NBA Playoffs: The Heat outlast the Celtics

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The first half of Miami’s 98-90 overtime win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals consisted of two very good teams executing very well. The second half of the game was a battle of wills — the kind of game the Miami Heat weren’t supposed to be able to win against the Celtics. They came out on top anyways, and the Celtics will now have to win three games in a row to avoid an early summer vacation.

Boston held the lead for most of the first half thanks to some crisp ball movement, timely shooting, and an absolutely brilliant performance from Paul Pierce, who put the Celtics on his back with a wide variety of gritty drives to the baskets and jumpers from nearly every spot on the floor. The injured Rajon Rondo wasn’t his usual self, but he was still able to keep the Heat honest by attacking the basket with his one good hand and finding shooters. More importantly, the bench was able to pick up the slack for Rondo, outscoring Miami’s reserves 21-7 on the night. Delonte West in particular continued to play tough defense and hit timely shots — his play has been a hugely pleasant surprise for Boston in this series.

The Heat kept the Celtics from opening up a big lead by staying in attack mode throughout the first half. LeBron James set the tone early by making a layup while absorbing a flagrant foul from Jermaine O’Neal, and the Heat never stopped attacking after that. James and Wade used each other’s aggressiveness to find their own lanes to the basket, and combined to shoot 23 free throws on the night. And after a slow start, Chris Bosh finally got involved by being active in the paint, fighting for every loose ball, and out-toughing Kevin Garnett, who finished the game with 0 offensive rebounds and a 1-10 shooting performance.

The second half was an all-out war. Neither team was able to get much offense going, or get any sort of comfortable lead, although Boston had a few chances to do so. The defenses swarmed, and the offenses got stagnant. There were no fast-break opportunities to speak of, and the teams didn’t seem interested in starting their sets until there were 12 seconds left on the shot clock.

Late in the game, Boston looked to have Miami in a hole with a pair of three-pointers that put the Celtics up three with just over two minutes remaining, but LeBron James was too much for Boston down the stretch. James, whose failures in the clutch made him a constant subject of criticism throughout the season and likely cost him his third consecutive MVP award, was superlative when it mattered most.

James scored 11 of the Heat’s final 13 points in regulation, and scored or assisted on the first two baskets of overtime, which put the Heat up for good. LeBron gave the Celtics a chance to win when he turned the ball over just before the end of regulation, and Bosh and Wade were the ones who put the final nails in the coffin in overtime, but the two-time MVP was the difference between success and failure for the Heat on Monday night.

What does this mean for the Heat? All it tells us is something we should have known long ago: there is not some curse on or inherent flaw in this team that makes it unable to win close games. The Heat can play tough, the Heat can win ugly, and the Heat can win close games against experienced teams. Past performance does not guarantee future results, and the NBA world was reminded of that in Game 4. That goes both ways — the Heat could easily lose the next close game they find themselves in, and that game could be the one that costs them a championship. Heck, they could still collapse, lose Game 5, and have to win another game in Boston to prevent a Game 7.

We don’t know if the Heat will win the next close game they play in. We don’t know if they’ve fixed whatever seemed to ail them late in regular-season close games. All we know is that (unless home-court advantage plays a major role in the Chicago series), the Heat have played in exactly one close game that truly mattered to their season, and they won it. Going forward, that has to give them confidence. Or maybe it won’t. All we can do is wait and see what this insane collection of talent does while they try and get the nine more wins they need to achieve their ultimate goal.

CJ McCollum on Carmelo, Kanter trade: “Stay woke, it’s a business”

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The most insane NBA offseason in recent memory got weirder this week when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a first round draft pick.

The trade has made many of us wonder just what the on the court play will look like in Oklahoma City this season with a high usage set of players in Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and now Carmelo.

Meanwhile, Kanter had made comments earlier in the week about expressing his appreciation for the fans in Oklahoma City. Having been traded just a few days later, that apparently didn’t sit right for some people. Or at the very least, it appeared to be a teaching moment.

Via Twitter:

There’s no doubt about this fact, and it is hard to try to refute McCollum here. This is the nature of the league and there is no such thing as complete loyalty — at least in the sense of how most people understand it interpersonally — between employers and their employees in the NBA.

Teams are going to trade players to make sure they can win the most games and maximize their profits. Likewise, players should take the biggest contract they can get if they feel that is in their best interest.

In any case, we are all excited to see what kind of shenanigans happen in Oklahoma City next year.

Paul George on Thunder: “This feels like a championship team”

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They have an MVP, top-five NBA player. They have another All-NBA player who is a strong wing defender. They now have an aging all-star who still can get buckets with the best of them. There is a strong collection of role players who can help form a solid defense.

On paper, there’s a lot to like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George realizes that, as he said to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“This feels like a championship team,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m in a good place. I know Russ (Westbrook) is in a good place. Melo is motivated more than ever…You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, (and) we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan), (and) as you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.”

Championships? Plural? That implies the team would stay together, and sorry Thunder fans, but that is far from a sure thing. First, financially there is no realistic way Oklahoma City can afford to sign Russell Westbrook and Paul George max deals (which they both will get) and keep Anthony if he opts into the final year of his contract for just shy of $28 million.

OKC is a small market team that simply would lose a lot of money to keep the band together, and this ownership group traded James Harden out of fear of a massive luxury tax bill. (They will pay a tax bill of about $24 million for this season if the roster stays as is.)

Also, George’s camp made it very clear during the run-up to his trade he plans to test free agency and has a strong lean to the Lakers next season. He may be more likely to stay in OKC now after the trade, but how much more?

However, George is right, this team does look like a roster that could contend for a title most years — and maybe be in the mix this year. We will put aside the Warriors challenge for a moment (they are still the clear favorites if they stay healthy) and get to the big question for the Thunder:

Will their big three learn to sacrifice, learn to mesh, learn to play together as a team as a championship team does fast enough? The 2008 Celtics did, but that team of veterans has been the exception. It took LeBron’s Miami Heat two seasons to learn how to win, and the same when he came back to Cleveland. OKC doesn’t have two seasons, they have to do it fast. It’s possible, but not easy.

George is right, this is an excellent Oklahoma City team. The Thunder are now right in the middle of that second tier in the West with Houston (another team that has to learn to mesh and sacrifice) and the Spurs. That’s a great place to be.

Is it a place George wants to stay? That question will hang over the Thunder all season.

 

Mark Cuban: Trump has “got to be able to take the blowback” from comments

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President Donald Trump used the bully pulpit of his office to, well, bully — he fired shots at the NFL over its concussion protocols and players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he rescinded his invite to the White House to the Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go.

Sports stars fired back. LeBron James called Trump a bum, Chris Paul asked if he didn’t have better things to worry about, and the Warriors said as a team they would use their time in Washington this season to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.” Even supporters of the President, such as Patriots owner Robert Craft, rebuked the president for his comments.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for Meet the Press Trump has to be a big enough man to handle people standing up to him.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport, then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back,” Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for “Meet the Press.”

“So LeBron [James] and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

Unlike previous presidents of both parties, Trump is not good at letting criticism of him and his administration roll off his back to stay focused on his agenda. It’s more personal with him, and that is something Warriors coach Steve Kerr said is a problem for him, and the nation.

Bottom line, NBA players are not going to back off — their base isn’t going to push back against them for their comments. Most are going to nod their heads in agreement. The NBA fan demographic is not the NFL’s. This storyline is far from over.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.