Miami Heat's LeBron James is defended by Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in Miami

Heat knock Thunder out of rhythm, hang on for close win


If this is going to be the NBA finals again, I am all good with that. In fact, can we start it tomorrow?

The Thunder and Heat gave us all the Christmas Day gift of what felt as close to playoff game as you are going to get in December— it was physical, intense, even Kevin Durant and LeBron James were jawing at each other by the end of this one.

And just like the last three times the Heat and Thunder played in Miami it was the Heat that came away with the win, 103-97.

This win means nothing if these teams meet again in June — there are no statement games in December. But the game did remind us of a few things.

Miami makes things a struggle for the Thunder like seemingly no other team in the NBA can do. If you watched games from Oklahoma City’s recent 12-game winning streak you would see fantastic ball movement, great spacing and guys getting good looks in the flow of the offense. But the Heat take the Thunder out of that flow — Oklahoma City becomes a team that likes too much isolation and doesn’t move off the ball.

The result is when you need a three to tie the game with 14 seconds left you end up with Durant taking a contested step-back three with LeBron in his face. (As for Russell Westbrook being fouled on that next three… I don’t know. The review was inconclusive. But OKC wouldn’t have needed a three if they had defended on what became a Chris Bosh dunk the play before. One foul never loses you a game by itself.)

Miami raced off to a 13-2 start with LeBron James throwing down dunks to get off to a fast start on his way to a huge 29-point, 8 rebound, 9 assist game. He made a statement that if you are going to have a conversation about the MVP and have Carmelo Anthony and Durant in it go ahead, but you better have LeBron in that mix as well.

The Thunder closed that gap with the three by the end of the first quarter and eventually tied it up 39-39. We had a game the rest of the way.

For Miami we had a Mario Chalmers sighting — he had 20 points and shot 4-of-8 from three. Dwyane Wade had 21 points, Chris Bosh 16.

For the Thunder, it was 33 for Durant in the kind of quality game an MVP has on the big stage. But after that things dropped off a little — Westbrook had 21 points but needed 19 shots to get them, Kevin Martin had 15 but hit just 4-of-10 shots.

The real question I have for Scottie Brooks — why so much Kendrick Perkins, particularly late in the game. Perkins has a role on your team against the Lakers or Grizzlies, but against the Heat he seems lost without a position and was exposed by the Heat.

And with all that, it was a six point final score in a game the Thunder had a shot in. They need to play at their peak to beat the Heat and we didn’t see that on Christmas just like we didn’t last June. Like the protagonist in an action movie, the Heat are going to have to play at a new level to beat the Heat in a series. Oklahoma City may have that in them but their margin for error is small. And we saw too many little mistakes.

But it’s close.

It could be different if they meet in the finals. And if that happens, I’m good with it.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.

Celtics draft pick Marcus Thornton gets beer dumped on head during Australian game (video)

Marcus Thornton, Will Cherry

The Celtics drafted Marcus Thornton with No. 45 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. That essentially entitled him to the required tender – a one-year contract offer, surely unguaranteed at the minimum.

Thornton rejected that, which is almost always a mistake.

Rejecting the tender is a favor to the drafting team, which gets to keep the player’s exclusive rights for a year. If Thornton tries to join the NBA now, he’s stuck negotiating with only the Celtics.

By accepting the tender, the player typically gets one of two outcomes. He either plays on that contract and draws an NBA salary or he gets waived. But even getting waived is better than rejecting the tender, because at least the player becomes a free agent and can negotiate with any team.

Players who reject the tender go to another league and play for less money. In Thornton’s case, that mean Australia.

How’s that going?

(Almost) never reject the required tender as a second-round pick.