Heat extend win streak to 20 but Sixers make them work for it

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In the first half of the season, this was the kind of game the Heat would lose — a back-to-back, a fired up opponent playing better than they have in weeks, and the Heat just kind of coasting.

With an 8.5 game lead over the No. 2 in the East, it’s the kind of game they might have lost now, too, if their winning streak didn’t give them something to play for.

But it does and once again the Heat made just enough plays down the stretch to beat the Sixers 98-94 and extend their winning streak to 20 games. This was the third time the Heat have beaten the Sixers in this streak.

With the win, the Heat are 10-1 on the second night of a back-to-back this season with the win. Which isn’t as impressive as 20-straight wins (the Heat are only the fourth team in NBA history to get to 20) but it is impressive nonetheless.

When you are the defending champs on a win streak lesser teams get up to play you — the Magic did it last week — and the Sixers came out with a real energy at home. Evan Turner had eight early points and when you throw in six Heat turnovers you get Philly on an 11-2 run and an early small lead. It was 22-21 Philly after one.

But you knew the Heat run was coming. It did in the Heat in the second quarter with an 11-0 run when they went to a lineup of Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, LeBron and Chris Bosh. It eventually grew to a 17-2 run. The Heat were able to get to the rim and score on easy buckets (usually a LeBron jam) meanwhile the Sixers were settling for jumpers and shot 8-of-23 in the second. It was Heat 51, Sixers 39 at halftime and LeBron had 18.

Where the Sixers deserve credit is they didn’t just come out and mail in the second half. Instead they came out early in the third quarter on a 13-4 run that included a lot of hustle plays like Jrue Holiday getting the rebound on his own miss. Holiday finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Thaddeus Young had the other good game for Philly with 24 points and 15 rebounds.

When Dorell Write knocked down a three, then stole the ball on the next Heat possession, ran out in front and threw down the slam it was a four-point game midway through fourth quarter.

After a Holiday three (his third of the second half) the Sixers had an 83-82 lead with 5:20 left. The Sixers went on a 15-2 run.

But where the Heat might have coasted before they played with enough energy down the stretch because they wanted the streak. Bosh hit an awkward-looking hook from the post and later pump faked Spencer Hawes and drove for the layup.

LeBron was driving and scoring, he finished with 27 points on 19 shots. Holiday was trying but missing some contested looks. Ray Allen drained a three to give the Heat the lead for good (Allen had 12 points). And when it mattered, the LeBron and Wade each hit their free throws. And Bosh had a block of Young that sealed the game.

The Heat still wanted it at the end and they had more talent to put on the floor than the Sixers. That passion to still get the win is what the streak has given the Heat when they might otherwise be back to coasting and waiting for the playoffs to start.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.