NBA Playoffs: James, Wade defeat Celtics, their demons

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In the summer of 2007, a former league MVP and a perennial All-Star joined a franchise player to form a group that, when healthy, dominated the NBA’s Eastern Conference and kept its two best players from reaching an NBA Finals. They took out LeBron James’ Cavaliers in 2008 in an amazing seven-game series that culminated in a duel for the ages between James and Paul Pierce. In 2010, they sent Dwyane Wade home, despite Wade doing everything humanly possible to keep his hopelessly over-matched team alive. In those same playoffs, they humilated and eliminated LeBron James, setting in motion a chain of events that led to LeBron leaving Cleveland.

Three years later, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, along with Chris Bosh teamed up, hoping to do to the Celtics what the Celtics had been able to do to them. On Wednesday night, they achieved that goal, beating the Celtics 97-87 and advancing to the Conference Finals.

Game 5 wasn’t simply a matchup of two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference — it was the culmination of what had become a personal mission for James and Wade. The game played out accordingly.

The best version of the Heat did not show up in Game 5. They failed to move the ball, Joel Anthony’s foul trouble kept them from putting the kind of defensive pressure on Boston that they wanted to, and they failed to create looks for their spot up-shooters outside or big men inside.

However, the best versions of Wade and James did show up, and the Heat are now moving on to the Conference Finals. Wade was masterful throughout the game, especially in the first half. He slithered through traps, attacked the rim with abandon, hit his mid-range jumpers, and kept the Boston defense completely befuddled throughout the game. Just like they did in Game 4, the Heat spent most of the game down by two or three possessions, but Wade kept them in the game through his sheer brilliance.

For his part, James started the game slowly. His drives to the rim failed to yield positive results, and his usually-crisp passing was off the mark all night long. But he more than made up for it with his outside shooting, especially late in the game. James got himself going with some long jumpers in the third quarter, and that set up one of the best clutch performances of his career late in the fourth quarter.

With Boston up five and just under four minutes left to play, Kevin Garnett missed a mid-range jumper that probably would have put the game away for Boston. It caromed harmlessly off the rim, and LeBron found James Jones for an open three in transition that cut the Boston lead to two. After a Chris Bosh dunk and a missed Paul Pierce layup, the score was tied with just over two minutes to play, the ball found itself in LeBron’s hands with time winding down off the shot clock. James then calmly drained a clutch three directly in Paul Pierce’s face. Just over a minute later, he dribbled down the clock and hit another one to put the Heat up by six, then stole the ensuing Celtic inbound pass and dunked it to seal the game and the series for the Heat.

It was the perfect way for the Heat to end the conference semifinals. They beat the Celtics by hanging tough all game, wearing them down, and out-executing them in crunch time, which was supposed to be Boston’s MO. The player who supposedly couldn’t make a clutch shot all season long tore out Boston’s heart down the stretch for the second time in as many games — the two biggest games of the Heat’s season.

Tonight will be Miami’s night. They beat the team they were built to beat, and they did it by overcoming their one Achilles’ heel throughout the regular season — their ability to close out tight games against good teams. For tonight, the Heat have answered all the questions that were asked of them all season long. The last two defending champions, the ones who were supposed to punish the Heat for their audacity during the off-season, are out of the picture. And the Heat remain, on top of the league. For tonight.

Tomorrow, reality will set in. Unless Atlanta can win two games in a row against Chicago (I mean, never say never, but…), the Heat have a date with the team with the best regular-season record in the league, a defense even better than Boston’s, and a player better and more explosive than anybody on the Celtic roster. And if they want to get to the finals, they’ll have to win at least one game in Chicago, thanks to the fact they let all three of their games against the Bulls slip through their fingers in the regular season.

The Heat accomplished a huge feat on Wednesday night, and James and Wade now have the Boston monkey off their backs. But they’re still only halfway to their ultimate goal, the one goal they need to achieve to justify their hype, and they’ll have to pass tests that could well be tougher than the ones they’ve faced to achieve it. The Heat should savor this night. Because rest assured, if the Heat come up short against Chicago or fail to win the Finals, it won’t be remembered for long.

Kevin Durant trolls Westbrook, haters with cupcake hat — now topped with a ring

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Back when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were breaking into the NBA together and learning how to win together, one of their veteran mentors was tough guy Kendrick Perkins. When Perkins thought someone was acting soft, he called that player a “cupcake.”

When news broke on the Fourth of July last summer that Durant was leaving OKC for Golden State, the NBA world freaked out. Except for Westbrook. He just posted one Instagram photo that day — a tiered tray of red, white, and blue cupcakes. It was meant as a subtle jab at Durant, but when word got out (via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated) what it meant, Thunder fans embraced it and had cupcake signs and clothing made for Durant’s return to Oklahoma City.

Durant had the last laugh — he’s got a new hat with a cupcake on it, topped by a ring.

Well played Durant. Well played.

Another report Rockets “aggressively” trying to clear cap space to chase Chris Paul

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Daryl Morey is big game hunting. Again.

The Rockets, with James Harden running Mike D’Antoni’s offense, made a leap up to the NBA’s second tier last season — then landed with a playoff thud. The team should be better the second season in the same system, but to get past the Warriors, the Rockets need more talent.

Hence the Rockets are going to chase Chris Paul. That’s not new news to anyone paying attention, but Chris Haynes laid it out in more detail in on SportsCenter.

The Rockets need talent and Chris Paul is unquestionably that. He and James Harden could figure out how to play together.

The problem is money. Chris Paul is going to demand max or near-max money, so close to $30 million. The Rockets enter the summer with about $10 million. The Rockets need to clear cap space and are ready to deal so long as they don’t take contracts back. Lou Williams will make $7 million next season, so even moving him and Patrick Beverley is not enough to land a Chris Paul or Paul Millsap. Moving Ryan Anderson ($19.6 million) or Eric Gordon ($12.9 million) helps much more.

That Morey is being aggressive isn’t the news, the question is can he find a willing partner to lower some money off his cap and give him a sense of what is to come. CP3 is going to meet with a lot of teams, but the Clippers do have advantages and are the favorites to retain him.

Jimmy Butler trade sets the stage for looming free agency

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(AP) — As draft night approached, some of the heavy hitters in the NBA – Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, Boston, the Clippers among them – were jockeying, making calls and looking for deals to try to position themselves to make a run at the Golden State juggernaut.

The Warriors’ greatness has forced the rest of the league to do deep self-examination and be aggressive in upgrading their rosters if they’re even going to have a chance to compete. The Celtics and Cavaliers were looking hard at Pacers star Paul George and Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, the Rockets and Spurs were looking at clearing cap space to make a run at some big-name free agents next week and the Knicks were, well, the Knicks.

Draft night always lays the groundwork for what will happen when the circus (officially known as free agency) begins on July 1. And with all of those contenders looking to make a splash, the biggest move was made by … the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Wolves reunited Tom Thibodeau with Butler, giving up two promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to land one of the best two-way players in the game. The move should jumpstart Minnesota’s pursuit of its first playoff spot since 2004 and, the Wolves hope, pave the way for success in free agency.

“I think it will (help) a lot,” Thibodeau said. “With players, they look around the league, they see the makeup of the team, they see how they play, play together. That’s the main thing. Both offensively and defensively.”

The Timberwolves have long had difficulty attracting free agents to a relatively small market that spends four months of the year covered in ice and snow. Landing a top-15 player like Butler to team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins sends a sign of how aggressive the teams could be.

The Bulls plunged head-first into a rebuild with the decision, and now it’s up to the Pacers to decide if they want to do the same.

Much to the dismay of Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, George let it be known last week that he did not plan to re-sign in Indiana when he becomes a free agent next summer. Most of the league assumes that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, who appear to be in a tug-of-war with the rival Celtics for George’s attention.

“I’m confident we’ll get something,” Pritchard told reporters in Indianapolis on Friday.

One of the big markets affected on Thursday night was at point guard, the deepest position in the league. Philadelphia, the Lakers, Sacramento, New York and Dallas all drafted point guards in the top 10, which could diminish the options for veterans like Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Jeff Teague and Patty Mills.

The elite point guards available – Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry – should have no trouble finding significant contracts. With Tony Parker suffering a serious injury in the playoffs, the Spurs were reportedly trying to clear space to make a run at Paul, who is widely considered the best point guard in the league. Paul has spent the last six seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, but has yet to advance to the Western Conference finals.

The Clippers are trying to make a decision about retooling around the core of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but really it’s a decision that depends largely on Paul’s thinking. He has long struggled to win big in the postseason, and heading to San Antonio to join with Kawhi Leonard or Houston to team up with James Harden could prove to be more attractive.

Lowry figures to remain in Toronto with a Raptors franchise that he has helped put back on the map, but after that there will be few teams in the market for a high-priced starting point guard. Denver, Utah, New York and Indiana could wade into those waters. But if they look at themselves as still being a couple of year away, they might be hesitant to spend big bucks on a veteran.

Other big names available include Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Andre Iguodala. And while some of the very biggest names like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry figure to stay put, it only ramps up the sense of urgency for teams that have big holes to fill.

The clock is ticking and Thursday night provided the first steps toward making big improvements to the roster.

The Timberwolves rocked the boat with Butler, but the waters were calm after that, which should only mean one thing: It’s about to get real choppy when the clock strikes midnight on July 1.

 

Report: Dallas picks up option on Yogi Ferrell for next season. As expected.

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When teams sign a guy out of the D-League, or late second-round picks/undrafted guys as you see this summer, they are often announced as “a three-year deal.” The reality, this is a non-guaranteed contract (or at most a guaranteed contract for a short period of time) with team options for future years.

Why teams do that is guys like Yogi Ferrell.

Dallas snapped him up out of the D-League last season when they needed a point guard, and Ferrell proved to be a solid rotation-level player to bring off the bench. With that Dallas now has the option to bring him back at a good price next season, and they will do just that, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Sources say the Mavs have informed PG Yogi Ferrell that they are picking up his team option for next season, an easy decision after he proved himself capable of being a rotation player after his promotion from the D-League.

Ferrell will make $1.3 million next season, a steal for a rotation player. Dallas needs that, because the cost of keeping Nerlens Noel could push the Mavericks close to the luxury tax.

If Ferrell keeps playing like he did last season, and his big payday is coming in a couple of years.