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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Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.

Pelicans shut down Tyreke Evans until after All-Star break

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 06: Tyreke Evans #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball during the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on November 6, 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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the Pelicans have dealt with an inordinate amount of injuries so far this season to nearly every key payer on their roster. Tyreke Evans has missed the last five games with a lingering knee issue, and the team says he’s going to sit out their final four games before the All-Star break, as a precaution to make sure he’s healthy for the second half of the season.

From the Pelicans’ official site:

“We’re probably going to hold him out until after the All-Star break,” Alvin Gentry said during pregame at Quicken Loans Arena. “That gives him a situation where he has almost two weeks where he can rehab it and hopefully get it back. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go right after the All-Star break and we’ll be able to play him for the rest of the stretch (of the schedule).”

Evans initially missed the Jan. 2 game at Dallas due to the injury, then was sidelined again Jan. 18 at Memphis. Against Houston, he only played 16 minutes before being taken out of the game, suffering from the same issue.

“I think it’s just rest,” Gentry said of what it may take for Evans to get past the injury. “It’s one of those situations with tendinitis, where you rest and it feels better. That’s better than having him play two games, then sit out one (and have his status in flux). This may help him be able to play the last part of the season, without sitting out.”

Despite being 18-31, the Pelicans are just six games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Their resting of Evans could be read two ways—it could be gearing up to make a push for the playoffs, as much of a long shot as that may be; or it could be the first in a series of instances of shutting down or resting key players to try to position themselves for a lottery pick, effectively hitting the reset button after a season as ravaged by injuries as the one they’ve had.

Bulls say Jimmy Butler has knee strain, no timetable for return

<> during the second half at TD Garden on December 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Bulls 105-100.
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Exhale, Bulls fans. Jimmy Butler‘s left knee injury isn’t as serious as it looked. The injury, which Butler suffered just before halftime of Friday night’s Bulls loss in Denver, looked bad at the time, and Butler had to be carted off the court. But on Saturday, the Bulls announced that an MRI revealed no tear in the knee, just a strain, and he’ll go back to Chicago to get treatment.

An MRI performed today on Bulls forward Jimmy Butler’s left knee confirmed that he sustained a knee strain in the second quarter of last night’s game against the Denver Nuggets.  The timeline for his return to play will be determined by further evaluation in Chicago and his response to treatment.

Butler will not play tonight in Minnesota. Beyond that, it’s unclear. But the fact that it’s just a strain and not anything more serious indicates that he won’t be out long.

Report: NBA considering expanding rosters for greater D-League integration

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 04:  A detail of the NBA Players Association logo with the slogan " THe Players' Union FIghting for You" is seen on Theo Ratliff of the Los Angeles Lakers as Derek Fisher, President of the National Basketball Players Association, speaks at a press conference after NBA labor negotiations at The Westin Times Square on October 4, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
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The NBA Development League is in a weird place right now. It’s growing as more teams are placing importance on it and adding single-affiliate franchises, but it’s still not a true minor league. Players don’t make very much money unless they’re already signed to NBA deals, and teams have to have an open roster spot or waive someone they have currently signed to call someone up. Unless you’re sure you’re going to get called up at some point, it’s smarter for fringe players to sign overseas to make more money than go to the D-League.

The NBA is trying to do something about that. According to a new report, the league is interested in potentially expanding NBA teams’ rosters as part of the next CBA to allow for greater integration between the NBA and the D-League, and allow teams to have a couple of so-called “two-way” roster spots.

From Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com:

The NBA likes the idea of expanding rosters from the current limit of 15 to as many as 17 as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement with the additional spots designated for two-way contracts that will mean more money for some players and more control of select prospects for the parent clubs.

While it will be one of several major issues on the table as the league and the players’ union eventually ramp up negotiations on the new CBA that could end as soon as the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, if either side opts out by Dec. 15, the concept of a contract that would cover the minor leagues as well as the majors is a pressing topic for the hopeful D-League. And since the NBA runs the executive side of the D-League as well as most of the basketball operations for the minor-league clubs, the D-League and the NBA usually speak as one.

The proposal would mean as many as 60 new jobs for players, if rosters do increase by two and depending how many of the 30 NBA teams utilize both spots. That, in turn, would mean a deeper talent pool for the D-League as it grows from 19 teams this season to 22 in 2016-17 and possibly more in what is projected to be the first season of the new CBA. And that would mean more prospects for the NBA to develop without paying major-league salaries.

According to the report, players signed into these two-way roster spots could make as much as $100,000 to play in the D-League (player salaries currently max out around $25,000), which could incentivize players to stay home and play in the D-League rather than pursue overseas opportunities.

The plan is still early enough in the discussion stage that one of the most bottom-line elements — money — has not been settled. According to insiders, though, the thinking is to set the minor-league portion of the dual contract in the neighborhood of $100,000 a season, give or take $25,000.

That would only be for hopefuls with two-way contracts, not all D-League players with salaries that currently peak at $25,000 if they have no NBA deal. Salaries of players sent down with NBA contracts, usually rookies or second-year prospects, would not be altered. But even with a small number of players in the minors impacted, officials figure the chance to make a minimum of $100,000, while showcasing themselves in front of NBA scouts and executives most every game, while getting to be relatively close to home, will convince 60 players to accept a deal in the minors in North America rather than opt for more money overseas.

If the player with a two-way deal gets promoted, he will make the pro-rated minimum of NBA money. If he is sent back down, it will be with the cushion of $100,000 as the floor for the season, not the $25,000, $19,000 and even $13,000 (based on current numbers) others are making in the minors. There is also the possibility those tiers could increase with the next CBA as well.

Obviously, this isn’t going to happen until the next CBA is announced, if then. But it makes total sense, especially as the NBA gets closer to having true one-to-one affiliation. Right now, there are 19 D-League teams, each affiliated with an NBA team—10 as single-affiliates and nine under hybrid ownership models. Next year, the Bulls, Hornets and Nets are set to have their own D-League teams as well. It’s not hard to imagine that within the next few years, all 30 teams will have their own affiliates. And when that happens, there will need to be a mechanism in place for them to call players up and send them down that’s more in line with a true minor-league system like the one Major League Baseball employs. Even if that involves paying D-Leaguers more money and paying for two extra roster spots, it’s worth the trade-off in the long term if more top basketball talent stays in America rather than going overseas.