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NBA Playoffs: Heat complement their star power with depth, take Game 4

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The Chicago Bulls finished with a better regular-season record than the star-studded Miami Heat for two reasons: superior depth and better play in close games. On Tuesday night, the Heat flipped the script on the Bulls, and took a commanding 3-1 series lead thanks to superior depth and late-game execution.

All season long, the Bulls have worn down opponents thanks to their endless array of effective role players and defenders; Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, and C.J. Watson were just as important to the Bulls’ success as anything else was.

The Heat, meanwhile, looked painfully thin for most of the year. Udonis Haslem missed nearly the entire season with foot injuries, thumb injuries and hesitant play kept Mike Miller from being effective all season long, Mario Chalmers was inconsistency incarnate, and the Heat’s three seven-footers have all spent most of the playoffs on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, with Wade having one of the worst games of his career, LeBron being forced to work for every single point or assist, and Bosh being shut down by Joakim Noah and smart Chicago double-teams, the Heat had to rely on their bench to save them. Remarkably, they did.

Mike Miller was an insane +36 in 26 minutes, and had what can only be considered a renaissance game. He finally stopped hesitating on the court, and started doing what he’s always done best — make jump shots. In a classic case of “don’t think, just shoot,” Miller showed no hesitation on his jump shot, draining two catch-and-shoot threes and three mid-range jumpers millseconds after he caught the ball. One of his made jumpers was a step-back off the dribble, which shows just how high Miller’s confidence was — he only took a handful of those shots in the entire regular season, let alone made any.

Mario Chalmers never lacks for confidence, and the mercurial guard came off the bench to score nine quick points and snag four steals, providing a needed boost of energy. Udonis Haslem didn’t score a single point, but his rebounding and defense were invaluable, and the Heat were +25 in his 34 minutes.

Chicago’s bench, meanwhile, failed to provide the spark it usually does. Kyle Korver’s shot remains missing, Taj Gibson went scoreless with one rebound in 10 minutes, and a leg injury limited Omer Asik to only two minutes of play. Without their stellar bench there to spell them effectively, the Chicago starters were forced to play 44+ minutes apiece, and the fatigue eventually became to much for them as the game wore on.

Miami’s bench players were the ones who kept the team alive through most of the game, but it was the team’s superstars that sealed the deal. LeBron James scored or assisted on 10 of Miami’s 22 fourth-quarter points, and his defense on Derrick Rose late was key down the stretch. Chris Bosh drew a key flagrant foul with just under five minutes to play, and made the last field goal of regulation on a jumper with 1:14 remaining and the Heat trailing by a point.

In overtime, the big 3 accounted for all 16 of Miami’s points, and Wade added two blocks and a steal in the extra period. It was a close game, it was an ugly game, it was the kind of game Chicago wanted, but they simply weren’t able to hold off Miami’s Big 3 when the game was on the line.

Now Chicago will have to win three games in a row to survive the Heat and move onto The Finals. The series isn’t over yet — Chicago only has to win one road game to survive, and their losses have all been competitive — but it looks like the Heat’s mixture of star power and their unlikely depth and ability to close out tough games may prove to be too much for Chicago in this series

Phil Jackson’s reaction to Kristaps Porzingis getting turned upside down feels about right

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New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis is the future of the franchise, so any time he’s upended and nearly lands on his noggin it’s a cause for concern. To say the least.

That’s what happened on Monday night, as Porzingis got turned upside down during a play near the basket during a game against the Detroit Pistons.

Porzingis was OK on the play, and Detroit big man Andre Drummond did his best to help catch him so nothing too scary happened.

Still, Knicks president Phil Jackson had a pretty hilarious reaction to the whole thing. I guess that’s what happens when you watch your basketball life flash before your eyes.

Porzingis was unhurt and played a full 37 minutes. New York beat Detroit, 109-95.

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

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