Three Stars of the Night: Heat Checked

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Three games were on the menu Thursday night, and each brought their own unique flavor.

If you love defense (or hate scoring), Pacers-Knicks was the game for you. With Carmelo Anthony serving his one-game suspension, the Knicks really struggled to generate offense and relied almost solely on J.R. Smith heroics most of the night. That didn’t exactly work against the league’s best defense, however, and the Pacers grinded out another win at home.

Speaking of suspensions, guess who got ejected (twice!) in Sacramento? DeMarcus Cousins played a magnificent game offensively, but he took a whack at Vince Carter’s face that earned him his 6th foul, which was ultimately deemed a flagrant-two. As for the game itself? Hilariously awful. Isaiah Thomas hit a buzzer-beating banked 3-pointer to push it to overtime, but both teams traded awful passes, missed free throws, and terrible decisions until the Mavericks finally decided they wanted to lose less than the Kings. I refuse to believe one of these teams won.

As for Portland-Miami? A few members of the red hot Blazers earned their place in the stars below. To the Three Stars of the Night!

 

Third Star: Wesley Matthews – (18 points, game-tying and game-winning threes)

It takes some serious, serious intestinal fortitude to do what Wes Mathews did against the Miami Heat. After watching his team come back from a 13-point halftime deficit largely without his help, Matthews managed to stay confident despite his ugly 5-for-16 night. When the ball came to him down three points with under a minute left, Matthews nailed an open corner 3 to tie the game. Then, down two after a Miami bucket, Matthews went one-on-one against Ray Allen and stepped back to nail the incredibly difficult go-ahead 3. And finally, as if he hadn’t done enough already, Matthews played brilliant defense on LeBron James on the game’s final possession, as helped to force the ball out of LeBron’s hands. Although Mario Chalmers ended up with a wide-open look, it was Matthews who ended up being the unquestioned and unlikely crunch time hero.

 

Second Star: Paul George – (24 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals)

Yesterday, we talked about how the Pacers are staying alive this year, and how Paul George is a huge part of that. With J.R. Smith representing the only threat to create his own offense off the dribble, George locked in defensively and used his incredible length to bother Smith into a 10-for-29 shooting night while also recording a career-high six steals. George’s defense and forced turnovers really set the table for a Pacers offense that desperately needed some easy buckets. Watching George grow more and more comfortable as a wing-scorer is exciting, but it’s his development defensively that should have Eastern Conference foes worried. George can legitimately guard every position on the floor, and he’s a nightmare to score against in an isolation. If you could head play basketball Frankenstien and create the ideal wing defender to guard LeBron James, it would look an awful lot like Paul George.

 

First Star: Nicolas Batum – (28 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists)

Batum just keeps adding layers to his game, slowly but surely. He’s always been a good spot-up shooter and a good defender, but Batum has spent more time with the ball in his hands than ever before, and he’s shown the chops of a really solid playmaker early on this season. Batum’s assists have jumped from 1.4 a game last season to 4.5 this year, and although it was Matthews who knocked in the game-tying 3-pointer, it was Batum who found him open in the corner. That was just one of the many great plays Batum made in the second half to help the Blazers climb back into it. He may never be a pure isolation scorer, but Batum plays smart team ball and could absolutely develop into an acceptable accompanying star on a contending team if he keeps steadily improving.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”