Miami holds on, beats Chicago. Can we just start their playoff series now?

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In two ways Sunday’s Heat victory over the Bulls summed up this young season.

First, the Bulls and the Heat are the two best teams in the East. Clear and away. Philadelphia, Atlanta and even Indiana are good, but these two teams are on another level and are destined for an Eastern Conference finals rematch. Which promises to be very entertaining.

Second, it was sloppy when it mattered. Even the referees were blowing plays at the end. Just like so much of this season.

Beyond that, this game was a measuring stick of where the teams are right now, and as we expected they are close. Miami gets the win 97-93, they got a big 35 points on 23 shots from LeBron James and their bench was good. Chicago got 34 points from Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton caused the Heat trouble and scrapped back from double-digit deficits twice. All without Luol Deng.

Don’t try to project this game to the end of the season, because both will be different squads by then. The only thing you can project is that series is going to be very entertaining, very fun.

The other talking point out of this game is how ugly the ending was.

On two consecutive possessions late the Heat tried to isolate LeBron James, but he went Kobe Bryant style dribbling on the perimeter to create space then shooting a long jumper that was contested. One of those came with less than a minute to go and the Bulls, down 4 at the time, ran off the miss and Rose was able to draw the blocking foul and hit the shot to make it an and-one. Suddenly it was a one point game with 49 seconds left.

So the Heat run the clock down but it ends with another LeBron James contested miss, and once again Rose is off and running. Rose pushed it a lot at the end of the game to counter having LeBron on him when the Heat set their defense — he had to give up the ball a lot in standard sets the last few minutes, but in transition he was picked up by others who were backpedaling.

This time the pushing of the ball led to a Udonis Haslem foul and Rose going to the free throw line.

And he missed both. Down one the Bulls had to foul, and LeBron had the ball so they fouled him.

And he missed both.

Then the referees inadvertently blew the whistle on a live ball, so they had to stop play and have a mid-court jump ball. Which LeBron won and the Bulls fouled Mario Chalmers, who proceeded to only make one of two giving the Bulls one last chance.

Rose drove into the lane, the refs (wisely) let contact with Haslem go, and Rose went up with a last-second 10-foot floater to tie, and missed it. Game over (save for a couple Chris Bosh free throws).

Some people are going to jump on LeBron and/or Rose for their end of game play, but to me it just looked like the rest of the season.

LeBron James tweaked his shoulder in the first quarter and iced it during the game, but he returned and didn’t show any signs that this will linger. He was back to himself, and back in the post backing down Ronnie Brewer late in the game.

This game is a playoff preview and it lived up to the hype. And it lived up to the highlights. Rose slashed and showed off his body control, which is as good as the league has ever seen. The Heat were off and running early and that led to some fantastic highlights.

It means nothing about these teams in the playoffs, other than to whet our appetite.

Can we just start the Eastern Conference finals tomorrow?

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.

Report: Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose

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Were they watching the games last year?

Derrick Rose put up decent numbers last year — 18 points per game, PER of 17, true shooting percentage of 53 — but was a mess defensively and does not fit in the triangle offense. He’s a decent point guard now, a replacement level player who can help in the right system.

Since the Knicks point guard rotation right now consists of rookie Frank Ntilikina plus whoever the team signs this summer, turns out Rose is not out of the picture, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

The New York Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose, league sources familiar with the matter said….

The Knicks’ interest in the point guard is dependent on several factors, including his health and his asking price. When asked last week about New York potentially re-signing Rose, team president Phil Jackson said “we’re listening.”

Money will be the key — it’s not going to be anywhere near the $21.3 million Rose made last season. No team is going to offer that.

Can the Knicks get him for less than $10 million? Will another team come in and offer $12 million or more for him? The market for point guards this summer is going to be interesting because after the big name on the free-agent market — Chris Paul (we’re not counting Stephen Curry, he’s not leaving) — there are some quality players out there that can help teams such as Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague and Shaun Livingston. There aren’t that many teams with money to really spend on free agent point guards, so while a couple (Holiday, maybe Lowry) re-sign with their old teams there are a number of guys who may find the market softer than they expected. Rose is among them.

And that’s where the Knicks come in. Rose is far from a perfect fit, but if the soft market drives his price down closer to the midlevel ($8.4 million) or just above, that may be worth it for the Knicks for a year while they try to develop the rookie.

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.