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

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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.

Wall has to work for recognition among top NBA point guards

Washington Wizards guard John Wall dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off scoring 51 points against the Washington Wizards, reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry praised John Wall, who dropped a quiet 41 against the Warriors.

“He’s a top-tier point guard,” Curry said, “and it’s like that – not his caliber every night – but obviously at the point guard position you’re going to have some talent on the other side of the ball most nights.”

Wall has never played better in what is now a point-guard league.

It doesn’t stop with Curry. The talent pool includes Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, to name a few.

“I think I’m having a career year,” Wall said. “I can say I’m playing my best basketball, but not the way I want to play because it’s not equaling up to wins.”

Wall is an All-Star for the third time but gets lost in the packed field of “top-tier” point guards. His 20.1 points a game are sixth at the position, while his 9.9 assists are third behind only Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo and Westbrook.

But some nights there is just no denying his talents.

Like Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Wall had 28 points and 17 assists to lead Washington past the Knicks. It was another showcase performance during a season that hasn’t gone the way he or the Wizards have wanted.

The Wizards will be a sub-.500 team and outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the All-Star break. Injuries to sidekick Bradley Beal and many others have hampered Washington this season.

But Wall is holding up his end and is playing like a top-five point guard.

He has an all-around game – the ability to beat defenders off the dribble, to spot up, pass, use his court vision and rebound. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said recently, “you have to pick your poison” when defending Wall.

“Being able to shoot the ball off the pick and roll with great consistency – that’s what makes defenses choose what to do next,” Stevens said. “He’s been a great passer off the pick and roll.”

There’s no shortage of admiration around the league for Wall, who Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown deemed “the fastest guard in the NBA.” Brown compared Wall to a Maserati sports car and said the 25-year-old has improved because “you learn how to drive your Maserati better.”

Much of Wall’s game has improved in his six pro seasons since he was the first overall pick out of Kentucky in 2010.

“His speed is probably second to none in the NBA. … He’s a one-man fast break and it’s crazy because he logs so many minutes,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “His midrange jumper is also so much improved. You can tell he’s been working on his game a lot, and you like to see that from guys.”

Wall doesn’t get the headlines like Curry, Irving or even Thomas, of late. He has only scored the most points in a game he’s played in eight times this season, but Wall is the kind of player that teams have to game-plan against.

“You’ve got to build a wall against Wall,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said. “You let him play in open court one-on-one, he’s too fast, he’s too strong. He’s going to put your defense at bay.”

Opponents have tried to close off Wall’s drives to the basket and force him to take jump shots. At times, it has worked, like when the Trail Blazers limited him to 4 of 17 shooting in a victory last month.

“When you’re playing against an All-Star-caliber player like him, you work as hard as you can, you try and contain his penetration and hope he misses some jumpers,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

More often than not, Wall makes the most of his time and space. Even so, Washington coach Randy Wittman believes Curry should get more recognition than Wall because of team results.

“John’s body of work has been pretty good; he’s been recognized with that,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to go out and play, you’ve got to go out and win. Those are the two things in our league. You want recognition? Be a winner and play your butt off. That’s how you get recognition, and John’s gotten it.”

NBA writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.

Report: “Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics”

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The Boston Celtics have assets, a collection of good role players but lacking the true stars, the alpha, the No. 1 option that any team needs to really win in the NBA.

How about Al Horford?

The Hawks are testing the waters for Horford, and as you can see in the video above, Chirs Mannix of Comcast Sportsnet New England (as well as The Vertical at Yahoo Sports) sees a fit.

“I think Boston, Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics. I think that is one of the guys across the league that Danny Ainge is the most excited about. He is a four man that would fit right into what Boston is trying to do. It would cost a lot of money to re-sign him in the offseason, but I think Boston is willing to play it, because they haven’t paid a lot of money for players in recent years.”

The question here, of course, is the cost going back. All sources around the league right now say the Hawks are asking for the moon (as Mannix mentions). The givens in this kind of deal would be David Lee‘s expiring contract (for salary reasons), and the Nets unprotected pick. But it’s going to take more. Jae Crowder? Marcus Smart? Avery Bradley? Kelly Olynyk? Isaiah Thomas? It’s going to take a couple of those guys on top of Lee and the pick.

But if you’re the Celtics, that’s the move — you have put together all these assets, now you need to consolidate them into a couple of stars. Horford’s good-at-everything will fit beautifully in Brad Stevens’s system.

Just something to keep your eyes on. Unless the Hawks decide not to move Horford at all. Which is still a possibility, they may not break this thing up.

Damian Lillard added to Team USA Olympic roster pool

Damian Lillard
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If you’re looking for a point guard who can flat-out score the rock, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better than Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers’ guard is averaging 24.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent, and a very high usage rate of 30.9.

He’s the kind of guy who might have a place on the Team USA Roster.

Which is why USA Basketball has added him to the pool to be considered for the Rio Olympics summer. The reason for the change is both Lillard’s level of play this season, and the fact he called USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo to ask for a spot, as reported by Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

Lillard deserves consideration, but there are two key reasons he likely doesn’t make the team:

1) He is still a terrible defender.

2) The list of guards for the USA Roster is ridiculous: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. And now Lillard. That’s 10 guys for likely five spots. It’s hard to see Lillard making that cut.

But he deserves consideration.

Kings co-owner Shaq: Vivek Ranadivé told me George Karl would coach rest of season

Shaquille O'Neal
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac said keeping George Karl as coach was right move “for now.”

How long is “for now”?

Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, shares insight.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

This would mean a little more if Vivek Ranadivé weren’t prone to wild swings. Remember, the Kings said Tyrone Corbin would finish last season as coach before firing him for Karl.

Divac also said in November that Karl would coach the rest of the season, and that came up for debate fewer than three months later.

Shaq’s revelation is as likely to embarrass the Kings in a few weeks as it is to signal Karl’s job security.