Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett

Four teams that could head off a Lakers vs. Heat NBA final

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It’s the consensus of prognosticators (and me as well) — the NBA finals will be the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. You can already sense David Stern drooling like a Pavlovian dog thinking about the television ratings.

What teams could destroy David Stern’s dream?

There are four. While we could argue that each of these four need a little luck or for the Heat/Lakers to come back to them, we could say the same for the Heat and Lakers. Fact is you don’t win an NBA title without some breaks going your way.

So here are the four most likely teams to get in the way, two West and two East.

Oklahoma City Thunder. They remain the next best team in the West, even after the James Harden trade. (I think they take a step back after trading away a key playmaker, the Sixth Man of the Year and an Olympian and trying to fill his minutes with Kevin Martin. Long term with the picks and Jeremy Lamb we can debate the trade impacts, but the Thunder did not get instantly better Saturday night with this move.)

The Thunder have improved each year because their players have improved and gotten more experienced. That will happen again. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to take steps forward after their Olympic experience — and the Lakers will struggle to stop Durant, even with Dwight Howard in the paint. OKC gets Eric Maynor back and that gives them depth at the point guard spot and another playmaker. They have Kendrick Perkins to match up with Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka to slow Pau Gasol. Westbrook can hamper Steve Nash.

The Thunder are not as good a team without Harden, but they are still very good and still match up with the Lakers as well as anyone.

Los Angeles Clippers. You can argue the San Antonio Spurs should fit here, but the last couple seasons showed me that while they are awesome in the regular season you can scheme for their weaknesses come the playoffs. The Clippers are a team on the rise. They have the single best pure point guard in the game in Chris Paul, and he is in a contract year so expect big things. They added some depth with Jamal Crawford, and while I’m not his biggest fan he is an upgrade over what they had. Eric Bledsoe is coming into his own off the bench. They have solid veterans like Caron Butler and — once he gets in shape — Lamar Odom. Oh, an they have the force of nature that is Blake Griffin. Paul is just figuring out how to use all those pieces.

The key for the Clippers in the playoffs is DeAndre Jordan. Last season he got benched for Reggie Evans when the going got tough. That’s not good. The Clippers need Jordan to take a huge step forward because they need his athleticism to combat Howard if they face the Lakers. If Jordan is in foul trouble or just plain old ineffective, the Lakers would run them over without slowing. But Jordan and his growth — scoring and putting pressure on Howard on both ends of the floor — changes the dynamic. He makes it possible. But it’s asking a lot of him to make that leap.

Boston Celtics. They came within a game of getting the Heat last season, and while they racked up a 3-2 lead in the series with Chris Bosh out it still shows they were close. Then Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is better right now than Ray Allen. Not over their careers, maybe not now as a pure shooter, but Terry brings far more shot creation and versatility to the Celtics. Boston also gets Jeff Green back and he gives them real depth off the bench. Jared Sullinger should let Kevin Garnett rest more.

Boston must have a healthy and rested Garnett to have a shot at the Heat — he is the heart of their defense has to play as well or better than last year to have a shot. Rajon Rondo has to step up his game and get his squad more easy looks offensively against a swarming Heat defense. Boston cannot show their age. The good news for Celtics fans is Boston matches up well with Miami considering its defense, Paul Pierce and his ability to score, and now some punch off the bench. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have a puncher’s chance in a series with Miami.

Indiana Pacers. If you’re going to beat the Heat, the best way to do it is with size — Indiana has that in Roy Hibbert. One of the key turning points in the playoffs last season was when the Heat fell behind the Pacers because of the play of Hibbert and they had to adjust their style and step up their play. The Heat had that other gear.

To best the Heat Pacers need George Hill and Paul George to take steps forward with their game (both would be key in the finals, particularly on defense), David West to keep being himself, Granger to be steady in the big moments and Hibbert to become a dominating force. The Pacers lack the kind of superstar player the Heat have two (or three) of, but they have great balance, good depth and the size that could give the Heat fits. They just have to play nearly flawless basketball (and hope the Heat do not).

Vucevic leads Magic comeback for 117-110 OT win over Hawks

Nikola Vucevic
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ATLANTA (AP) — A big comeback gave the Orlando Magic their second win over the Hawks in two days and renewed belief they can stage a similar rally in their season.

Nikola Vucevic scored 25 of his 28 points after halftime, and Orlando rallied from 20 points down to beat Atlanta 117-110 in overtime on Monday night.

The Magic beat the Hawks 96-94 on Sunday on a last-second 18-footer by Vucevic. The 7-foot center was the difference again on Monday night, when he had 13 rebounds and six assists.

Thanks to a 2-12 record in January, Orlando is tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference. The wins over the Hawks provide hope for a turnaround.

“It’s big. It’s really big for us,” said Victor Oladipo.

Added Elfrid Payton, who had 20 points, “It’s definitely a step forward.”

Orlando trailed by 20 in the opening period and by 18 in the third. It took its first lead at 96-94 on Mario Hezonja‘s 3-pointer with 3:33 remaining in regulation.

Orlando scored the first six points of overtime, including a jumper by Vucevic, who also had 13 rebounds. Kyle Korver‘s 3-pointer pulled the Hawks to 112-110, but Evan Fournier answered with a 3 for the Magic.

Al Horford led Atlanta with 27 points and Paul Millsap had 22 points and 13 rebounds.

The Hawks were hot while building the big lead in the opening period, but Orlando’s defense kept playing hard.

“We got enough stops to win,” said Orlando coach Scott Skiles.

Millsap made one of two free throws to tie the score at 101 late in regulation. Millsap blocked a shot by Oladipo, leaving the Hawks with 1.2 seconds. Millsap took the inbounds pass, took a step back and sank a short jumper – but it came after the buzzer, sending the game to overtime.

“We lost our focus at times,” Horford said. ” … We’ve had this problem all year where we get up and we give up leads. It’s hard to take.”

Atlanta trailed 30-19 after the first quarter of Sunday’s 96-94 loss at Orlando. One day later, the Hawks flipped the script and led 30-18 after one period. They led 71-53 late in the third.

“When you’re up in the third quarter like that, we have to find a way to be better,” said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. “I think we’ve got to be better late in games – myself, the players, everybody.”

Vucevic scored 12 points in the third period, including the last two baskets in an 11-0 run.

 

EVEN HARRY WAS HOT

Things went so well for the Hawks in the first half that even their mascot couldn’t miss. During a timeout, Harry the Hawk hit nothing but net on a half-court shot – with his back to the basket. Harry celebrated by dabbing on his way off the court.

TIP-INS

Magic: F Tobias Harris (sprained left ankle) missed his second straight game. … Fournier had 16 points. Hezonja and Smith had 14 points each. Aaron Gordon had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Hawks: Kent Bazemore had 13 rebounds. … Tiago Splitter (right hip) missed his fifth straight game and is expected to rest through the All-Star break. … The Hawks assigned C Edy Tavares to the Austin Spurs of the NBA Development League. Tavares has averaged 9.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in 10 D-League games this season.

 

Redick leads Clippers to 98-92 OT victory over 76ers

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 8: J.J. Redick #4 of the Los Angeles Clippers attempts a shot between Hollis Thompson #31 and Robert Covington #33 of the Philadelphia 76ers on February 8, 2016 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Clippers defeated the 76ers 98-92. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Los Angeles Clippers struggled until it mattered most.

J.J. Redick had 23 points, including the tying 3-pointer late in regulation, and Jamal Crawford also scored 23 points to lead the short-handed Clippers to a 98-92 overtime victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night.

The Clippers overcame their largest deficit in a victory this season, coming back from 19 points down to win their 19th game in the last 23 overall and 12th in the last 14 on the road.

“It was ugly out there for most of the game,” said Chris Paul, who assisted on Redick’s shot. “Good teams find a way to win, and that’s what we did.”

Jerami Grant had 17 points to lead the 76ers, who were looking for their first winning streak of the season.

“These are games we should be winning,” Philadelphia’s Ish Smith said.

Philadelphia looked in good position to earn its ninth win of the season – and first over a team with a winning record – before Redick’s 3-pointer from the right wing with 10.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter tied the game at 88. The 76ers had a chance to win it in regulation, but Jahlil Okafor‘s 18-foot jumper against the defense of DeAndre Jordan went long.

“I wish that Jahlil would have driven on DeAndre, but I give DeAndre some credit, too,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said.

The Clippers took control in overtime, scoring the first eight points in the extra session as Philadelphia missed 10 straight shots to end regulation and start OT.

“That was the best execution we had all game,” Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers said. “And you look at each other like, `Where was that all game?”‘

Jordan had 12 points and 21 rebounds and Paul contributed 19 points, six rebounds and seven assists for the Clippers, who have won nine straight over Philadelphia.

Smith returned to the lineup after sitting out the 76ers’ 103-98 victory over Brooklyn on Saturday night with an ankle injury and had 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Okafor added 14 points and nine rebounds.

Already without injured starters Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers, coach Doc Rivers chose to rest Paul Pierce against Philadelphia. Rivers is out 4-to-6 weeks after breaking his left hand last Wednesday while Griffin remains sidelined after breaking his hand during a fight with a member of the equipment staff.

Philadelphia led by 10 points at halftime and controlled most of the second half.

The 76ers were up 88-85 with possession of the ball with 30 seconds remaining in regulation. Smith missed a 15-foot jumper and Nerlens Noel couldn’t corral the rebound. Following a timeout, Paul found a wide-open Redick, who swished a tying 3.

“I’m not the one that makes the shot, but I feel like I make it because we execute,” Paul said.

ROLLING ALONG

The Clippers improved to 18-4 without Griffin, who first was sidelined with a partially torn left quadriceps muscle injured on Christmas.

TIP-INS

Clippers: Crawford has scored at least 20 points in the last five games, averaging 22 points over that span. … Los Angeles came back from a 17-point deficit in a 101-96 win over Detroit on Nov. 14. … The Clippers improved to 18-9 on road. … The Clippers defeated the 76ers 130-99 on Jan. 2 in Los Angeles. … Wesley Johnson made his sixth start of the season in place of Pierce and had seven points and nine rebounds.

76ers: Allen Iverson was in attendance. … F Richaun Holmes was available after sitting out the last two games with an ankle sprain but didn’t play. … Philadelphia last beat the Clippers on March 16, 2011.

 

Andre Drummond hits buzzer-beating heave from beyond halfcourt (VIDEO)

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 27:  Andre Drummond #0 of the Detroit Pistons reacts in the final seconds of their 106-94 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on October 27, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading andor using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Andre Drummond is a terrible free-throw shooter…except, apparently, when he’s shooting from the other free-throw line. Monday night against the Raptors, Drummond cut Detroit’s deficit to five at the end of the third quarter with this three-quarter-court heave at the buzzer:

Now, if only he could work on his accuracy from his own free-throw line.

Joe Johnson banks in three to give Nets win over Nuggets (VIDEO)

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 03:  Joe Johnson #7 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles against the Indiana Pacers during their game at the Barclays Center on February 3, 2016 in New York City.  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 Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Not a lot has gone right for the Nets this season, but an impressive clutch shot by seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson gave them their 14th win of the season on Monday. With time expiring, Johnson banked in a long three-pointer to put Brooklyn up 105-104 over Denver and secure the victory:

Johnson had 12 points on the night.