Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers

What did we learn about the Heat? Lakers?


On Christmas 2009, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers thumped the Los Angeles Lakers pretty good, winning by 15. Come June, that game was meaningless.

That 2009 game looked a lot like the 2010 Lakers/Heat game. Which is to say, the Heat’s 16-point win has no real predictive value. If these two teams do meet again in the finals don’t point back to this game as an example of what will happen.

But this game was instructive. It was a snapshot of where the teams are right now at this moment, and where they need to improve to get to the title they both crave.

We learned some things.

• For the Heat, we learned that their pressure defense can disrupt more than just the lesser lights in the league. That defense is a force. They took the Lakers out of their rhythm, both cutting off passing angles on the wings and not letting Pau Gasol get to his spots on the floor, making him far less effective. They took the Lakers out of the triangle and into the Gasol/Kobe pick and roll — always a sign the Lakers are struggling. (That pick-and-roll worked for a bit but the Heat adjusted and shut it down.)

I was reminded of what Doc Rivers said back before the start of this season — how far the Heat went was going to be decided by how well they played defense as a team. If that is the case, the rest of the league should be worried.

• We learned that Chris Bosh can ball — he was the best big man on the court in this one. Well, actually we knew Bosh could ball. People ragged on him after a slow start to the season but he was a max guy with good reason. Bosh was slow adjusting to being the third option, but he still can be a force and reminded everyone of it today. He was taking what the defense gave him, hitting the jumper when they pulled back and driving on guys when they came out on him. He was very active on defense as well.

• We learned that when LeBron James is dropping threes he is really tough to guard. But we probably knew that, too.

• For the Lakers, we were reminded how this team be so overconfident as to bring their “C” game against anyone. This is a team acting like it will be able to flip the switch. Kobe said it well on the Land O’ Lakers blog.

“We know what we’re capable of doing, that’s the problem.”

• We learned how much the Lakers miss Andrew Bynum. Yes he played, but not the active, conditioned, reacting well and clogging the lane on drives Bynum that the Lakers need. Some other, slower guy was out there trying to recover from surgery.  The Heat in general and Dwyane Wade in particular were getting into the teeth of the Lakers defense on the pick-and-roll and the rotations were terrible. The Heat had a lot of room to operate (and frankly should have won by more than 16).

• More than all that, we learned that this Lakers team is not yet like the ones we might remember from the playoffs — those Lakers teams still found a way to score on the Celtics and other top defenses. Right now, when they get pushed out of their comfort zone, these Lakers look lost. Gasol was bothered by the long arms and athleticism of Bosh. Gasol wasn’t just not scoring, he wasn’t the hub of the Lakers offense (like he is when they are playing well). This lack of comfort should change for Los Angeles — Phil Jackson’s teams usually find their groove later. But right now the Lakers do not have it.

Then again, last year when the Lakers lot to the Heat they went on a run winning five of their next six. This may spark them again, but with their next game Tuesday in San Antonio it’s not an easy road.

51 Questions: Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

Miami Heat v Phoenix Suns
Leave a comment

PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

It has been five years since the Phoenix Suns made the playoffs, tying the franchise record for longest playoff drought. It’s the fourth longest active drought in the NBA (Timberwolves at 11, Kings at nine, and Pistons at six).

Think about it this way: The Magic, Sixers, and Jazz have been to the playoffs more recently than the Suns.

Phoenix hasn’t bottomed out on a rebuild, they’ve actually been pretty good — they surprised everyone and won 48 games two seasons ago, then had 39 wins last season when things went very wrong and injuries crushed the team after the All-Star break. However, in a deep Western Conference pretty good isn’t good enough.

Suns management and ownership wants that to change. They want back in the playoff dance. Now.

It’s why they went hard after LaMarcus Aldridge this summer, coming in a surprising second to a Spurs team that nobody was likely to catch in that chase.

This summer the Suns made other moves to address needs. They went out and got Tyson Chandler as a free agent. The first reaction was he was there to provide a shot blocking and defensive quarterbacking, two things the Suns sorely lacked. However, just as importantly, they needed a vocal locker room leader, a vacuum that was part of the problem in Phoenix’s implosion last season.

The Suns also needed shooting, they went out and got Mirza Teletovic and drafted Devin Booker.

It’s easy to think the Suns regressed because they lost a lot of talent since the last trade deadline — Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green, Brandan Wright — but they believe the pieces they have now fit together better.

Phoenix believes it can make the playoffs; it thinks it finally has the right formula.

Maybe. They will be in the mix. But a four things have to happen to make that a reality.

First is Chandler has to lead a defensive renaissance on this team. Last season they were average, 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, but Chandler can help change that. First, he gives them defensive rebounding that they lacked. He gives them a quarterback that they needed to call things out and have everyone on the same page (reports of how he talks on defense are already pouring out of camp). And he helps protects the paint — that means Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and P.J. Tucker can pressure the ball more and take risks out on the perimeter knowing Chandler can erase some mistakes.

The second is an obvious one: Bledsoe and Knight need to be able to work well together. They are going to share playmaking duties, and both are going to spend time working off the ball, both need to be ready for that mental adjustment. We haven’t seen that much yet, we need to see how it works out.

Third, there needs to be shooting to space the floor. Bledsoe is a penetrator who is a career 32 percent from three, while Knight shot just 31.3 percent from three after being traded to the Suns (likely due to ankle injuries that required off-season surgery). Those two men will be running the pick-and-roll with Chandler, who sets a good pick, rolls hard and can finish, but doesn’t have shooting range. The Suns other two starters are likely P.J. Tucker, who is not a huge threat from three but shot a respectable 34.5 percent from there last season, and Markieff Morris, who is a career 32.8 percent from three.

If I’m an opposing defense, what’s to keep me from going under picks and packing the lane against the Suns? Phoenix needs Knight to return to the guy who is a career 36 percent from three, they need Morris to improve from the outside, and they need guys like Teletovic and Booker to play key minutes and space the floor at times.

Fourth, and finally, they need the potentially volatile mixture of an unhappy Morris and a coach in Jeff Hornacek in the last year of his contract not to combust. Everyone is saying all the right things at the start of camp, and this is why guys like Chandler and Ronnie Price were brought in, but there is the potential for things to go sideways, especially if some early losses pile up.

The biggest hurdle for the Suns in ending their playoff drought is they are in the Western Conference.

Even if all four of things mentioned above go right for them — if they run and hit more threes plus play better defense — this is likely a 45 win team (give or take a few, and probably take). The problem is that in the West that may not be enough. Barring injuries, there are likely seven lock playoff teams in the West — Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Pelicans. That leaves the Suns battling teams such as the Jazz, Mavericks and maybe the Kings for that final playoff spot. It may take more than 45 wins, and things are going to have to break the Suns’ way to get there.

Maybe Robert Sarver gets his way and the playoff drought ends this season, it’s more likely than snow in Phoenix this winter. But I wouldn’t bet much on either happening.

LeBron says “get it done” message was for both Cavaliers, Thompson

LeBron James

Everything LeBron James does and says gets magnified and scrutinized.

So when he put out this photo on Instagram standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tristan Thompson and the caption “get it done” it seemed a message to the Cavaliers.

Get it done!!!! Straight up. #MissMyBrother @realtristan13

A photo posted by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron clarified that on Sunday, saying this has become a distraction, and the message was for both sides to bend, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN and Chris Haynes of the Plain Dealer.

When Thompson didn’t sign the qualifying offer he surrendered a lot of leverage, the Cavaliers don’t have to raise their five-year, $80 million offer — but reportedly they still would, a little. Thompson and his agent Rich Paul have pushed for a max contract, but that’s not happening.

At some point, the two sides will come to an agreement. For the Cavaliers, this is a distraction, their star is unhappy with that, and ultimately if they are going to make a title run they need the energy and rebounding Thompson brings (even if it is just off the bench). For Thompson, he can’t make up a year of lost salary, he has to come in and start getting paid at some point.

The two sides will get it done. Eventually. Likely before the season tips off.