Miami Heat forward LeBron James hugs teammate Dwyane Wade after defeating the Boston Celtics in Boston

NBA Playoffs: Miami Heat make the leap with overtime win

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Early in the year, it didn’t look like they would ever get here.

Miami struggled in close games. They struggled against good teams. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh played next to each other, not with each other. They took a mountain of criticism.

They weathered it. They matured as a team. They started to figure things out.

Monday night they announced their official arrival.

It’s not just that they won a 98-90 overtime playoff game in the Boston Garden, but how they did it. Playing off each other, interacting and using their athleticism to play good team defense.

The Heat are here. They are contenders. They very likely will come out of the East and may win it all.

“We all know, we struggled earlier in the year trying to find our identity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “Trying to find execution, what we can run, what works for us, where guys are comfortable and we can use their strengths. I think if we didn’t go through all those struggles at the end of games against good teams we probably wouldn’t feel as confident as we do.”

One play in the overtime, the Heat’s second possession, seemed to sum up how far they have come.

Early in the season, it was always LeBron with the ball in his hands late, but one of the lessons learned is how it works better with Wade handling the ball. They ran the Wade/LeBron pick-and-roll, with LeBron setting the pick, Wade came off it but LeBron had virtually slipped it early and was rolling toward the basket. Wade hit LeBron with a bounce pass in the paint and that forced Kevin Garnett to rotate over — then James hit Bosh, who was cutting on the baseline to the basket, with the pass for a easy lay in.

All of the big three touched the ball in quick succession. It’s indefensible. It’s what everyone else in the league feared, that they would start playing off each other well.

Spoelstra seems to keep the Wade/LeBron pick-and-roll in his back pocket, using it sparingly on big occasions. As if he used it too much teams might figure out how to defend it. He broke it out in overtime Monday night and it worked brilliantly.

First overtime possession, Wade came off the pick and slid the ball to LeBron, who isolated on Pierce on the left side and hit a ridiculous fade away over him. (That was not so much the pick-and-roll and mostly just LeBron.) Then came the quick-passing play described above.

The next time Wade went too quickly but still the threat of the play let him get deep into the lane, where he missed an eight-foot floater he normally drains. Wade made up for that a little bit later with a ridiculous three-point shot with West in his face.

But it’s more than that.

On the key basket of the overtime, the Heat ran LeBron off a Bosh pick and the Celtics switched it, happy to have Garnett locked in on LeBron. KG did his job and forced LeBron into a long, contested two that came up short — but the switch meant Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were left to box out Bosh, they couldn’t. He got the dagger tip in. (Sure, you can have a dagger tip in, why not?) The Heat are exploiting the mismatches they create now.

On the other end of the floor, the Heat had a pressure defense that was forcing Celtics turnovers in overtime. Miami’s defense forced the Celtics to shoot 1-for-6 in the extra period. They forced three turnovers. They shut down the Celtics. Granted the Celtics were without Rondo, but the Heat had a part of that too playing physical with him all night.

The Heat are up 3-1 in this series, and they are going to win it. Because they are the better team, the team that creates mismatches and executes under pressure.

They are what everyone hoped or feared they would become — maybe the best team in the NBA.

Report: Trail Blazers signing C.J. McCollum to four-year max contract extension

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 11:  C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers dribbles the ball against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 11, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.  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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Four years ago, C.J. McCollum was playing at Lehigh.

Two years ago, he was barely in the Trail Blazers’ rotation.

Now, McCollum — the reigning Most Improved Player — is set to receive a huge payday.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

McCollum will earn $3,219,579 next season in the final year of his rookie-scale contract. His extension will kick in for the 2017-18 season.

The Trail Blazers could offer McCollum just a four-year extension, because they already made Damian Lillard their designated player with a five-year extension. They could have re-signed McCollum to a five-year deal as a restricted free agent next summer, but they chose this route.

If this is a true max contract, Portland also runs the risk of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement significantly changing McCollum’s max. In max extensions, the salaries are slotted once the cap is set the following offseason. It’s also possible the extension is written now with set salaries based on the projected max, protecting the Trail Blazers in the event of an unexpected max leap. (If McCollum’s salary is set to a number higher than where the max winds up, the salary is amended downward to the max.)

Portland also cuts into its 2017 flexibility, because McCollum will immediately count against the cap at his 2017-18 salary (projected to be about $24 million) rather than what would’ve been his cap hold ($8,048,948). If the Trail Blazers waited, they could have used that $16 million or so difference in cap space then re-signed McCollum with Bird Rights.

So, why go to all this trouble?

Portland locks up a talented 24-year-old through his prime.

The NBA is short on high-end shooting guards, and McCollum was likely to receive considerable interest as a free agent. He could’ve leveraged that into a shorter offer sheet, allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency — meaning potentially an even bigger payout and/or departure — sooner.

McCollum also complements Lillard well. They share playmaking responsibilities in the backcourt, rarely leaving the Trail Blazers without either player on the court. McCollum’s 3-point shooting also makes him a threat when playing with Lillard.

Not long ago, Lillard noted Portland was already playing without an All-Star when so much attention was paid to the Clippers losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But All-Star berths are far from the only one to measure stature.

Now, the Trail Blazers have two players paid like stars, and they’ll depend on Lillard and McCollum to lead the team into the foreseeable future.

Michael Jordan: ‘I can no longer stay silent’ on racial issues

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 01:  Charlotte Hornets owner, Michael Jordan, reacts after a call during their game against the Phoenix Suns at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Michael Jordan might have never said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

But that quote has defined him politically.

Whether the perception has been fair or not, he’s clearly trying to change it.

Jordan in The Undefeated:

As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers. I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.

“I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.

“Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service. I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine. I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans, and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change.

“To support that effort, I am making contributions of $1 million each to two organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

You can read Jordan’s full statement here.

Shaq’s list before leaving Magic for Lakers also included Knicks, Pistons, Heat, Hawks

1 Nov 1996:  Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O''Neal moves down the court during a game against the Phoenix Suns at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.  The Lakers won the game, 96-82.    Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn  /Allsport
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Shaquille O’Neal said he regretted leaving the Magic for the Lakers as a free agent in 1996.

So, why did he bolt Orlando?

It was an intriguing high-stakes saga, and agent Joel Corry — who helped represent O’Neal at the time — retells it with behind-the-scenes detail at CBSSports.com.

One part I found particularly interesting was the rest of Shaq’s list besides the Lakers:

The idea was this: Identify the teams that could get to at least $9 million under the cap without gutting the roster in order to offer a seven-year, $100 million contract voidable after three years, when Shaq would have Bird rights with these teams and could thus opt out to take advantage of his presumably increasing value. Also, if he left Orlando, his preference was to go to a big market. There weren’t many teams that fit all these requirements. This is the list we came up with:

  • NEW YORK KNICKS: This was a longshot from the start, as it was contingent on New York being able to trade Patrick Ewing. The Knicks also went after Jordan, who promptly re-signed with the Bulls on a one-year, $30 million deal. The market was there. But moving Ewing was never really an option. And when they signed free agent Allan Houston for $56 million over seven years, the cap situation just became unworkable. Nothing ever really materialized.
  • DETROIT PISTONS: Detroit was attractive because of 1995 NBA co-Rookie of the Year Grant Hill, who had already earned All-NBA honors in his brief pro career. Allan Houston was also starting to emerge, and the thought of putting Shaq with a scorer like Hill and a shooter like Houston was attractive. But when Houston made his move to New York, this pie-in-the-sky scenario went with him. Plus, frankly, the Pistons never really showed much interest in making a deal for Shaq happen. Detroit was out.
  • MIAMI HEAT: The Heat had the most roster flexibility and potentially the best cap situation of the bunch, but renouncing the rights to Mourning, who was also a free agent, to wipe out his cap hold of 150% of his 1995-96 salary was going to be a necessity. Mourning became a central barometer for all of our negotiations. Mourning had gone No. 2 in the 1992 draft, right behind O’Neal, and their careers had been linked ever since.People casually put them in the same conversation as big men, but Mourning wasn’t the player Shaq was. When Miami signed Mourning to the aforementioned seven-year, $105 million deal, not only did it end any chance of O’Neal going to the Heat, it also served as an easy benchmark contract for Shaq’s personal market.

    No way was O’Neal going to get a penny less than Mourning, and in fact, Armato was adamant that O’Neal get substantially more than Mourning for he did not see them as anything close to the same class of player.

  • ATLANTA HAWKS: While Atlanta wasn’t on our initial list, the Hawks quickly became a viable option when I, along with a colleague, took a call from current Los Angeles Dodgers CEO and President Stan Kasten about the Hawks’ interest in Shaq. Kasten, who was president of both the Hawks and Atlanta Braves at that time, indicated that the merger between Hawks owner Ted Turner’s broadcasting companies (CNN, etc.) and Time Warner would be able to generate significant ancillary income for Shaq.On the basketball side, he viewed Shaq as the missing piece to a championship in Atlanta and was comfortable offering him a seven-year deal averaging somewhere between $10 and $15 million per year. He was not, however, interested in breaking up much of his team to do so.

    This is kind of crazy to look back on, but in 1996, Kasten considered Mookie Blaylock and Christian Laettner to be the Hawks’ foundational players. They weren’t going anywhere. Two other players from a group consisting of Stacey Augmon, Alan Henderson, Grant Long and free agent Steve Smith also needed to be retained.

    This was the snag. After running all the numbers, Smith, an All-Star caliber player, was probably the odd man out, and we didn’t like the idea of losing Smith. Eventually, Atlanta, which had become a legitimate contingency option, fell completely out of consideration when it signed Dikembe Mutombo to a five-year, $50 million deal.

I suggest reading Corry’s account in full.

Suns GM: Phoenix will likely preserve most of $13 million cap space into season

Ryan McDonough
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The Suns have more than $13 million in cap space remaining.

Don’t count on them spending it anytime soon.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

“I’d be surprised if we spent a lot of that cap space now or over the summertime,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “More likely, we’ll preserve most, if not all of it, and go into the season and look at either in-season signings or probably more likely in-season trades that are lopsided where we take back more money than we send out. There are a decent amount of advantages to operating as an under-the-cap team in terms of player aggregation and trades and things like that.”

There’s certainly a logic to maintaining cap space for in-season deals. But the value is far less this year, when multiple teams will have room due to the skyrocketing salary cap. If they have their eyes on getting positive assets in salary dumps, the Suns will have to compete with other teams — and settle for weaker positive assets.

That still might be the right course if Phoenix doesn’t like any remaining free agents. (This removes one possible destination for Maurice Harkless, whose standoff with the Trail Blazers appears more likely to drag on.)

The Suns have 15 players — the regular-season roster limit — though John Jenkins and Alan Williams have unguaranteed deals. Phoenix could sign another low-priced player or two to compete in training camp, but that’s small potatoes. The Suns appear set to hoard their cap space.

The catch: This is also what cheap teams say. They hide their frugality by saying they’re maximizing flexibility. It’s impossible to tell the difference at this stage. So, keep an eye on Phoenix’s in-season moves.