Miami Heat's James and Bosh wait for a rebound with Oklahoma City Thunder's Ibaka during the second half of their NBA basketball game in Miami

LeBron James, Miami Heat make their case at Thunder’s expense


If this does end up being the NBA finals matchup, we are all in for a lot of fun. These teams are starting to develop a real dislike of each other.

Miami and Oklahoma City got together for an intense, physical, playoff-style game Wednesday were LeBron James make his MVP case and the Heat got a measure of revenge on Oklahoma City with a 98-93 win. They split their season series, each winning at home (OKC rolled the Heat two weeks ago).

It was a game where each team picked up some flagrants (including Russell Westbrook on LeBron and Kendrick Perkins on Dwyane Wade). There was some trash talking. There were messages both ways. You could feel a little playoff

Be careful about reading much into regular season statements — the Lakers dominated the Mavericks and the Bulls owned the Heat last regular season. But what we can say is that both of these teams are better on their home court and a finals series between them could be penciled in for seven games. Seven hard games.

One of the best part of Heat/Thunder games is that LeBron and Kevin Durant go head-to-head a lot.

After a sub-par performance in OKC (and lackluster play for a couple of weeks) LeBron came out with the kind of game that had him the clear frontrunner for the MVP back at the All-Star break. He dropped 34 points by starting out nailing threes then going into the post and bullying his way to the rim. All the time he was recognizing the play and hitting the open man — he finished with 10 assists. (A few of those were to Shane Battier — James Harden sagged off him a lot and the veteran made the Thunder pay.)

At the other end he was charged with stopping Kevin Durant — and nobody stops Kevin Durant. KD had 30 points on 21 shots but struggled from three (2-7) including missing a rushed deep three with 15 seconds remaining in the game that could have tied it. Westbrook added 28 but was just 9-26 shooting on the night.

The MVP race comes down to this — LeBron James has had the better statistical season, but voters (media members) are drawn to stories and narrative and as Durant is the great young player on the fun young team he has an advantage. Just like Derrick Rose did last year. This game put LeBron back in the mind of a lot of voters.

These are two teams with great athletes that like to play up-tempo — and you could feel the playoff series hatred starting to build a little. Both sides will say it’s one game and forgotten now, but they’ll remember just fine if both of them are playing in June.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.