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.

51Q: Will we see what the Trail Blazers saw in Evan Turner?

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 27:  NBA player Evan Turner of the Portland Trail Blazers speaks to members of AS Roma during a friendly match against the Boston Bolts at Ohiri Field on July 27, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we 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.

Last season, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey received the most Executive of the Year first-place votes.

This offseason, he signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract.

How could someone who engineered such a smart 2015 offseason – nailing move after move – give Turner so much money? He earned the benefit of the doubt by rebuilding on the fly without LaMarcus Aldridge, but Olshey spent a lot of his capital (and Paul Allen’s money) on a mid-level, seemingly ill-fitting small forward.

Is this another example of Olshey outfoxing us, or did he finally get tripped up?

I expected brilliance from Portland this summer given Olshey’s successful retool around Damian Lillard last year, when Aldridge bolted. Olshey traded Nicolas Batum for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson, signed Al-Farouq Aminu (four years, $30 million) and Ed Davis (three years, $20 million) to team-friendly contracts, traded a late first-rounder for Mason Plumlee, practically got Maurice Harkless for free and carved out bigger roles for C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard by letting Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk. The Batum trade is the only move that’s not a clear victory, but Batum was headed into unrestricted free agency and might have left Portland empty-handed, and the 21-year-old Vonleh could still develop.

Not only did the younger Trail Blazers come together far more quickly than expected, winning 44 games and a playoff series, they did so under budget. Portland had enough cap space at the trade deadline to extract a first-rounder for eating Anderson Varejao‘s contract – the type of move usually reserved for tankers like the 76ers.

The 2016 offseason brought even more possibilities. Thanks to low cap holds for Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless, the Blazers were flush with cap space.

And they spent a big chunk of it on… Evan Turner.

Turner is an alright player, but I don’t think he’s worth $17.5 million per year in a vacuum – and Portland presents a tough fit.

His strengths – passing for his position, mid-range shot creation – matter less on team where the ball is frequently in Lillard’s or McCollum’s hands. Portland shouldn’t take the ball from Lillard and McCollum to give Turner more touches, either.

When off the ball, Turner’s poor outside shooting is a liability to efficient scoring and floor spacing. He made 24% of his 3-pointers last season and 30% for his career. Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts believes Turner will shoot better in Portland, but that optimism is usually wishful thinking. For his part, Turner sounds more focused on the mid-range, where he’s not efficient enough to take shots from the typical looks generated by Stotts’ space-strong scheme.

Portland could use defensive help, and Turner is fine at that end. But he’s not the stopper his 6-foot-7 frame would suggest. He’s just not quick or bouncy enough to stay with many opponents.

It just doesn’t add up – unless Olshey knows what he’s doing, which he might. After impressing so much in his other dealings, Olshey has put the spotlight on Turner this season – with the rest of us watching to see just how Turner will add $70 million of value to the Trail Blazers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tells terrible joke at Bucks media day (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to his foul during a 103-90 Los Angeles Clippers win at Staples Center on December 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Thankfully, Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lucrative career and doesn’t need  to make ends meet through stand-up comedy:

Mitch McGary: ‘I messed up in my career in college, and now I’m kind of messing up my career here’

2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day
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Mitch McGary declared for the NBA draft rather than serve a year-long suspension for marijuana in college. The Thunder big man was suspended twice – for a total of 15 games – this offseason for violating the NBA’s marijuana policy.

Oklahoma City has 16 players, one more than the regular-season roster limit, and McGary appears to be the odd man out. He has one guaranteed season remaining on his contract, but his overall behavior hurts his chances of getting a second shot with another NBA team.

In this backdrop, McGary tries to make a case for himself.

McGary, via Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

“I would love to stay here and play here with new guys coming in; it would be very tough for me to get minutes here,” McGary said. “I’d love to stay with this organization. This is hands down like the best organization that had treats for you, cares for you, does everything for you, pretty much hand-feeds you. I’ve known that from guys around the league have said this is the organization to be with, so obviously I don’t want to leave.”

“If someone is willing to give me an opportunity to play, I just want to play ball, that’s it. Enough with the shenanigans. Hey, I messed up in my career in college, and now I’m kind of messing up my career here. But I’ve always gotten over that adversity and that’s what makes me a stronger person, and I think I’ve grown from this, even though it’s only been a few weeks since I’ve gotten handed the other suspension.

Said McGary: “Everybody is going to make mistakes. But I just don’t want to let this define me as a player.

McGary has been suspended for at least 720 minutes (15 games). He has played 557 minutes in the NBA.

Brett Brown assures Nerlens Noel he’ll get paid if he plays inside

Boston Celtics Vs. Philadelphia 76ers Exhibition Game
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As Nerlens Noel pointed out, the 76ers have too many young, talented big men – which is the biggest reason Philadelphia probably won’t extend Noel’s contract by the Oct. 31 deadline.

That has to be a little disappointing for Noel, who didn’t ask to be drafted by a franchise more preoccupied with asset accumulation than producing a winning fit and has an injury that lends itself to taking guaranteed money now.

But this isn’t Noel’s last chance to get paid, and his coach doesn’t want him sulking while battling Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid for minutes and space.

Brett Brown, via Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Brown wants him to focus on running rim to rim, scoring around the basket and being a defensive stopper.

“Personally, I don’t care if he ever makes a jump shot for the rest of his life,” the coach said. “I mean that. That’s not how his bread is buttered.”

“Nerlens has got elite gifts,” Brown said. “He’s as athletic and quick off the floor and quick rim to rim as anyone that I’ve coached, as any big man in the league.”

“Do your job and we will help you,” he added. “The league will reward that. The 76ers will reward that. He will be rewarded for playing like that.”

Brown is right. There’s no better way for Noel to earn money than by playing well. That means playing energetic defense, protecting the rim and hounding guards on hedges, and actively seeking easy looks near the basket on the other end.

If the 76ers trade him or Okafor before the season, Noel might even still get an extension. Absent that, he’ll head into restricted free agency.

If he’s coming off a year of playing to his strengths, it will be much more lucrative.