Miami Heat Media Day

PBT’s NBA season predictions: LeBron James gets his ring

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Before Miami Heat fans get excited about this, remember that I suck at making predictions.

But thanks to my never-exhausted capacity for self-embarrassment, I’m giving you my predictions for the coming season (scroll down to see Brett from PBT’s calls for this season). I think that the condensed schedule — and condensed playoff schedule — benefits teams with younger legs, and that factors in. Here we go.

Western Conference

1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Dallas Mavericks
3. Los Angeles Lakers
4. San Antonio Spurs
5. Memphis Grizzlies
6. Portland Trail Blazers
7. Los Angeles Clippers
8. Houston Rockets

I think Denver is in the mix for one of those last spots as well and I may have made a mistake putting Houston in and the Nuggets out. It’s close. No, the Clippers are not very high (I still need to see them defend consistently), but I think they find themselves mid-season and become the team nobody wants to play come the playoffs. I think Memphis takes steps forward but still has a ways to go, and that Dallas will be great in the regular season but is really going to miss Tyson Chandler come the second round of the playoffs. As for the Lakers, I don’t see the steep drop off many do. There are questions of depth, but they still have Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum up front, Kobe Bryant is healthy and they will play more physically on defense.

Western Conference finals: Los Angles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder.

Eastern Conference

1. Miami Heat
2. Chicago Bulls
3. New York Knicks
4. Boston Celtics
5. Indiana Pacers
6. Atlanta Hawks
7. Orlando Magic
8. Milwaukee Bucks

I think the top six are pretty much locks (even if the order shifts a little, and yes the Pacers with David West are in there), but picking the bottom two is hard. Orlando is in if they hold on to Dwight Howard most of the season (they won 52 games last year) and I think the Bucks will be better this year. But this leaves Philly on the outside looking in and that is hard. Plus I think Washington is going to be a lot better, they may still just miss out. Same with the Nets.

Eastern Conference Finals: Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls. (That seems the safe pick, but they were the two best teams last year and they got better. The Knicks will improve but their defense still will not be good enough. The Celtics would need a Mavericks-like run to make it.)

NBA finals: Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder.

NBA champion: Miami Heat.

The Heat are still lacking a big man in the paint and that could be their undoing if they have to face a team that gets a lot of points from their bigs, but I’m not sure I see that on their path to the ring.

••••••••••

Brett Pollakoff from PBT also gave us his predictions:

The compressed, 66-game schedule the NBA has forced upon teams due to the lockout will have a bigger effect on the season’s ultimate result than any of the big free agent signings. Tyson Chandler to the Knicks is sure to help, and Chris Paul to the Clippers will fill the highlight reels with ridiculousness. But the teams loaded with talent that didn’t undergo wholesale personnel changes — and aren’t too veteran-laden to worry about breaking down over the course of the season — are the ones likely to be there at the end.

Western Conference Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks

Eastern Conference Finals: Miami Heat and New York Knicks

NBA Finals: Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Champion: Miami Heat

Coach Steve Clifford: Poor defense has led to Hornets’ losing streak

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 04:  Teammates Michael Kidd-Gilchrist #14 and Marvin Williams #2 of the Charlotte Hornets react at the bench as head coach Steve Clifford reacts during their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center on January 4, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford points to one factor when explaining his team’s five-game losing streak – a lack of defense.

Charlotte went 0-5 on its recent road trip, surrendering an uncharacteristic 109.6 points per game during that span. The Hornets return home Wednesday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers, part of a stretch of five-game home stand which Clifford hopes will help turn things around.

But Charlotte’s fourth-year coach said nothing will get better until the Hornets start playing better man-to-man defense.

“It starts with our ability to guard our guy,” Clifford said. “When you get blown by a lot on the perimeter where you are constantly in need of help, then you are going to give up 3s – and that’s what is happening.”

The Hornets raced to a 14-9 start this season and were third-best in the league in points allowed through 23 games.

Since then, things have steadily fallen apart, culminating with Charlotte giving up at least 100 points in eight straight games. The Hornets have since dropped to 12th overall in points allowed.

The Hornets have fallen to 20-21 on the season and are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It hasn’t helped that Nic Batum and Cody Zeller have been in and out of the lineup with injury problems, but Charlotte’s struggles on the road – where it has lost 11 of its last 13 – is concerning.

Zeller said the Hornets spent Wednesday morning watching cutups of defensive miscues over the last five road games.

“All four years I have been here it starts with defense,” Zeller said. “That is what coach Clifford preaches.”

The 7-foot center said it is mostly simple things that can be corrected.

“There are sets that we know are coming – and we just aren’t defending them right,” Zelller said. “We are making too many mistakes.”

Added guard Marco Belinelli: “We need to speak a lot more on the court and help each other.”

Getting the defensive mistakes fix won’t be easy.

After Portland, the Hornets host Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington and Golden State. All five teams rank in the top 14 in the league in scoring offense, with the Warriors being No. 1 overall and Raptors No. 3.

A year ago, Hornets general manager Rich Cho pulled off a quality late-season trade, landing “three and D” guard Courtney Lee. He proved to be the driving force on the team’s playoff run and played well in the postseason.

The problem was Lee did so well it made it impossible for the Hornets to re-sign him. Charlotte re-signed Batum and Marvin Williams, and let Lee walk in free agency. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the New York Knicks.

The Hornets figured with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning this year from a shoulder injury they would be fine defensively, but the struggles are mounting.

Clifford wouldn’t discuss whether the team needs to make a similar trade before the NBA deadline.

As for the offense, Clifford likes what he sees.

Kemba Walker, a first-time All-Star candidate, is in the midst of the most productive season of his career, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range.

“I mean he’s having a great year,” Clifford said. “He’s worked really hard and it’s paying off for him.”

Chris Paul to have surgery on torn ligament in left thumb, out 6-8 weeks

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When the Clippers last were without Chris Paul (then due to a hamstring injury), they dropped six games in a row. Granted, that was without Blake Griffin, too, but this team struggles on offense without the Point God running the show.

He’s not going to be running the show again for them until March.

Paul will miss 6-8 weeks due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that will require surgery, the team announced Tuesday. He is set to have surgery on Wednesday.

Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers will get a lot more run with CP3 sidelined.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Monday night’s game against the Thunder. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook, who had pulled up to take a three. Paul’s hand was on Westbrook’s hip and got caught in his shorts and Westbrook elevated for the shot.

It looked serious as Paul walked off the court — he kicked a chair and was cursing, a sign that he knew something was very wrong. He went straight to the locker room, where X-rays were taken that found nothing broken. It was an MRI on Tuesday that found the damage.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but are likely about to lose ground, being without Paul until March and with Griffin still sidelined from knee surgery (but should be back in the next few weeks, according to his timetable). Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s a brutal stretch of games under the best of circumstances, and now the clouds over this team got much darker.

PBT Podcast: Debating NBA midseason awards with Dan Feldman

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Western Conference and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and the Western Conference warm up before the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook or James Harden for MVP?

Is Mike D’Antoni the runaway Coach of the Year?

Can anyone catch Giannis Antetokounmpo for Most Improved Player?

The PBT staff gave their picks for midseason awards already. Now Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports debate all of that, plus Sixth Man, Defensive Player of Year, and even takeaways​ from the Warriors win over the Cavaliers Monday.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

LeBron James reminds heckling Warriors fans he has three rings (VINE)

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Monday night was not exactly the best game of the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They looked like a team on the final night of a six-game, 12-day road trip and they were mailing it in. Then they ran into a rested Warriors team looking to gain a little confidence. The result was a Red Wedding-level blood bath.

LeBron James was none too bothered. He was downplaying the rivalry and the importance of the game before it tipped-off, and after the game he rightly said this was not going to have any impact in June.

And when Warriors fans heckled him, he reminded them of the hardware — he’s got rings. Three of them. The last one at the expense of the Warriors.

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

I’m going to miss Vine when it goes away.

Hat tip Matt Moore Eye on Basketball.