Miami Heat James is guarded by Pacers forward George during their NBA game at the American Airlines Arena in Miami

Eastern Conference Finals preview: Pacers vs. Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana 49-33 (Third seed in East)
Miami 66-16 (First seed in East)

PLAYOFF RECORDS

Indiana 8-4 (beat Atlanta 4-2 in the first round, New York 4-2 in the second)
Miami: 8-1 (swept Milwaukee in first round 4-0, beat Chicago 4-1 in the second)

SEASON SERIES

Indiana won the regular season series 2-1 with the Pacers winning both of the games on their home court. The second Pacers win was the last game before Miami’s 27-game win streak and the Pacers fell to the Heat once during that run.

KEY INJURIES

Nothing new or dramatic here. Miami’s Dwyane Wade will play through a bruised left knee, as he did last series. The Pacers David West has a sore calf, but it will not keep him from playing.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Miami: offense, 109.1 (1st in postseason); defense 93.4 (1st in postseason)
Indiana: offense 100.3 (10th in postseason); defense 98.3 (5th in postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

1. Can Indiana get the ball into the post cleanly, quickly? We all know the Pacers have a size advantage they want to exploit in this series — if Roy Hibbert or David West can get the ball in the post Miami will struggle to slow them (or if the Heat defense collapses perimeter shooters open up). The problem last year for Indiana against the Heat in the playoffs is it wasn’t that easy to get the post play set up — Miami puts a lot of pressure on the opposing guards with an aggressive defense, and they will front the post and take away the easy pass. Indiana struggled to get the ball into the block last year, and often when they did it was late in the clock and the shooter was rushed.

Miami’s strategy isn’t going to change, it is up to Indiana to adjust. They have to not turn the ball over under pressure and get the ball to their bigs on the block with enough time on the clock to exploit their advantage. If Indiana is forced to create shots on the perimeter with their wings they are in a lot of trouble.

2. Roy Hibbert on Chris Bosh. Indiana took a 2-1 lead in last year’s playoff series between these teams in large part because of Hibbert and the Pacers defense — his 7’2” frame and long arms in the paint cut off the driving lanes for LeBron James,  Wade and the rest of the Heat, making life difficult.

Chris Bosh changes that equation. Remember Bosh was injured in Game 1 of that series, but with him back Hibbert has to respect Bosh all the way out to the three point line. If Hibbert is out guarding Bosh 15 feet from the rim things open up for Miami’s driving wings. Indiana has to both cover Bosh outside the paint and protect the paint, and that will not be easy.

3. Indiana’s defense has to play all the way to the buzzer. Let’s use an example from the Western Conference Finals Game 1: After handling the Chris Paul dominated Clippers and the Kevin Durant dominated Thunder, the Grizzlies struggled to slow the Spurs in the opener. The difference was that when you stop the Spurs first option out of a set they go to the second, third and fourth with clean execution until you are left scrambling. Then they find the open guy. Memphis was not used to covering that.

Indiana’s defenders are going to have to be sharp for the full 24 seconds because this is not the Knicks that resort to isolation after you shut down a primary option. Miami moves the ball very well. It is is tough to defend Chris Bosh away from the basket and Ray Allen in the opposite corner while LeBron James starts his drive. Once the defense breaks down Miami exploits it well.

The Pacers were the best defense in the NBA this regular season and that defense has gotten them to the conference finals. But if they dream of advancing any further it has to be even better.

OUTLOOK

While some people have a sense the Heat are on their way to a coronation more than going through a challenging playoffs, the Pacers will test them. Paul George has come into his own this year and his defense is going to make life as difficult for LeBron as anyone can. David West is rock solid and the Pacers size is going to be an issue for Miami. Indiana can slow the Heat down and they have advantages.

But not enough. Indiana’s offense is going to find it hard to score on Miami and their turnovers — 15.2 percent of possessions in the playoffs, it was 16.2 percent in the regular season, second worst in the league — will get them in trouble. Miami feeds on turnovers, that’s how they get on their 12-0 runs that are nearly impossible to overcome.

Miami is going to need more — Bosh and the banged up Dwyane Wade will have to score more this series. More importantly, the Heat need to get a big game or two during the series from guys like Shane Battier and Norris Cole. Indiana is a very good defensive team that will take away the preferred options of the Heat, other guys will have to step up.

PREDICTION

Heat in six. Indiana will push them but just does not have enough offense to get four wins in seven.

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Michael Beasley, Davis Bertans ejected from Bucks/Spurs for being third/fourth into altercation

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This should have been the usual NBA altercation — two guys jawing with nothing physical happening because teammates step in, everyone does their posturing, and we move along. Monday night in the Spurs eventual win over the Bucks, Greg Monroe and Dewayne Dedmon got tangled up going for a rebound, Dedmon threw a little elbow, Monroe pushed him off, and the two started the well choreographed NBA dance.

Then San Antonio’s Davis Bertans came in and shoved Monroe.

Followed by Milwaukee’s Michael Beasley coming in and shoved Bertans.

Both Beasley and Bertans were ejected for escalating the situation, and you can expect the league will hit both with a fine for being the third/fourth men in.

Three things we learned Monday: Don’t forget, the Warriors have Klay Thompson, too

Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson follows through on a shot during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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What kind of night was it in the NBA? Russell Westbrook had his sixth straight triple-double, and everyone took it in stride like that happens as often as Family Guy reruns. Anyway, these are the three things we decided to feature instead.

1) Oh yeah, don’t forget the Golden State Warriors have Klay Thompson, too. It’s just not fair. The Indiana Pacers have not played good defense this season, they were on the second night of a back-to-back having beaten the Clippers, and they got rewarded for all this by having to face the Golden State Warriors. All that said, the Pacers did hold Stephen Curry to just 13 points, and Kevin Durant was well below his average with just 20 points.

Oh, but the Warriors still have Klay Thompson.

Klay was peeling off screens (15 possessions) and getting his chance on spot ups (eight), but once he got going it didn’t matter the Pacers put Paul George on him and defended fairly well — Thompson was 11-of-14 on contested jumpers (via NBA.com). He was hitting from almost everywhere on the court.

klay shotchart 2

The Warriors offense is a fearsome machine.

2) Cleveland would like to remind Toronto — and everyone else — they are the best team in the East.
The Cavaliers were on a three-game losing streak and had been playing in a malaise. The Toronto Raptors had been the hottest team in the NBA over the past couple of weeks. So when the top two teams in the East met Monday…

Cleveland won, 116-112, but it felt more comfortable than that suggests. They did it in Toronto. The Cavaliers were not sharp defensively in the first half but hung around thanks to 20 points from Kevin Love (he finished with 28), then in the third quarter the Cavs defended like champions holding Toronto to 20 points on 34.8 percent shooting. Cleveland never pulled away to make it a blowout, but they were in control. LeBron James had 34 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, Kyrie Irving pitched in 24.

DeMar DeRozan (31 points, and carried the team for stretches) and Kyle Lowry (24) played well, but they did not have enough help. Particularly from their starting front line.

If Toronto is going to threaten Cleveland come the playoffs, Raptors GM Massi Ujiri is going to have to make a move. This team simply does not have the talent to beat Cleveland four out of seven as currently constructed. Monday was simply a reminder of the pecking order in the East when Cleveland cares about the game.

3) Jamal Murray went into Joel Embiid’s building and dropped an impressive 22, just to make an early Rookie of Year statement. It’s still too early to have a serious discussion of postseason awards. To me, any discussion before we get to the season’s halfway point is premature. Not that being premature ever stopped us, just providing some context.

Joel Embiid became the early Rookie of the Year leader with his performance this season, but Jamaal Murray won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award for November because the Denver Nuggets’ reserve guard has shown better handles than we expected, and that’s given him room to get off the shot we knew he had.

Monday night, Murray went into Philly and dropped 22, hitting seemingly everything.

While Denver big man Jusuf Nurkic made things difficult for Embiid, who finished with 16 points on 15 shots.

This is just one game out of 82, it does not define a ROY race that is far too early to talk about seriously (especially this award, which often goes to the rookie who gets hot and more run in the second half of the season), but Murray is making his case for serious consideration. And he’s earned that thought.

James Harden’s 37 helps Rockets over Celtics 107-106

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s coaching staff emphasized to the players that Boston led the league in fourth-quarter scoring.

So when they Rockets found themselves down by six entering the final frame they knew they’d have step things up to escape with a win.

Harden made sure they did that, scoring 13 of his 37 points in the fourth before Al Horford missed a shot just before the buzzer to allow the Rockets to hold on for a 107-106 victory Monday night.

“The fourth quarter we just picked up … we just wanted to lock in and get stops and offensively be aggressive,” Harden said.

The game was tied before Harden scored five straight points to make it 107-102 with less than a minute remaining. Avery Bradley made a jump shot and Harden received a flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Marcus Smart in the face. Smart made both free throws before Isaiah Thomas missed a layup.

But Houston knocked the ball out of bounds with 5.2 seconds left, giving Boston one last chance. Horford drove into the lane, but his shot rolled off the rim and Harden grabbed it to secure the victory.

“I felt good when I shot it, but it just didn’t go down,” Horford said.

Horford had 21 points and Thomas added 20 for the Celtics, who had won two straight.

It was the ninth 30-point game this season for Harden, who also had eight assists and seven rebounds.

An 8-2 run by Houston, powered by a pair of 3-pointers by Eric Gordon, cut Boston’s lead to one with about 8 1/2 minutes left. Smart made a 3-pointer for the first of seven straight points for the Celtics that made it 96-88. Smart also had a big defensive play in that stretch when he blocked a one-handed dunk attempt by Montrezl Harrell.

Houston scored eight straight points, topped off with a dunk from Harrell, to take a 102-100 lead with about 3 1/2 minutes left.

Harden raved about Harrell’s work.

“You see how he’s flying around everywhere,” Harden said. “He does a lot of different things, some things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that helped contribute to this win.”

The Celtics trailed by 12 early in the third quarter before using a 15-2 spurt to take a 68-67 lead with about 7 minutes left in the quarter. Boston made three 3-pointers in that span, capped by one from Horford. Houston missed five shots, including four 3s, and had two turnovers to help the Celtics close the gap.

“We guarded at a different level and our first unit played pretty well in the third,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “In one stretch in the fourth we turned the ball over and that was hurtful.”

The Rockets were up by three points with 2 minutes left in the first half before Smart fouled Harden on a 3-point attempt and he made all three free throws. Houston had extended the lead to seven when Smart again fouled Harden on a 3-point try and his three free throws made it 58-48 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Celtics: James Young missed the game with an illness. … Thomas received a technical for arguing a call at the end of the first half. … Bradley finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. … Smart had 13 points.

Rockets: Made 12 3-pointers to extend their NBA record of consecutive games with at least 10 3-pointers to 20. … Trevor Ariza started despite dealing with back spasms and had 15 points and eight rebounds. … Gordon finished with 19 points and made four 3-pointers to give him six straight games with at least four 3s.

PERFECT

Harden tied a franchise record for most free throws without a miss by making all 18 of his attempts on Monday night. Kevin Martin also went 18 for 18 on March 20, 2011 against Utah. He lamented committing the offensive foul on Smart late instead of drawing the foul and getting a chance to go to the line and set the record.

“Of course I wanted two free throws at the end of the game instead of a flagrant, but we won,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

LATE PUSH

The Rockets have developed a knack for scoring late. After managing just 13 points in the fourth quarter of a 105-103 loss to Oklahoma City on Nov. 16 the Rockets have picked things up, averaging 27.9 fourth-quarter points in the last 10 games.

THEY SAID IT

Stevens on Harden: “Harden is a really good player. I don’t know what else to say. We could go through and dissect every play, but overall he is just a really good player.”

 

Insane: Klay Thompson drops 60 on Indiana in three quarters (VIDEO)

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Oh yea, don’t forget the Golden State Warriors have Klay Thompson, too.

It’s not that the Indiana Pacers forgot, they just couldn’t do anything about it. Thompson hit 21-of-33 shots, 8-of-14 from three, on his way to 60 points in three quarters as the Warriors ran the Pacers out of Oracle Arena 142-106. Thompson was hitting from anywhere and everywhere.

Klay shotchart

The rest of the Warriors loved it.