Chris Paul, Chris Bosh

LeBron finally aggressive late, but Clippers hand Heat another loss

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Last year’s “it” team faced off against this year’s “it” squad and fans from both sides got what they wanted. Sort of. They both got a wildly entertaining contest that had the intensity of May. But it came wrapped in a game where it looked like both teams were on the second night of a back-to-back just a few weeks into the season.

Fans also got answers, just not all the answers they wanted.

Clippers fans wanted a signature win to show that their team is a legitimate contender. Clearly coach Vinny Del Negro wanted it too as he tightened up his rotations like this was a playoff game. They got a win — 95-89 in overtime — but in a sloppy way where they showed both their potential and how far they have to got to go.

Heat fans wanted LeBron James to take charge and be aggressive at the end of a close game. They got it, LeBron forced his game and tried to take over — the result was he was 1-of-6 from the floor in the fourth quarter and overtime, and probably more costly he was 6-10 from the free throw line in that time (9-17 overall). Aggressive did not equal effective.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was okay with that.

“I was encouraged that we were able to get to the rim, particularly there late,” he said post game. “We were able to get to the rim in different ways and not settle for jump shots (as they had the night before in an overtime loss to Golden State).”

He’s right, if the LeBron and the Heat keep being aggressive the shots will fall. Eventually.

It’s the second night in a row that the Heat found themselves on the road in a playoff atmosphere against motivated opponents and they couldn’t pull off the win. Don’t read too much into it, yet. It’s January, there is plenty of time for the Heat to learn. But at the end of games opponents are able to take the Heat out of their new up-tempo, aggressive offense (Golden State did the same thing Tuesday night) and Miami has to find a way to play their game for 48 minutes.

Down the stretch both teams played good defense and not very impressive offense — Miami shot 33 percent in the fourth quarter, the Clippers 29 percent. Miami had their chances if they could have just sank free throws, but they couldn’t.

Good defense is a key for the Clippers if they are going to be a playoff threat.

“(D’Andre Jordan) and Reggie (Evans) really set the tone on the defensive end,” Chris Paul said. “When Reggie came in the game and guys see how hard he is playing it becomes contagious. You have no choice but to play hard when you see Reggie diving all over the court.”

So, are the Clippers contenders? You watch the masterful game Paul played — 27 points and 11 assists, almost single-handedly carrying the Clippers at points — and you think they can be. You see the athleticism of Blake Griffin (20 points) and guys like Caron Butler step up (20) and you think maybe. But you see the hot-and-cold defense, the sloppy play and their half court execution and you have questions.

“Yeah, they’re a good team, they are a really good team,” Chris Bosh said after the game. “They are going to have some battles, and adversity is going to come. We’ll see how they handle it and just keep on playing.”

Fans got their money’s worth — this game was close almost the entire way and there were no shortage of highlight plays, including a Jordan dunk to seal the Clipper win that should by itself get him into the dunk contest. There were guys attacking hard on both sides all night long, punishing the rims.

Clippers fans left happy. Heat fans left frustrated and with questions. Both sides may feel differently in the playoffs, but that is a long way off. For now, everyone should enjoy what was one fun basketball game. Just ignore the sloppiness.

Paul George says “I’m ready” to challenge LeBron James for supremacy in East

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 29: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks for a pass while under pressure from Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 29, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is the best basketball player walking the face of the earth. The only guy who could start to challenge that supremacy the past couple of years has been Stephen Curry, and last season’s NBA Finals answered that question for now.

In the Eastern Conference, for years now it has been LeBron James and his team then a step back to everyone else — LeBron has been to six straight NBA Finals, four in Miami and the last two in Cleveland. Most pundits (myself included) think that’s going to be seven in-a-row because the Cavaliers are clear and away the class of the East.

Paul George says he and the Pacers are ready to change that narrative. Here is what he told Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“Honestly, I look at us challenging them. I’ve been in the East and I’ve been No. 1 with LeBron being on a team,” George told The Vertical in a recent telephone interview, harkening back to when the Pacers finished with the best regular-season record in the East in 2013-14, the season before his gruesome Team USA leg injury….

“I’ve always matched up with him like, ‘I know he can do this, I know he can do that,’ ” George told The Vertical about James. “Not in an awe fashion, but it’s more so, ‘I’m not supposed to win these games. This is supposed to be the best dude in the NBA. I’m trying to challenge him. I know what I’m up against.’ Now it’s, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready for you. I’m a veteran. I know you, you know me. Let’s meet here, let’s get this job done.’ I’m prepared. I’ve had time to figure this out. I’ve had time to lick my wounds. I’m ready.”

Good for George — this is exactly what you want an elite competitor and top player to say heading into the season. He sees Everest in front of him, and he wants to climb it.

I’m also higher on the Pacers than most; I think they are a top-four team in the East that can finish top two. They upgraded at the point with Jeff Teague, plus they added the underrated Thaddeus Young (although they will miss Solomon Hill) and depth up front with Al Jefferson. I don’t get Larry Bird pushing Frank Vogel out the door at all, but Nate McMillan is a solid NBA coach to take his place. I think the Pacers are taking a step forward this season, maybe a fairly significant one.

But they’re still not in the Cavaliers’ class.

The East is still Cleveland then everyone else. Last season Toronto won 56 games and had its best season in franchise history, and they were still a step or two below the Cavaliers. No team in the East — not the Raptors, not the Celtics, not the Pacers — are making up those steps. Unless injuries or something else unforeseen brings the Cavaliers back to the pack, the Eastern Conference once again will look like Secretariat at the Belmont.

Russell Westbrook says he will not kneel for national anthem “as of right now”

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook spins the ball as he poses for photos during the 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day in Oklahoma City, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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Without question, some kneeling/raised fist protests of the National Anthem are coming to the NBA once preseason games start in a couple of weeks. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers has already come out saying “there’s no more American thing to do than to protest.” Teams are discussing the need for social change.

While the NBA has a rule that players must stand for the anthem, the NBA and players’ union are already discussing exactly how and if that rule should be enforced.

While some players will kneel, Russell Westbrook will not be among them. Probably. Here’s is what he told Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript.

Obviously, Westbrook is leaving himself some wiggle room here. Also, if there is one NBA star you can expect to be blunt about the situation when talking to the media, it’s Westbrook (when he feels like opening up to the media, anyway).

I expect few if any of the NBA’s top stars — the guys with the biggest international brands — will join the protests. However, there certainly will be players taking part. For a league that sees itself as progressive — and has a more politically progressive fan base compared to other American sports — how the league handles this will be watched.

Timberwolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau thanks Kevin Garnett after retirement announcement

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 28: Kevin Garnett #5 of the Boston Celtics sits not he bench prior to Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the New York Knicks on April 28, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Tributes have poured in all over the NBA world since Kevin Garnett announced his retirement on Friday afternoon — from other players, commissioner Adam Silver and media members who covered him. Garnett and Tom Thibodeau have a lengthy history together: Thibodeau coached Garnett in Boston as an assistant under Doc Rivers, and they won a championship in 2008. This spring, Thibodeau took over as head coach and president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that drafted Garnett, saw his best years and saw him end his career. Thibodeau released a heartfelt statement on Saturday congratulating Garnett:

“I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank Kevin for all of his great accomplishments and contributions to the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves organization, and for me personally with the Boston Celtics. Kevin combined great talent with a relentless drive and intelligence. I will always cherish the memories of the way in which he led the Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship. His willingness to sacrifice and his unselfishness led us to that title. Kevin will always be remembered for the way in which he played the game. His fierce competitiveness, his unequalled passion for the game, and the many ways in which he cared about this team was truly special. KG is without question the all-time best player to wear a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, and he is also one of the best to ever play this game.”

It’s a shame that Thibodeau didn’t get to coach Garnett again in Minnesota, but the team is in good hands with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pacers unveil 50th anniversary patch for their uniforms (PHOTO)

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 28:  Leandro Barbosa #28 of the Indiana Pacers looks on against the New Jersey Nets at Prudential Center on March 28, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. 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 Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
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The Indiana Pacers have been a franchise for 50 years — 10 in the ABA and 40 in the NBA. To celebrate this anniversary, they’ve unveiled a new patch that they will wear on their uniforms this season. You can check it out below:

It looks pretty sleek, combining the Pacers’ logo with the zero in “50.” It’s subtle and well-designed.