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).

Pacers owner says team not for sale, will not be moved from Indianapolis

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There are more than a few NBA owners who are seeing the prices teams are being sold for — the Rockets just sold for a record $2.2 billion — and considering their options. Some other billionaires are looking for teams, several with the goal of packing up the franchise and moving it to their respected hometowns.

Those billionaires need not call Herb Simon. The Pacers owner said the team is not going anywhere, speaking to Gregg Doyel of the IndyStar.

“I want to leave my legacy: This team permanently in Indianapolis,” Simon told IndyStar Friday in an interview at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “That’s my No. 1 goal.”

Simon bought the Pacers in 1983 with his older brother, Melvin — who died in 2009 at age 82. He told IndyStar the team someday will be owned by his 53-year-old son, Steve. Behind the scenes, Steve Simon has been working closely with Pacers Sports and President Rick Fuson for five years — “He knows more about the dollars and cents than I do,” Herb said of his son — and met this week with several department heads.

“If anything happens to me, he’d be taking over,” Herb said, adding that father and son are on the same page: The Pacers are staying in Indianapolis.

Good. That is as it should be.

Indiana is part of America’s basketball heartland, and it should have a team. Pacers fans are smart and loyal, and the team has a long history going back to the ABA, running from Mel Daniels and George McGinnis through Reggie Miller and up to Myles Turner (hopefully he can be on the level of the rest of them someday). They play in the coolest basketball building in the league, one with the history of the sport wolven in.

Indy is the nation’s 27th largest television market, bigger than San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City and other successful NBA franchises. There is no reason the Pacers cannot thrive, so long as ownership is committed.

They are. Which is excellent news for Pacers’ fans.

Stan Van Gundy speaks out again in support of protesting athletes

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy used his team’s trip to Washington to again voice his support for athletes who kneel during the national anthem and his opposition to President Donald Trump.

Van Gundy was asked before Friday night’s game against the Wizards what he hoped would result from the president’s criticism of NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem and the resulting national dialogue about political activism by professional athletes.

“I don’t know what good can come out of anything the president has said,” Van Gundy said. “As far as the athletes’ protest, I hope people would pay attention to the issues that caused the protest in the first place and realize that we have problem disproportionately with police brutality towards men of color.”

Van Gundy also criticized fans who have booed those athletes because they believe the gesture is disrespectful to the United States military.

“I thought that one of the things the military is fighting for is the American way of life and our values, which I think starts with freedom of speech,” Van Gundy said. “Our country was founded on protest. Otherwise, we would still be a colony of England. You would think people would appreciate non-violent protests that will be made.

“If you don’t stand for freedom of speech and you don’t think those players have the right to freedom of speech, what American values are you for?”

It was not the first time Van Gundy has spoken out on these issues. When Trump was elected last November, Van Gundy told the Detroit Free Press it was the first time he had been “ashamed” of his country.

Last month on the team’s media day, he read a prepared statement in support of athletes who use their visibility for political purposes, including protests during the anthem. The NBA has a policy requiring that players stand for the anthem.

The Pistons’ visit to Washington was their first since Jan. 21, one day after Trump’s inauguration.

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Cavaliers’ Derrick Rose out Saturday with sprained left ankle

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Cavaliers point guard Derrick Rose was held out of Saturday night’s game against the Orlando Magic because of a sprained left ankle.

Rose twisted his ankle after being fouled by Milwaukee’s Greg Monroe while driving to the basket in the fourth quarter on Friday. Monroe grabbed Rose by his neck and pulled him to the floor.

Rose landed awkwardly, but stayed in the game to shoot two free throws before going to the bench. The play was originally called a common foul but was upgraded to a flagrant 1 Saturday by the NBA.

Jose Calderon started at point guard Saturday for the Cavaliers, who have won their first two games.

Rose signed a one-year contract with Cleveland in July. He became the team’s starter when Kyrie Irving was traded to Boston. Rose was named the league’s MVP in 2011 while with the Chicago Bulls, but has battled injuries since.

 

Kyrie Irving, any regrets about using profanity toward fan? “Hell no.”

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Fans yelling obscenities at NBA players and trying to goad them into a response — always while camera phones are recording — has become a thing. DeMarcus Cousins will be paying $25,000 for responding to a fan cursing at him in Memphis.

Kyrie Irving is likely going to get fined for an incident Friday night after the Celtics knocked off the Sixers in Philadephia. It made the rounds on social media Friday night, with a fan yelling at Irving as he leaves the court “Kyrie, where’s LeBron?” and Irving responding with a crude phrase. Here is the exchange as Irving leaves the court (NOTE: The language is NSFW, if offended don’t watch the video).

Saturday Irving was asked about the incident, and he admitted he should have bit his tongue, but he has no regrets, as reported by A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

“Hell no,” Irving said (when asked if he had regrets). “Man enough to record it on video, that’s on him. I’m glad he got his ad name out there, and his five seconds of fame and it’s gone viral. That’s the social media platform we live on.

Irving added, “I take full responsibility for what I said. You move on.”

Irving also addressed the bigger issue, something Cousins discussed when talking about his fine. Via Chris Forsberg at ESPN.

“At the end of the day, we’re human. It’s in heat of the moment and frustrations arise, we were at halftime, we were down by 4, in an environment, a season-opener in Philly. Being with a young team like we have here and staying composed, handling that before we go in the locker room and addressing what we have to do in the locker room and going out and handling business and getting the W, that’s really the only thing that matters to me.

“It’s up to the league at this point. But, like I said, I’m going to take full responsibility for what I said. I don’t have any regrets for it.”

Irving is going to get fined. The league has issues with its players cursing at fans. Understandably.

That said, the league may need to step back on consider situations like this. If fans are taunting players, at what point should a player be able to respond to the fan? Should arena security (at the request of the officials, or maybe a player) intervene? Players should not be asked to bite their tongue no matter what is said, and even if a fan paid for a ticket it doesn’t give them the right to cross any line. As more fans seem to go after their 15 minutes of social media fame baiting players, the league may need to reconsider where it draws its lines.