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.

Kobe Bryant sends inspirational recovery message to Gordon Hayward

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Kobe Bryant has been there. He tore his Achilles at an age most players would have said: “that’s it, I’m out.” Not Kobe. He fought through it, came back, and was able to leave the game on his terms — and with a 60-point night.

So when Kobe sends an Instagram recovery message to Gordon Hayward, he knows of what he speaks.

Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish for the day back, the game back THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you. Time to move on and focus on doing everything in your power to prepare for surgery, ask all the questions to be sure you understand fully the procedure so that you may visualize it in your subconscious while being operated on and better the chance of it’s success. Then focus on the recovery process day by day by day. It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted. This will also mean that when you return you will have a new perspective. You will be so appreciative of being able to stand, walk, run that you will train harder than you ever have. You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always.

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The message was vintage Kobe, all about the drive and steps to recovery. Focus on the next thing, don’t let any obstacles stop you.

Let’s just hope Hayward can take this to heart and make a full recovery.

PBT Podcast: Gordon Hayward injury, Celtics’ future, opening night news

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The buzz of the NBA’s opening night was killed just a 5:15 into the first game when Gordon Hayward went down with what could be a season-ending ankle and leg injury.

What’s next for Boston now? Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports get into that with this latest PBT Podcast.

They also discuss the opening night game between the Celtics and Cavaliers and what we can take away from it, same with the Houston Rockets upset of the Golden State Warriors. The pair also gets into the Nikola Mirotic/Bobby Portis incident in Chicago (this was recorded just before the Portis suspension came down), the LaMarcus Aldridge extension with the Spurs, and if Joel Embiid should be ticked about being on a minutes limit to start the season.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Michael Jordan scores again, this time with his Jumpman logo

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is showing he still has the ability to score big – even though he hasn’t played in nearly 15 years.

The Hornets owner’s latest slam dunk off the court might come by way of the NBA’s new uniform contract with Nike.

Since the Jordan Brand is a Nike subsidiary and the namesake of the six-time NBA champion, the Hornets will be the only NBA team to wear the Jordan Brand “Jumpman” logo on their uniforms this season. That would appear to be a merchandising windfall.

After the switch from Adidas, the other 29 NBA teams will wear the Nike “swoosh” on their uniforms.

Charlotte’s All-Star point guard Kemba Walker loves the idea of the Hornets being unique – and knows it’s because of Jordan.

“I mean, he’s the GOAT (Greatest of All Time),” Walker said. “Everybody loves MJ. Everybody loves the way he competed and the way he carries himself.”

Especially off the court.

There isn’t a player in the league who doesn’t want to emulate the NBA’s greatest pitchman.

Though Jordan was not made available to be interviewed for this story, others praised his savvy and longevity.

Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbook is a representative for the Jordan Brand, which sponsors 21 active NBA players. Westbrook is soaking up as much knowledge as he can working with Jordan.

The reigning league MVP said he’s tried to use what Jordan has done with marketing skills as a model for his own success.

“He set himself up, not just on the basketball court, but in business,” Westbrook said. “…. He set himself up tremendously – his kids, his family – by doing the right things on and off the court.”

Jordan last soared through the air in the NBA in 2003. But even now, at 54, his marketability doesn’t seem to be tapering off.

Forbes Magazine estimated last December that Jordan has made $1.7 billion since leaving the University of North Carolina in 1984 – more than any athlete ever.

The vast majority of his wealth has come from marketing, since Jordan earned $93 million during his playing career.

It’s all led to Jordan being able to call his own shots – like exclusive use of the Jumpman logo.

“Well, he does own the team,” Westbook quipped. “He gets to pick that for sure.”

Hornets forward Marvin Williams, who like Jordan played college basketball at North Carolina, said he knows the uniforms will be popular with NBA fans simply because of the “international symbol” Jumpman has become. The logo features a silhouette of Jordan leaping through the air, his legs scissored and one outstretched hand holding a basketball.

“That symbol – I have seen people have it on their clothes, their cars, tattoos,” Williams said.

Larry Miller, president of Jordan Brand, said the logo represents greatness “so it’s a natural fit to have it on the uniforms of MJ’s team.”

“Aligning his team and his brand brings everyone in the Jordan family closer together,” Miller said in an email to The Associated Press, “and it’s a win for both organizations.”

The Hornets recently opened an expanded team store at their downtown arena and are still receiving new Jumpman merchandise, but it’s not staying on the shelves very long.

Hornets executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer Pete Guelli said the team is expecting a “substantial increase” in merchandise sales.

“Being the only Jordan Brand team has a number of inherent advantages,” Guelli said. “It is also our first formal connection to our owner and allows us to explore additional extensions around that unique alignment.”

History indicates it should be a profitable connection.

“Obviously people knew who he was when he played, but when you see a 5- or 6-year-old kid walking around with Jordans on, and know who Michael Jordan is, but have never seen him play,” Williams said. “I have teammates that have never seen him play but know about everything he has done. It speaks volumes not only to what he has done as a player in his career, but it speaks a ton to what he has done post-basketball as well.”

AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

 

Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic out 4-6 weeks with fractured face; Bobby Portis suspended 8 games for punch

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The price to be paid from the fight at Bulls practice Tuesday came into focus Wednesday.

Nikola Mirotic, who suffered a fractured upper jaw and concussion due to a punch from Bobby Portis, will be out at least a month from his injuries, the Bulls announced.

For his part, Portis has been suspended eight games by the Bulls without pay for his actions. He will be able to practice with the team, and can return to action on Nov. 7 against Toronto.

The incident happened during the Bulls practice Monday. This much everyone agrees on: What started as a physical battle for rebounding position around the basket turned into a shoving match between Mirotic and Portis. Also, so far this isn’t unusual, shoving matches happen every once in a while on every team (in every professional sport).

Then Portis punched Mirotic and dropped him, fracturing his face. While the first reports called it a “sucker punch” — likely spin from Mirotic’s agent/camp — Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he didn’t see it as one. Apparently, neither did Robin Lopez, via Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago.

Whether it was a sucker punch or not is moot — you can’t punch and drop a teammate. It crosses the line.

Mirotic may be the Bulls best player, and certainly will be one of their leading scorers this season. Portis has struggled to live up to his early promise and reportedly is frustrated with his role, and by extension Mirotic. That does not mean you can punch the team’s best player in the face. Rather the opposite.

Can you imagine the reaction of any other organization if their best player got punched by a teammate?

The Bulls have to make a decision on what to do with Portis, who has a $2.5 million team option for next season, then would be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019.