NBA Playoffs: Udonis Haslem is back. Miami just got better.

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When the Heat roster was in upheaval this summer, clearing out cap space to chase a three-man dream team, Udonis Haslem was a free agent. A free agent drawing interest from around the league because every team could use a forward who will do the dirty work and can bury the midrange jumper.

To show how badly they wanted to keep him, pretty much the entire Heat organization showed up for a surprise birthday party at Haslem’s place. Then to show how much they wanted him, each of the Heat’s “big three” took less money so Haslem could be signed to a fair offer.

Wednesday night you saw why.

When the rest of the Heat struggled in the third quarter, Haslem seemed to be everywhere. He shot 4-of-4 in the third quarter (as the first big off the bench) including a couple midrange jumpers, he had a blocked shot, an emphatic dunk, drew a charge and just seemed to be everywhere. After missing most of the season due to a foot injury (he was out from Nov. 20 to the Boston series), you saw how much they needed him. How much they missed him.

For one stretch of more than 11 minutes between the third and fourth quarters, Haslem was the only Heat player to score. He hit 2-of-4 from beyond 16 feet on offense and contested Derrick Rose shots at the rim on defense. He kept them in it and made the fourth quarter run and the Heat win possible.

In the first half he played more than 12 minutes, and the Bulls didn’t grab one offensive rebound in that stretch (they had six before that). He brought the toughness inside that Miami lacked in Game 1 and Zydrunis Ilgauskas is not about to bring.

Haslem changed the game, and the series.

“Now I question myself for not trying him earlier, but there was an incredible unknown,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We hadn’t seen him in a game, our practices at this point are not quite as long as they were midseason. But two days ago before practice I talked with him and there was something, a look in his eye, and I knew it was time.”

The Heat’s backup big men were not able to match the activity level of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik in Game 1, but in Game 2 Haslem did that. He balanced that part of the scales.

He also got very tired at the end, showing the expected conditioning issues after missing so much time. Spoelstra can’t lean on him for heavy minutes, the 23 he played this game were a couple too many.

But he can lean on Haslem. His Heat teammates can lean on Haslem. And that is a huge boost for this team.

Only two of 38 rookies surveyed say No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have class’s best career

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The 76ers drafted Ben Simmons No. 1 last year, believing he’d have the best career of anyone in his draft class. This year, Philadelphia traded up to draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 for the same reason.

Their fellow rookies – Simmons missed all of last season due to injury – aren’t nearly as enthused.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com conducted his annual rookie survey, polling 39 players who weren’t allowed to vote for themselves or college or NBA teammates. Thirty-eight responded to the best-career question:

Which rookie will have the best career?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers — 18.4%
Jayson Tatum, Boston — 18.4%

3. Josh Jackson, Phoenix — 10.5%
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas — 10.5%

5. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento — 7.9%

6. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia — 5.3%
Harry Giles, Sacramento — 5.3%
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 5.3%

Others receiving votes: Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn; John Collins, Atlanta; Jonathan Isaac, Orlando; Luke Kennard, Detroit; Kyle Kuzma, L.A. Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah; Malik Monk, Charlotte

Simmons might not have come to mind to players at the rookie photo shoot, which was for the most recent draft class. And rookies have tended to pick someone other than the No. 1 pick for this question. Anthony Davis in 2012 was the last No. 1 pick to lead voting. Simmons tied for fourth at 6.7% last year – behind Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield. Even Karl-Anthony Towns landed behind Jahlil Okafor in 2015.

But so few votes for Fultz – the consensus top prospect in the draft – is fairly stunning.

Dennis Smith Jr. received the most votes for Rookie of the Year, but at just 25.7%. A large majority of rookies picked someone other than the Mavericks point guard.

Lonzo Ball (71.8% for best playmaker) was the only player to receive a majority of votes in a category. Luke Kennard (48.6% for best shooter) and Smith (43.6% for most athletic), who each tripled second place, came close.

LeBron James reemerged as rookies’ favorite player after a three-year run by Kevin Durant. Maybe that Warriors backlash if finally catching up to Durant?

Kendall Marshall, Marshall Plumlee headline Team USA’s AmeriCup roster

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AmeriCup, previously called the FIBA Americas Championship, lost its luster when FIBA decided the continental tournament wouldn’t double as World Cup qualifying.

But the U.S. is still sending a team, coached by Jeff Van Gundy. The roster (team last season):

  • Billy Baron (UCAM Murcia, Spain)
  • Alec Brown (Windy City Bulls)
  • Larry Drew II (Sioux Falls Skyforce)
  • Reggie Hearn (Reno Bighorns)
  • Darrun Hilliard (Detroit Pistons)
  • Jonathan Holmes (Canton Charge);
  • Kendall Marshall (Reno Bighorns)
  • Xavier Munford (Greensboro Swarm)
  • Marshall Plumlee (New York Knicks)
  • Jameel Warney (Texas Legends)
  • C.J. Williams (Texas Legends)
  • Reggie Williams (Oklahoma City Blue)

The Americans should still be favored, though obviously not as overwhelming as they’d be with NBA players, in a field also comprised of Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Uruguay, Panama and U.S. Virgin Islands.

This will be a good benchmark, as the U.S. might take a similar roster into World Cup qualifying.

Report: Tampering investigation stems from Magic Johnson’s TV interview

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In April, new Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and discussed then-Pacers forward Paul George:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

Now, the Lakers – at Indiana’s request – are being investigated for tampering.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

The investigation, which has been going on since May, stemmed from comments Magic Johnson made on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that angered Pacers owner Herb Simon, according to several NBA officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

This doesn’t mean the Pacers believe Johnson tampered with his televised comments. It seems as if that was the last straw following numerous rumors about George going to Los Angeles.

However, there’s a case Johnson’s televised remarks alone would constitute tampering. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits “assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind (whether disclosed or undisclosed to the NBA), between a player (or any person or entity controlled by, related to, or acting with authority on behalf of, such player) and any Team (or Team Affiliate)” – and even attempts to solicit assurance of intent or understanding – when the player is still under contract with another team. Johnson sure appeared to do that.

But it’d be shocking if Johnson or the Lakers were punished for the interview alone. Indiana probably needs more evidence.

Then again, the arbitrary way the NBA enforces tampering, who knows?

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.