NBA Playoff Preview: Miami vs. Philadelphia

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SEASON RECORDS

Heat:  58-24 (No. 2 seed)
76ers: 41-41  (No. 7 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Miami swept the season series, winning all three contests by an average of just over 10 points per game. If there’s a bright side for the Sixers, it’s that two of the three meetings came very early in the season, before the team really started to jell and show improvement under Doug Collins.

KEY INJURIES

Heat: Udonis Haslem is unlikely to be ready for the start of the playoffs, as he’s still recovering from a torn ligament in his left foot that he suffered back in November. He’s been seen on the court getting some practice work in, but Miami isn’t in any hurry to rush him back.

Mike Miller has been playing through a sprained thumb, which he aggravated in Monday’s win over the Hawks. He sprained his ankle in the second half of that one as well, but should be ready for Game 1.

76ers: Lou Williams missed the team’s last five regular season games with a hamstring injury, but the good news is that he did go through practice on Tuesday and should be ready to go on Saturday.

Andre Iguodala was held out of the team’s last two regular season games to give his right knee tendinitis a chance to calm down, but he is also expected back for Game 1.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Heat: Offense: 109.3 (3rd), Defense: 100.8 (5th)

76ers: Offense: 104.1 (17th), Defense: 102.5 (10th)

THREE KEY HEAT:

LeBron James: The two-time defending league MVP won’t get a third this year, but that’s more due to a lack of interest from the voters than his own production. James has been as good as ever this season, learning to work alongside another legitimate superstar while still producing at an average of almost 27 points per game, along with over seven rebounds and seven assists.

Dwyane Wade: In a manner similar to James, Wade has done just fine adjusting to the presence of another ball-dominant superstar. While his assists are down almost two per game thanks to James initiating his fair share of possessions, Wade has increased his rebounding by almost that same margin. And, he’s been able to increase his activity on the defensive end of the floor, which has led to Miami emerging as the league’s most dangerous team in transition when Wade and James are leading the break.

Mike Bibby: Sure, Chris Bosh is the third name that automatically comes to mind when discussing this Miami Heat team. But the Sixers rely heavily on the guard spot to provide scoring and to initiate things for others, and are deep at the position with Jrue Holiday and Williams. Bibby’s more-than-questionable defense will be put to the test in Round 1 of the playoffs.

THREE KEY SIXERS:

Andre Iguodala: The Sixers need Iguodala to gain some semblance of the star performer we saw glimpses of last season. Doug Collins has done an excellent job molding the Sixers into a cohesive unit, but they need a star-level performance out of someone to have a chance against this loaded Heat team, and Iguodala can be that guy.

Elton Brand: The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Brand must exert himself and impact the game down low for the Sixers. Miami plays excellent team defense, but if Brand can score regularly when he gets his chances, that will help immensely in opening things up for the talented Philadelphia guards.

Lou Williams: The health of Williams can’t be overstated in terms of the Sixers’ chances in this series. He provides consistent and steady scoring off the bench at the guard spot in relatively limited minutes, and is vital to the offensive success of a team that at times has trouble putting up points.

OUTLOOK

The Heat have been the season’s biggest ongoing storyline, and that isn’t likely to change once the postseason begins. The Big Three of Wade, James, and Bosh accounted for a combined average of 70.9 points per game, and they’re going to need to continue that level of production — as well as get their teammates to step it up a notch — if their success is to continue in the playoffs.

That’s the challenge for the Sixers, and it appears to be a monumental one. Philadelphia can defend, and will likely be able to keep Miami in check on the offensive end of the floor. But scoring will be an issue for them, and they’ll need huge, sustained performances from Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young inside to get easy baskets down low when the Heat extend their defense on the perimeter. They’ll also need Williams and Iguodala to play through their recent injuries to 100 percent of their capabilities if the Sixers are to steal a game or two in this series, but we won’t know if that’s possible until we get a glimpse of the team in the first game of the series.

PREDICTION

Unfortunately for the Sixers, this is close to a perfect matchup for the untested Heat as they open the postseason. Not a ton of size inside, and perimeter players that are more than solid, but who are no match for the likes of James and Wade.

The bottom line is that Philadelphia finished the season as just a .500 team in the watered-down Eastern Conference, and it will show in this series. Doug Collins may be able to squeeze one win out of his team, but probably nothing more than that. It might be a sweep, but Miami may slip up in one of the games, simply due to a letdown of intensity once the team realizes how much of a foregone conclusion this series actually is.

Heat in five.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.