Miami Heat's James and Wade look on during the second half of their NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in Chicago

D-Rose matters, but depth real key in Bulls/Heat showdown


Everyone will want to watch the Bulls and the Heat and discuss how this is a preview of the Eastern Conference finals. It’s not.

Oh, these two teams will be there, you can bet on that. But after two rounds of the playoffs teams change and evolve — the Bulls and Heat that take the floor Thursday will be different than the ones that could face off about a month from now as the last two standing in the East.

Especially if Derrick Rose and Luol Deng don’t play Thursday. They are both game-time decisions as of this writing. Of course, the Bulls beat the Heat last Thursday because of their depth and defense, the two things that might matter more this Thursday than D-Rose.

Depth was the key Thursday when they clashed — Chicago’s bench outscored Miami’s 47-7. Shane Battier was a -34, Ronny Turiaf -17. One game +/- numbers can be misleading, but the Bulls depth was what won that game — Rose was rusty so Tom Thibodeau benched him for the overtime and the rest of the Bulls racked up the win. It didn’t matter what five were on the court, the Bulls moved the ball well, took 24 percent of their shots as spot-up jumpers and knocked the looks down. Kyle Korver was on fire, coming off baseline screens and moving to open spaces when his man had to help, he got and knocked down open looks all game. That is a formula Chicago can simply plug Rose into.

This game is not meaningless — it does matter for seedings. If the Bulls win, they lock up the top seed in the East. If the Heat win, they keep alive a chance of catching the Bulls for the top seed in the East. With a Heat win Chicago’s magic number would be three. Meaning basically the Heat would have to win out, the Bulls would have to lose their upcoming game against the Pacers and at least one more … all of which is to say it’s not likely.

Of course, the other question is do you want to be the top seed in the East? If you are you get a Sixers team in the first round that is easier than the seven seed Knicks (that’s the most likely matchups). However, the top seed also is on the Celtics side of the bracket for the second round. The Heat have lost a couple to Boston, although if anyone thinks Indiana is a pushover they haven’t been paying attention.

Whatever seed they want, the Heat have talked about trying to gain momentum heading into the playoffs, about executing better in the half court. Those are things they can come out of this game feeling a little better about. No statements are going to be made, but confidence can be found and built upon. And when they do meet, that feeling could matter a lot.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.