweep that began with its 132-127 win over Golden State in double overtime on Thursday.

Wilson Chandler had 24 points to lead the Nuggets, who saw their three-game winning streak against the Rockets come to an end. The Nuggets have lost four of their last five and fell to 3-7 this season at home, the high-altitude venue they once routinely dominated.

Up by 10 points at halftime, the Rockets took a 99-84 lead into the fourth quarter and kept the pressure on the rest of the way as part of a sharpshooting display that included converting 17 of 37 3-point attempts against a listless Nuggets defense. Denver made 9 of 30 from beyond the arc.

The Rockets took a 73-63 halftime lead over the Nuggets, who allowed a season high in points over the first two quarters by an opponent.

Houston led by as many as 15 points in the first half, hitting nine 3 pointers, including four by Anderson, to gain early separation with its highest scoring output over the first two quarters this season.

The lack of defensive urgency by Denver was epitomized by Gordon’s fastbreak layup at the halftime buzzer as he drove the length of the court virtually uncontested in the final 3 seconds of the period.

TIP-INS

Rockets: F Trevor Ariza left the game in the final minutes with a leg injury, apparently after coming down awkwardly while going for a rebound. … Houston has made at least 10 3-pointers in 19 consecutive games, the longest streak of its kind in league history. … Houston’s previous high for first-half points was 71 against the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 26. … Houston is 7-2 on the road since beginning the season 2-3.

Nuggets: C Nikola Jokic missed the game because of a sore left wrist. … G Gary Harris remains sidelined with a right foot injury. … G Will Barton returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the previous two games.

 

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lead Bulls to 111-105 win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, front left, talks with Chicago Bulls' Dwyane Wade before an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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CHICAGO (AP) — LeBron James wasn’t holding back.

Cleveland’s superstar had plenty to say after the Cavaliers gave up 78 points in the paint on the way to another loss. The condensed version was this: It’s time to start playing like a championship team again.

Jimmy Butler scored 26 points, Dwyane Wade had 24 and the Chicago Bulls beat James and the slumping Cavaliers 111-105 on Friday night.

Taj Gibson added a season-high 23 points and 11 rebounds for Chicago. Rajon Rondo had 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds as the balanced Bulls handed the Cavaliers their third straight loss.

“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage,” James said. “You got to play the game, the right way. We’ve got to battle every night like we ain’t won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it’s a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It’s time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We’ve got to man up. Everybody.”

James manned up to the tune of 27 points and 13 assists, a championship-level performance on a night when he showed up dressed as a World Series champion: He arrived at the arena in a Cubs uniform to honor a World Series bet with buddy Wade.

Kyrie Irving added 20 points and eight assists, but the Cavaliers matched their longest losing streak in a year.

Chicago dominated Cleveland 78-60 in the paint, outrebounded the Cavaliers 49-33 and came out on top despite shooting 3 of 18 on 3-pointers. It was a big turnaround for the Bulls coming off a loss to the Lakers.

“I think we know what we’re capable of if we play basketball the right way and do what we’re supposed to do,” Butler said.

DOWN THE STRETCH

The Bulls used a strong third quarter to turn a one-point halftime deficit into an 88-80 lead. And they withstood several pushes in the fourth to knock off the defending NBA champions.

Kevin Love nailed a 3 to cut the lead to 103-99 with about 4 minutes left, but the Bulls hung on.

Wade drove for a layup to make it 107-101 with 2:39 remaining. Nikola Mirotic then stole the ball from James, leading to a putback basket for Wade.

Mirotic came up with another big play when he blocked a 3 by Irving with 1:11 left to cause a shot-clock violation.

KING CUB

James clearly wasn’t thrilled about having to wear a Chicago Cubs uniform after he rooted hard for his hometown Cleveland Indians in the World Series. But he was a man of his word, honoring the wager he made with Wade, his good friend and former Miami Heat teammate.

James wore a No. 23 Cubs jersey with his last name stitched across the back, a Cubs hat partially covered by a Cubbie-blue hoodie, pinstripe pants and long baseball socks. James’ uniform even had the 2016 World Series champions shoulder patch.

“I actually thought he looked good,” said Wade, who was waiting for James when he arrived at the arena and took a picture of his ex-teammate. “He actually did look like a baseball player.”

The two hugged before tipoff and had some playful moments during the game.

James patted Wade on the backside as they ran down the court together after he hit a tough fadeaway jumper over his pal in the third quarter. Wade returned the favor after burying a 3 in James’ face moments later.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: G/F Mike Dunleavy Jr. missed his second consecutive game because of a concussion.

Bulls: Rondo’s triple-double was his first with the Bulls and the 29th of his career. … Butler has 12 straight games with 20 or more points. … With the Bulls playing four times in five days, coach Fred Hoiberg said Wade won’t travel to Dallas for Saturday’s game. … Hoiberg said F Doug McDermott (concussion) could be cleared for contact shortly and might practice with the D-League’s Windy City Bulls.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard sink game winner to lift Spurs past Wizards

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: the Spurs ramped up their defense and execution in the third quarter, with their bench sparking a run that gave them the lead, then they held on and got the game-winning shot from their star on a clever play.

LaMarcus Aldridge set the screen that freed up Manu Ginobili to be the playmaker, then set another that got Kawhi Leonard a clean look at the game winner. Aldridge had 19 points on the night, but it’s those things that do not show up in the box score that gets the Spurs wins.

Plus, they just make shots under pressure.