Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Four

NBA finals Game 4: LeBron, Heat play through pain to reach brink of a title

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One year ago, the Miami Heat were ahead 2-1 in the finals against Dallas and up 9 points in Game 4. Then they learned some very painful lessons.

This year, the Heat were again up 2-1 and this time were down 94-92 with four minutes remaining. Adding to their woes, LeBron James was on the bench after having to be carried off the court with quad cramps.

But this time Miami turned out to be the ones teaching the lessons of execution under pressure — they put together a 12-4 run to close the game run that included a dramatic three by a gimpy LeBron, Mario Chalmers stepping up, plus both Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade making plays. The Thunder had Russell Westbrook and not much else and that was not enough.

The result was a 104-98 Heat win that has Miami up 3-1 and now one win away from an NBA championship.

This series feels over and it may happen Thursday night in Game 5. The Thunder locker room after the game was painfully quiet, their body language was that of a team that just took a blow to the gut. Dejected doesn’t do it justice. They looked defeated. They are learning hard lessons— ones Miami learned last year — and while they will not roll over, you could sense they know how this will end.

The Heat have matured and talked about taking nothing for granted.

“There will be an incredible amount of noise on the outside and we need to stay focused on the moment,” Spoelstra said. To a man every Heat player said something similar about not losing focus — it’s a lesson they learned the hard way last year.

Game 4 started out with a desperate Thunder team racing out to a 13-3 run behind a Westbrook, who Wade described as “playing on another level.” He started fast and finished fast, ending up with 43 points on just 32 shots. He blitzed the Heat defense and they had no answer because his jumper was falling, especially when he could get to the elbow.

“We missed some chippies, ones we normally make, and they came out from a ferocious intensity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the start.

But the Heat closed that gap in the second quarter and it was a tight game the rest of the way. Kevin Durant added 28 points but no other Thunder player broke into double digits. That is where the game was lost. Once again James Harden was just bad — 8 points on 10 shots with twice as many turnovers (4) as assists (2). The Thunder cannot win without him, he is their X factor.

Westbrook was not perfect — he made a bad foul late. Miami was up three with 13 seconds left and 4 seconds left on the shot clock for Miami when there was a jump ball. When Chalmers won the jump ball Westbrook fouled him instantly, thinking he had to, not realizing the Heat had to rush a shot. Chalmers hit the free throws and that was pretty much it.

“It was just a miscommunication on my part,” Westbrook said of not knowing the shot clock. “Nothing I can do about it now.”

Some fans will smack Westbrook around online for that play, but they miss the point. Without his monster night the Thunder are not even close in this game.

Oklahoma City lost a game by inches — a block here, some of Durant’s threes falling (1-for-5), Thabo Sefolosha missing a wide-open corner three late, any of that changes the game. The Thunder made it to the finals, but they have been out-executed down the stretch the last three games. Coaches like to call it a hit-or-miss league and right now the Thunder are missing late and the Heat are making. Miami is getting balance — Chalmers and Wade had 25 points each.

Miami players can smell it now. The Thunder will not roll over but it will be a real test to see what kind of emotion they can play with on Thursday night.

Miami is gutting out, grinding out wins. That’s what champions do.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 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.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 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.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.