NBA Season Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: It was not flawless, but it was superb. It was not easy, but it was rewarding. And it was not what they thought it would be, but it was spectacular.

The Miami Heat accomplished all of their goals in the 2012 season, that being the only goal they had: win the title. They vanquished Boston after going down 3-2, they overcame injuries to Dwane Wade and Chris Bosh, and maybe most notably, LeBron James silenced every critic of his game with arguably the best seven games of his career.

So yeah, it was a pretty good year.

Miami still had to make adjustments along the way. They discovered that instead of a steady diet of the Big 3, LeBron James needed the ball to start every possession. They found that smallball was their best attack, because it emphasized their speed. And they found that their defense was at its best when it was forcing turnovers. They had moments where they looked overwhelmed, a shell of what they were supposed to be, particularly Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

But they rose, again and again, on the back of James who went to the post and played point-forward-center, controlling the offense, scoring for himself and creating. There was nothing anyone could do when he got into that mode.

The Heat are a long way from the “not six, not seven…” standard they set for themselves. But it was validation of all the criticism they suffered, and a certification of their team concept. Now they just have to go out and do it again.

And again. And again…

Key Departures: No one. The core of the team is intact. James-Wade-Bosh-Battier-Chalmers-Haslem-Anthony-Cole-Miller-Jones are all back. Ronny Turiaf departed but by the end, the Heat had largely abandoned the concept of a center anyway.

Key Additions: Oh, you know, only arguably the best three-point shooter in history, Ray Allen. That guy.

They also added Rashard Lewis as another veteran perimeter threat.

Three keys to the Heat season:
1) Can age sustain the velocity? Erik Spoelstra went to Pat Riley last year and advocated for an approach to use speed and athleticism to push the Heat to a new level. It worked out brilliantly, despite Riley’s hesitance towards going away from traditional big men.

This year, the Heat have pledged to be faster than ever, and Chris Bosh says he’s accepted his role at center. Dwyane Wade is recovering from surgery, Ray Allen’s admitted that his ankle isn’t 100 percent, and much of the roster is getting up there in years. Is a fast way to play going to be conducive to keeping them healthy? Even with a move away from physicality and grinding and more into a wide-open style, there’s still the essential problem of contact and impact at high velocity.

It remains to be seen if the Heat’s best approach can be sustained by a roster that doesn’t feature many spring chickens.

2) LeBron keeping his edge. He’s reached the top of Olympus, took King Arthur’s sword and took control of the Matrix. Will James have the same edge he did at the last year, playing desperately?

Bear in mind that there’s often a slide-back after you win a title because you recognize that you’re playing for June now. The regular season become less important due to the comfort that you know how to accomplish your goal. Will James want to pursue that bruising inside game for even half the season? And if he abandons the post for his perimeter game to save is body, will he be able to slide right back into it?

Most important is if James stays hungry. He’s accomplished it all. He’s on top of the NBA globe right now, only his road to a repeat is that much harder with the Lakers and an ever-developing Thunder. Will be be able to keep his mind focused on getting better and staying on top or will he coast on his laurels. We’ve seen that the Heat go as LeBron does.

So how will LeBron go?

3) Can the shooters stay hot? Shane Battier has never been a great three-point shooter, and yet he absolutely killed both Boston and Oklahoma City in the playoffs, enough for fans to grumble a bit about flukes. Mike Miller has been falling apart for years, physically, and yet nailed enough threes to destroy OKC.

Their four primary shooters, Battier, Miller, Allen, and Rashard Lewis are all well over 30. Allen and Miller have injury issues. Lewis hasn’t been effective since 2009. And Battier’s never been reliable from deep. Do they have enough balance? Mario Chalmers is likely to keep improving, but when those shots don’t fall and the defense packs the paint to deter James and Wade’s driving, the offense stalls.

For the Heat to be in the elite offensive category, they need those guys to keep shooting well. And that’s a tall order when you look at their age, despite their career accomplishments.

What Heat fans should fear: Injury, injury, injury.

Dwyane Wade still isn’t 100 percent and may never be… again, ever. Chris Bosh is recovering. Mike Miller feels good enough to play, because he didn’t get back surgery that he needed. Ray Allen says his ankle is an ongoing problem. The list goes on and on. The Heat are always one major injury from falling way behind, and just because they managed to survive last year on the back of LeBron doesn’t mean it’ll be enough this year with a tougher slate than ever.

Every team worries about injuries, but the Heat worry about them a little bit more.

How it likely works out: The Heat have not gotten the top overall seed in the Triad era. This may be their best chance with the Bulls without Derrick Rose. They don’t need it, though, and will be more likely to coast for long stretches and rest players. But for all the questions of their longevity and sustainability, this is still the established team in the league, the defending champions with the best player in the league.

There is no reason to think the Heat will not win the Eastern Conference for the third year in a row. What happens after that is an entirely more complicated question, and one we’ll need to address throughout the year as it evolves.

Prediction: 60-22: The Heat finally crack the 60-mark in the Triad era, but don’t do anything outlandish. A great team, but one still with flaws whose stars miss too many games to win it all. Their offense still stagnates and their bench never gives them enough of a boost to overcome a bad night from the starters. But a small step forward for the best team in the East behind a kinder schedule and the addition of Allen.

Matthew Dellavedova steals pass, hits wild scoop shot at buzzer (VIDEO)

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Matthew Dellavedova is a hustler. Everybody knows that. Well, unless you want to argue he’s more about grit. It’s really your call.

But against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, Dellavedova came through with whatever you want to call it — hustle, grit, moxie, gumption.

As the first quarter wound down and the Celtics tried to inbound the ball, Dellavedova spied his opponents rolling the basketball in order to save time on the clock.

That allowed the Australian native to fly in and do this:

That’s a steal, a scoop, and a score all within 1.2 seconds.

Milwaukee won Game 4 and evened the series with the Celtics, 2-2.

Cavaliers tie series with Pacers in Indiana, 2-2

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Sunday night’s game between the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers was raucous. Bankers Life Fieldhouse was rocking, and despite Indiana’s best effort to put back seemingly every offensive board it encountered, LeBron James‘ 32 points was just too much to overcome.

Facing the possibility of going down 3-1 in the first round, the Cavaliers pulled out the win, 104-100, and sent the series back to Ohio for Game 5.

The game came down to the final period following a surge by the Pacers to end the third quarter. The teams were tied several times midway through the fourth, but a tip shot by Thaddeus Young wth 6:13 left gave the Pacers the lead as fans in Indiana went wild.

Cleveland then came roaring back. At the three-minute mark, James drove to the basket and scored. Thirty seconds later, Kyle Korver hit a big-time 3-pointer to put the Cavaliers up by four points, a mark the Pacers couldn’t recover from.

LeBron scored again with 1:52 left, and despite some weird late-game antics — featuring none other than Lance Stephenson — the Cavaliers were able to remain resolute down the stretch.

James finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists. Kyle Korver added 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting from deep, and Kevin Love had five points with 11 boards.

Victor Oladipo struggled for Indiana, scoring 17 points but shooting just 25 percent from the floor. Seven Pacers finished in double-digits, with Young notching an impressive double-double of 12 points and 16 rebounds.

Game 5 will be played in Cleveland on Wednesday, April 25.

Wizards beat Raptors in Game 4, tie series at 2-2 heading to Toronto

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The Toronto Raptors were far and away the best team in the Eastern Conference this season. The Washington Wizards were … well, very Wizard-y.

So considering their regular seasons, the fact that Washington was able to tie the first round series between the two teams at 2 games apiece on Sunday is pretty astonishing.

Bradley Beal had 31 points and five rebounds for the Wizards while teammate John Wall added 27 points to go along with a whopping 14 assists. Washington shot an impressive 41 percent from 3-point range as four of five starters finished in double-digit scoring.

Despite Beal’s performance, it was Wall who saved the day for the Wizards. Beal was disqualified after fouling out with around five minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Beal didn’t agree with the call, and could be seen throwing a towel near the Washington bench.

For his part, Wall either scored or assisted on 10 of the Wizards’ final 14 points of the game. That helped stave off the likes of DeMar DeRozan, who led all scorers with 35 points.

The series heads back to Toronto for Game 5, which will be played on Wednesday, April 25.

Marcus Smart wants to be back for Game 6 vs. Bucks

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Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart has been out for some time after injuring his thumb earlier in the year. The absence of one of Boston’s most important guards has been felt even more so after Kyrie Irving went down following knee surgery.

In short, the Celtics would like to have Smart back on the floor.

We’re now close enough that Smart has begun to give solid timeframes to reporters. Speaking to media on Sunday, Smart said that his plan is to be back for Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Boston took on Milwaukee on Sunday in Game 4.

Via ESPN:

Right now, [a Game 6 return is] the plan and we’re still on the same track,” Smart said before Game 4 on Sunday. “I’ve been doing everything but contact, so I will be able to go and start that.”

Smart said he believes the thumb is ready for contact.

“The surgery did its job,” said Smart, who injured himself March 11 while diving for a loose ball in a game against the Indiana Pacers. “Thumb is holding up well. I feel ready, I feel strong enough to get back out there. I’m just waiting on the OK.”

The series between the Celtics and Bucks has been tumultuous, a back-and-forth affair as an injury-riddled Boston squad takes on a healthy but offensively-sluggish Milwaukee team. Smart could add a shot of life for Boston in a much-needed way.

The Bucks won Game 4 and the series is now tied, 2-2. Game 6 would be on Thursday, April 26 if need be.