NBA Finals: Miami balances star power with rebounding grit in Game 1 win

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All that it’s taken for the Miami Heat to win games in this year’s playoffs is the ability to maintain reasonable margins. They go on runs, they shut down their opponents’ offensive options, and they stretch their legs with displays of supreme athleticism, but the body of the single-game narrative — the initial 43 or 44 minutes, as it were — is merely a precursor for the ludicrous feats of strength to come. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and co. aren’t merely closers, but the wielders of an unthinkable power; they keep games reasonable so that when the game dwindles to a close, their fundamentally unreasonable level of talent and ability can win most any game outright.

The Dallas Mavericks witnessed Miami’s explosive closing power firsthand in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which was competitive until James and Wade said otherwise. The Heat sealed the game with insane shot-making and excellent chemistry, as the possibility of a Maverick comeback faded suddenly and violently despite the best, futile efforts of Dirk Nowitzki. Neither team played well enough offensively to dominate the initial game of the championship round, but Miami’s brutally effective late-game execution put a winnable game just out of reach for a Dallas team accustomed to late game heroics of their own. The result was a 92-84 Heat win and a 1-0 series lead.

There are elements at work in the game of basketball worth putting under the microscope, but the powers that enable James and Wade to do what they d are hardly worthy of such scientific examination. There are so few answers to be found in the dissection of expert shot-making; the cliché that big players make big plays is only so out of necessity, as the defining moments in sports of all ilks so often escape the bounds of logical analysis. “Sometimes it’s not about the schemes,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said following Game 1. “Sometimes it’s about transcending that with your effort, your athleticism, and your ability.” Wade and James are certainly no strangers to such transcendence, and their collective excellence provided the enduring snapshot of the 2011 NBA Finals’ opening salvo.

Still, if the Heat’s showing in Game 1 could have been distilled down to the performances of Wade and James alone, the Heat would be left looking for answers after a disappointing home loss. Miami was only in a position to win by way of their offensive rebounding (Miami collected an offensive board on roughly 35 percent of their misses) and scrambling defense (Dallas shot just 37.3 percent from the field overall), two aspects of the Heat’s performance that often go unnoticed thanks to the glare surrounding the team’s brightest stars.

“I think rebounding killed us tonight,” Shawn Marion said. “For the most part, we think we had chances to get a hold of this game and we let it get out of our hands.”

However, Marion’s diagnosis isn’t as simple as pointing a finger at the Maverick big men. Tyson Chandler may have had just four rebounds and Dirk Nowitzki a decent but insufficient eight, but the Mavs’ approach requires a better team-wide effort in attacking the glass. James, Wade, Mike Miller, Chris Bosh (who was especially effective on the glass, and grabbed a game-high five offensive boards), and Udonis Haslem are all strong positional rebounders, which makes the battle on the glass far more complicated than simply how well Chandler boxes out Bosh and Nowitzki boxes out Joel Anthony.

Plus, the defensive scheme that the Mavs are forced to rely on due to the slashing brilliance of James and Wade creates a position of inherent rebounding disadvantage, regardless of whether Dallas is working man-to-man or in their vaunted zone.

“Our bigs have to be active, containing their great players on the perimeter,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “So it draws them away from the basket some…Look, a lot of the game is a scramble. We have to keep five guys in there. We can’t have that kind of deficit [on the glass]. You leave too much to chance.”

That was precisely the problem for the Mavs in Game 1. Dallas may execute their offense better than any team in the entire league, but they are still victim to chance; to the probabilities of a ball falling through a metal rim. Even with the near-robotic muscle memory of a talented shooter — like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, or Peja Stojakovic, for example — and the patient ball movement of a well-run offense, nothing is guaranteed. Shots will still be missed, and in the Mavs’ case in Game 1, plenty of makeable shots were. Dallas shot just 38.7 percent on shots within nine feet of the basket, and while Miami’s defense certainly played a role in challenging many of those attempts, not every floater, layup, or short jumper was contested enough to expect a miss. The Mavs just didn’t convert on a lot of the attempts they usually make (or draw fouls on), and the fact that a lot of those errant attempts came from an area of the floor that usually yields highly efficient looks only made matters worse.

The Mavs know where they need to improve. They know that the rebounding deficit needs to be slashed, and that their shooting percentages need to shoot upward. Yet while some of that is imminently fixable (if nothing else, we should expect the Dallas offense to return to its sweet-shooting form as Carlisle devises even more ways to create open looks for his team), the connection between the defensive coverage and rebounding troubles presents a legitimate quandary. Contesting the penetration of James and Wade is a full-time job in itself for any defense, but committing too heavily to that prevention puts bigs like Chandler out of position to compete on the glass. The Heat have an ideal combination of defense-drawing talent and hard-working rebounders, and though the riddle that such a combination produces isn’t necessarily unsolvable, it should give Carlisle and his staff plenty to think about between now and Thursday.

Russell Westbrook triple-double keys OKC in 3OT thriller vs 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, and Oklahoma City and the Philadelphia 76ers went basket-for-basket in a three-overtime thriller before the Thunder pulled out a 119-117 victory on Friday night.

Andre Roberson scored the winner with 10 seconds left for the Thunder. But one of the early contenders for NBA game of the year belonged to Joel Embiid and Westbrook as they drove, blocked and rebounded their way toward one big play after another.

Embiid scored 34 points in 48 minutes with an achy back and rallied the Sixers from a 17-point hole.

Embiid, Philly’s franchise center and social media star, grabbed his lower back when he took a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. Embiid grimaced during timeouts on the bench and trudged into position a few times.

Embiid sucked it up and carried the Sixers in the fourth and the first overtime. His feed to a charging Ben Simmons on the baseline for a two-handed dunk tied the score at 94-all with 53 seconds left in the quarter. The Sixers closed the fourth on an 11-0 run.

Embiid scored the first bucket of OT and the Sixers led for the first time in the game. The Sixers’ five-point lead with 1:20 left in overtime was wiped out on Paul George‘s 3-pointer and a Westbrook bucket that made it 102-all. The Sixers blew their final possession on an ill-conceived 3 for Dario Saric.

Round 2 was just as fun.

Westbrook and Robert Covington exchanged 3s and George tied it at 109 on a driving layup. Westbrook and Embiid swapped buckets that kept it even and the Sixers had one more chance to win it with 1.2 seconds to go in the second OT.

Embiid and Westbrook combined to score eight straight points in the third overtime, and Embiid even waved goodbye as the crowd went wild when Steve Adams fouled out of the game.

But Embiid seemed gassed at the end and there’s no telling how the heavy workload may affect his availability the rest of the week.

The Sixers were featured on ESPN on Friday as part of Philadelphia All Access, and Sixers’ related content was aired throughout the day on all platforms.

“I’m not a fan,” coach Brett Brown said. “I like living behind closed doors.”

But Brown understood the exposure would help build the brand and serve as a recruiting pitch of sorts to any free agents intrigued about becoming part of The Process. The Sixers put on a show in the fourth until Embiid gave them a scare.

Embiid’s health woes have dogged him since his college career at Kansas and every slip, ache or bump throws Sixers fans into a panic. Embiid has been banged-up lately but he calmly went to the line and made both free throws. He fell again when he tripped over Adams, who earned a foul, and sank two more free throws to make it 78-72.

 

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder won in triple overtime, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.