Miami Heat v Boston Celtics

The implications of Heat-Celtics III

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For the first time this season, the Miami Heat will face the Boston Celtics with a better record.  But in the third meeting between the two best teams in the East, the Heat will need a significant amount of progress across all fronts in order to come away with their first victory over the Celtics. The first two meetings between the two were comfortable Celtic victories, even as LeBron James made things slightly interesting down the stretch. The Heat would make a run, then the Celtics would execute for a few sustained possessions and put the game out of reach again. Those losses could easily be described as the worst and most damaging losses for the Heat.

Which is why this game matters so much more to Wade, James, and company than it does to the defending Eastern Conference champs. The Celtics are short-handed, with Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, and Marquis Daniels all questionable-to-out for the game. Furthermore, the C’s have already made their point this season. They’ve proven they can be or are the best team in the East, arguably in the entire league, and have victories over every elite team, plus the two wins over the Heat. For Boston, winning this game is a cherry on top. It’s just frosting. At this point Boston’s biggest concern is making sure they don’t suffer any more injuries.

So why does this feel like the Heat are still facing an uphill struggle? Besides the obvious elements like the existence of Rajon Rondo and the Heat’s pitiful lack of depth, the biggest gap in the first two games between the two star-studded behemoths wasn’t on the X’s and O’s side. It was mental, and emotional. The Celtics were zoned in, playing with intensity. Even if they acted as if they were smacking down a younger brother who dared act like he was on their level, the Celtics understood the message they wanted to send. The Heat have a lot of talent, and they wanted to show they were that much better because they are a complete team. They wanted to win that game. It’s been pretty easy to spot the difference in the Celtics this season when they try and when they don’t; the Celtics wanted those first two games.

On the other hand, the Heat sleepwalked through that game. They seemed to have no intensity, no fire, no cohesion, and most of all, no sense of urgency. This was a team in its first year together, trying to prove itself, trying to find its identity, against the Eastern Conference champs who had ousted both Wade and James in last season’s playoffs, and who are the most smack-talking-est smack talkers who ever talked smack this decade. And yet the Heat seemed listless, lifeless, and without any real sense of purpose. If that’s missing again when the two take the floor for their third of four match-ups, the Celtics will take the season series in a cake walk, and many will go from penciling in the Celtics over the Heat to tracing that over in black ink.

Sure, the Heat will need Mario Chalmers to at least not embarrass himself, for Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to play with some measure of physicality, and for Chris Bosh to try not to create the world’s largest eye-roll from fans worldwide. But in reality, the best way to beat the Celtics is for LeBron James to play as he has for the last month, and to combine that with some emotional leadership. James has been transcendent, even by his standards, over the beginning of this calendar year. Going 1-on-5 against the Celtics doesn’t work, but James can hurt them even with their precise doubles and help defense, if he’s engaged. But that’s always the question with James. Will have commit to the intensity needed to topple even an injured Celtics team, or will he defer and settle for mid-range jumpers again? He and Dwyane Wade make up the most devastating two-man combo in the league. Will they get out in transition or simply let the Celtics wear them down with how they constantly seem to be back on the break, eventually forcing you to settle into a halfcourt game, which favors their style?

This is a big game for the Heat. There’s just no getting around it. There’s nothing to be won; a victory only means that people will even more loudly proclaim “Doesn’t mean a thing ’till spring!” But there is a lot to be lost. The season series against the Celtics, the confidence that they’ve finally turned a corner on their early season lackadaisical approach to big games, and an opportunity to showcase that no, for real, this team has found itself and while 72-10 is out the door, they can still bust heads.

Every run to greatness has its moments founded in the regular season. A big step awaits the Heat. We know the Celtics will be ready. But will Miami?

Russell Westbrook’s 5th straight triple-double lifts Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dunks ahead of New Orleans Pelicans forward Terrence Jones (9) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Oklahoma City won 101-92. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook became the first player with five consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-92 on Sunday night.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook’s triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook’s 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA’s leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state.

Oklahoma City led 49-41 at halftime. Westbrook had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists at the break, and Davis kept the Pelicans in it with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Westbrook threw down a vicious right-handed jam on a drive down the middle in the third quarter that gave Oklahoma City a 57-47 lead. He clinched the triple-double on an assist to Kanter for a dunk with 2:14 left in the third quarter. The Thunder took a 78-66 lead into the fourth quarter.

Hield drained a 3-pointer to cut Oklahoma City’s lead to four with just under two minutes to go, but Westbrook’s 3 with 51.3 seconds to go bumped the Thunder’s lead back to 99-92.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: Hield got a standing ovation when he checked in late in the first half. … G Jrue Holiday started for just the third time this season. He missed the first 12 games while his wife, former U.S. women’s national team soccer player Lauren Holiday, recovered from surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.

Thunder: Made 14 of 15 2-point shots and missed all nine of their 3-pointers in the first quarter. … C Steven Adams sprained his left ankle in the first quarter and did not return. … The Thunder missed all 15 3-point attempts in the first half, then made 6 of 13 in the second. … Westbrook leads active players in career triple-doubles. … Thunder are 26-2 the past two seasons when Westbrook has a triple-double.

 

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.

Serge Ibaka lifts Magic over Pistons 98-92 in return of Reggie Jackson

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, left, and Jeff Green (34) celebrate against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. Orlando won 98-92. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — For about ten minutes on Sunday night, it appeared the Detroit Pistons had solved the Orlando Magic’s lock-down defense.

Like the rest of the NBA, they will have to keep searching for answers.

Orlando gave up 27 points in the first 9:30 but then shut the Pistons down in a 98-92 victory.

“I’m proud of our guys, because that team was averaging 118 points their last three games, and that was on the road,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “We held them to 92, and most of that was our second-half defense. They were at home, and they got 42 points on 37 percent shooting in the second half.”

Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, while Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds.

The Magic have held 10 of their last 11 opponents under 100 points.

“We just changed our mindset,” Ibaka said. “We knew we could play defense, and now we’re playing for each other on offense. We knew we could play this well. We just had to keep working.”

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit’s first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

“I felt good out there, but I wish we could have gotten a win out of it,” Jackson said. “I think there might have been a little rust, but I was able to do everything I need to do. I wouldn’t be out there if I was going to be physically limited.”

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

“We were terrible on defense,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Our offensive numbers were good enough to win, especially against that defense, but we didn’t guard anyone. We just didn’t want to put in the effort.”

On Jackson’s first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play – he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead.

Morris had 14 points in the first 7 minutes but didn’t get much support from his teammates. The Magic scored 35 points in the second quarter to take a 58-50 halftime lead. Orlando shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the half to Detroit’s 51.2 percent and only turned the ball over four times.

“We’re starting to see the value of the pass on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “If we pass with good timing, good intent and good delivery, it will help us shoot the ball, and we’ve got good shooters.”

The Magic led by 11 late in the third, but the Pistons narrowed the gap to 78-73 at quarter’s end. Orlando moved the margin back to double figures with nine minutes left, with the Pistons struggling to get open looks against one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Ibaka ended a Pistons run with a 3-pointer to make it 90-80 with 5:32 to play, then blocked Drummond’s dunk attempt at the other end.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to pull the Pistons within 95-90, but Jeff Green clinched the game with a turnaround jumper.

TIP INS

Magic: Former Piston Jodie Meeks had seven points in 15 minutes in his second game of the season. Meeks only played three games last season for Detroit due to chronic foot problems.

Pistons: Jackson spent most of the game matched up against D.J. Augustin, the main player given up by the Pistons in the three-team trade that brought him to Detroit in 2015.

TROUBLE FROM THE LINE

The Pistons were 0 for 5 from the free-throw line in the first half, with Drummond missing four in a row. He came into the game shooting 47.4 percent from the line after setting a league record at 35.5 percent in 2015-16.

RARE STREAK

The Magic have won two straight road games for the first time this season. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-88 on Friday.

ONLY A SINGLE-DOUBLE

Vucevic fell two rebounds short of his seventh straight double-double. He had a nine-game double-double streak in 2012-13.

 

Brilliant dig: Knicks fans chant “Derek Fisher” as Kings’ Matt Barnes inbounds ball

Sacramento Kings' Matt Barnes (22) reacts during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (Photo/Andres Kudacki)
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I had hoped never to write of this again, but alas… remember when Matt Barnes got in a fight with then Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher over the latter spending time with Barnes’ estranged wife? It cost Barnes a couple of game suspension.

Barnes is playing well for the Sacramento Kings this season, who were making their annual stop in Madison Square Garden Sunday. As Barnes was inbounding the ball in the fourth quarter, some Knicks fans started a “Derek Fisher” chant.

It’s not original, some Pacers fans had done it before. But it’s still a Cameron Crazies worthy ploy.

The Knicks got 20 points each from Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose to get the 106-98 win, despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins.

Zaza Pachulia steals ball, starts break, blows open layup against Suns (VIDEO)

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Zaza Pachulia is riding the Golden State Warriors train for all it’s worth, in the good and the bad. In November, Pachulia hit a mid-range jumper and did a horse dance. If that was the zenith, Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns was the nadir.

Particularly because Pachulia blew a breakaway layup in which he definitely should have scored.

Instead, the Warriors big man stuffed the ball between the iron and the backboard, clumsily squandering his opportunity:

*Sad trombone*