Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

How they can win it all: The Miami Heat

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Forget the narrative. Forget the plot that turned LeBron James into a villain for changing zip codes, forget the half-baked media criticism without warrant, and forget the lazy reactions to Miami’s relative struggles at various points in the season. This Heat team is positively fantastic, and though they don’t come to the playoffs without flaws, they also have a legitimate chance of marching through the Sixers, the Celtics, and the Bulls all the way to the NBA Finals. The Heat aren’t just that talented, they’re that good. So ditch the narrative baggage for now; it’ll be waiting for you to pick it up on the other side, and it’d be a shame for a good story to get in the way of even better basketball. Here are the reasons why the Heat, after a long season under the microscope, can win the whole damn thing:

1. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: the playoffs are the time for the NBA’s best players to do their thing, and the Heat are packing more star power than every other team in the league. Given Miami’s probable opponents the rest of the way, it’s likely that the Heat will have the two best players on the floor in every game during their postseason run. That doesn’t guarantee them any wins, but it certainly gives them an incredible advantage in attempting to earn them. Miami may lack consistent scoring on its periphery, but perhaps the Heat’s lack of productive balance will matter even less in the postseason; James and Wade are tremendous players who contribute a ton on both ends of the court, and when we throw in Chris Bosh for good measure, they’re as tough an out as there is in the league.

2. Smothering defense

The defensive tone starts with James and Wade, but the Heat on the whole have been one of the top defensive teams in the NBA this season. However, the internet highlight factory has led to a general misunderstanding of the way Miami Ds up; even though James and Wade are adept at jumping passing lanes to ignite a potent fast break, the Heat just don’t create all that many turnovers. Instead, the Heat regulars force their opponents into difficult looks and contest shots heavily without fouling. The Miami defense is quick and flexible, which empowers them to recover and challenge, even when an opponent claims a position of advantage. The Heat are quick to help in order to completely swarm opponents, and have one of the most oppressive half-court defenses in the league as a result.

Additionally, the Heat are among the best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. Chris Bosh, Erick Dampier, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all do good work on the defensive glass, but the key for Miami is the board work of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller, all of whom are stellar rebounders for their positions. All in all, the Heat grind opponents into the ground by challenging every shot, and then clean the glass to ensure that the only shot opponents get is their initial, heavily contested one. Most championship runs are founded on the ability to execute consistently on defense, and Erik Spoelstra has his team prepared to suffocate their playoff opponents.

3. Efficient offense

As good as the Heat are on defense, they’ve been even more effective on the offensive end; Miami scored more points per possession than all but two other teams this season.

The key to Miami’s offense is the allocation of shots to the most efficient players and the most efficient zones on the floor. James, Wade, and Bosh take a lion’s share of the Heat’s shot attempts, and thus score a lion’s share of the points. That only makes sense considering that all three players can create quality shots, shoot around 50 percent from the field in the process, and are capable of drawing a ton of fouls to boost their productivity. Miami posted the third highest free throw rate in the league this season almost entirely because of their three stars, and those frequent trips to the line provide a reliable source of efficient scoring.

Beyond James, Wade, and Bosh, Miami’s role players rely heavily on the most efficient shots in basketball. Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony attempt layups, dunks, and put-backs almost exclusively. Mike Miller, James Jones, and Mike Bibby shoot mostly open three-pointers. The only players really forcing the issue are those capable of balancing their efforts with high efficiency, and the Heat have been incredibly productive as a result. Miami’s offense may not be as fluid as some would like, but the offensive production speaks for itself and will continue to do so throughout the postseason.

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.

Little kid in silly green hat eliminates Avery Bradley in knockout (video)

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, left, gestures as Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) steps on the court in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Sacrament Kings, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Boston. The Celtics won 128-119. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
AP Photo/Steven Senne
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Tired of NBA players dominating kids during the summer?

Here’s the video for you.

Celtics guard Avery Bradley loses in knockout – thanks to the smallest kid in the clip, who’s wearing a shirt way to big for him and a silly green hat.

Brian Robb of Celtics Hub:

Children in NBA player camps everywhere, you have been avenged.

Marc Gasol says he nearly played in Olympics, his foot seems fine

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 24:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates against the Oklahoma City Thunder during  Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on April 24, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Marc Gasol missed the final two months of last season and Olympics with a foot injury.

When will the Grizzlies center return?

Gasol in L’Esportiu, as translated by Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype:

On his foot injury:

“I’m really well and looking forward to starting (the season). I miss the competition, playing and enjoying basketball. All indications are that the foot is fine. I’ve practiced with the (Girona basketball club) juniors all I could, especially half-court sets.”

On almost making it to the Olympic Games:

“I was a couple of weeks away.”

After hurting his foot, it always seemed highly improbably Gasol would play in the Rio Games. But maybe he wasn’t that far off.

It’d be a huge boost to Memphis if Gasol is healthy as he sounds. The Grizzlies kept their window for winning open by re-signing Mike Conley and signing Chandler Parsons this summer, but Gasol is central to that. If healthy, Gasol is in the running for the NBA’s best center.  Memphis went 30-22 with him and 12-18 without him last season (though other injuries contributed to the downfall).