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.

Zach Randolph receives standing ovation in first game back after mother’s passing

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Zach Randolph was away from the Memphis Grizzlies and its fans for seven games to deal with the passing of his mother, Mae. When he returned to the floor, something special was waiting for him.

During Z-Bo’s arrival against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, fans at FedEx Forum gave Randolph a standing ovation in support of his difficult time.

From ESPN NBA:

Randolph dropped 12 points, collected 14 rebounds, and added an assist as the Grizzlies beat the Sixers, 96-91, in a game that went down to the wire.

Teammates of Randolph — like Marc Gasol — were glad to have him back and let Randolph know he was being thought about during his absence.

Gasol even took to Twitter after the game in a heartwarming gesture:

Cavs’ J.R. Smith sidelined with hyperextended left knee

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CLEVELAND (AP) Cavaliers starting shooting guard J.R. Smith will miss at least one game – and probably more – with a hyperextended left knee.

The Cavs said an MRI taken on Smith’s knee on Tuesday did not reveal any structural damage, but he will sit out Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks. Smith got hurt in the first quarter of Cleveland’s win in Toronto on Monday night.

While his teammates flew to New York, Smith returned to Cleveland to undergo tests. The team said he is day to day while he receives additional treatment.

Smith’s knee buckled after he dropped a short shot in the lane in a 116-112 win over the Raptors. He had been bothered by soreness in his knee for the past week, and that may have contributed to his slow start this season.

Smith, who did not report to training camp before signing a four-year, $57 million contract before the opener, is averaging just 7.8 points and shooting a career-worst 31 percent from the floor. He’s shooting only 19 percent (8 of 42) in his last six games.

It’s not clear who will take Smith’s spot while he’s out. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has several options, including veterans Mike Dunleavy and Richard Jefferson. On Monday, Lue gave more playing time to DeAndre Liggins, who scored five points as the Cavs beat the Raptors for the third time this season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Even John Wall’s 52 can’t get Wizards win

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) goes to the basket past Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo, of the Republic of Congo, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Washington. The Magic won 124-116. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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We know you were busy Tuesday night assembling your hipster nativity scene — complete with bacon — so here are the three big takeaways from the night around the NBA.

1) John Wall puts up career-best 52, but that’s not enough to get Wizards win.
There is no more disappointing team in the NBA than the Washington Wizards, and Tuesday we saw exactly why. This season the Wizards have gotten good play from Bradley Beal (when healthy he has shot 41.5 percent from three and scored 21.4 points per game), Otto Porter (who has been sneaky good averaging 14.4 points on 53.9 percent shooting, plus 7.9 rebounds a game), and in particular John Wall. But that hasn’t been enough to overcome a poor defense and indifferent bench.

Tuesday night Wall had a career game — 52 points on 18-of-31 shooting, plus eight assists. He was getting into the middle of a good Orlando defense off the pick-and-roll and hitting shots he hasn’t consistently over the course of his career, plus of course getting his buckets in transition. He was fantastic.

It didn’t matter, Washington still lost to the Magic 124-116. Orlando has a bottom five offense, yet the Wizards allowed them 65 points in the first half and 96 points after three — the Magic were getting the shots they wanted, and these are NBA players if you let them do that they will hit those shots. The Wizards were bad defensively the night before against Brooklyn but still won because, well, Brooklyn. Orlando is too good for that. It was all the same problems for Washington, primarily an indifferent defense and a serious lack of depth.

But it’s not just the defense and bench — the issues are deeper than that. Wall’s postgame quote sums up the problem and should depress Wizards fans.

“Not even just defense, just playing hard. Our job is to wake up and just play hard. Before you made it to the NBA or got any college scholarships, you played hard everyday to get to where you wanted to. To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to just do waking up.”

2) Zach Randolph returns and Grizzlies keep on winning. It was great to see Zach Randolph back on the court — he had missed seven games following the death of his mother and the home crowd in Memphis roared their support when he entered the game.

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The Grizzlies beat a shorthanded Sixers team (no Joel Embiid, second night of a back-to-back) 96-91, thanks to Marc Gasol’s 26 points and 12 rebounds (the night after his first triple-double of the season). While it may not have been the most impressive outing, the victory gives Memphis a four game winning streak — without Mike Conley. That’s huge. We said when Conley went down for six weeks (give or take) that the Grizzlies needed to find a way to stay afloat in the West playoff race, and the Grizzlies have gone 4-1. Granted, all the teams they beat are below .500, but they are beating the teams in front of them. Things are about to get tough (the next four games are Portland, Golden State, then a home-and-home with Cleveland) but this little streak is helping Memphis keep it’s head above water with it’s point guard out. This team always just seems to find a way.

3) Carmelo Anthony puts up 35, Knicks pick up a solid win. This game was close through the first half, but if you watched it you kept thinking, “the Knicks are going to get on a run and blow this thing open at some point.” New York just missed shots in the first 24 minutes — they started 0-of-11 from three — but the looks were often clean and there was a sense those shots were going to start to fall. They did after halftime, and it was the Knicks bench with Carmelo Anthony that went on an 8-0 run late in the third as the Knicks started to pull away and win comfortably over the Heat, 114-103. Depth was key in this game, Miami’s stars (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson) played well but the bench was a mess, while the Knicks got strong performances from their reserves, particularly from Kyle O’Quinn.

Mostly, this was one of those nights where when the Knicks needed a bucket, ‘Melo went and got it. He had 35 points on 27 shots, and while it wasn’t terribly efficient and was the kind of game he can give the Knicks some nights to propel them to a win.

Anthony scores 35, Knicks beat depleted Heat 114-103

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MIAMI (AP) It’s been a long time since the New York Knicks were in this position.

More than three years, to be precise.

Carmelo Anthony matched a season high with 35 points, and the Knicks took advantage of second chances all night to beat the injury-ravaged Miami Heat 114-103 on Tuesday night. At 12-9, New York is three games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2012-13 season.

“Any time you can put together some wins you feel confident, you feel comfortable, you feel like you’re heading in the right direction, and I really feel we’re doing that,” Anthony said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 12 rebounds for New York, which has won four straight. The Knicks lost Derrick Rose to back spasms in the third quarter, but still scored 61 points after halftime.

“We just came out in the second half knowing that we have to win the game and that we have to play better,” Porzingis said.

Goran Dragic scored 29 points and Hassan Whiteside finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds for the Heat, who fell to 2-8 at home. New York had a 31-13 edge in second-chance points, and outscored Miami 56-36 in the paint.

“Sometimes the ball goes that way,” Whiteside said.

The teams were tied at 68 late in the third quarter, when the Knicks went on a 27-13 run over the next eight minutes to take control. Anthony finished 13 for 27 from the field, and Porzingis and Joakim Noah combined for 22 rebounds.

The Heat had nine players, and might not have any more than that until next week. Justise Winslow missed his 12th consecutive game with a sore left wrist, and James Johnson (right rotator cuff), Dion Waiters (groin), Luke Babbitt (right hip) and Josh Richardson (right ankle) were also sidelined.

None are slated to travel for Miami’s three-game, four-day stretch that starts Wednesday in Atlanta. The Heat are leaving some staff in Miami to work with the injured players.

“They’re getting way more work in than they would get on the road,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

TIP-INS

Knicks: Coach Jeff Hornacek is now 1-5 against Miami. He’s beaten every team he’s faced, and has yet to coach against his former Phoenix club. … The Knicks missed their first 11 3-point tries, then made 7 of their last 14. … New York is over .500 this late in a season for the third time in 12 years. … Not a good sign for Wednesday, when Cleveland visits the Knicks: New York is 0-4 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: It was Dragic’s highest-scoring total as a member of the Heat. … Whiteside has led the Heat in rebounds in all 21 games this season. … Miami struggled again from the line, shooting 16 for 27.

ON PHIL

Spoelstra was asked to respond to Knicks President Phil Jackson’s comments last month about the way the Heat had to handle LeBron James when he played in Miami. Spoelstra laughed it off. “I honestly just think he gets bored and likes to throw stuff out there to get everybody all fired up,” Spoelstra said. James and the Cavaliers visit Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

TALL ORDER

Hilarity briefly ensued in the second quarter when the 7-foot-3 Porzingis had a jump ball against Miami’s Tyler Johnson, who might be generously listed at 6-foot-4. Shocking: Porzingis won the tap.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Cleveland on Wednesday, preceding a five-game West Coast trip.

Heat: Visit Atlanta on Wednesday, followed by visits to Cleveland and Chicago.