NBA Playoff Preview: Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks

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SEASON RECORDS


Miami 46-20 (2 seed)
New York: 36-30 (7 seed)

SEASON SERIES


Miami won the season series 3-0, though the Knicks did hang around for a while in those games. Horseshoes and hand grenades, and all that.

KEY INJURIES

Miami: Mike Miller has an injured “everything you could ever possibly imagine” but is probable for Game 1. Dwyane Wade has dealt with myriad injuries, but again, is available. He most recently suffered a dislocated finger.

New York: Jeremy Lin is out with swelling in his knee for the entire first round.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Miami: offense 106.6 (8th); defense 100.2 (4th)
New York: offense 104.4 (17th); defense 101 (5th)

THREE KEY HEAT:

LeBron James: Shocker. The most versatile, best, and most pressured player in the world is the most important. Stunning. James, because of who he has, pretty much has to average a triple-double, defend Carmelo Anthony in crunch time, and hit the game winning shot in a four-game sweep to satisfy people. Then they’ll claim he’s showing off.

Chris Bosh: Bosh has gotten a moderate amount of rest and so rust might be a factor. Bosh needs to stretch the floor to force the Knicks to put Tyson Chandler on him which will bring him away from the paint and open up things for the Heat to attack the rim.

Mike Miller: The Knicks can get hot and hit from deep. To counter that, Miller needs to hit some shots. He’s going to get great looks. He has to knock them down at a high rate.

THREE KEY KNICKS

Tyson Chandler:  Chandler helped the Mavericks shut down the Heat in last yea’s Finals with help defense. The Knicks need more of the same and for him to take a bigger chunk of the offense against Miami, attacking their weak spot at center. Without Chandler having a strong series, the Knicks won’t be able to hang with the onslaught.

J.R. Smith: Smith could honestly swing this series. If he can heat up and stay warm, the Heat defense can’t help on Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire. Do that, and the Heat’s scheme starts to unravel. Smith needs to play the Jason Terry role for the Mavs’ model to beat the Heat.

Steve Novak: Novak’s going to hit shots. But the bigger issue for him is not getting killed on defense. Udonis Haslem has had trouble with his offense at times this season. All Novak has to to do is avoid being a weakpoint the Heat can isolate. If Mike Woodson can afford to keep him on the floor, space opens up and again, that’s the key to hurting Miami’s defense.

OUTLOOK

You want superstars? You get superstars. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Steve Nova… just kidding.

The key for New York is getting the Heat into their isolation sets where they struggle, and keeping them out of transition. Baron Davis has to keep the turnovers down, and the Knicks can’t afford stupid plays. Those lead to turnovers which is where the Heat want to play, up and down. New York needs to punish them inside when their defense stretches out to guard their shooters, and hurt them from the perimeter when the defense collapses. New York has the personnel to do it.

Doing it is a whole other matter.

Miami is just so talented and executes at such a high level. It wouldn’t shock me to see this series go seven, but for now, we’ll put faith in the Eastern Conference Champs to lock down a predictable Melo-centric offense.

PREDICTION

Miami wins 4-2.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.